Despite the potential benefits of engaging with users of social media and the communities that form around them, a number of studies show that companies are largely failing to realize benefits for innovation, irrespective of their social media presence or activity.

In a recent study of 450 small- to medium-size companies in North America and Europe, we found that most (78%) use social media for marketing activities, and almost 40% of companies reported that Facebook was the most important online platform for their innovation activities.

However, we found that what was important to the innovation process was not use itself but the approach taken. Companies that seek to use their social media capabilities to inform their innovation efforts should keep the following recommendations in mind:

Emphasize the social.

The steep growth in popularity of social media is driven by people’s innate human need for connection, communication, community, and social validation. People come together in these communities to debate issues, make new friends, and interact with family, friends, and business associates across the globe. Our research found that companies that recognized the importance of the “social” and helped to create an environment conducive to socializing — in other words, one that helped people to create or enhance relationships — benefited through people’s subsequent engagement with the company’s online innovation activities.

Customize your approach to each platform.

To obtain valuable new product development insights from social media platforms, companies need to take a unique approach to each platform, since people use different social media platforms for different purposes. For instance, Facebook is predominantly a platform to enhance interpersonal relationships, while LinkedIn is primarily a vehicle for professional networking. Because Facebook is a more personal platform, people using it are more likely to be willing to share knowledge and ideas about products, brands, their own future needs, and insights on the competition. Their inhibitions are lower, and this can lead to more self-disclosure.

Professional platforms like LinkedIn, on the other hand, should be approached with a distinctly different tactic. On LinkedIn, companies can be more direct with individuals and groups when inquiring about products and features. For example, companies may have specific technology and product groups where specific design needs can be solicited from groups of engineers. Such community groups of specialized expert users can share ideas about new products or services and new markets — ideas that can be readily generated and shared without participants having to give away too much proprietary or personal information.

This article originally appeared as a sidebar to the article “Finding the Right Role for Social Media in Innovation.”