Is the homepage dead?

Amongst the bits of digital lint that landed in my browser’s belly button last week was an intriguing blogpost which argued that the company homepage is dead, killed off by the rise of social media.

“There is a new Web”, John Brandon argued, “and it’s the Web of social media and links, not the Web of domains and dotcoms”.  Businesses need to accept this reality and figure out how to make it work.

And to a certain extent he has a point. The social web has transformed the way consumers find information. It’s been a long time since your actual domain name mattered; Google is everyone’s homepage now. But that simple fact means that your website still matters.

Every page is the homepage

While it’s certainly true that the number of people typing http://www.yourdomain.com and arriving at your homepage has dropped like a stone, the number of people visiting websites hasn’t. They don’t arrive through the front door anymore, but via search directly to the relevant content.

That means every page on your site is as important as your homepage. So it needs to make the right impression, answer the visitor’s question, guide them through to a specific transaction, or whatever function the content needs to serve. And it has to do all of that quickly as over half of website visitors will spend less than 15 seconds on a site before deciding whether it’s worth engaging with any further.

The actual homepage still matters too. People may not arrive through the front door, but if they’re seeking out more information on your company, chances are they’ll take a look at it. It serves both as a means of navigating to more information, and creating proof that the company is one they’re comfortable doing business with. Just as you’d keep the porch tidy and the front lawn mowed if you were selling your house, you need to keep your homepage up to date if you want to create the impression you’re a thriving business you need your homepage to reflect your brand and narrative with steady flow of relevant content.

Content without context

There is a shift happening in the way people consume content, with a growing proportion of content now read on other platforms. I read the blogpost that inspired me to write this one within Flipboard, for example, rather than on the website that published it.

That shift means your web content needs to be produced and published in such a way that makes it easy to read both on-site and within aggregators – and performs the function you want it to even when stripped of the context your site design and navigation provides. That means thinking carefully about content design, taking into account changing patterns of consumption that the mobile web has created, and of the user needs at the point of consumption.

Why not just put your content on social media?

The article’s author argues companies could skip having a website altogether. If you’re selling widgets, he contends, you’re better served having people go straight through to Amazon to buy them.

But what if you’re not selling widgets? His suggestion that legal or insurance firms looking to attract clients can use Facebook instead seems a little naive, given the awareness-consideration-conversion process that typically precedes a transaction in the world of financial or professional services. Put simply, people just don’t buy such services that way. They seek out information, go away and have a think about it, seek out information from elsewhere, and come back later, with conversion potentially taking place via a different channel (some marketeers call this the Zero Moment of Truth).

If I were looking for a new credit card, for example, I’d start with search, maybe look on a product comparison site, Google around to see if there are large numbers of people complaining about the provider on social media. But I’d also look on the firm’s own site to get authoritative, updated product information, for example on introductory offers, as information on social media or third party sites can often be out of date, or laid out in ways that are difficult to consume or understand.

Of course a brand’s social media presence matters. But web and social aren’t a zero-sum game – being on one doesn’t negate the need to manage content on the other. Quite the opposite; they need to reinforce one another in order to gain the best returns on investment in content.

The rise of the walled garden brings new challenges

One of the arguments for being on social is to extend the reach of content and drive traffic back to your site. But this is shifting as social networks are developing ways to keep users within their ecosystem.

Facebook have long encouraged brands to publish to the platform rather than link out – for example using Facebook native video rather than sharing a YouTube link. They’ve developed this further in the past year with the arrival of Instant Articles, where articles are published to Facebook directly, ostensibly to speed up the user experience. Twitter is said to be getting in on the same game, with a new feature allowing content of up to 10,000 characters said to be coming in the first quarter of this year. While these developments will inevitably impact on the volume of referral traffic, they won’t do away with referrals altogether.

All of which places new and increased demands on digital teams. While the mechanics of publishing have been getting easier every year, the demands for digital expertise have not as the number of channels and touch points continues to grow, as does the competition for eyeballs online. Gaining most value from this increased channel mix means understanding the ways in which people consume content on each platform, and designing it accordingly so that it delivers its intended objective – wherever the audience finds it.

The homepage isn’t dead. It’s multiplied exponentially, and so too has the challenge for those managing digital content to ensure every interaction is as good and well-thought-through as the homepage of old.

Digital tools for digital people

Forget how people do things while they’re at work, constrained by corporate policies and culture. If you want to see someone’s true working style, you need to see how they work on their own terms. Like when they organise their own holiday.

That was a nugget taught to me on a leadership course I went to at work, and one I’ve subsequently seen to be absolutely spot-on.

You can tell a lot about a digital professional from how they digitise themselves.

