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Last week I took my kids to see the Blue Man Group show – almost 13 years after seeing the innovative program during it’s original run in Chicago. Beyond noticing the updates in technology and content – there are several new segments that feature iPhones and digital messages – what struck me are the valuable lessons BMG has for professional communicators; think of it as a theatrical metaphor for highly original, memorable and impactful communication.
At its source BMG is about human communication – almost all of it non-verbal. The program features a dizzying range of multi-media sketches mixing mime, comedy, improv theatre, drumming, props and digital imagery. All the frenetic, often hilarious sketches relate to telling a story, and entertaining the audience. And it’s all done with very little “formal” communication.
Here are a few useful tips from the performance:
- Start conversations – Right from the beginning, when a scrolling text line gradually engages the audience in a fun back-and-forth dialogue, the performance goes well beyond the one-way “push” performance you’d expect with a show of this nature.
- Assume intelligence – Everything about the program (from the subtle mime movements to the smart comedic moments) suggests BMG take for granted their audience will get the joke. This is not a show that dumbs-down or shoot for the typical or obvious – despite the fact there are plenty of kids in the audience. It’s a good reminder that worrying too much about “talking down” to an audience can be counterproductive if it strips any nuance, wit and creativity from the communication.
- Let the audience join/be the performance – Like in many shows, the BMG group team use several members of the audience in some of their sketches. It also uses mobile cameras to focus on the audience at regular interludes…breaking down the proverbial fourth wall. The show also makes good use of informal crowd-sourcing, using audience input or reactions to influence the performance.
- Use your body – It’s no surprise that the BMG team use physical tricks and props in their performance – including the famous drumming on paint cans sequence – but it’s a good reminder that more formal presentations could benefit from better use of movement and stage presence.
- Use music to help set mood and emphasis – It often surprises me how little corporate communication professionals use music in their presentations and deliverables. Music is central to the BMG experience – ranging from basic drumming to background music – and is a major factor in the overall experience.
- Tackle the elephants – Too much corporate output is compromised because it tries to dance around contentious issues or latent questions among the audience. BMG boosts the relevance and impact of the show by going straight for the hidden elephants – such as celebrating the arrival of latecomers in a hilarious paparazzi-style announcement, or proactively addressing likely audience questions at the outset of the show.
- Go for a laugh – This show confirmed for me (again) that smart, timely humor can be a universal language that crosses age, background and culture. And most importantly, humor helps keep the attention of the audience and increases the chances participants will remember anything. Too many communicators frown on humor and argue it can dilute and distort a serious message. That may be true – in some cases – but the reality is that material that is serious and dull can be much more effective if presented in a more engaging format.
- Improvise – One of the great things about BMG is that it leaves plenty of room for surprises and improvisation. I really noticed this during the audience participation segments, where it appeared there was little structure or script to guide the volunteers…to positive effect.
- Make the event an experience – BMG is famous for the explosive ending where the audience is showered with toilet paper streams, confetti and giant balloons. Though this may sound like a silly exercise, this celebration is invariably a highlight of the program. At the Austin show I saw audience members spent almost 15 minutes “playing” after the formal end of the show.
Clearly, not all the tactics and tricks used by BMG are appropriate for more formal corporate communications. On the other hand, too many professionals adhere to outdated, unfounded rules about what constitutes effective communications – particularly in an era where YouTube parodies, virtual games and Twitter updates dominate the landscape. Blue Man Group shows communication can take many forms. It’s time we take a fresh look at the tool kit and focus on what works best, not what is accepted practice.
Just read a really interesting article in AdAge that provides a post-mortem autopsy on the Kenneth Cole Twitter scandal…and subsequent redemption. There are two provocative arguments in the article:
- Social media has dramatically accelerated the usual steps and cycle of scandals, including quick resolution and forgiveness for those who take appropriate action;
- The new scandal pattern features a secondary wave or parodies of the original blunder…which sometimes generates more attention that the original event.
