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Technology Trends Part III - Social Networking, Crowdsourcing & Gamification



In my last post I addressed the topic of apps, cloud computing and software as a service. As I review this post, I realize that I neglected to mention the growing importance of hybrid-cloud strategies. Here are a just a few comments on the subject before launching into the current topic. First of all, readers may be struck with the thought that accessing technology or service via a cloud platform could inadvertently provide access to proprietary company information outside an approved audience. As I’m not an IT expert, I’m not sure how valid this concern is for the broader landscape of cloud based solutions available today. However, where this concern exists tech experts are noting the development of hybrid cloud scenarios that involve the use of both public and private cloud arrangements. Through hybrid strategies corporations retain control over valued information and assets, but enable access to public clouds where information and/or asset security is less of an issue. Now, on to the next technology trend for 2012…

More and more companies are going social…

Social networking has been a buzz phrase in popular media for some time and it’s clear that these networks are providing a mechanism for people to connect on a personal level within a digital setting. Though some may question the value of interactions within this space, the overwhelming response from a user perspective has been positive and for the most part the naysayers have selected to observe from a distance or disengage when the negatives out weigh the positives. It’s also clear that many companies have established or are examining marketing strategies that harness widely adopted forums such as Facebook and Twitter. In fact, Facebook’s recent IPO demonstrates the perceived opportunity that social media offers for enterprises that are attempting to connect with consumers to create a following for their brands and products. That said, what are some key trends in the social networking area that readers should watch for? How are social networks changing the way some companies operate? What is crowdsourcing and gamification and is there a link between these concepts and social networking? Most importantly, why should readers be interested in these topics? Let’s take a look…

A recent article in PCWorld (Tech Trends You’ll See in 2012, Megan Geuss) points to the growing significance of social networks on the technology front and specifically the drive toward requiring a Facebook account “…to do more stuff on the web”. As an example, Geuss points to the need to set up a Facebook account prior to creating an account with digital music provider, Spotify. This is just one partnership that Facebook is currently engaged in.  The site is also one of several paths for accessing Pinterest  - a network that has gained considerable attention in the last six months. For readers that are not familiar with Pinterest, this network allows individuals to create on-line pin boards for collecting and sharing imagery that the user categorizes by themes of their own choosing. Individuals can access Pinterest by visiting the home page to log on or through their Facebook or Twitter account. The pin boards can become virtual “mood boards” that express consumer inspirations and preferences in regard to a wide range of product areas including fashion and home. Users can follow the boards of other users, post comments and/or repin imagery to their own boards.

Sounds like a giant focus group and marketing opportunity right? In fact, a recent article in Mashable describes 5 Ways Brands Can Use Pinterest to Boost Consumer Engagement (Constance Aguilar, January 10, 2012).  From a supply chain perspective, this is just one more way to gain insight into what makes consumers tick and specifically a strategy for gaining a sense of those colors, styles and products that are trending and showing greatest sales potential. Similarly, recently launched is a networking site that allows users to recommend and find products. A recent article, Meet Mulu, a Pinterest-Like Site for E-Commerce – With a Cause (All things D, Lauren Goode) describes the revenue stream generated as a result of a recommendation from a Mulu “curator” (recommender of product) . An interesting twist here is the opportunity for curator’s of products on the site to share a piece of the pie with a charitable cause of their own selection. Ultimately, the point is that consumers are using social networks to find and share product information. Brands have the opportunity to connect with consumers and share imagery that helps to establish brand identity. At the same time the brand can mine these on-line populations for consumer preference information. It’s a different way of conducting business and one that can benefit all supply chain participants as we strive to deliver the right product at the right time while optimizing resources and minimizing waste streams including unsuccessful product.

Beyond Consumer Engagement

Social networking solutions are also becoming relevant outside the consumer realm and are providing employees with new tools for communication and collaboration. In early January I received notice of the post, Should your company ban internal email? (SmartPlanet, Heather Clancy). The article describes the challenge of managing email given the large volumes most of us receive. Clancy highlights the ease and accessibility of communicating through messaging technologies including social networks. The author also points to the fact that information can be exchanged in regard to a specific topic or context within forums such as Linkedin. This is in contrast to the use of email where a user typically sends and receives messages related to a vast array of subjects. Clancy suggests that over time, email may become a less important or even an irrelevant mode of exchanging information. We’re already beginning to see this trend within segments of the population that prefer to communicate via text, chat or messaging.

