The influence of social media has changed our society, our economy, and is even changing our brains. Customers are no longer content to be at the receiving end of marketing communications – they expect to be able to share information with brands with the same speed and convenience as they can now manage every other aspect of their lives. Social media has created a new type of consumer, and brands must innovate to avoid losing their market share to faster-moving startups.

Humans Made By Tech

In his book “The Artificial Ape”, anthropologist Timothy Taylor explains that the oldest stone tools ever found are three hundred thousand years older than the earliest fossil of the genus Homo, to which humaArtifical Apen beings belong. By creating tools, he claims, we were able to ‘outsource’ physical aspects of ourselves and instead focus our energy on other areas, such as brain development. Humans didn’t make technology – technology is what made us human.

The internet has reached its tipping point and become ubiquitous – several countries now consider internet access a right. The constant availability of information and communication is thought to be driving evolution in a similar way to the development of stone tools 2.5 million years ago.Without the need to use brainpower on committing facts and figures to memory, we can re-route those connections elsewhere – we’re outsourcing the fact-storing part of our brains to the cloud. Social media is changing us as a species.

The Social Consumer

Generation Y, the first generation raised with social media on tap, shows us the first signs of things to come. Adapted to deal with a constant stream of communication, they’ve evolved to process information on an intuitive level, and prefer to receive data in short bursts – immediate, visual and contextual.

Exposed to hundreds of advertising and marketing messages per day, they’re suspicious of corporate motives, and trust word-of-mouth recommendations over slick advertising. Sharing is the norm and transparency is key; information is viewedsocial consumer as a public commodity, not something to be restricted for competitive or financial advantage.

As a result, economic activities which used to be centralised are becoming collaborative, and the new breed of social customers expect a high level of involvement in the services they consume: auction houses give way to eBay, classified ads pages are replaced by Craigslist and financial services are democratised in the form of Zopa. Even sovereign currencies are under threat from open-source alternatives like Bitcoin.

As social media changes consumers, businesses must innovate to keep up with their expectations. Social media savvy consumers are already frustrated by outdated corporate processes, and brands are increasingly losing ground to smaller, more agile competitors able to cater for this new style of consumption. HMV, Kodak, Waterstones and Jessops didn’t move fast enough for today’s connected consumer, and have been eclipsed by younger alternatives.

A Mutation to Innovation

As social media makes innovation essential, it also provides an unparalleled number of opportunities for brands to break new ground. Vast networks of rapidly changing content hugely increase the opportunities for mutation and change – we’re moving and changing faster than ever before.

A number of companies are taking the initiative – below are some examples of brands fostering innovation to gain a competitive edge:


Giffgaff is a mobile operator created almost entirely via a social media community run on its website. As a subsidiary of O2, Giffgaff harnessed the ‘startup within’ by combining a small team and innovative startup mentality with O2’s wider industry expertise.

Giffgaff operates transparently, working with customers to build pricing packages and providing regular feedback on its progress investigating and implementing customer suggestions.

Giffgaff relies on its customer community to answer most customer service and technical support queries, and also relies heavily on its customers to market the brand via word-of-mouth recommendations. By building a committed and engaged community who are strongly invested in the brand, Giffgaff satisfy their customers’ desire for transparency and accountability and gain valuable insight from their customer base, giving them an ongoing source of ideas for future innovation.

Mastercard Labs

Mastercard also took the initiative and incorporated innovation into their culture with the launch of Mastercard Labs. Its research and development arm is focussed entirely on testing new innovations, with a focus on bringing promising opportunities to market and ‘failing fast’ with less favourable prospects.

MastercardIn particular, recent innovations have focussed on turning Mastercard’s payment services into a dialogue between merchant and consumer, again reflecting the importance of transparency and two-way communication between retailers and customers. Exploring areas like mobile payments, payment methods for digital content and integration with social media, advertising and coupons, Labs’ projects aim to provide value and enhance the customer experience beyond payments.

Mastercard also have ongoing initatives to drive the innovation culture fostered by Mastercard Labs company-wide. Events like Innovation Express and dotNY give employees in a variety of departments the opportunity to take part in workshops and ‘product development speed dating’ to generate new solutions to business problems. Teams of employees have 48 hours to go from a defined problem to a working prototype solution and business case, sourcing innovative ideas from all areas of the company and helping to spread Mastercard Labs’ culture of creativity across the business.


nikeidSocial consumers have high expectations when it comes to product range: from mega-retailers like to craft marketplaces like Etsy and personalised merchandise stores like Zazzle and Cafepress, customers now expect to be able to find exactly what they’re looking for, exactly when they want it.

Nike’s co-creation project, NikeID, helps the brand to live up to these expectations, allowing customers to customise Nike clothing to their requirements, buy online and share their created products on social networks.

While previous attempts at mass customization by brands such as Levi have failed, NikeID has been wildly successful: the NikeID platform generated $100m in 2009, helped increase Nike’s market share from 48% to 61%, and built an online community of over 15 million people.

Not content to rest on their laurels, Nike have continued to innovate and build on the system since launch, maintaining novelty and ensuring the platform keeps up with users’ expectations of ongoing improvement and development. A recent feature addition, Nike PhotoID, allows users to log into their Instagram library and create colour schemes to match their favourite pictures.

Survival of the Fittest

Social media has permanently changed consumers, and it is up to brands to identify opportunities to adapt their services to better match the way customers now expect to interact with brands. No longer content with a one-way conversation, consumers expect their experiences with brands to be collaborative and personalised. The social media landscape makes this eminently achievable, and the vast quantity and rapid pace of content creation means that new opportunities are constantly being created for brands quick enough to capitalise on them.