Can Social Media Help Business-to-Business Companies to Learn from their Customers?

By Hannu Kärkkäinen & Jari J. Jussila

Organisations have to learn about market needs and technological solutions increasingly quickly if they want to respond to the rapid and often unpredictable changes in their business environment. Various types of collaborative web tools and approaches, such as social media, can enable and significantly increase the collaboration and learning of business-to-business companies from their customers in various novel ways. Importantly, social media can provide quite innovative community-oriented and social ways of providing and receiving feedback from new products and concepts. Some forms of social media, such as virtual worlds, can also enable customers and companies to receive a lifelike experience from products, as well as experiment with novel concepts.

Community-based Model of Learning from Customers

Organisations have to learn about market needs and technological solutions increasingly quickly if they want to respond to the quick and often unpredictable changes in their business environment. This learning need is fundamentally driven by constant technological and scientific breakthroughs, competition, and the quickly changing and unpredictable market and customer needs. A further driver for effective learning is also derived from the trend in which companies’ models of innovation are moving from closed to open1. In open innovation, companies experiment and make use of novel ways of tapping into the use of external ideas, resources, knowledge and technologies in their innovation activities.

However, acquiring useful feedback from customers, as well as learning from customers and their feedback is more easily said than done. Some seminal reasons for this challenge are concerned with the limitations of customers to imagine and give feedback about something that they have not experienced2. In the same manner, companies and their personnel that are linked with the development of new products and services find it often difficult to make sense of the acquired customer feedback and customer need information, and to understand it in the manner the customers themselves originally meant it, as well as understanding it commonly in a similar manner by the whole personnel. Companies often under-invest in understanding and making sense of the gathered information, and they often fail to incorporate the information into decision making processes. Thus, companies find often serious difficulties in understanding, learning from and meeting the hidden or latent needs of customers by using traditional methods, such as interviews, focus groups and surveys.


Recent research and practice has shown that various types of collaborative web tools and approaches, such as social media, can enable and even significantly increase the customer collaboration, the acquisition of customer feedback, the making sense of customer information and feedback, and learning from customers in various ways Due to the novelty of social media concepts and approaches in business use, the use of social media in different specific contexts, such as the business-to-business (B2B) sector and in different types of industries, is currently poorly understood.

Many companies have quite recently recognised the potential and started to exploit novel community-oriented approaches in both internal and external collaboration for the acquisition of customer needs and feedback information, for the mutual sense-making of the information, and sharing the information and knowledge. In these communities, all employees can participate in the above activities. Such communities, which may consist of one or several supplier or customer organisations, include supplier communities, customer communities and temporary project communities (see Figure 1). Along with the evolution of such approaches, the significance of the traditional gatekeeper roles of e.g. sales, marketing and purchasing in creating, making sense and sharing of customer needs has diminished.


While previously B2B companies have been close to model (A) of Figure 1 in the manner they are collaborating with their customers and receiving feedback from their products and services, many pioneering B2B’s have recently, just during the last few years, been able to experiment with and introduce approaches that make use of the model (B) type of approaches in various quite innovative ways. Various social media- based approaches have been an important driver in this change.

This article will introduce different types of examples of various ways that especially B2B companies have made use of social media and community-based approaches in the development of new products and concepts, receiving feedback in novel and useful ways, and making sense of the received customer feedback and customer need information.


Social Media as an Approach for Receiving Customer Feedback

Various social media approaches, such as wikis, blogs, microblogs, social networking sites, social content communities, and virtual worlds, enable the emergence and facilitation of user communities. It potentially increases collaboration and enables more efficient sharing and utilisation of distributed knowledge resources inside and outside a company. Social media approaches also enable new ways and means of interacting with customers and users5. These new ways include using social media facilitated innovation competitions, events, communities and marketplaces to involve users and customers in innovation.