After discussing this on Twitter with Luis Suarez (famously The Man Who Stopped Doing Email) and digital fluency coach Jamie Good, we got together on Blab to discuss our own personal digital workplaces. You can watch a replay here.

I kicked off things by talking about Trello. For the uninitiated, Trello is a project management tool, but it’s so feature-rich and customisable that it’s scrum board on steroids. Here’s a post on all the myriad ways you can use Trello from Lifehacker.

I love Trello. I’m inherently a very disorganised person, but over the years I’ve developed the self-awareness to know this and developed a system to organise myself.

That means I have scrum boards for all the various parts of my life. I even had one to plan my wedding.

Here’s a screenshot of my personal tasks board; this is how I manage my projects outside of my day job. My to-do list starts on the left, moving over to ‘doing’ as I start to work through jobs. I add detail, links or updates on each card, then move to done once tasks are completed.

personal-trello-board

I work in weekly personal sprints, reviewing the board every week or so and archiving tasks that are done or dead to keep it all manageable.

I also use Trello to work with distributed teams I’m a member of, in particular my intranet blog, Intranetizen, where we use Trello to manage the content pipeline. We can assign tasks to people, add due dates, attach documents and discuss what we’re doing. Posts move from left to right as they evolve from idea to fully-formed text.

Intranetizen-trello.png

Luis commented that this is similar to how many people use Evernote. But I much prefer Trello as it’s highly visual, has brilliant UX and integrates so well with everything else I use to work in teams.

What’s interesting, Luis noted, is the extent to which our personal productivity becomes hampered when we get to work and don’t have the choice of tools that we’d like.

Back in the 90s the computing you had at work was streets ahead of anything you might be able to buy yourself. But the consumerisation of technology over the past 15 years has shifted the balance a long way in the other direction, and now surveys regularly show people are largely dissatisfied with the tools they’re given in the workplace.

This leads to a boom in guerilla or shadow IT within organisations, as people who can’t access the tools they need to feel productive via their work desktop simply switch to using personal phones and tools like WhatsApp – beyond both the control and visibility of corporate IT or compliance.

Corporates are still struggling with BYOD, but until that is cracked the gulf between employee expectation and reality will continue to grow. That has impacts on retention as employees who can’t be as productive as they’d like leave to work in firms where they have more agency over their preferred toolset.

The onboarding process and timeline in enterprise IT doesn’t keep up with the rate at which people want to evolve their ways of working. Unless enterprise IT offers a tool that offers the same functionality and usability as WhatsApp, people will vote with their feet – or their phone – and use non-approved alternatives from the consumer space, with all the risk attached to that.

Pioneers within organisations can identify tools that can help to build productivity – they quickly become evangelists for its use amongst their friends and colleagues. Enterprise IT needs to make friends with these influencers and pioneers and figure out how to square that circle – or risk becoming irrelevant. This group can identify use cases and help work through issues with emergent tools.

The big enterprise social platforms have been improving their offering in recent years, in part in response to smaller and newer players like Slack, which all three of us are big fans of.

For example, I use Slack to work with the Parliament User Group. We have a public channel as well as a closed one for us organisers. We share notes and links through this all the time, then every couple of weeks some of us will get together on a Google Hangout to discuss plans and updates, and often from there we’ll switch straight to collaboratively editing a Google Doc. In this way we can collectively draft and agree a post in half an hour, rather than days or weeks of back-and-forth emailing, then finally share this doc with the Slack for everyone to give the OK for publication.

What sets Slack apart is the degree to which it’s integrated with others tools, bringing multiple tools together into a unified experience.

I asked Luis if, having long kissed goodbye to email, he still used documents. The answer, unsurprisingly, is no, not if he can help it. He uses IBM Connections Docs and generally uses wikis rather than documents, commenting that “the moment you put a piece of knowledge in a document, that’s the moment that you lock it in”.

Documents exist to replicate an age where information was paper-based and linear – a means of creating things that were designed to be printed in order to be shared. Documents introduce a lot of friction to the process of collaboration, requiring 3rd party apps to open and email to share.

I also prefer hypertextuality and non-linearity to capture information, as this enables it to change over time in a way that reduces friction but where previous iterations can still be referenced. For personal projects I use Google Docs, while at work I use Documents within Jive, which are actually more like wikis but with a more user friendly interface.

This kind of approach privileges people over documents, focusing on the interaction and information rather than the tool. Manny Wilson produced this powerful graphic which illustrates how using wikis (or similar) to share information rather than documents reduces complexity and friction.

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We wrapped up with Luis making a call to arms for more of us to be brave and call out practices that simply aren’t productive – and have the courage to find and use alternatives that can make work better.

