Struggling With Social Media? Here's Why
ASSOCIATIONS NOW, June 2009 , Feature
|Summary: You can't measure success if you never had a goal in the first place. Social media expert Charlene Li says too many organizations that dive into social media aren't stopping to ask themselves "why?" But don't read that as an excuse to move slowly. (Titled "The Why of Web 2.0" in the print edition.)|
But in the whirling dervish that is Web 2.0, it's no surprise that a lot of us have simply forgotten the fundamentals, says Li, coauthor of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies.
|See Charlene Li at the Annual Meeting & Expo|
|Don't miss Charlene Li when she speaks at ASAE & The Center's 2009 Annual Meeting & Exposition August 15-18, in Toronto, Ontario.|
The problem that faces associations, however, is that strategy and agility have traditionally mixed about as well as oil and water, yet both are vital components of Web 2.0 success. At the Digital Now conference in April, Li spoke with association executives to try to help them reconcile these competing needs, and she'll do the same in her general session at ASAE & The Center's Annual Meeting & Expo in August. Li spoke with Associations Now after her presentation at Digital Now and offered her advice for associations on getting social media right.
Associations Now: In Groundswell you and coauthor Josh Bernoff say that many organizations are "going about their strategy backward" and failing to clarify social media objectives ahead of time. What happens if you don't develop objectives first?
Charlene Li: It is all the difference between success and failure. If I look at how many companies and associations have failed, or more importantly, just sort of stagnated in their social media efforts, it is because they do not have clear objectives, and it's the reason why we wrote the book. We saw people say, "Oh, great! A Facebook page!" Well, why are you doing it? "Oh, because it's there!" That's not a rational approach to using very, very scarce resources.
I look at this as a leadership and management issue. You have only so many resources. Where are you going to put them? And if you're going to go and do something that's weird and wild and very risky, like social technologies, then you better darn well have a plan, or else you will never get the buy-in. It will never grow beyond being experimental.
In your presentation today, you said that plan has to be tied to an association's overall organizational strategy, but you also stressed the importance of starting small and experimenting with social media tools. How do you tell organizations to both tie social media to their strategy but also avoid trying to do something big that accomplishes everything in one fell swoop?
Because you can't. You can't accomplish this in one fell swoop because it's a relationship that needs to be built over time, and relationships have to start small with incremental steps, and also because this stuff is really hard to do. It is not in people's nature to have a dialogue with their audience or with their members. Associations would love to think that they really listen and they really dialogue and have conversations, but they don't. Most organizations do not. So, if you sit there and plan for six months, you'll still be at the very beginning, starting small again, so you may as well just start small and build your plan as you go along.
Jim Collins [author of Good to Great] talks about how it's not about having the plan all worked out; it is about having the flexibility to change as the circumstances change so that you can go with the flow. This is the whole thing about getting the right people on the bus—you get the right people there, who cares what the plan is? It'll probably change in three months—actually, more like three weeks in social media—anyway.
Groundswell emphasizes the importance of knowing the tendencies of your audience—their "social technographics," as you call it. Why is that so important, and how do you apply that to choosing what types of social media you use?
"Associations would love to think that they really listen and they really dialogue and have conversations, but they don't."—Charlene Li
It's really important to know your audience or at least understand what they will not do. In the audience today somebody mentioned they were trying to get everyone to blog with them and realized that it won't work because they're just not there in terms of their ability and their mindset and their technology. They just don't want to. That's not the kind of engagement they want. What they want is maybe much lower on that [social technographics] ladder or much lower on the engagement pyramid. And it's very hard to force people up from that point.
You can encourage them up, but it definitely takes time. And more importantly, they may be doing it with other groups, but not necessarily with you because you don't have permission yet to engage them that way. For example, I'm a blogger about social media, but I'm not blogging about environmental issues, even though I'm very passionate about it. At some point in the future I may actually contribute content to a blog about the environment because I'm very passionate about it, but I'm not there yet.
One of my favorite lines in Groundswell says that listening to your audience "will relentlessly reveal your stupidity." What advice do you have for making listening a part of an organization's culture, particularly when a lot of the things you're going to hear will be negative?
I love this part. Who's actually in charge of listening? Who is responsible for listening? Is it market research? Is it product managers? Audience managers? Is it the volunteers? I think it's everyone's responsibility to listen, and in particular you have to build it into your organization and your structure.
