Christiansen and Bower wrote the article “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave” in 1995, but their advice seems even more relevant (and easy) today with the popularity of social media. In order to take advantage of disruptive technology opportunities, they argue that companies need to:

  1. determine which technologies have legitimate disruptive potential
  2. figure out why this is so
  3. locate the best market to initially roll out the disruptive technology
  4. hire an outside company to develop the disruptive technology
  5. keep the outside company separate

The first three points are about listening to the conversation, one of the main advantages of social media. For example, in We the Media, author Dan Gillmor argues that the original tech reporters got their scoop by monitoring forums; they learned what was going to be the next big thing by listening to what insiders had to say. Steps one and two can be accomplished by setting up alerts, monitoring keywords, following threads on Facebook or Twitter and joining groups and forums.

Social media is global, making location irrelevant and step three relatively simple- or at least simpler than it was in 1995. Perhaps a company determines that the ideal target market for their disrupting technology is in Cleveland while their office is in Seattle. Fifteen years ago, I can only imagine what sort of hoops marketers had to jump through to get this sort of information about domestic markets, let alone international ones. The openness of the Internet allows you to tap into the conversation without bothering to change out of your pajamas.

This is not to say social media is entirely global because the individuals using it are tied to a particular geographic location. The company I intern at has quite a large following in India, to the surprise of just about everyone; we never would have guessed that this market would be such a lucrative opportunity. However, Indian users are rarely in front of a computer when I am in the office; real-time communication, such as Twitter, is difficult without changing my sleep schedule. However, whenever a user in Delhi posts a comment on a blog or starts a conversation in a discussion group, I am able to easily and cheaply gather their opinion.

Listening is great, but even blatantly asking a question about people’s likes, dislikes, desires and needs often gets results, making it easy to determine a product’s potential for success. If not usable feedback in and of themselves, these answers often point to new paths. When a company becomes successful enough, the feedback comes to them.

A prime example is, a gathering place for ideas provided by Starbucks’ community. While Christiansen says in Seeing What’s Next that companies should never rely on their established fan base for insight into potential new markets, Starbucks has created an entire community ready to help them innovate. Plus, many people go to the site because they are being undersold by Starbucks’ products and want improvement, hinting at potential to tap into new customer bases.

It is common for companies to hire social media consultants for a variety of reasons. Some companies do not have the internal resources to run successful social media campaigns, while others to not have the knowledge. Christiansen and Bower might add a third reason: it is prudent from a business standpoint because they are able to gather information without company executives filtering the results through an established mindset. While steps four and five ostensibly apply to actual product development, this approach is suitable for social media monitoring as well.

Image by Matt Hamm via Creative Commons