Digital professionals are at the forefront of that change; it’s down to us to keep challenging our colleagues, and our IT departments, to deliver a better and more productive digital workplace.

What tools do you swear by to manage your work? Join the conversation in the comments below. We’ll arrange a follow-up Blab session if there’s enough interest.

#hashtagfail: What to do when a social campaign goes bad

Inviting audiences to share their content or comments via a hashtag campaign has long been a social media staple. But that comes with considerable risk that the campaign could go sour – at best failing to inspire engagement, at worst inviting outright ridicule.

The latest brand to invite Tweeters’ fury was IBM, who this week launched a well-meaning but nonetheless ill-considered campaign inviting women to consider careers in STEM by hacking a hairdryer.

The response from women on Twitter was a storm of rage and ridicule:

 

 

While IBM have provided a textbook example of User Generated Fury, there’s a lot others can learn from their response. First, they apologised – quickly and unreservedly, acknowledging why people felt the campaign was offensive.

 

They also deleted the offending tweet. While this opens up brands to accusations of trying to rewrite history, or pretending the incident didn’t happen, it also limits the damage. A ‘offending’ tweet can continue to be in circulation – and generating ire – long after the apology is issued. This was a tough call to make, but in my view the right one.

Many commentators are surprised that IBM, longtime champions of diversity in tech, made such an elementary error at all. Where I think they fell down is in failing to anticipate the response. They could and should have foreseen that a tactic that perpetuates gender stereotypes might go down badly in a campaign about combatting those stereotypes.

If you’re planning on any hashtag campaign, invest some time in planning. Before launch ask your entire team to think of all the ways in which it could go wrong.

Conducting a campaign pre-mortem like this helps you to identify and mitigate the risk things will go wrong – and help you plan what to do if your hashtag becomes a bashtag.

Hashtags are still one of the most effective ways to build engagement and participation with a campaign. While #HackAHairdryer highlights the risks in running social campaigns, it also shows that a swift apology can limit the reputational damage. Spend some time planning to avoid and manage disaster and proceed with caution.

Have you had a social campaign go south? What lessons did you learn? Let me know in the comments below.

Social media in financial services: six trends for 2016

Last week I had the pleasure of debating the role of social media in banking and finance with Nick Jones (Head of Digital Communications at Visa Europe) and Keith Lewis (Social Media Manager at Zurich) in the latest CIPR C-Suite podcast. Podcast host Russell Goldsmith has blogged about it here, and you can listen to the podcast on iTunes.

Social has transformed the way businesses engage with their customers and potential customers, and that’s as true in financial services as any other industry. Despite the three of us coming from quite different parts of financial services, we all felt that this is an exciting time for social in the sector.

Digital is now the primary way most of us access our banking services – I haven’t been in a branch or even phoned my bank in years – and social is a central part of that experience. So what lies ahead for social in the financial services sector? Let me jump on that year-end bandwagon and predict some trends for 2016…

Consolidating rather than innovating on platforms

As Nick commented on our podcast, when we were first getting into social four or five years ago, new channels would come along and everyone was happy to experiment for a month or two before disposing of it. Platforms would rise within weeks – and fall away even more quickly (who remembers Ello now?).

Social has grown up, and as it gains the attention of the c-suite there’s more demand to focus attention – and spend – on platforms that already have established audiences, ensuring these deliver tangible returns. Tolerance for experimentation will fall.

Fighting for attention on Facebook

Facebook recently rolled out its Instant Articles feature – which means users are served a version of content from Facebook’s servers, rather than directed to publishers’ own sites. Early indications show this could be a huge change to the way the internet giant directs traffic to websites outside of its own ‘walled garden’.

Commentators are widely predicting that Facebook’s algorithms will prioritise Instant Articles over links to websites. And while it’s traditional media publishers who are being courted to publish direct to Facebook now, brand publishers are the next logical extension. Expect to have to pay Facebook to get eyeballs on your blog content before long.

Banks finally embrace Instagram

2014-15 saw many brands dive into Instagram, but financial services firms have been slow to follow suit. Financial products are necessarily complicated – as are the regulatory demands to explain these in detail, which has led the sector to focus on long-form content.

But people find finances complicated – scary, even – and snackable content provides a means by which we can demystify what we do. A few are starting to dip their toes in the water, most notably Capital One and American Express. In the coming year more banks, insurers and payment providers will switch to visual formats in order to make their products simpler and more appealing, particularly for millennials – learning from media and other industries how to boil down messaging for the format.

Making conversation to conversion seamless

The growth in mobile wallets means that in a couple of years payment has gone from being the most annoying part of any e-commerce experience, to being simple.

Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram have introduced buy buttons, making social and mobile commerce integrated. App developers have monetisation front of mind, so that conversation leads seamlessly to conversion. FinServs are likely to get in on the game this year, using social to collect leads directly from apps.

Mobile wallets get social

Taking that one step further, mobile wallets are becoming even more integrated into IM 3.0 apps. This innovation has been driven from the East, with Chinese banks offering payment services within WeChat as long ago as 2013.

WeChat has continued to build more financial products into its offering, from merchant payments (a bit like Shopify) to a nascent Private Bank called WeBank.

This trend continues to spread across emerging markets – where people are less likely to have traditional bank accounts – with WeChat-powered payments breaking through in Africa.

This innovation could spread to mature (Western) markets in 2016, as tech firms become bigger players in the finance space. Millennials, in particular, don’t just expect to talk to their bank on social – but expect to be able to transact there too.

Keeping it real(time)

While the integration of transactional and lead generation features into a wide range of social platforms could allow financial firms to generate tangible income from social, at the same time it places greater demands on those managing social channels. Customers expect 24/7 presence for customer services, and the growth of channels like Periscope require community managers to be more responsive to spot and respond to issues.

2016 looks set to be a demanding year for social media managers in finance, with increased demands from both consumers – to respond and provide better and more integrated services – and from those in the boardroom to show value. But if we rise to the challenge, the year ahead could be when social grows up and becomes a transformational force in finance.

What do you think of my predictions? What do you think we’ll see in 2016? Let me know in the comments below.

 

The email-free future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.

It’s over five years since Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg predicted email is probably going away, and yet I returned from holiday this week to a bulging inbox. So what went wrong?

Here I explain why email alternatives haven’t yet made the breakthrough – and what needs to happen to really see an end to inefficient email culture.

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Underestimated the need for culture change

Cultural barriers in moving from email to enterprise social have been wildly underestimated. Email has had a long (20 year +) period of dominance, and has found its way into a vast range of tasks (many of which it’s inappropriate for, but nonetheless). Old habits die hard, and email is quite some habit – taking up 28% of employee time. Intranet expert Sam Marshall once commented that only two things will survive a nuclear winter – cockroaches, and email.

Email, for all its faults, offers privacy, preservation of silos and hierarchy, and the hoarding of knowledge – all things which fit with traditional ways of managing business. For enterprise social networks to really make a difference they need to form part of a massive change management programme – one that sees the ESN as a small part of a change to make the organisation fit for the future.

If an organisation is serious about embracing openness, meritocracy, flexibility and collaborative working, as a means of making itself more agile and innovative, and engaging its people, then an ESN will enable that. But the organisation needs to lead that change – the tool is merely a means of delivery, and can’t be seen as the culture change itself.

Few organisations have done this successfully yet. Most have barely started. But as hardly a day now passes without another news story about how traditional industries and business models are being disrupted by smaller, newer players – firms who are already embracing those values and working in open, collaborative and innovative ways – big business has to adapt or die. That culture change isn’t a nice to have: it’s existential.

The tools sucked

Back in 2010, the tools to go email-free just weren’t widespread enough; few enterprises had rolled them out, and where they had they were found wanting. Let’s be blunt here: they sucked compared to what was available on the web.

Enterprise social tools lacked powerful enough functionality to make people ditch their long-held habits. They were typically rolled out organically, which meant they relied heavily on enthusiasts and failed to gain critical mass.

All that has changed, though. Social intranet products such as Sharepoint, Jive and IBM Connections have continued to grow and evolve their functionality. At the same time, products like Salesforce, Oracle and SAP have moved on from token inclusion of social functionality to offering fully social systems. And a host of new entrants like Slack have come along to shake the whole enterprise collaboration market up, forcing everyone to raise their game.

The current crop of enterprise social tools now offer substantial and realistic alternatives to email with functionality and usability that are as good as anything offered to consumers.

The challenge, then, is ensuring the organisation has the right tool or set of tools. And that means focusing on user needs…

Lacked understanding of user needs

Too many intranet projects are conceived and designed from the corporate centre, designed without a detailed understanding of how, when and why people work – so that social fits the way people work, rather than expecting people to change the way they work to use social tools.

In this (old) blogpost, Andrew McAfee suggests that the continued use of email when superior alternatives are available is an example of the 9x problem. That is, that people are generally averse to change, so they overvalue what they have by a factor of three, and undervalue alternatives by 3x. So something needs to not just be better than the alternative for people to be convinced to change, but it needs to be 9x better.

The number one driver of adoption is utility. Intranet and digital workplace professionals need first to understand what people do and how they work – and why they use email – then select and configure tools so they provide a compelling alternative – one that users perceive as genuinely useful enough to be worth investing their time in learning.

