Social media has given consumers a platform to publicly say whatever they want (a sometimes scary thought.) In 2010, Twitter users sent an astounding 25 billion Tweets.

Does one of those tweets have the rare seed to fuel company innovation? Maybe. But there’s an awful lot of dreck.

Starbucks and Dell offer a different and much more active model for finding new ideas. Here are 2½  lessons we learned:

1 Don’t be passive: Communities that thrive over time do more than passively listen. They give participants a psychic reward by demonstrating their impact. I know for myself that nothing is more exciting than seeing my own idea take flight. Let people know (again and again) how important they are. (See Using Engagement Strategies to Increase Research Participation for more.)

2 Don’t be average: Ask a hundred people for new ideas and you’ll get all the average answers. Ask 10,000 people and you’ll get all the average ideas – and a headache trying to find the one spark of innovation. But when communities interact and build on ideas their hit rate goes up dramatically. (Companies like Spigit are fast developing collaborative crowd-sourcing) (To go straight to the source for these rare creative types see Specialist User Screener)

2.5  PR is good: Generating customer and consumer engagement isn’t a big responsibility for Research. But it is a great reason to maintain a community. Both Starbucks and Dell get a lot of PR mileage while extracting some new ideas. Two for ones are a nice deal – and a lot easier to sell to skeptical senior managers. (More companies invest in social media PR than social media research.)

Here are some examples of how companies are using social media to gather consumer knowledge or source customer information: