Archive for September, 2010

Corporate use of social networks

September 20, 2010

As Web 2.0 technologies increase in popularity, their use on the corporate scene is rising too. Below are some examples of this trend in action.

Starbucks – This company  has been harnessing the collective intelligence of their customers through a social network which accepts, amongst other things, suggestions for new or improved products and practices. Users can submit comments in three categories – ‘Product’ ideas (about the food/drinks/music/merchandise Starbucks sells), ‘Experience’ ideas (about sales process/locations and atmospheres at the Starbucks stores) and ‘Involvement’ ideas (about how to engage and interact with the community of Starbucks patrons). Not only do these customer submissions help Starbucks improve their business and align it more closely to what its customers really want, it creates consumer buy-in and sense of loyalty/belonging through particular attention to strengthening its surrounding social network of shoppers. One risk of this approach is that the customers interacting on the social network don’t get along. I took a look at one of the ideas being discussed and it became apparent that people were getting angry at each other’s posts and attitudes. Arguments were held through the commenting system and posted material became sarcastic and offensive. The outcomes of this and similar incidents were but it is conceivable that the people involved would boycott the site or even Starbucks itself as a result. This threat could perhaps be managed through staff moderating the site but removing control from the customers in this way might also damage the site and company by denying people free speech.

Starbucks also offers options for people to share their content through Facebook, Twitter and many other existing social networks but still requires its users to create an account with Starbucks itself in order to submit content.

Visa – Visa has launched the ‘Visa Business Network‘, a free social network where small businesses can maintain a profile and connect/interact with each other. Supported functionality includes giving and receiving advice on meeting specified goals, mentoring other business people and holding conversations. It also supports blogging and integration with Twitter, which helps to broadcast updates to a larger audience. This network is made available through Facebook, thus tapping into the vast Facebook community to attract users. By allowing users to sign up through Facebook, Visa has simplified the joining process which might prevent abandonment at that point by people who don’t want to go through a lengthy process or volunteer their data to yet another site.

Jeep – has a social network where Jeep owners can post Jeep-related photos. Once photos are uploaded, viewers can see when the photo was taken and who took it. Clicking on the photo links back to the Flickr page for that photo. Commenting is also allowed but is done through Facebook, meaning that would-be commenters have to sign in to Facebook to leave messages. Viewers can also share the photo through Facebook, Twitter and Delicious and ‘like’ it for Facebook. By using these existing social networks, Jeep has tapped into huge base of users but runs the risk of excluding key functionality from people who aren’t already members these networks.

As indicated above, there are advantages and disadvantages for making use of existing social networks instead of creating a new one. Companies like Visa and Jeep have access to an existing group of users but are to some degree ‘off limits’ from people who don’t already belong to Facebook. Approaches like Starbucks’ open up the network to people who don’t want to have to join Facebook/other social networks.

Ideally, networks should offer both sign up methods to reach more people. It is also desirable for businesses to offer options to include their content on social networks (such as a ‘like’ option for Facebook users).

If you’re interested in more examples of companies making use of social technologies, I found this link.

Corporate wiki use

September 13, 2010

As corporate wikis become more popular, excellent examples of companies successfully structuring their business practices around wikis are continuing to emerge. One of these examples is RedAnt – a web design company who have fully embraced the wiki technology with powerful outcomes.

Rather than just a receptacle for information, we use it to store meeting notes, brainstorms, wireframes, snippets of code, and even present visual designs. The aim is to try to get as much information on each project written down. By doing this, we’ve found that our Wiki has become our main interface with customers – a kind of a mixture of intranet and extranet. (RedAnt, 2009)

Web design company RedAnt doesn’t just use wikis – they’ve built their work structure around them. More specifically, RedAnt uses a wiki platform software tool called Confluence.

RedAnt is vocal about the benefits it has drawn from this approach and I identified three different areas these benefits relate to:

Data

–       Handling a variety of content (the wiki supports a variety of content types – such as images and Flash as well as text – and can bring them together in a single document)

–       Documentation (in addition to storing and displaying actual project data, the wiki can be used for storing data about the project, including ‘detailed software documentation’)

People

–       Everyone was able to contribute and participate and more people were involved

–       Easy to manage who has what permissions (One of the problems RedAnt faced was how to make sure the right files were accessible to to everyone who needed them whilst keeping more sensitive files were off limits. Using the wiki enabled this provision and protection to be set up quickly and easily.)

–       Helps maintain communication with clients

–       Helps demonstrate activity levels to clients (This makes sure the clients are aware of progress being made and are reassured that the company is still working on their project)

–       Working with both geographically and temporally dispersed groups (RedAnt found that the wiki technology was extremely useful in dealing with clients that weren’t ‘local’ or were in a different time zone)

–       Improving communication through visuals (RedAnt also found that explaining concepts could be helped by using images and graphs and the like)

Time

–       Less waiting around for other people to upload content for the group (In previous systems, publishing content was left to a select group of individuals and this mean that there was often time spent waiting for these people to upload large amounts of content from others. Using the wiki, everyone was able to contribute, thus relieving the pressure on the few people who used to be responsible for that task)

–       Speed of publishing  (In addition to allowing other people to publish content, the wiki system simplified the publishing process, thus shortening the time taken to upload content.)