Poor integration

All too often social intranets are yet another in the plethora of workplace portals, presenting users with a hot mess of interfaces and user experiences. It’s no surprise that people reached for the comfort blanket of Microsoft Outlook.

Email dominates because it’s familiar, and it’s made its way into almost everything we do at work. Email doesn’t force people to think about what tool to use – and nor should your digital workplace. The current generation of enterprise social tools are easy and cheap to integrate with each other, and with other systems. Crack that and present a coherent, integrated digital workplace that doesn’t require users to think, and you reduce the barriers to change.

Too inward looking

Finally, they didn’t extend beyond the firewall, forcing people to go back to email if they want to collaborate with anyone outside of the organisation. In this day and age collaboration can’t just be inward-looking; it will necessarily involve third parties like agencies – and ideally customers too.

With most vendors offering robust cloud-based solutions, there’s no longer a need to limit collaboration to inside the firewall, nor to force people to go back to email to collaborate externally.

The future

These five factors can explain why predictions about the imminent demise of email have failed to come true. While the tools have improved markedly, implementations must focus on user needs so that users feel social tools are substantial and realistic alternatives to email.

As William Gibson commented, the future is here… it’s just not evenly distributed yet. While the tools now exist to deliver on Sheryl Sandberg’s prediction of an email-free future, without significant investment in culture change email will persist.

Photo credit: Daniel Voyager

 

Crafting the gemeinschaft: the case for grassroots approaches to enterprise community management

A LinkedIn invitation lands in my inbox. Ian’s added me. I don’t think we’ve ever met. Says he’s a friend.

If I’m such a good friend, can I borrow a fiver?

That distance between a friend and a ‘friend’ is a good illustration of the difference between a network and a community online, and the extent to which communities and friends have lost their meaning in an age of constant connectedness.

My social network allows me to maintain connections with people with whom I’d otherwise have lost touch years ago, and to create connections with others I may never meet. But this comes at a cost – the depth of those relationships.

My friend Richard, who I spoke to pretty much every day in the late 90s, says he doesn’t even need to call me anymore as he only needs to look at Twitter to see what I’m up to. He’s not alone; recent research found that the more up to date we are with our friends’ lives on Facebook, the less likely we are to call or meet up with them in real life, leading to increased feelings of loneliness.

This is all a long way from early analyses of the web (in the McLuhan tradition) which posit that where technology bridges the hindrance of physical connection in order to facilitate real-time communicative activity, social circles expand and thrive to create a “global village”.

The very openness of the web can, the theory goes, allow people to create communities of interest and interact with others who share their interests, regardless of their physical location. But this is rarely borne out by the reality of Facebook, which is a reflection of our own narrow interests, and a series of tiny, posed glimpses into the lives of people with whom we share a degree of connection.

It’s not, in the true sense, a community.

  • A network is a set of relationships, personal interactions and connections (in social network analysis terms, sets of nodes and links), with linkages and information flows between them.
  • A community, on the other hand, has a sense of shared identity, one which – however tacit and distributed – has a shared sense of purpose.

Over time the term community is increasingly being used to describe what are really networks. When people talk about the “investor community” or the “open data community”, they’re talking about people with common interests, not a shared sense of identity or belonging.

Like most debates the internet throws up, this one has a history that predates Berners-Lee. Sociologists have long sought to define different types of group identity and social bonds, most famously in the work of Ferdinand Tönnies, who proposed two dichotomous social groupings, called (in German) gemeinschaft and gesselschaft.

According to this model, social ties can be categorised, on one hand, as belonging to personal social interactions, and the roles, values, and beliefs based on such interactions (Gemeinschaft, commonly translated as “community” ), or on the other hand as belonging to indirect interactions, impersonal roles, formal values, and beliefs based on such interactions (Gesellschaft, commonly translated as “society” or “association”) [wikipedia]

Gemeinshaft is characterised by:

  • Emphasis on the needs and interests of the group
  • The group being more important than the members
  • Strong communal relations and a “unity of will”
  • Shared moral values and beliefs
  • Weaker division of labour, with less task or role specialisation

Examples of gemeinshaft social groups include families, sports teams, rural villages and tribes

Gesellschaft is characterised by:

  • Individualism overriding community
  • Contractual relationships over informal ones
  • Stronger division of labour and greater specialisation
  • Diverse social mores

Examples of gesellschaft social groups include corporations, companies, countries, social clubs or universities.

Tönnies proposed these as ideal types; he argued a social group isn’t purely gemeinshaft or gesellschaft, but rather both types will be at work at varying strengths or in different parts of the group.