Charles Schwab uses the Net Promoter Score. They were trying to understand the difference between promoters and detractors, and they brought in a group of detractors and listened to all these people—actually, ex-customers—who had recently left Schwab and why they were unhappy with the organization. Then they brought in a group of current customers and listened to things that they thought could be improved, and the things that they were talking about were almost exactly the same as the ex-customers. They realized the line that developed that separated a customer from a noncustomer or ex-customer—or a member from an ex-member—is a very, very fine line.
So if you know that, whose responsibility is it to really listen to a member? It's everyone's responsibility in the organization. You can't listen and learn enough. I mean, why limit it with the tools available? It made sense to limit it to market research when market research was expensive, but it's not anymore.
Unilever and its Dove "Real Beauty" campaign is often cited as a great example of a large organization embracing social media, but you talked about how the transformation there to try something so different didn't happen overnight. How should an association get started, especially at this point when it may feel like it's already behind?
So many ways. If you want to catch up, so to speak, find areas that have a lot of momentum and support behind them already. Again, go back to the association goals that are really important to the executives. Find those buttons that they really want to push.
It may be member satisfaction, let's say. "We want to increase member satisfaction from 84 percent to 88 percent this year," and you can say, "Look, I can do that by having a blog that really addresses their issues and really listens to them in a much better way and dialogues with them." And then you can measure the satisfaction of blog readers versus people who don't read blogs, and you can actually show that it works and get support in that way. That will galvanize your efforts much faster than saying, "We need a Twitter feed."
Say you're a midlevel person or a young professional or just someone who "gets" Web 2.0 but you have upper management or leaders who aren't really clued in. What's the best way to educate them? Is it bringing it to them with a specific goal in mind?
"If you don't have a strategy, don't spend a single cent. You're wasting your money."—Charlene Li
Yeah, I think the biggest problem with the "transparent evangelists," the people who understand the technologies, is that they don't understand the association goals. They're so focused on what social media can do overall, but they're not specific in terms of how it can help the association. So it's not incumbent on the organization changing its mind. It's incumbent on the evangelists to position the technology as to how it can help the organization. I don't care about the technology. I could care less about which technology you use. What I really care about is how you're going to move the organization forward.
One of my favorite examples is somebody that came to us and said, "We need a blog." They said, "We need a community," because Sears has one, basically. And we asked them, "Why?" Just because they have one? That is the worst reason to do this! And I see the evangelists coming in and saying, "You know, this Twitter stuff is really good. Look at all the things I can do with it," and it's completely lost on the decision-makers why they should have it.
A lot of the exciting examples of social media success are big companies with global reach and a lot of resources. Associations, for the most part, have smaller audiences and fewer resources.
Well, let me give you an example. Guess how many people run Sears' community? One. One person. Yeah, they have a lot of resources; they have a budget, and they actually outsource the technology, but it's not that expensive. For example, Drupal is free.
So if an association executive says, "Well, we don't have the resources to do this," you say, "That's not the case."
That's not necessarily the case; it's the will. Again, strategy is about applying limited resources toward a goal, and you're very clear what the goal is. If you know what the goal is of the association, and you have limited resources, you decide, "If I take a sliver of that and put it toward social technologies, I believe it will go and support that goal," then it makes total sense to do that. If you can't make that case you shouldn't spend money on it.
I would be the first one to say you shouldn't do it. If you don't have a strategy, don't spend a single cent. You're wasting your money. I would tell companies, "You should just stop everything that you're doing, just stop it, because you're wasting the money, and you're making things worse for yourselves. So just stop this ridiculousness!" It drives me batty! Can you tell?
You say this a lot, I take it.
Well, what's interesting is I get the evangelists coming to me because I'm one of them and they'll say, "My boss just doesn't get it!" And I say, "No, it's you! You don't get it! You're the problem!"
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It could be complementary, but I think the real potential is transformation. I think associations will deal with it in a very different way because you have this dual reporting structure and because it's not so locked down as in an organization where the executives pretty much decide everything. There's the board that has its own dynamic, and your volunteer group with its own, really bizarre dynamic in some cases, and so depending on how they view innovation—who controls it and where it comes from—you could be using those innovation tools as embracing tools in a very different way with those two groups.
