Mobilising people in social media: the #welovethenhs debate

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Image by alice-palace via Flickr

Update: in the first week of the #welovethenhs debate on Twitter, 18,000 people shared over 37,000 stories.

In the last two days, almost 11,000 different people on Twitter have entered into a debate about the benefits of the UK healthcare system. Between them they have shared over 20,000 different stories that range from individual experiences to debates and evaluations of the merits of public health care over a private health insurance scheme. The levels of involvement are impressive and have been driven primarily by people sharing their own personal stories rather than being driven by a corporate or organisational Twitter campaign.

This discussion and debate is a great example of people coming together on a shared topic of interest. They are telling their stories or giving their opinion and tagging it with the #welovethenhs hashtag so that others can find, read and share what they have said. At it’s very simplest this is a great example of how social media work, and in particular of the kind of dynamics that exist in an online community:

  • People with a story to tell write about it and tag it, so that
  • People who want to find similar stories can easily sort through the information that has been shared, and
  • These stories can then be passed to other people and shared again so that more people can read it

People who don’t know each other can read and comment on each others’ stories - they are connected not by the fact that they actually know each other, but that they are interested in similar issues and want to talk about the same things. There are, of course, limits to hashtags as a way of sorting information on Twitter, but for quickly escalating debates like this they are a useful way of showing the strength and weight  of opinion on a particular issue.

But perhaps the most interesting element of the NHS debate on Twitter is the subject matter itself. With less than 12 months to go before the next General Election in the UK, the public are having a debate about an issue that is always a major component of any election campaign, and they are doing so in social media. And Prime Minister Gordon Brown joined in the discussions with his own opinions. Expressed via Twitter.

We’ve posted before about how Social Media can sometimes be the wrong medium for politicians to express their opinions or to make announcements (especially about Gordon Brown’s YouTube trauma). But this is a case where users themselves have started and are having a discussion on an issue that is of keen political, and electoral, interest. If they are this engaged now, on an issue of great interest but sparked by remarks by a US politician then we might be looking at an interesting and engaged set of debates on Twitter and across social media during the upcoming General Election.

I hope all the Parties have their social media strategies sorted.

* For up-to-date statistics about the #welovethenhs hashtag go to what the hashtag?!

  • Brown joins NHS Twitter campaign (guardian.co.uk)
  • Britain To Civil Servants: Go Forth And Tweet (huffingtonpost.com)
  • #welovethenhs takes over Twitter (stuartbruce.biz)
  • Twitter Army defends UK healthcare system (thenextweb.com)

Customers sometimes do not know what they want

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Image by Darren Hester via Flickr

The promise of co-creation is that getting customers involved in the innovation process, and letting them inform the design of new products, will mean that you develop a product that is better suited to their needs and will ultimately perform better in the market. Of course, it is not always this simple. Often customers don’t know what they want. They can’t necessarily articulate how they would design the ideal product, nor can they say what is wrong with the existing product. They may never have articulated what they like nor what they dislike, but this doesn’t mean that the product isn’t perfect.

Over the weekend, the New York Times looked at this very subject following revelations from ex-Google visual designer, Douglas Bowman. In an unusual move, Bowman explained on his blog the reason he had left Google. As the New York Times discussed, his description of the design process at Google raises a number of questions:

Can a company blunt its innovation edge if it listens to its customers too closely? Can its products become dull if they are tailored to match exactly what users say they want?

Bowman’s suggestion is that that answer to all of these questions is “yes”. That Google relies too much on data, as a proxy of customer input, and not enough on design skills alone. As the New York Times article report:

Mr. Bowman’s main complaint is that in Google’s engineering-driven culture, data trumps everything else. When he would come up with a design decision, no matter how minute, he was asked to back it up with data. Before he could decide whether a line on a Web page should be three, four or five pixels wide, for example, he had to put up test versions of all three pages on the Web. Different groups of users would see different versions, and their clicking behavior, or the amount of time they spent on a page, would help pick a winner.

This kind of user-input into the design process is what many think of when they think of working with their customers on new product development and design. They think of presenting a number of options to customers (or indeed to potential customers) and then asking them to evaluate each one and choose the one they prefer (or in this case to take their use of a particular design as a proxy for this choice). Of course, this is not necessarily the best way of co-creating with your customers.

