They want to “get” it. Corporate leaders are reading news articles and hearing from their marketing constituencies that leveraging the power and buzz around virtual communities is:
essential for long-term health of the brand
essential for competing with key rivals
essential for establishing contact with new customers
essential for maintaining contact with existing customers
essential for fostering internal innovation
essential because if we don't participate in those virtual spaces, the conversation will go on without us and about us.
So then the leaders are on-board. They agree. They're ready to loosen purse strings. An aggressive sales job like one employed by Salesforce or MS Sharepoint can pull those purse strings wide-open. Then a blog entry like the one written by Marshal Kirkpatrick becomes inevitable.
According to Wall St. Journal coverage of Moran's study, "Thirty-five percent of the [corporate] online communities studied have less than 100 members; less than 25% have more than 1,000 members - despite the fact that close to 60% of these businesses have spent over $1 million on their community projects." That means some of those $1 million parties probably had less than 100 attendees.
This study did not find that social networks are a waste of money. This study actually discovered that many corporations are incapable of operating inside of social networks without experienced guidance. These companies are pouring in piles of money when instead, they should be spending some patience and genuine intent to learn and gain some experience.
Instead they will entrust a fat budget to their marketing department or advertising agency. Unfortunately, traditional marketing and advertising people often don't understand how to communicate in social networks either. They get paid to build intricate, researched, polished messages.
“Polished” always smells like corporate. Corporate rarely feels authentic. Authentic is what works in social netowrks.
So, corporate leadership employs their internal person and/or their advertising agency, throws a pile of money at them with an objective to tackle social networking. It is tremendously easy to find a company with whom to spend a pile of social networking money. Your space gets built – nobody shows. What went wrong?
Most likely, the site doesn't feel like the content is initiated and pushed up by the users. It probably feels like the company is pushing down some kind of initiative.
My work recently has focused on the launch of a new arm of BlueShirt Nation (BSN). BlueShirt Nation is Best Buy's internal social network operating outside the firewall for all Best Buy employees. The new arm that I am helping to launch is called Bazaar. Bazaar is a gathering of Best Buy vendors, each with their own “room” that employees can visit to have direct interaction with vendor representatives. The vendors only have line-of-sight to content in their room so that the genuine and candid conversations that happen in BSN proper and in other rooms can remain “private” conversation.
Bazaar is an exciting experiment on so many levels. If successful, it has tremendous implications for influencing how retail businesses foster innovation and product knowledge. If Bazaar fulfills its mission for Best Buy, it can be a model for dealer-manufacturer communication in industries like:
OK. Great potential. But Bazaar needs adoption first. We're getting there. We're getting there slowly using viral means. We are getting volunteer participants. We're getting there without swimming pools full of cash. We're getting there because we're listening to the users. The users tell us what they like and what they don't like. We listen. We respond. We're using inexpensive technologies – open source. We take from the open source community and then we give back.
I've been meeting with the first vendors to orient them to Bazaar. More than anything, my conversations with them are about the etiquette of BSN. It is a departure for these companies to hear that they need to enter Bazaar as people rather than entering as a corporation. I explain how spouting the company lines on various issues will find them in a conversation by themselves. Be yourself. Be human.
One of the companies has talked about using their agency to generate content for them to post. YIKES! I want them to be successful on Bazaar so I have encouraged them to avoid using agency content. My point is, I've had to deliver the “Be Human” message in many different ways on several occasions. Being personable and human is just not behavior to which companies are accustomed. I hope they find a way to spend more time listening than trying to spout content.
Social networking doesn't need to be expensive. Sure, you can go on Facebook or MySpace and spend $100,000 * x for pages and advertising and sponsorships and on and on. There is a place for all that. An interactive agency that specializes in such spaces is worth engaging in those efforts.
But spending a $1MM+ to build an internal facing or customer facing network without any internal experience and using a white label provider feels like a recipe for failure.
The thing corporations don't "get" about social networking is that throwing cash at it isn't the answer. Building a big space and expecting participation isn't the answer. Starting small and learning what your users want is the the path to creating a healthy community. In reality, the healthy communities are already out there. Is it possible that you just need to have a personable presence in existing spaces?
For the typical business, building from scratch or spending huge dollars on the major social platforms isn't necessary. Becoming relevant in social spaces requires personal effort. Personal. The platforms are waiting for you. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Ning, KickApps, LinkedIn, Plaxo and on and on. I think I've said it before - just get started. Try. Fail. Learn. Try some more.