If you're pulling your hair out trying to think of a promising new business, relax: Your next great business idea may be as close as your favorite social media site. However, if you're serious about discovering that elusive idea, you'll have to go beyond common social media activities like scrolling through Twitter or hanging out on Facebook. Here are seven sneaky ways to find new business ideas from social media sites.
Stroll through StumbleUpon
Do you think of StumbleUpon as merely an entertaining way to explore the Internet? Think again. The social media site, which allows users to "stumble" across recommended websites by clicking an icon in their browser, can be a powerful source of inspiration for wannabe entrepreneurs.
"StumbleUpon is a great way for budding entrepreneurs to get inspired by content they wouldn't have found through traditional channels," said StumbleUpon CEO Mark Bartels. For inspiration, aspiring entrepreneurs should take a look at a select group of followers, Bartels recommended. "Follow well-regarded curators, like Mashable, Branding Magazine, Garrett Camp or J.T. O'Donnell," he said. "They've each assembled unique collections of thought-provoking articles, business tips and beyond to inform and inspire business ideas."
If the business content on StumbleUpon doesn't trigger a new idea, it's time to move out of your comfort zone and get creative. "Sometimes, the best ideas come from exploring beyond your usual websites and sources," Bartels said. "Picking a topic like space, architecture or design will recommend pages that offer you a different perspective."
Surf the subreddits
If you're on the prowl for a new tech-related product or service idea, head over to news and entertainment social media site Reddit, and start surfing the subreddits, or subject areas.
"I would recommend technology companies leverage Reddit," said Sahana Jayaraman, vice president of digital and social practice at technology PR firm Eastwick. Reddit users submit content that other users can vote up or down, influencing the content's placement on the front page of the site.
Jayaraman said Reddit is a good source of new business ideas. In particular, people looking for new business ideas should review subreddits and use the Ask Me Anything feature, where users can ask experts and celebrities questions that may uncover potential ideas for small or midsize businesses (SMBs).
"Reddit is a hotbed for SMBs to learn about what their customers want and need," he said. "It can benefit from an R&D perspective or from a marketing perspective."
Pay attention to Pinterest
If your talents lie in identifying or creating the next great must-have product, get a Pinterest account. The image-based social media site provides a constant stream of new images to get you thinking creatively about new business ideas.
"Of all the social media sites, Pinterest is one of the best to see the next hot product trend," said Gail Oliver, a small business consultant and blogger at Attention-Getting.com. "Pinterest is the only social media [site] that has a Popular page where you can see the images that people like the most," she said.
Oliver said she's seen many wedding, home decor and fashion trends take off because of Pinterest. "It also clearly shows you how many people like the image and how many repin — both great indicators of their popularity," she said.
Pinterest users can monitor comments without alerting other users, to get a site-wide look at what people think of each pin. Oliver said the sometimes-overlooked comments section provides more inspiration for new ideas than some other social media sites.
"Comments are also visible to everyone, so you can see what people are saying," Oliver said. "Facebook posts no longer go out to everyone who follows you, so you get a limited response, and it would just be a portion of your followers."
Search Twitter questions
If you're just following trending tweets or hashtags on Twitter in an effort to find business ideas, it's time to change your approach.
"Find questions people are asking on Twitter," said Jay Neely, creator of Boston Startups Guide. "Twitter search is an amazing tool for startup idea research."
Neely said Facebook's advertising tools are also a great way to research and evaluate markets for business ideas.
"Facebook's ad creator allows for some amazing interest, demographic and location targeting," he said. "I've used it to measure if an interest is more popular among iPhone or Android users, get a sense of a profession's demographic breakdown and see how large the target market is within the area I'm based," Neely said.
Uncover under-the-radar social media networks and apps
For another largely untapped social media source of idea-rich content, use your cellphone to cruise through one of the lesser-known mobile social networks, or visit a social shopping network.
"Mobile social networks are highly engaged, and great for feedback," Neely said. "If you post a question on a LinkedIn group, you're lucky to get any responses. But on mobile social networks, push notifications and better social context result in much higher engagement."
If apps aren't your thing, try a visit to a couple of niche social sites for inspiration.
"I think social sharing sites like Wanelo [an online world shopping community] and Lover.ly [dedicated to shopping for weddings] are better for identifying business opportunities," Oliver said, because they gauge people's interest and approval with the whole "like" system, instead of just measuring the reaction of your followers.
Spy on your competitors
A truly stealthy way to find new business ideas is to quietly monitor the social media activity of the big players and/or competitors in the industries in which you're interested.
"The trick to using social media to find new ideas and stay on top of the current trends is to monitor your competitors," said Matthew Reischer, CEO of LegalAdvice.com. When you see the totality of engagement from your market competitors, you get a better sense of an overall pattern that allows you to connect the dots to discover new ideas, Reischer said.
"Read your competitors' content about the industry and their tweets about new initiatives in their company," Reischer said. "Pay attention to the social banter among all participants, and you can begin to assemble a better-informed understanding of the market ecosystem in which you operate."