Based on some recent miscues propagated on/by Twitter, it would appear that companies can go from goat to reformed sinner much faster than before the advent of social media. And the deluge of content on networks like Twitter and Facebook inevitably helps push old news out of the spotlight. That said, I would argue that the outcome of the crisis – and ultimate impact on the brands involved – depends on the magnitude of the original error, as well as how promptly and cogently the company reacts. Kenneth Cole quickly apologizing for his ill-advised use of #Cairo in his original tweet cannot be compared to the massive BP oil spill crisis, or even the recent Taco Bell “where’s the beef” situation. For one thing, those events quickly spread across social several social networks and traditional media channels and an easy, quick resolution is not likely to occur. (BP, for example, is likely to face years of legal repercussions.) These other crises also raise more fundamental, serious questions about the companies involved. Kenneth Cole may have been insensitive, but he wasn’t accused of endemic incompetence, harm to consumers or corporate corruption.
Despite these caveats, communication professionals should be aware that old models and time-honored principles of crisis management – do you remember the “5 R’s”…responsibility, regret, restitution, resolution and reform – are being influenced by the technology and mores of social media. In nothing else, it appears that some crises will be played out at lightning Web speed. Whether that makes it easier or harder to manage is open to debate, but it’s fascinating to watch.
The folks at AdAge posted an article recently on what they (and others) have described as the biggest social media campaign of the year: Coca-Cola’s global Expedition 206 project, where three “happiness ambassadors” travelled the world to document people’s search for happiness. Based on many measures, this campaign was a huge success, with over 650 million media impressions and huge global audiences across the campaign platforms – notably in relatively immature Coke markets like China. (It likely didn’t hurt that Coke’s social media properties are already among the most popular in the world.)
It’s interesting to note that some observers – including a few commenting on this article – aren’t sold on the success of the campaign. A few critics questioned whether the program had actually translated into a spike in sales, arguing increased awareness or positive buzz was a soft, meaningless measure of ROI. Others claimed they had never heard of the campaign, suggesting the ratings might be hype.
But beyond the debate about evaluating success – which is a big enough topic for another post altogether – I see a few important lessons for all communication/marketing professionals in this campaign:
- Social media is about people and local markets – The Coke folks developed the campaign blueprint at HQ and leveraged a core team to coordinate the massive undertaking, but used a decentralized approach where local teams (and the personable ambassadors) had flexibility to implement and customize the outreach. It’s also worth noting the prevalence of informal video in this program – a popular and compelling format that is too often ignored in many corporate programs;
- Be open to learning and adapting along the way – The Coke team freely admits they were flying blind on many aspects of this program, and leveraged the insights and feedback along the way to adjust the plan;
- Dont’ wait for things to be perfect – It might surprise some that even a social media leader like Coke launched this campaign knowing their teams would have to stretch to implement the campaign (for example, requiring a higher level of coordination across marcom groups and forcing many local teams to become more familiar with social media). Sometimes a campaign is the impetus for organizations to raise their game and overhaul technology and/or process…and that’s not a bad thing;
- Face-to-face still matters – Coke used a wide range of virtual activities in this campaign, but complemented the robust online tactics with critical local meetings and testimony by the ambassadors, which in turn generated much of the digital content. The heart of this campaign – as it were – was the personal friendships and outreach of the 3 ambassadors on the ground;
- Engage partners in relevant communities – The ambassadors reached out to local bloggers, fans and reporters to support their local outreach and extend local word-of-mouth;
- Be creative - This campaign went well beyond the typical, relatively safe Facebook and Twitter outposts favored by more timid organizations. The result was a campaign that was bold in scope and also much more interesting and lasting in terms of content and coverage.
These lessons were similar to what I experienced at Dell as part of the core team that developed and launched the social media programs several years ago. There were many things we didn’t know when we started, but we never would have learned – or made any progress – if we had waited for the perfect situation. Our focus was on getting the basics right – our strategy, objectives and key principles – but positioned our efforts as a constant beta test…constantly assessing, innovating and improving. Like with Coke, our efforts forced the issue on many fronts (for example the introduction of new technology and upgrades in infrastructure.)
The frenetic, unpredictable pace of evolution in social media doesn’t allow for ponderous, diffident planning more common even a few years ago. Yes, planning and strategic rigor still matter, but they shouldn’t get in the way of great ideas.