In general, social media has been noticed to bring several benefits for organisational learning and the management of organisational information and knowledge. These include enhancing novel ways of networking and the use of weak ties, facilitating the mobilisation of tacit knowledge, facilitating knowledge acquisition, organising knowledge and information in new ways, and enhancing information and knowledge sharing. Social media provides quite novel and useful ways for interacting and collaborating with customers in the innovation process, as well as for getting feedback from customers in various different ways and for creating new information and knowledge about customers for innovations4. In brief, new web-based technologies, such as social media, can enable a shift from a perspective of merely exploiting customer knowledge by the firm to a perspective of knowledge co-creation with the customers6.

Novel modes of interaction that support for instance community-based peer-learning have emerged with internet-based collaboration and social media6. Importantly, social media can provide quite novel community-oriented and social ways of providing and receiving feedback from new products and concepts5, as well as a useful platform for inter-organisational co-creation7. Additionally, even without direct interaction with customers in social media, various analysis tools such as data mining and social network analysis can be utilised for creating customer information and knowledge from social media supported communities.


Examples of B2B Companies’ Use of Social Media as a Customer Feedback Tool

In our research of B2B companies’ social media use, we have identified the following major types of customer feedback that are made possible or facilitated by various different social media approaches, and have provided distinct benefits for B2Bs in getting customer feedback and understanding customer needs:

• Following social media discussions and social media analytics (passive vs. active)
Peer-learning (internal vs. external)
Co-creation of customer knowledge
Crowdsourcing of customer knowledge

In this article, by peer-learning we mean learning among employees or customers that have a relatively similar knowledge base. We define co-creation as a joint creation of new knowledge between a company and its customers, with relatively different knowledge bases. In this study, co-creation refers especially to the joint creation of new knowledge about customers’ needs or related solutions, which demands a frequent bi-directional or multi-directional communication between the co-creating parties. Finally, we define crowdsourcing in the manner of Jeff Howe as an act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call, for instance in a form of a competition. We do not, however, include here for instance crowdsourcing internally within a company or within communities.

Next, we will provide examples of B2B companies having made use of the above different categories of approaches for customer feedback. Table 1 (on next page) outlines the selected cases, their customer feedback community types (see Figure 1) and the above four customer feedback categories. The categories are not mutually exclusive, and each case may have features from several categories.



By following social media discussions and using social media analytics passively, without necessarily participating in the discussions or without being involved in social media actively by themselves, companies can relatively quickly and in a risk-free manner make use of social media by recognising, for instance, what is being discussed about a company’s products and what is the sentiment of the discussions. Also customer need- related trends can be spotted in this way. Professional groups of LinkedIn and Twitter are useful examples of forums for companies to start following individual experts and customers and their discussions about products and related customer needs. An example of a more active form of analytics is the approach of Protech Associates, a leading provider of cloud-based membership management software. Their approach has made use of MadCap’s  Web 2.0 enabled content feedback system, to track customers’ use of Protech’s product documentation that they have shared with their customers through their social customer portal, and to collect real-time feedback from customers. This approach has provided them insight into what their customers are searching on, what they have found, and has allowed them to prioritise their backlog for development actions.

By following social media discussions and using analytics passively, companies can quickly and in a risk-free manner recognise what is being discussed about a company’s products and what is the sentiment of the discussions.

Customer need-related peer-learning can be divided into internal peer-learning, employees learning from each other, and external peer-learning, customers learning from each other. As an example of internal peer-learning, Fastems, a manufacturer and supplier of flexible manufacturing systems and robot cells, has applied internal Confluence wiki to collect information about customer needs from important trade shows and exhibitions, making the collection of customer feedback and customer need-related information more efficient, accessible and transparent to its employees. The described social media approach of Fastems not only has saved the resources of the company by eliminating duplicate work, but has also increased the understanding of customers by allowing the employees to collectively comment, discuss and make sense of provided pieces of customer need and feedback information inside the company. Concerning the external type of customer need-related peer-learning, Intuit Inc. is a company that provides software for small businesses. Their TurboTax Live Community is a community for their corporate and private tax software customers. Intuit embedded a user forum to its TurboTax software product for taxation. The company found that its power users often possessed more detailed and up-to-date knowledge about for instance customer problems and needs related to business taxation. Secondly, the answers were actively refined by other users. By following their customers’ discussions Intuit has been able to better understand customer needs and develop ways to better serve its customers.

