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Innovation as a social process for effective engagement with customers

What are the roots of innovation as a social process and what is the relevance of the social nature of engagement in developing strategies for a social business?

Citing Pentland’s The roots of innovation, “The actions and attitudes of our co-workers influence our actions more than logic or rational arguments…we learn from our close circle (kith) complex habits of social behaviour. Research has demonstrated that creativity increases amongst teams that are socially tight and whose members interact with one another on a regular basis.1


The intersection between social engagement, human behaviour and innovation

Engagement is a buzz word in social media, however when implementing it, the concept becomes blurry and escapes theoretical definitions. Some define it as the real interactions that happen on social networks. In this sense, engagement is rooted in behavioural sciences and its effectiveness depends greatly on the understanding of human behaviour.


A good start to grasping the meaning of engagement is what neuroscientists refer to as ‘honest signals’. This concept, borrowed from biology, refers to signals that have evolved in order to change the behaviour of the receiver in ways that benefit the sender. These include non-verbal forms of communication, such as gestures and facial expressions. Honest signals are conducive to making group situations more collaborative and cohesive, increasing people’s predisposition to work with one another.


When looking at the underlying aspects of engagement, the latter can be seen as the outcome of the creative team, the brand and, ultimately, the customers’ interactions with each other. From this perspective a robust engagement plan results from a high level of cohesion between internal teams that strengthens their social ties through honest signals. In other words, internal cohesion leads to good quality and creative online engagement with customers, and more innovation.


Producing relevant content is only one of many steps that ensure group cohesion. The challenge throughout for successful brand teams working in social media is to identify new codes and ways in which individuals communicate with one another via social platforms - that is, new honest signals.


Engaging with customers through social innovation

Based on a literature review on the topic and on my own experience, the key elements to engaging effectively on social platforms are:


  • Understanding business objectives by creating social solutions that contribute to achieving them;
  • Applying an understanding of human behaviour and its causes to effective engagement plans, and
  • Adopting innovation as a way of thinking about the business and doing things differently, but always with the customer at the centre.


Interestingly, the companies that stand out for their effective engagement strategies have achieved their objectives through effectively applying socially innovative thinking. GT bank in Nigeria is a pioneer in social banking innovation and a good example of a business that transformed itself in the social sphere (http://www.gtbank.com/). GT Bank was challenged with the task of moving customers out of their branches. They did so by making use of new technologies and processes to acquire new clients, which also made banking easier for their existing clients.


Tapping into Nigeria’s eagerness for social engagement, GT Bank launched their social banking application on Facebook, allowing customers to open accounts and transfer money via the social platform. This was then combined with geo-location services on ATMs to direct ATM clients to their nearest ATM. The above not only resulted in customer acquisition, but also in retention and loyalty. It was the integration of disruptive thinking and consumer insight that led to engagement, giving customers the freedom to do it all their own way.


Social innovation in practice

An article entitled The New Frontier of Experience Innovation published in the Mit Sloan Management Review in 2003 is still relevant, saying:


“Value creation is defined by the experience of a specific consumer, at a specific point in time and location, in the context of a specific event. A unique co-creation experience is neither company- nor product-centric. Neither is it customer-centric in the limited sense of a company being responsive to how customers use and consume its products and services. Further, it cannot be achieved without the purposeful interaction of the individual consumer with a network of companies and consumer communities that enable personalised experience. The individual and his interactions define both the experience and the value derived from it.2


This definition of co-created innovation leads to the conclusion that when engaging with customers, businesses need to enable interactions between them and other networks. The value of the interaction depends on the quality of the experience in a certain environment. Such experiences, and not the actual products, guarantee that customers will return for more cohesive engagements with the brand, making the understanding of social behaviour a key aspect of the process.


1(Pentland, S. 2013. The roots of innovation. Accessed from: https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/articulo/las-raices-de-la-innovacion/?fullscreen=true)
2(Prahalad, C.K. and Ramaswamy, V. 2003. The new frontier of experience innovation. Mit Sloan Management Review. Accessed from: http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/the-new-frontier-of-experience-innovation/).

This article was first published in Volume 1 Issue 08 of The SA Leader magazine.

Last modified on Monday, 30 September 2013 10:37
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