Nonetheless, Tönnies’ theory provides a useful lens through which to view enterprise social networks (ESNs). The aim of many ESNs is to build engagement, to connect people with common purpose, to build and strengthen relationships between individuals and with the group and to achieve buy-in to the organisation’s brand and purpose – in other words, to build a gemeinshaft. Yet ESNs exist within large organisations and corporations, characterised by individualism, contractual relations and deep division of labour – an almost ideal-type gesellschaft. That dichotomy could explain the failure to gain much of the promised value from such networks.

As any social network – on or offline – scales, there’s a shift from gemeinshaft to gesselschaft, as community size begins to demand the need for governance, rules and specialised roles. This process happens less frequently in reverse, where members seek a return to the days where networks were smaller, purer and characterised by personal relationships. And therein lies the challenge for community managers.

Establishing an ESN

ESNs are typically established in one of two ways: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down networks are conceived and rolled out with senior management support; they typically have strong governance, rules and formal community management from the start – and so exhibit more gesselschaft-type features. This contrasts with the bottom-up approach used by freemium ESN products, where networks can be created by groups of employees themselves, existing as gemeinschaft-type groups before being adopted and scaled by management, where governance, roles and rules are imposed.

The latter approach has – for good reason – fallen out of favour in the digital workplace world, replaced by models which focus on identifying and delivering replicable use cases for social and collaboration. But that’s been at the cost of the strength of group identity and purpose, leading to a failure to realise wider engagement benefits.

Successful social networks outside of the firewall have long since recognised the need to cater for both weak and strong social ties and groupings. Facebook, for example, allows you to restore gemeinshaft by delineating between friends and acquaintances, or by creating your own closed and secret communities which can turn a blind eye to their terms of service.

For global organisations in particular, collaboration and communication tools are fast becoming essential.They enable communication to scale, and for big companies to feel smaller and more personal. But enterprises succeed when they foster and deepen personal, collaborative relationships – albeit ones which operate and speed and scale, across distance, thanks to technology – to create a common sense of identity and purpose. In other words, they thrive when they function as both networks and collections of functioning communities.

A shift in approach

To drive greater value from an ESNs, companies need to take a similar approach to Facebook and create the conditions for more gemeinshaft-type communities to exist, characterised by close social ties and shared purpose, within the wider network.

This approach requires a shift in mindset in the use case approach to ESN rollout. Here are three ways in which standard adoption models could be adapted to allow for more grassroots growth, in order to create groups with stronger social bonds and shared purpose:

1. Find existing strong communities and give them the tools to deepen those bonds

When rolling out any tool, the temptation is to focus on fixing problems in collaboration between existing (dis)functional teams. By shifting this focus to groups who are already working and collaborating successfully and allowing them to build on that success, we can create advocates for the network and identify ways in which it can add value.

This contrasts with one of the stated aims of social within the enterprise – that of ‘breaking down silos’. But such as approach presupposes that silos are entirely bad; in many instances what can be seen as a ‘silo’ is in fact a well-functioning group. The aim should instead be to grow or replicate the success of that group rather than destroying it.

2. Create a beachhead

In Crossing the Chasm, Geoff Moore recommends establishing a small, narrow “beachhead” to scale up from early adopters and “cross the chasm” to the mass market. This beachhead is a small slice of the mass market – a gemeinshaft community. By identifying and taking over this thin edge of the wedge, you establish a basis on which to grow adoption and use.

This approach forms part of the recommended use case-focused ESN rollout plan recommended by many vendors – but taken alone providing ‘cookie cutter’ models of group types, that can be deployed multiple times across the organisation, can add to feelings that the ESN seeks to reduce people to interchangeable resources. The beachhead strategy could reduce those feelings of atomisation.

3. Let communities grow from the bottom up

Finally, there is a need to recognise the value of groups that emerge from a company’s grassroots. These often have stronger group bonds and a clearer sense of purpose than models imposed from the centre. In this qualitative study of one large organisation, employees saw the ESN as a “tool full of possibilities”.

But it’s only when users begin to understand and use a tool or information system that they begin to place it in the context of their own work and understand how they might use it within their own group context – what the researchers called “interpretive flexibility”. That is, for systems to be adopted, people need to begin to use them, interpret them, and finally place them in their own context, tweaking as necessary.

Adoption of Enterprise Social Collaboration, the paper notes, benefits from users finding their own affordances for the tool in the context of their own work and relationships, which helps to build networks effects (what we’d call viral take-up).

Affordances depend not just on what a person perceives they can do with an object or system, but all of their goals, plans, values, beliefs and past experiences (what sociologists called “sociomateriality”). People look at systems or objects and think of their uses in the context of other tools they’re familiar with – in the case of an ESN, they might think about its potential by considering what they do with networks such as LinkedIn, and sites on the external web, but also their experiences with self-service HR systems.