An innovative example of a social media-based project community in which customer knowledge is co-created between a company and its customers is the approach of architecture company Crescendo Design. This approach involves design meetings have been carried out in a lifelike virtual world, Second Life, with their customers. In such meetings, the company and its customers have experimented with different architectural design ideas and concepts, for example structural, material and color choices, in real time. Customers see the changes instantly, and they have been able to discuss the results and their consequences (e.g. impact to price) simultaneously. Being able to easily experiment with various design options and having a lifelike experience of them has made it easier for the customer to give feedback to designers, as well as to uncover latent needs that the customer could not imagine beforehand without the lifelike product experience. The above type of co-creation of customer knowledge helps also to avoid erroneous decisions or costly changes to finished products. The capability of the company to evaluate and refine architectural design concepts in virtual reality with the customers and end users differentiates the company from its competitors. The social media approach of Crescendo Design is applicable for both consumer and business purposes, for example for co-designing of office spaces or buildings in industrial settings.

National Instruments’ approach to the co-creation of customer knowledge in social media includes NI Community, based on Lithium BrandNation, an online customer community platform. NI Community has several areas, such as discussion forums for discussions about company’s software and hardware products and idea exchange for submitting new product ideas and collaborating with their development with other NI R&D and other community members. Here mainly business users of automated test equipment and virtual instrumentation software collaborate, develop applications together and provide feedback for National Instruments. Users give feedback in various forms, for instance, in the form of a YouTube video presenting what kind of features the next software release should include and how the feature would look like in the application. Users can also vote and comment on each other’s ideas, as well as follow the status of their ideas in NI development process. The NI social media approach supports the company receiving quite information-rich feedback, as the YouTube videos can include personally reported accounts of the nature of the problem or the context of the idea being presented to NI, and also in some cases, screen recordings from the application environment together with audio explanations on what the application should do. Allowing the users to vote on each other’s development ideas helps NI also to determine which feedback is most relevant or valued by other users, and provides useful information about their customers’ needs.

Bombardier, a global company specialising in aerospace and rail transportation business, makes an interesting example of crowdsourcing customer knowledge in a temporary project-like community. Bombardier used a social media- based platform called YouRail developed by Hyve AG for the specific purpose of crowdsourcing new interior designs for trains through an innovation competition targeted for end-users and professionals. Interestingly, there were two options to submit the design: either freely creating interior designs, using e.g. professional design tools, or using an online design configurator toolkit provided by Bombardier to submit a configured design. The platform enabled also other users to comment on and provide development ideas to the created concepts. The innovation competition improved the understanding of end-user needs, which B2B’s quite often normally fail to understand properly, and promoted the image of Bombardier as an innovative and customer-oriented company.

By analyzing dozens of discovered social media- based approaches, we have devised a Social Customer Learning model for the better understanding of the important features and mechanisms that B2B companies have used for acquiring useful customer feedback in novel ways by social media. In a related article, we have analysed 14 different types of B2B examples of social media use for learning from customers3. Even if many social media approaches might, on the surface level, seem relatively similar, we found the model to help to discover more subtle differences and emphases in the approaches from the specific standpoint of the companies’ ability to provide and make sense of feedback from customers and their needs for new product and concept development. Managers of B2B companies can make use of the model and the examples in the development of their own approaches to leveraging the various possibilities of social media in designing new customer-oriented products and concepts.

About the Authors

Hannu Kärkkäinen is Professor of Knowledge Management at Novi Research Center of Tampere University of Technology in Finland. His current research interests include knowledge management and decision making in innovation, organisational learning, customer needs assessment in business-to-business organisations, and co-operation and value networks in innovation. Social media is currently one of his focal research interests, as it brings new and important possibilities to the above generic topics. He has published a number of refereed international journal articles in journals such as the International Journal of Technology Management, R&D Management and International Journal of Production Economics, as well as several books and other publications.

Jari Jussila, PhD Candidate, MSc is project manager and researcher at Novi Research Center at Tampere University of Technology, Finland. He has 15 years’ experience in the information technology and services industry. His most recent research publications and dissertation discuss the use of social media and communities in the innovation and customer interface of business-to-business companies.


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The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.