Rather than asking people what they think about a particular set of designs they prefer (or which they use most), you can often get a more useful level of insight by engaging with them. Don’t ask them about solutions to a problem but observe what they discuss and say about the problems themselves.

Imagine you are a company designing kitchen equipment. You could involve your customers in the design and innovation process in one of three ways:

  1. Ask them what they want - ask what new equipment, tools or gadgets would make their life in the kitchen easier or allow them to do new things
  2. Ask them to choose between a set of prototypes - present a set of potential new products to them and ask them to choose which they want.
  3. Ask them to talk about what they do in the kitchen, what equipment they use and what problems they have

The last of these is most likely to produce the most insightful outcomes. Rather than asking people to get involved in the actual prototype products themselves, or to tell you what they want, get them involved further up the innovation funnel. Engage them and talk to them about what they use in the kitchen - what makes their lives easier, what would they like to be able to prepare and cook but can’t. Don’t talk to them about the equipment that, you hope, will solve their problems. Talk to them about their problems themselves.

By watching what people do you can then interpret this and begin a design process based on this information and this engagement. Then, rather than just presenting three options to people of potential new designs, you can approach them based on what they have discussed before: “there was a lot of discussion about x, here are some ways we think we could help with that. What do you think?”

This kind of engagement is where online communities really come to their fore. They let you engage your customer in a sustainable way. You can get to know them, their lives and the problems and challenges they face. It isn’t just a short-term process to “do some co-creation”, rather it is long-term engagement that fundamentally changes the way you innovate and develop new products.

Customers sometimes do not know what they want. It’s a fact. They do, however, know how they use what they have, the problems they face and the things they would like to be simplified. Understand what they do know rather than forcing themselves to make choices about things they don’t.

  • Design: it’s not all about you. (designmind.frogdesign.com)
  • Design Or Data? Ex-Googler Spills All After Landing At Twitter [Design] (gizmodo.com)
  • Google designer leaves, blaming data-centrism (news.cnet.com)

Innovate through a downturn, but make it customer-led

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Okay, so it’s been a tricky week so far for businesses round the world. I knew it was bad when the chatter  around the coffee machine in our office on Tuesday morning wasn’t about something that was on TV last night, or about something going on in the office. It was about how they were going to face the current economic downturn. From banks failing and being taken over by the state, to falling retail spend and even reports that Britons are raiding their piggy banks, there’s only one thing on people’s minds this week

And at times like this it is interesting to see how businesses react and respond. Of course, there are the counter-cyclical industries (lawyers, accountants, take-away food, bunk beds…) but how do the rest plan and build a strategy in times like this?

For most businesses there are probably two pieces of advice:

  1. Make sure you are close to your customers and that they are close to you. It should be your brand they think about when they do want to make a purchase and you should be aware of what they think and how their habits are changing.
  2. Innovate to stay ahead of the game. A crisis is a great time to innovate - you have to think of ways of staying ahead of the competition, of being more efficient or of new products that you can offer. It’s true of war-time, where many of the best innovations (from the pie-chart to nylon) originate; and it’s true of business during challenging economic times.

So how do you innovate at a time like this? Well we want to innovate to mean that we continue to attract customers and meet their changing needs. We want to make sure our products are meeting essential needs and are of benefit to them. And if possible we want to make sure that we are more efficient in the way we do this so that our own costs can be controlled.

What is common across all of these aims is the need to better focus on the customer and what the customer wants. That’s why the best innovation during these times will be customer-led innovation. Rather than asking questions of customers and then going away and coming-up with ideas to meet what you find (customer-centred innovation), it’s about co-creation and really working with your customers innovate and have new ideas.

So how do you let the customer lead your innovation process? Well there are probably a few things all organisations can do:

  1. Call ten of your customers from the last six months and ask them what you could do better - they’ll appreciate the personal touch and you will start to get some ideas
  2. Bring together a group of customers (either offline or online) to co-create and share ideas based on specific areas you think you could improve. This will help you generate some ideas to contribute to specific areas you’ve already identified
  3. Bring together a group of customers (and perhaps non-customers) in an online community where they can co-create, share ideas and innovate with you over a much longer time-scale.

