Six points for organisations entering the Live Web
What are the points worth bearing in mind if you are a medium or large organisation about to try out some new things on the Live Web? Here are my updated thoughts from over the last six months.
Increasingly, business in Scotland is seeing the potential that social media can bring to extend messages, connect better with customers, communicate more and deeper with colleagues and spot opportunities for developing their skills or business further. These are the same lessons that education has been finding its way through for the past while.
No-one should ever feel compelled to 'dive in' without thinking things through, but at the same time there is a need to "fail as soon as possible to find success sooner". There are six main themes for me:
The 5th Amendment might come under "not guilty until proven" on this side of the pond. Blogs have a huge influence on individuals, even if they themselves are not bloggers, and as a result many organisations would rather play it safe and not risk falling on any potentially negative side of that influence. Blogs are effectively "guilty before proven". One of the easiest ways out is to say that "our customers/stakeholders don't use blogs. They're too old/young/countryfied". This is not true - if Bill Marriott can blog at 78, so can your 55+ customers. However, bloggers can make large swathes of people choose to do something or not do something and, unless you're on a level playing field (i.e. you have a blog of your own and are 'part of the conversation') you will find yourself not only incapable of controlling their messages, but also incapable of directing the dialogue. Listen to this extract from the January 23 BBC Digital Planet programme (mp3) if you want more convincing. When a member of the public feels an organisation is not telling the whole truth about its affairs their word can be final if the organisation doesn't listen and jump in to explain.
Sure, there is a risk that even when blogging an organisation still makes a pig's ear of trying to communicate effectively with its stakeholders. If an organisation does venture into the blogosphere, though, and makes a mistake first time round, this doesn't mean that all is lost. Organisations must have the courage to turn tack, chuck out the staid press-release-by-blog and find an authentic voice with blogs written by authentic contributors. Look what happens when companies try to run a PR blog, to pull the wool over the eyes people they serve.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, is video blogging (vlogging) and, at first sight, making a genuine effort to engage with a new group of potential Tory voters. At closer inspection, however, the 5/5 ratings and lack of comments from him on many posts leads us to think that the Tory leader is less concerned with having a genuine conversation with his readers.
That, and the cringeworthy attempt at realism with crying baby, clothes horse and, oh yes, making a cup of tea just as the camera starts rolling - pesky video producer, tsk, tsk. I also think it's quite entertaining to note the quality of the video - it's not an off-the-cuff cheapo camcorded moment in the family home. It's a widescreen, possibly a wee HD number. They don't come cheap. There's a highly skilled cameraman putting in 'amateur' shakes. Another case of "The Changing Face of Tory Boy?" ;-)
What's needed here is a rethink on company-produced materials for public consumption. Where high quality levels used to be vital to creating a credible image it's less important now, and might even be a hindrance. If telling the story of your company means getting the guys and gals on the factory floor to record some quick vids on their mobile phones, then great. The person to talk about stuff isn't the PR person, it's the person most passionate about the product or process. It's the story that is key, not the production values. This is the age of the amateur professional.
Blogs are as much about reading as they are about writing and I would say it's more important at the beginning to read your industry or customers' blogs first before necessarily writing. At the beginning, in reality, your time will probably limit you to doing one of these activities. My tuppence worth would suggest reading first, leaving comments second, getting a blog of your own as soon as possible after. By then your style shouldn't be as staid as this. Just remember, it's all about conversations.
Finding those first few blogs to read can be hard but, once you've found them, use their blogrolls as a guide to what you should read next. A consultant who can recommend a few blogs in your sector is worth their weight in gold, saving you a lot of wasted hours of reading and false leads.
So, once you're reading lots of blogs and wanting to leave comments, do you feel you can do on behalf of your organisation? Most people would probably reply 'no'. This is not down to the potential evils of the tool - it's down the culture of the organisation, be it a multinational corporation or a primary school. Knowing when to write stuff on your own 'corporate' or work blog in relation to your organisation's culture is even more complex.
Every organisation needs all of its professionals, and not just a 'blog watcher', to keep track of what's going on in their sector. Use the tools available to keep watchlists - and then watch them. Create watchlists for the whole organisation which cover all bases so that your face is not covered with egg. On a more positive note, start tracking what your colleagues are up to - even if you don't think that person is relevant to you at first. You might not think that Billy will be doing anything that you could possibly be interested in, but he might just write about something one day that would offer the organisation it's biggest and best collaboration. This kind of passive-active collaboration costs nothing but a very little time each day, and shouldn't be directly linked to making money or raising attainment. Technorati is the best tool for creating these watchlists of most recent information, not the most 'important' information, which is what Google's job is.
This means that skills have to be taught at some point - and your people, whether colleagues or customers, have to be keen to learn them. Think about your strategy for doing this, find some guiding principles that will help everyone understand it and be ready to change it when it's not working.
There is often a desire from CEOs and management teams to take advantage of the latest tool, gadget or gizmo. Even better if its adoption can be 'viral', picked up and used by everyone. Part of me thinks 'viral-ness' can be encouraged by providing easy-to-use tools and appropriate guidance for newbies. If you want to have a more clear-cut set of principles by which to work then get your whole staff to create the guidelines over a couple of weeks on a wiki, a webpage anyone can edit. That's what we did and it works really well.
Keep it simple and write your blog with care.
Don't patronise or miss your readers' point.
If you want an example of what I mean by patronising your customers/readers / stakeholders then take a look at the story behind Facebook's decision to make private info on its users public. "Stalking isn't cool" - quite. You've got to be prepared to reply to your readers' comments and criticisms, good or bad, constructive or not.
Don't just let them sit there waiting for your response, and don't stop and don't delay their comments on your work. If you've been slow off the mark in responding certainly don't attempt to chastise them and don't think of leaving anonymous comments in support of your organisation - it'll be so clear who's commenting. You can, of course, stand up for your beliefs, but make sure you've got some solid ground to stand on (that's why a policy might not be such a bad idea, just to make everyone think twice before posting).
It seems obvious, perhaps, but increasingly educationalists and organisations of all shapes and sizes are interpreting Creative Commons as "free for all". Link back to the people who feed you your ideas or you might find you go hungry in the long term. It's also a great way of creating some publicity for your organisation if the photographer from Flickr or blogger links back to your project to show off their work to their friends. That's why Scoopt works so well.
It's important to strike a balance between being keen and quick, and getting egg on your face for trying. Part of your organisation's brain should be desperate to make a failure quickly so that you can make your successes sooner but, at the same time, try to do this with some common sense and some knowledge of the medium you are in. "Embracing a medium does not mean just copying a format, it means understanding the rules of engagement", and, above all, not putting up barriers to the very people with whom you want to engage.
Taking that last example, from SecondLife, we can see the importance in getting your research done properly, and not just looking for the answer you want. While some will quite rightly say that many organisations are pouring money away into virtual world advertising and seminars, some deeper research would lead the way into new methods for approaching virtual world work.
Full size versions of the slides available in my Flickr set.