To allow people to understand the possibilities and affordances the ESN provides, we need to give people the space to experiment, and in doing so enable them to understand the potential uses and affordances, and to contextualise them.

This requires taking a different approach to rules and governance – an acceptance, for example, that a grassroots-up community has very different ideas about brand guidelines than those at the corporate centre – but creates the conditions for groups that have a strong sense of purpose and engagement to emerge and thrive.

By taking a different approach to establishing and rolling out an ESN that allows for – and builds upon – the existence of strong social groups and ties, we can allow them to function as both networks and successful communities, enabling our organisations gain greater value from their investment in social tools.

Social media lessons from Ed Balls

Today marks four years since Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls accidentally tweeted his own name, and inadvertently became an internet phenomenon.

It was back in 2011 when Balls was shopping for the ingredients for a 14-hour pulled pork recipe in Asda that an aide suggested he search for an article on Twitter which mentioned him. Balls began typing in his name, but a phone call distracted him and he accidentally hit ‘send’, to the delight of the Twittersphere.

Balls didn’t delete the tweet afterwards, apparently because he didn’t know he could. It has since been shared over 37,000 46,000 times. Tweeting Ed Balls became an internet meme – spawning photoshopped pictures, celebrity endorsements, media coverage and even fame on London’s tube network.

In 2013 internet users began marking the anniversary of the tweet’s now-legendary publication, tweeting Ed Balls at 4.20pm GMT. 28th April is now known as Ed Balls Day.

What can we learn from this?

  • Memes and social media backlashes can come from anywhere. While Balls is in the public eye, even private individuals can find a single tweet can make them a target for mockery or even hate. Balls was lucky; most people just found it funny. However, social media mistakes may have serious consequences. Once made, those mistakes are not easy to fix. Be mindful of what you share on social media. This story about comms professional Justine Sacco’s very ill-judged tweet is a salutatory lesson.
  • Tweet in haste, repent at leisure. Ed Balls’ attempts at multi-tasking made him the butt of many jokes. Take a moment to proof your social media posts, particularly if it’s anything important or serious. (That includes checking the links. I once tweeted a link to some underwear I was buying online when I meant to share a news story. #awkward.)
  • The internet never forgets. Balls’ eight-character mishap happened four years ago, but it’s still very visible. Be mindful of your digital footprint. Social media has not only made us more accessible to one another, but also more accountable. Your online presence can be an asset or a liability. Any remark you post in the public domain can be found, mocked, distorted or misinterpreted – even years later.
  • Acknowledging mistakes can earn you (some) respect. Four years on, the offending tweet is still up. And that Balls has accepted and even joined in the (largely good-natured) ribbing has earned him a little respect (alongside the inevitable laughter at Twitter incompetence).

UPDATE, 4.20 GMT: Ed Balls responds from the campaign trail:

Delivering Digital Democracy ≠ delivering better democracy

On Monday the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy launched its long-awaited report on how digital can deliver a better functioning and better informed democracy.

Their final report  concluded with five fairly conservative recommendations – which in itself is no bad thing, as they feel both realistic and achievable. Having worked in Parliament, I’m well aware that what feels unambitious on the outside will take a superhuman effort to make a reality in the context of an establishment that’s resistant to any kind of change.

The five targets are:

  1. By 2020, everyone should understand what Parliament does.
  2. By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.
  3. The newly elected House of Commons (in May 2015) should immediately create a new forum for public participation in debates.
  4. In the 2020 general election, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.
  5. By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in open format.

Four of the five focus on making Parliament more open and accessible – though releasing data and media, more active engagement and communications campaigns, and by inviting greater participation in the legislative process. Simple in theory, but many of the dates proposed are incredibly ambitious by Parliamentary standards. I applaud the Commission for laying down the challenge.

It’s absurd that Erskine May, the guide to the workings of our democracy, is only available as a £300-a-pop dead tree book, and it’s absolutely right that the Commission are finally forcing the issue of opening this up, as well as pushing for open formats and improved searchability for Parliamentary data and debate.

It’s also good to see the report written in such a clear and accessible way – in itself highlighting how arcane Parliamentary language and protocol contributes to disengagement. Laudable efforts are being made by GDS and others to make government more accessible, but the suggestion that Parliament itself has a role to play in actively engaging people with the issues, rather than simply publishing transcripts of debates is a sensible and valuable one.

Critically, the report highlighted the need for Parliament to become more outward-looking, learn from external organisations, and to close feedback loops for those who take the time to engage with debates. The big question now is whether they will be adequately resourced to do this.

Similarly, it’s great to see pressure being put on the Parliamentary establishment to finally make data sources like Hansard available in open data formats. Whether this is achievable by 2016 remains to be seen, but it will certainly focus minds in the Palace of Westminster.

For the media, however, it was recommendation four which caught their interest – that online voting should be made available for the 2020 election. I remain unconvinced by this. Leaving aside the many security issues this raises (well summed-up in Tom Scott’s video here), this seems like a distraction from the real issue of widespread disengagement from the political process. Which is a shame, as the other four very sensible recommendations are likely to get lost in a load of frothing over voter fraud and civic duty.

It’s patronising to suggest that young people don’t vote because they can’t do it on their phones. They don’t vote because they don’t feel they have anything to vote for. Today’s news that Twitter will offer postcode-targeted advertising in time for the UK general election illustrates the point well; thanks to our voting system, the election is decided by a small number of voters in a small number of swing seats, who in turn become targets for intense campaign activity. In the coming election, parties will focus their resources on those.

It’s not simply that young people aren’t engaging with the political process, but also that the political establishment isn’t engaging with them, or with anyone outside those crucial swing voters.

But given the UK said ‘meh to AV’ in the referendum just a couple of years ago, we’re not likely to see voting reform on the agenda anytime soon. Politics is about the art of the possible, and we have to work with what we have.

The proposals set out by the Speaker’s Commission set out pragmatic and sensible steps to open up our democracy so that people understand what politicians and parliament do, have more opportunities for meaningful engagement with the legislative process, and access to information so they can better hold politicians to account. But we can’t sit back and assume this will happen. These are changes that are necessary and long overdue; it’s up to us all to keep up the pressure so these ambitious targets are met.

Nor can we assume that more information about Parliament will fix democracy. That won’t solve the problem of large swathes of the population feeling unenthused by the voting options on offer.

Politics is a participatory sport. It’s incumbent on all of us to get involved – to engage with debates, to vote, to join political parties and help to shape the policy agenda. Because if we leave representative democracy to everyone else, it will never represent us.

On finding solace in sharing

I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen while travelling around Asia in recent weeks who seem to put more effort into recording and sharing things than actually enjoying them.

Walking around Angkor over Christmas, for example, I was amazed at the number of people who walked around filming the place on the phone rather than looking at it with their eyes. Most baffling of all was a young couple who set up their GoPro to film the sunset – then sat back playing Pokemon on a retro Game Boy rather than experiencing the magnificent sight happening right in front of them.

In my last blog post I wrote about why I tweet, based on George Orwell’s motivations for writing. Chief amongst these was historical impulse, what Orwell described as the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

As I said then, by sharing with others, we create a record for ourselves, too, and at the same time create a dialogue around what we share, reinforcing, challenging and shaping our worldview as we go.

And yet it was this same impulse to record and make sense which motivated engineer Jordi Mir to post online a video of policeman Ahmed Merabet being murdered on the streets of Paris last week – a move that was criticised by the Merebet family, and which he now bitterly regrets.

Mr Mir told The Associated Press he posted the video out of fear and a “stupid reflex” fostered by years on social media. At first he didn’t know what he was seeing, so he recorded it. And then he didn’t know what to do, or how to make sense of something so inexplicable.

“I had to speak to someone,” Mir said. “I was alone in my flat. I put the video on Facebook. That was my error.”

An error, absolutely, but Mr Mir is hardly alone in being at a loss to explain why he filmed – still less shared – the chilling video.

“There’s no answer,” he said, blaming it on a decade of social networking which has trained him to share whatever he saw.

“I take a photo a cat and I put it on Facebook. It was the same stupid reflex,” he said.

Recording and sharing has simply become a habit – we share to show off (like the Angkor sunset pair), but we also record when we simply don’t know what else to do, or we don’t know how to respond to what we have seen, like Mr Mir’s footage from Paris.

Has the urge to record and share become uncontrollable? Perhaps. In the past decade sharing details of our lives online has grown from niche hobby to hourly habit, reaching epidemic stage in 2014 as overshare was named Chambers Dictionary’s word of the year.

As Keith Porter wrote on the Live Simple blog, we all need to learn to put the phone down and be present – to soak up the atmosphere and truly experience what’s happening right in front of us. It’s easy to criticise something as patently ludicrous as going to a concert and experiencing it through a screen, or filming a sunset rather than looking at it.

But while many have lined up to condemn Jordi Mir for sharing a video of the brutal murder, his response is more comprehensible. When reality is simply too awful to look at or understand, sharing it can help us to seek reassurance, or help, or simply to process what is happening. When sharing is a habit that we use to make sense of the world, the urge to do so in the darkest of times is completely understandable.