This latter suggestion will be most effective in terms of identifying those innovations that are most likely to help you face the economic downturn. The benefit we see at FreshNetworks of building online innovation communities is that you get ideas in areas you had never thought of before. We’ve helped clients to reposition their product and even to just talk about it in different ways, using the language their customers use. Real customer-led innovation will shock and surprise you, because it’ll be the thing you haven’t thought of before. But in the current climate, it’s these new and effective ideas that you need.

  • What Does the Financial Crisis Mean for Innovation? Xconomists Weigh In
  • Financial crisis: The tech innovations at risk

Another example of good use of video in online communities

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The Co-operative has a long history of building sustainable consumer engagement in the UK. Long before Tesco or Sainsbury had loyalty cards in the UK, I remember at home as a child collecting stamps every time we did our weekly grocery shopping, and when the book was filled we could claim money off. At that stage my parents could also have had a say in the way the local branch was run - suggesting ideas and voting on ones to carry through to action. A real example of engagement on a local level.

Of course nowadays, engagement like this can be done on a much broader level and impact the business much more fundamentally than just the local store level. Working with online communities and leveraging the benefits of social media, brands can engage people more deeply. This is what the Co-operative Bank is aiming to do with its new blog, GoodWithMoney.

GoodWithMoney is a recent launch, with only a few days of posts. It is covering the bank’s efforts in micro-financing and the only posts that exist at the moment cover a current trip to visit organisations and businesses they are supporting in Bosnia. I have lots of questions about this blog (do they intend to keep it running or is it just a short term CSR or PR effort, how often will they update, is it designed to engage customers on an ongoing basis, how will they encourage interaction), but there is one thing I love already: their use of video.

We’ve written before about how powerful video can be in an online community, and how we work a lot with video in online communities we build at FreshNetworks. But the GoodWithMoney site is a really good case in point. Each blog post includes a relatively short paragraph or two updating us on what they have been doing, but it is the videos where things really come to life. A subject like micro-financing can be difficult to understand, what brings it to life are the real stories of real people. Video is a much more engaging way of conveying these types of stories. People come to life and feel more real. If one of the aims of online communities is to build a real connection between brand and consumer, then video is a great way of achieving this.

Video’s also great if it can be shared - it let’s you get your message out on other sites and bring people back into the community. As I’m doing right now…


Dina - Diary owner helped by microfinance from CFS on Vimeo.

  • WeAreMedia Module 5: Social Networks (and widgets) for Community Building, Taking Action and/or Fundraising
  • Some Q&A; on virtual private communities
  • When pictures speak a thousand words

Does Google have the answer to measuring ROI in social media?

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We’ve written in the past about how to measure ROI in online communities. It’s a subject we return to often with our clients at FreshNetworks. The online communities that we build for them all tie into over-riding business aims, and so measuring the impact is important. We can, of course, measure specific insights that they get from the community, the benefit of  the qualitative information internally, the benefit that support communities have or any uplift in sales from the community. But there is a holy grail in online communities and indeed across social media - measuring ROI at a granular level; identifying influential members, recognising that these may not be those who post most.

In previous posts, I’ve suggested that what we need to do is develop a weighting that could be applied to individual members showing how important and influential they are. An analysis of the quality (not quantity) of their connections and of their connections’ own connections. A difficult and time-consuming task. And one that Google may have solved.

The latest edition of Business Week reports that Google has a patent pending on technology that measures influence in social networks. It apparently measures both the direct influence people have in terms of volume of connections, but also how successful your posts and feeds depending on how many people open, read and forward them.

The new technology could track not just how many friends you have on Facebook but how many friends your friends have. Well-connected chums make you particularly influential. The tracking system also would follow how frequently people post things on each other’s sites. It could even rate how successful somebody is in getting friends to read a news story or watch a video clip, according to people familiar with the patent filing.

It will be intriguing to see how this technology develops and what Google use it for. The measurement of influence online is of critical importance to brands, marketers and advertisers alike. Brands want to know how influential people who talk about their brand are, or how influential the people in their online community are. Marketers want to find these influential people and focus on what they are saying and what brands are saying to them. Advertisers can use this information to help target ads across social networks.

Of course, there must also be a benefit for Google. Given that their attempts at running their own social networks have not had the same success in sheer numbers as the likes of Facebook, MySpace and Hi5, Google is looking for other opportunities to capitalise upon this growing trend. They’re doing what they’ve done to the web - they don’t provide all the content they just offer a great way to search and prioritise it. So Google could become the Google of social media.