by Julia Cook

Social media, if planned and executed effectively, can give retailers access to millions of opinions. Whilst there will inevitably be some outlying views, there is some truth in the phrase “knowledge in numbers” and the collective intelligence of a crowd can give confidence in a particular product, or even inspire new innovation.

A powerful process for capturing real-time feedback online is Social Listening. The speed in which responses can be gathered and acted upon means this fits extremely well with an agile approach.

Patrick Vernon, of University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, describes a particularly agile example: “A visiting CEO once outlined their approach to social listening. After launching a release at 1am, they would watch Twitter, and people would either complain about it or love it, and based on that input the company would iterate. By the time the rest of the world woke up, this company would already have something like the fifth iteration of their product.”

In this instance, Social Listening was used to both refine an approach and also to minimise the risk of failure by limiting the exposure on early iterations.

Another method of extracting key insights from digital channels is Crowdsourcing. Taken from the words “crowd” and “outsourcing”, the idea here is to take a piece of work and outsource it to a crowd of people – or in this context, consumers.

It’s a growing, fast-paced and effective way for organisations to gather the best ideas from online communities and use them in ways that benefit both the organisation and contributor.

It adopts a similar principle to Social Listening in that by canvassing a large crowd of people, more heads are better than one and the quality of ideas will be consistently better.

Whilst Social Listening can be used for the first few iterations to get a product or a concept to a certain point, Crowdsourcing may be regarded as a kind of beta-testing. It can allow developers to run more developed concepts past the consumer and/or marketplace, to further shape and fine tune their project.

Certain consumer businesses, such as Dell and Lego, are known for their best practice websites which are designed to prompt contributions from product users. They elicit votes and comments for ideas for new products, as well as how to use existing ones.


Social media has changed the way businesses engage with consumers: fans and followers don’t want to be told, they want to discover. It’s no longer a one-way (or even a two-way) conversation between retailer and consumer. It’s now grown exponentially into a much broader exchange across many different opinions, that relies on collective engagement.