One of the pitfalls of this system is related to some of the behaviour RedAnt noticed emerging – ‘crammers’. These people didn’t read updates frequently but attempted massive catchups right before meetings. I suspect that if the same people were presented with a different system, they would exhibit the same behaviour to some degree but the “What’s new” feature of the wiki likely encourages it. This behaviour could be detrimental to the project and organisation because it means that some people are unaware of potentially serious developments and may not react in time.

The RedAnt example is definitely a positive one – there seem to be almost no downsides to their transition to a wiki workplace and an abundance of benefits.

Corporate blogging strategies

September 13, 2010

Corporate blogs come in a variety of forms and are done for variety of purposes. Sang Lee, Taewon Hwang and Hong-Hee Lee (2006) examine these blogs in terms of their authors and their purposes and these approaches are discussed as follows:

Who:

All employees – Even with social media policies factored in, opening authorship to all employees creates channels for revealing the human side of a company because publishing these different views and experiences of being part of that company builds a collective image that can end up being more ‘complete’ and rounded than if only the executives and official spokes people had a voice or if the company only released highly planned statements. It can also turn employees into what Lee Hwang and Lee (2006) call “brand ambassadors” and so provide another credible stream of advertising that reaches its audience without the unappealing layer of ‘advertising speak’ drizzled over it. This strategy comes with risks, however, and these include loss of control and leaking of confidential information.  Adobe is a prime example of this strategy working successfully – it has a massive range of blogs in which its staff release promotional material such as tutorials and reviews that encourage their readers to buy into Adobe products. One downside to Adobe’s abundance of blogs is the lack of categorisation – people faced with the very long list of blogs could find themselves overwhelmed by the choice and have trouble finding blogs relevant to their interests.

High ranking executives – Warren Buffet has stated (in Lee, Hwang and Lee, 2006) that “people are voting for the artist, not the painting”, demonstrating the influence a known and approachable figurehead can have on the product they are pushing. Matt Blumberg (CEO of Return Path, an “email deliverability services company”) has his own blog in which he releases frequent and relevant posts, such as “What Does a CEO Do, Anyway?”, “Investment in the Email Ecosystem”, “The Value and Limitations of Benchmarking”. These are written in an informal, easy-to-read style and don’t just provide insight into Blumberg’s business, they help project an image of Blumberg himself as an approachable and credible person. If the artist selling himself has a positive effect on selling his works, then it could be assumed that Blumberg is setting his company up to be successful.

Select individuals – By having a hand-picked group  of people contributing to the same blog, a company can give its readers a better sense of some of the individuals involved in it, thus further helping to humanise the company. It can also help by giving a broader perspective and range of experience that would have been so if only one person had been author. A real world example of this is Forrester Blogs – a marketing and strategy group that has several of its members contributing to a single blog. The diversity of authors leads to a diversity of blog content which perhaps makes the blog more intersting to read.

blogs that are ‘lacking of human voice’ – This style has benefits and drawbacks. I think the key benefit is that the impersonal touch might make the information presented in the blog (and a common aim of this sort of blog is to present the reader with information about the company or its products) more trustworthy due to the lack of human influence and bias. Unfortunately, the impersonality can also be counter-productive by not providing any sort of human interest for the readers to engage with.

In addition to their three ‘author’ categories (’employee’, ‘group’ and ‘executive’), Lee, Hwang and Lee identify another two categories defined by their purpose – ‘promotional’ and ‘newsletter’:

Newsletter – This type of blog tends to “be filled with well-polished messages” and “cover a variety of topics such as company news and product information” (Lee, Hwang and Lee, 2006). Lorelle VanFossen (a seasoned blogger and author of “Blogging Tips: What Bloggers Won’t Tell You About Blogging”) was approached by an organisation to convert their newsletter into a blog, learnt much through the process of doing so and has published her findings. Something I found interesting about her article series was how it highlighted the difference between newsletters and blogs. I had assumed that newsletters were basically just short updates and news snippets relevant to the newsletters author and that it would be relatively simple to convert such a document to ‘blog-form’. Apparently, that’s not so and creating a successful ‘newsletter blog’ requires careful planning.

Promotional – According to Lee, Hwang and Lee, “the purpose of the promotional blog is to create buzz around products and events” (Lee, Hwang and Lee, 2006). K. H. Padmanabhan has done his own study on promotional blogs and has categorised them “based on their objectives and uses”: The types he identified are

  • ‘information blogs’ (which “provide information of interest to the participant” and “feature information updates and relevant stories
  • image blogs’ (which “are oriented to positioning a brand or a company.They seek to accent a construct of import to the audience, e.g., product knowledge, technology expertise, market insight, etc. The elements are essentially intangible. They may be employed as part of or extension to mainstream media positioning programs.”),
  • ‘experience blogs’ (which “are about reminiscing and sharing one’s experiences. Chronicled in relevant contexts and natural surroundings, experience blogs enrich interactions among the participants. Satisfied customers make a company’s sales force that is credible and unpaid. Experience blogs engender public credibility”),
  • ‘relationship blogs’ (which “are about building social connections. Connections are built with customers, among customers, and between different interest groups. Customers connect and help each other. Customers act as company’s resource. Relationship blogs develop trust and cement bond with customers.”)
  • ‘dialog blogs’ (which “provide an open forum to congregate and debate. Participants give free and full expression to what they know and what they feel. Customers and other interest groups collaborate with the company decision makers… Dialog blogs are online forums for different views and insights regarding any general or focused subject of interest to its participants.”