And so what's interesting about using social media with the executive board is that they're sometimes very disconnected from the people you are trying to serve as an association, so having that dialog back and forth is very, very helpful. And it's more about them becoming more invested and aware so they can make the right decisions faster but with greater confidence.
The volunteer group, though, is very different. It wouldn’t be so much about getting things and ideas. It may be more about vetting them and prioritizing them and also, very importantly, getting the work done.
Think about crowdsourcing stuff. InnoCentive is very interesting because it’s not just, "Okay, what’s an idea." It's actually, "Let's make it happen." Crowdsourcing could be really transformational because volunteers are always strapped, they're perpetually trying to get organized, and crowdsourcing could be a tremendous resource for them to organize themselves.
Wal-Mart had several spectacular failures in its initial social media efforts, but it persisted and has now generated a very successful blog called Check Out. At any organization, how do you prepare leaders for the inevitable failures along the way to success?
It goes back again to saying, "What's the benefit of that kind of engagement in a relationship?" Because they won't take that first step toward a risk unless they know what's on the other side. Otherwise, why they would do it in the first place? The last thing you have to really do to get started is to think about all the points of failure. If everyone buys into the strategy, you have the right people in place, you've got the right metrics in place, you've got your plan on how to get started small—once you've got all those things in place, then you have to say, "OK, now we have to have the contingency plans, because there's a strong chance it may not work, and we have to be ready for that. What do we do after that, and how do we learn from this?"
Again, as Jim Collins writes in his book, things go wrong all the time. That's part and parcel of running a business, but it's an acceptable risk. I mean, every time you put somebody on customer service calls or any time you go out there and you have a fundraiser, something goes wrong. Somebody complains or whatever; you deal with it. You deal with the risk.
The top level of your engagement pyramid is the curator, and you said you believe associations can fill the role of curating information for their communities, but they have to be trusted in those communities to do so. What should an association make sure it's doing to gain that trust?
An important thing is to not always push forward the association goals instead of the community goals. If you build the community the right way, [those two sets of goals] are aligned, but they aren't always. The thing that's more important is to keep the community going in the direction that you want it to go in. And what's interesting is when the community is functioning really well, it's accomplishing all your original goals, but the association goals have changed, and they tend to be self-serving goals rather than serving-the-community goals. And that's where you have this tension, oftentimes.
For example, "I need to drive people to this event," but they're sick of hearing about this event. They just don't have the budget to come to this event. "Enough already!" is what the community is saying back. And that's the tension, oftentimes, that you see coming up. And so the curator, if it's an employee of the association, oftentimes has to play this very delicate role of when to push back to the association to defend the community. And also at times they have to decide when it is safe to move the community in this direction of where the association wants to go. Very, very tough role.
Is there any secret to that role, or is it sort of an art?
It is an art. It is truly an art, and some people are really good at it, and other people are really bad at it.
Any other final advice for association leaders and social media strategy?
The control issue is the biggest thing for associations. The fear that "If I give them a platform, they're going to shoot me." I thought that was really interesting. What's the worst-case scenario if somebody "shoots" you? What's the worst-case scenario, and how would you deal with that? No, really—what's the worst thing that would happen if somebody said something that you didn't like about your brand? Is it that bad?
Are you scared of something that's like the boogeyman that's really not that scary? It may feel really scary, and you may be truly afraid of it, but it may still just be the boogeyman, and in the scheme of things, of all the things you have to accomplish as an association, is that worth worrying about?
It's maybe simplifying it, but I often feel that the things that people are afraid of—I think, "You know, I can see why you're afraid of that because you've never opened the closet and looked in there to see how deep and scary it can be, but once you actually walk into that closet, it's not that scary as you thought it might be."
Charlene Li is coauthor of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies and principal consultant with the Altimeter Group. Li will speak at ASAE & The Center's Annual Meeting & Expo in Toronto, August 15-18. Email: email@example.com
Joe Rominiecki is managing editor, newsletters, at ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Maggie McGary, June 02, 2009
This is a great article--makes me wish I were going to be in Toronto to hear Charlene Li speak!
I think the issue of the disconnect between the social media evangelists and upper management is an important one. While Li puts it on the evangelists to position the technology as to how it can help the organization, I think it's equally incumbent on upper management to ensure that there is clear communication about organizational issues across all staff. If issues facing the association are only addressed behind closed-doors or across the top of the org chart, the people who know how to use the tools are not aware of specific ways in which these tools can be used to address pressing issues.
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