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Innovating in the new social space

‘National Warning… From WeatherSA…Very cold conditions... Severe thunderstorms, strong damaging winds... Gauteng region this afternoon around 5 o’clock... Stay indoors and tie down all loose objects...’. So went an email message making the rounds in Gauteng on 8th October 2007. Within minutes, it was followed by similar SMS messages from Netcare 911. By three o’clock that afternoon, many companies had shut down and sent their employees home early. Thousands of commuters were sitting idle in heavily congested traffic, staring up at a relatively clear sky wondering what the fuss was all about! Of course, there was no major storm that day, let alone the tornado that the weather bureau was alleged to have forecast.

What started out as a legitimate albeit somewhat ominous weather forecast quickly diffused through a highly connected social environment, gradually becoming exaggerated with each transmission. And that was pre-Twitter!

This is an example of the diffusion potential of information within a highly connected environment such it has become today, thanks primarily to email, social networks and cellular phone technology. It is an entrepreneur’s dream to be able to trigger this kind of diffusion with regards to a particular innovation.

Social structure can be considered an environmental issue which is beyond the control of an entrepreneur. Information about innovations spreads across the social groups primarily through casual social interactions between acquaintances (weak ties), however the decision to adopt an innovation is primarily influenced by individuals that share close relationships (strong ties). Thus, a key to enhancing diffusion is to identify and target the individuals which form the bridges between social groups, either as a result of frequent social contact or diverse social interests. The Internet today is contributing significantly in increasing the number of connections, or weak ties between individuals in the social structure, irrespective of geographical location. Social networks are developing according to common professional and private interests, and individuals have unfettered accessibility to public platforms such as Twitter on which to voice their opinions and share their knowledge. Sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn have revolutionized the concept of forming social networks across common demographic, geographic, psychographic, behavioral or professional lines. These platforms not only provide a communication medium as powerful as word-of-mouth but with instant global reach, and facilitating conspicuous adoption of innovations simultaneously across multiple social networks. Bandwagon effects can develop in a matter days or weeks rather than months or years.

In this context the challenge becomes not so much the medium through which to communicate, but rather the quality or ‘stickiness’ of the message, which has to compete with the vast amount of other information users are subjected to on a daily basis. In their book, Made to Stick, Heath & Heath (2007) identified six qualities that make an idea or message ‘sticky’. They are simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories (SUCCESS). Simplicity facilitates understanding and implies focus, unexpectedness provokes curiosity by breaking a familiar pattern and consequently generates interest, concreteness improves understandability through tangible analogies, credibility reduces perceived risk of accepting the message or idea, emotions invoke a personal appeal, and stories inspire individuals to act in response to an idea or message.
The realm of social networks and market communications is traditionally controlled by marketers, however in today’s connected environment it is crucial for every entrepreneur to consider these in the opportunities they follow and innovations they undertake. Never before has the prevalent social structure been so influential on the success or failure of an innovation


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