Many discussions about social media inevitably turn to the issue of ROI – or how you can measure impact and, more specifically, if there is empirical evidence (or reliable projections) that social media can boost hard business metrics like productivity, revenue and profits. While I’ve heard of a few isolated success stories (like Dell’s profits through Twitter promotions) I haven’t seen much consensus on a measurable, widespread impact – particularly related to consumer activities. In fact, there are still pockets of skeptics who deny social media can add directly to the bottom line. (Conversely, some social media fans/users suggest focusing on finding a bullet-proof ROI link is missing the point, since social media is more about conversation and engagement than short-term returns.)
Well, the folks at McKinsey – who could never be accused of using fuzzy math – recently came out with a study that suggests companies who make extensive use of the Web 2.0 technology have higher returns and margins than their peers. [FYI: you may have to subscribe to McKinsey to view the full report.] What’s telling about the findings is that McKinsey found that organizations that were highly networked – meaning they leveraged collaborative technology inside the enterprise as well as with external partners – were most likely to be market leaders (and gainers) and benefit from higher margins. There is plenty of room for progress, however; only 3 percent of survey respondents were defined as fully networked enterprises – with robust social media engagement across audiences. McKinsey also details the trend towards increasing use of social media inside the enterprise, and the shift beyond the more established business-to-consumer activities. The authors suggest this trend will exacerbate a gap between the forward-thinking organizations (who are gaining measurable benefits) and those reluctant to fully engage the collaborative technology.
A closer look at the findings shows that respondents to the global survey defined a wide range of “measurable benefits” – which confirms that most organizations are looking well beyond core metrics like profit-and-loss for evidence of ROI. But the purported benefits are by no means soft, in corporate parlance. Take a look at the top 4 benefits – based on percentage of respondents whose companies achieved benefits from use of Web 2.0 technologies – across the main categories:
- Increase speed of access to knowledge (77% of respondents)
- Reduce communication costs (60%)
- Increase speed of access to internal experts (52%)
- Decrease travel costs (44%)
- Increase effectiveness of marketing (awareness, consideration, conversion & loyalty) (63%)
- Increase customer satisfaction (50%)
- Reduce marketing costs (45%)
- Reduce support costs (35%)
- Increase speed of access to knowledge (57%)
- Reduce communication costs (53%)
- Increase satisfaction of partners (45%)
- Increase speed of access to external experts (40%)
How can companies join the networked high flyers described in this survey? Here are suggestions from the McKinsey study:
- Integrate the use of Web 2.0 into employees’ day-to-day work activities. What’s in the work flow is what gets used by employees and what leads to benefits.
- Continue to drive adoption and usage. Benefits appear to be limited without a base level of adoption and usage.
- Break down the barriers to organizational change. Fully networked organizations appear to have more fluid information flows, deploy talent more flexibly to deal with problems, and allow employees lower in the corporate hierarchy to make decisions.
- Apply Web 2.0 technologies to interactions with customers, business partners, and employees. Fully networked organizations can achieve the highest levels of self-reported benefits in all types of interactions
As someone who spends a great deal of my time working with companies on internal issues, I’m glad to get this additional ammunition to help convince companies their greatest potential to leverage social media may be inside the organization. McKinsey’s describes these progressive internally networked organizations as cultures where “information is shared more readily and less hierarchically, collaboration across organizational silos is more common, and tasks are more often tackled in a project-based fashion.” Buried in this description is the root of the problem; the reality is that some companies are still not willing to foster this type of decentralized, fluid communication environment. To some, information is still power…and they don’t want to give it up.
If there’s one phrase that makes me wince when I’m talking to peers or clients, it’s can you help us make a viral video? Believe it or not, I hear it quite frequently. Not surprisingly, many corporate executives are now true believers in the power of social media and want to leverage the tremendous profile and marketing clout of YouTube. Unfortunately, you can’t make a viral video. You can make a video and try to help it become viral – meaning viewers will drive others to see it, share it, comment and eventually make it a media sensation well beyond YouTube. Ultimately, viewers decide what becomes viral through their actions and comments.
Though consumers have the power, there are things you can do to increase your chances of encouraging uploads and buzz. Look at the recent Old Spice YouTube campaign as a good example of a successful viral program. This hilarious campaign – which piggy-backed on a popular television ad – has become a new paradigm of how to drive positive word-of-mouth through a viral video campaign. According to media reports, the campaign has generated hundreds of millions of views and publicity across media channels, and there’s also evidence it has boosted sales. The true genius of this campaign was the timely, interactive nature of the conversation – with the Old Spice shirtless man responding to individual tweets, reaching out to influential celebrities and pundits and even making a marriage proposal on behalf of a Twitter fan.
So why did the Old Spice campaign work so well? Here’s my short-list:
- Though the campaign left plenty of room for spontaneity, there was a marketing plan underneath the whimsy designed to maximize reach and impact across networks and sites;
- The videos were genuinely funny, smart and original – the original ads were a great starting point;
- It was responsive – not only in general terms via comments on YouTube but via individual Tweets responses/posts and video content;
- It was designed as an integrated program that went beyond YouTube;
- It downplayed the Old Spice brand (I didn’t find any mention of the products outside the original TV ads);
- The campaign was human and touching – including one video of the Old Spice actor sending a personal message to his son – reinforcing that social media is about real people;
- The campaign knew enough to end on a high, and called it quits before the joke wore thin.
Another important lesson is that the Old Spice guy generated plenty of spoof videos. Video parodies created by viewers are among the most popular on the internet and often widely surpass the original ads in popularity – so be careful what you wish for. (Two recent examples are the hundreds of video parodies of the Tiger Woods and LeBron James Nike commercials.) Further evidence that what goes viral is not decided by marketers but by consumers. (FYI: check out this article for recent stats on the top viral videos on YouTube.)
In the wake of the latest release of classified documents by WikiLeaks, a number of people have asked me if the leaks are simply a reflection of the growing importance of social media – with its emphasis on citizen journalism, transparency and candid conversation. My answer to them is no. WikiLeaks has little in common with the ethos of Web 2.0, and it certainly doesn’t represent the best of social media. Here are my reasons:
- WikiLeaks doesn’t really qualify as a transparent activity. Though it could be argued there is transparency in making public previously confidential or buried documents (that are confirmed as authentic) the whole process around the leaks has been opaque. In fact, the leaks are closer to a secretive publicity stunt than a public service. As per the modus operandi of the site, the original source of the leaked documents is still uncertain – though an American soldier has been charged.
- The importance of transparency in social media is often discussed in tandem with honesty. On that front WikiLeaks is on equally weak ground. First, the cables and memos were specifically written for select individuals or small groups. Clearly, they were released without the consent of the original authors and recipients. Second, WikiLeaks provides no insight on the value or accuracy of the leaked materials, essentially refusing to take any responsibility for the content. Third, it appears the documents were obtained illegally. WikiLeaks isn’t talking under the guise of protecting its sources.
- It’s difficult to argue the leaked information hasn’t fueled active conversation – the foundation of social media – but it’s less certain the discourse has been positive or beneficial to anyone involved. Much like dialogue preaching hate or racism is discouraged, one could argue the nasty brush fires sparked by the leaks has done little but raise tension between countries. On the other hand, the ethical debate around the leaks themselves has been constructive.
- Even in the fluid and informal world of social media, there are norms of conduct and rules of engagement. Most participants follow these informal guidelines and/or corporate policies and there’s often a visceral reaction in online communities against those that refuse to follow rules – which are typically designed to ensure the quality of the content and conversation. It’s not clear what rules or guidelines WikiLeaks subscribes to beyond acting as a clearing-house for documents that can bring to light – and help redress – human right abuses and criminal activity.
- Social media puts a big emphasis on valuable, relevant content. What I’ve seen from the recent WikiLeaks exercise is a massive, haphazard package of confidential diplomatic memos that may have more value to conspiracy theorists and spies than ordinary readers. The value of the materials is left for the reader to decide, and the benefits to any community (if any) are unclear.
- Most fans of social media would agree that sharing information comes with responsibility. There’s a glaring absence of common sense and judgement around the leaks. Many observers are concerned the leaks could result in serious diplomatic problems, and even compromise the safety of officials listed in the documents. Whether that’s true or not is apparently of no concern to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has claimed that releasing the material is in the public interest…but has not explained why or how that is the case.
I’ve heard some pundits arguing this leak follows in the grand tradition of rule-breaking muckracking, like the celebrated events surrounding the Watergate scandal. And if I take Assange at his word, I applaud his commitment to release any information that brings to light abuses and other criminal behaviour. But again, the context here is totally different than Watergate or even the Iraq war. There is no obvious scandal or political crime to uncover here, merely thousands of sensitive diplomatic discussions (containing predictable off-color candor) that serve no obvious public purpose and clearly put negotiations at risk. The leaks are closer to political gossip than investigative journalism.
There has been robust discussion about whether the leaks should be protected under the First Amendment – more specifically freedom of the press. (Conservative pundits, in particular, are happy to see an independent watchdog tweak the nose of the U.S. Government.) I’m not a legal scholar so I can’t answer the constitutional question, but the real issue isn’t whether WikiLeaks can make this information public, but whether it should.
The recent uproar surrounding the introduction – and then demise – of Gap’s new logo has sparked vibrant discussion on the merits and risks of crowd-sourcing…or more specifically listening to customers and critics.
A few weeks ago, Gap introduced a new logo on their Facebook page with nary a peep of warning or consultation. The initial reaction among observers was swift and fairly uniform – harsh criticism. The Gap folks tried to address the situation with a belated invitation for consumer input – call it reactive crowd-sourcing – which only fanned the flames of critics and confused observers. Think of it as bad buzz. Subsequent updates by Gap positioned the new logo as a broader brand update, and provided more background on the rationale and strategy. But in a fascinating twist, a survey several days after the initial buzz confirmed that few consumers were aware of the new brand or related online polemic. Gap ultimately announced they heard the feedback and scrapped the new logo design; it appears they have learned their lesson and will tread carefully in future brand changes. (For another example of a rebranding effort gone wrong – witness the debacle by Tropicana, which surprised consumers with a new packaging look that was harshly criticized – and eventually scrapped.)
There are several lessons communication and marketing pros can take from this story:
- If you are truly committed to listen to online consumers or fans – have a crowd-sourcing plan and a system to back it up. Confirm how you will gather feedback and what you will do with it before opening the doors to input and ideas. Define rules of the game to manage expectations and legal/copyright issues. Most important, be prepared to respond and take action based on what you hear.
- Make listening and monitoring of relevant sites a constant activity rather than an ad-hoc, reactive event. That will provide solid context for dissecting the scope and potential impact of any feedback.
- Consider getting input before you make any changes to products or brands. That makes the process more credible and relevant for consumers.
- Know who/where your fans and customers are…and make sure you are always listening to them. There was interesting debate around the Gap issue about whether the logo uproar was truly a broad, grass-roots reaction from fans and customers or just a brush fire from a small but vocal group of malcontents in the design community.
- Have a brand strategy – and stick to it. Yes…consumers own the brand, since their perceptions are ultimately the reality and determine brand equity. And many passionate fans feel they have personal ownership of favored products or brands. But no brand can survive without careful management by inside folks who are trying to blend identity, marketing, products and PR to drive the business.
I’ve heard a few executives and peers whisper that the Gap episode provides further evidence that social media is risky and perhaps even counterproductive. I disagree. The problem here wasn’t with social media – though listening and dialogue has exploded with the advent of new technology – but with faulty strategy and planning. The famous Coke Classic fiasco happened years ago without the prominent presence of Facebook or blogs. The issue now is that criticism can spread much wider and faster than years ago…which puts more onus on active monitoring, smart planning and ongoing dialogue with customers. An excellent article in AdAge focusing on social media “screw-ups” (which goes beyond crowd-sourcing) suggests that such missteps are inevitable – despite increasing efforts by companies to listen and learn – due to the rapid pace of evolution in communication technology.
On a final note, I enjoyed this video post by my friend Paul Walker at the PulsePoint Group on crowd-sourcing projects that worked well…and why they did. It reminds us of the potential benefits of crowd-sourcing – including consumer/employee engagement, lower cost, innovation and speed-to-market – which to my mind greatly outweigh the risks. Check it out.
A recent edition of Fast Company featured a provocative cover story suggesting the Web was heading the way of dinosaurs. I’m not particularly savvy on the technical side so I’m fuzzy on one of the critical distinctions made in the article (the internet being distinct from the Web) but the key point I took from the piece is that the browser has become increasingly irrelevant to the Web experience. The explosion of content delivered through apps, cloud programs and semi-closed or private networks has created an internet experience that is fluid and incredibly diverse. This means not only that the browser has lost relevance, but that we access the internet through a range of mobile, interchangeable devices. The critical lesson, according to the article, is that users will migrate to tools and technology that simply work, reliably and simply.
There was predictable churn about the article – with some saying it was hyperbole (check out this Ragan video interview of NYT writer David Pogue calling the Web demise claim “nonsense) and others that it missed the mark on intranet growth or was weakened by contradictions. More than one comment, in fact, mentioned the irony that much of the debate on the article was taking place on the Web. To Fast Company’s credit, it included contrarian commentaries alongside the cover story.
My favorite take on the argument was a thoughtful analysis by Steve Lohr in the New York Times that shifts the discussion away from the cycle of overblown technology predictions (of imminent demise) and proclamations (about the “next big things”.) As Lohr puts it, evolution – not extinction – has always been the primary rule of media ecology. Most providers and platforms adapt and survive, and that is not cause for alarm. Lohr’s second key point is that a characteristic of evolution in the Web 2.0 environment is the accelerated pace of change and innovation. The result, he posits, is a proliferation of digital media forms and fast-shifting patters of media consumption.
Once again, I take the discussion back to the central question for me – what does this mean to professional communicators and their clients? The most obvious implication is that failure to remain informed – at minimum – and strategically nimble and innovative – as the ideal – is a ticket to irrelevance. Lazy, static tactical recommendations that may have had a shelf-life years ago now lose their potency within months. Given the pace of evolution in the technology that drives communication, PR staff need to remain educated about trends and tools to provide relevant counsel and support. No need to be on the cutting edge or a tech wizard, but there’s no excuse for being less informed than the average corporate client. Professionals need to have a basic understanding of the new tools and platforms – and the related benefits and implications.
What’s interesting about all these changes is that the fundamental objectives and best practices of communication remain relatively constant – I don’t hear much of a debate about the sustained importance of leadership credibility, audience segmentation, manager outreach or two-way communication. What is changing is the toolkit at our disposal. That dynamic presents an exciting opportunity – there’s a real charge in working in a business which is reinventing itself – but also a constant challenge.
According to a recent report – aptly named the Intranet 2.0 Global Study – the use of social tools on corporate intranets has boomed…sort of. The findings suggest most global organizations have at least one social tool on their intranet (in the majority of cases a blog platform), but a fully integrated “social intranet” – with a range of tools that are widely available and prominently featured – is still quite rare. (Thanks to my friends at Prescient Digital in Toronto for their post on the study.)
This finding is consistent with my professional experience in recent years. Even as social media use (and hype) explodes, companies are still reluctant to leverage their intranet to full advantage as a social media hub. In theory, it should be relatively easy to leverage existing intranet platforms – many of which come with built-in social tools and/or options. Some CMS platforms are like social media swiss army knives – with a full array of 2.0 bells and whistles. But most intranets are big, expensive systems and many companies seem unwilling to invest in adjustments or new technology. Changes in strategy and technology are often laborious. The alternative, for some companies, is to leverage the plethora of available cloud options – which can satisfy virtually every social media need, ranging from the basics (micro blogging, staff profiles) to the more esoteric (crowd-sourcing.) Just today, I read about the upgraded Chatter platform – which seems to provide a robust enterprise social media toolkit.
Each of these approaches has obvious benefits – and some challenges – but neither seems to have much traction inside most companies. Why not? Well, I would suggest the inherent risk-aversion of IT departments is still a big factor, as are cultural inertia, lack of leadership support and funding considerations.
Other studies – including this Engagement Survey by the IABC – suggest the issue goes beyond the intranet, and reflects a broader ambivalence about using social media within the enterprise. In the 2010 IABC report, the intranet was the second most popular communication channel after email – almost ubiquitous across the corporate world. But only 12% of the same respondents said they used social media tools (on the intranet or otherwise.) Digging a little deeper, the findings suggest a limited use of specific tools:
- Discussion boards – 32%
- Internal social networks – 30%
- Wikis – 26%
- Yammer – 10 %
[I'm not listing blogs since there was no obvious break-down of internal vs. external use.]
Perhaps the most telling statistic in the whole survey – over 60% of top executives are not participating in any internal social media tools. Until that changes, change will be slow to come – no matter what technology solution is being considered.
The past couple of weeks has been pretty much business as usual in the exciting world of communication technology: product innovations (e.g. Google’s cool new instant search function or Apple’s new iPod line); new applications with huge potential (e.g. alliance of Chatter with Seesmic social platforms); competitive jockeying pushing companies to building a better “mousetrap” (e.g. Google joining foursquare and others in the location game). Outside corporate firewalls, it’s a fascinating cycle of restless creativity, new technology, cutthroat competition and strategic soul-searching…with huge benefits for consumers and businesses eager to leverage the new technology. It’s easier (and more exciting) than ever for individuals – and even networks of peers or colleagues – to stay informed, communicate, share ideas or advice, be productive…or just be entertained.
The contrast between this fertile, dynamic environment and life behind corporate firewalls is striking – and the gap may be getting bigger. While it’s true that some companies (particularly smaller organizations or the usual suspects in the technology field) are forward-thinking and courageous when it comes to technology, which translates into integrated social media programs that seek to bridge the potential divide between external and internal programs, based on my personal experience most are operating in a world closer to 1984 than 2010. (I’m going on personal experience and anecdotal data here…It’s tough to find updated stats that differentiate social media within the Enterprise from external activities, but this report is useful context.) When I was at Dell, for example, they intentionally leveraged their external platforms (notably Direct2Dell blog and IdeaStorm crowd-sourcing) with their PR and customer service systems within the organization, ensuring that the feedback and issues raised in the blogosphere were incorporated and addressed within the organization. The bridge between external and internal was wide open, so to speak.
Most of what I’ve seen, alas, is far from this ideal. Forget trying to find companies that use location-based applications within the firewall, for example, which would seem to offer huge potential to make internal communication more local and relevant. Many companies are still working on (or thinking about) basic networking tools or blogging platforms – likely still engaged in discussions about risk vs. reward. And in terms of technology devices, I can count on one hand companies that use smart phones or advanced portable devices (like the iPad or netbooks) with their staff – at least beyond senior executives – which seriously hampers their ability to leverage the advancements in mobility, wireless ubiquity and delivery of rich content. For most organizations, the intranet is their trojan horse for communication technology inside the firewall – for better or for worse. (Check out this blog post for another perspective on Enterprise 2.0 progress.) Some are able to introduce and use pretty advanced tools through new CMS platforms (the latest version of SharePoint has enough features to fulfill most basic networking and collaboration needs), but dramatic changes typically occur when companies get plug-and-play enterprise platforms that introduce new capabilities – such as Jive, Yammer or BrightIdea. And even with companies dabbling in pretty advanced technology, the odds are high that their internal efforts are lagging behind their marketing or PR activities (and tools) and/or not fully aligned.
The reasons for this reluctance and hesitation have been well covered – resources, legal risk, culture, inertia, ignorance – and there is merit to some of these explanations. And I would never advocate just jumping in head first…introducing technology for its own sake, without a robust strategy and business imperative. But the greater risk to organizations is that their archaic internal communication programs become so detached from external progress than they become totally irrelevant. And it won’t be just the younger workers – raised in an ecosystem on information on demand and advanced social media – who will get disillusioned and disinterested. It’s time for internal communication leaders and professional to start with a blank slate to (with apologies to Robin Williams) seize the day and utilize the incredible technological power inherent in the new devices and programs.