One of the more interesting trends I’ve read about in regard to social networking is the concept of social business (Deloitte Predicts the Top 10 Technology Trends for 2012, TechJournal) which is identified as a disruptive concept that involves the adoption of social technologies within the business setting. According to IBM - a company that offers solutions in this area - a social business can be described as “…one that embraces and cultivates a spirit of collaboration and community throughout its organization – both internally and externally.” Social businesses use tools developed for social networking to support connections between parties and the sharing of knowledge and strategy that results from this connectedness. What does that mean? It means that employees can interact with each other via a social network to discuss projects, share information and innovations and solve business problems. In a similar way, PLM solutions provide a network for sharing aesthetic and technical product information internal to a company and also externally, with vendors the brand selects to open it’s network to. However, PLM systems do not typically enable the level of collaboration offered by a social business solution.

Harnessing the Crowd       

Like social business, crowdsourcing harnesses the power of collaboration. In my research on the topic I discovered that the coining of the term is attributed to Jeff Howe (The Rise of Crowdsourcing, Wired, June 2006). In this article Howe suggests that “the crowd” (referring to the general population) is becoming a resource for creating content and solving problems and may be, “The future of corporate R&D”.  The article references iStockphoto as an early crowdsourcing solution in the stock photography area and NineSigma as a provider of crowdsourcing within the realm of research and development. The idea is that companies can access the minds and resources of many rather than a few. For example, Linkedin Groups create communities of participants that are interested in similar subject areas. Participants can post questions and comments and can mine group members for their knowledge and for solutions to problems identified by members of the group. The benefit here is the opportunity to draw information from parties that may have great depth of knowledge in a given subject area and/or access a diversity of expertise for solving a problem.

While crowdsourcing is not really a new concept, it is an approach that seems to be gaining momentum. In fact there are now a variety of tools available for companies that wish to make use of crowdsourcing strategies to drive innovation and development. Chaordix and Redesignme are two examples of solution providers in this area. There are also a growing number of crowdsourcing websites that support activities such as product ideation, product development, manufacturing, buying and selling. Where the solutions are comprehensive a site serves as a virtual supply chain and e-tail outlet all in one. Check out a few examples:

  • Ponoko – This on-line community connects designers of products, material suppliers and digital fabricators (e.g. CNC cutting and 3D printing services). Ponoko also provides a vehicle for buying and selling the resulting products and sharing of design files.
  • Quirky – is a site that helps inventors refine product ideas by providing a forum for feedback. Participants in the community can vote on ideas and provide suggestions for improvement. Quirky supports the designer during the ideation phase through product design and branding. The site also provides a shop for sale of products that make it all the way through the design and fabrication process. Additionally, Quirky has retail partners that participate in selling of product. Community participants can stimulate products sales by posting to social networking sites.
  • Spoonflower – is a source for digital textile printing that has an audience of crafters that wish to work with printed fabrics of their own design. The crowdsourcing feature comes into play through a community of participants who vote on submissions for weekly fabric themes. Those submitting designs for printing can also allow other visitors to purchase fabric printed with the design. Many customers of the Spoonflower service sell constructed products via Etsy – an on-line community and sales route for crafters.
  • Threadless – is a web community for submitting t-shirt graphics. Visitors to the site can purchase t-shirts of their own design or view, critique, vote on and/or purchase designs submitted by other participants in the community.

For the examples listed there’s obviously a strong link between the crowdsourcing strategy and the trend in DIY. It’s worthwhile considering these approaches in regard to how they may impact the cotton supply chain and it’s important to recognize the changing relationship that’s occurring between designers, manufacturers and consumers of products including those made from textiles.

The Gaming Factor

Before closing out this post, I also want to point to the idea of “gamification” – a concept that’s gaining attention in the tech/business media and that involves introducing a competitive feature into a business activity (Check out 10 Game-Changing Business Innovations for 2012, SmartPlanet, Joe McKendrick). In some instances, companies are harnessing interest in on-line games and are using gaming strategies to inspire productivity, interest level, achievement, learning and/or innovation among employees. In other instances, companies are using gaming activities to encourage engagement at the customer level. The voting activities described in regard to the sites listed above are an example of a gaming strategy (i.e. designers compete for votes and customers visit the site regularly to view and vote on designs or product ideas). A source from retail TouchPoints mentions “flash selling” sites as another example of customer engagement through gaming (Gamification To Reach $2.8 Billion By 2016). In the instance of flash selling there is limited availability for a given product and a sort of “rush to buy” scenario develops that keeps consumers checking the site and strategizing to find and purchase the best products.

Summing up

In closing, you can see that there are a number of links and some overlap between the technology trends I’ve written about since the beginning of the year. Next time I’ll be capping of the technology trend series of post by addressing the buzz around 3D Printing as a game changer in the context of product manufacturing. So check back toward the end of February…

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