Will People Use It?

15Oct08

As the enterprise increasingly adopts social media, one of the key skeptical questions from prospects or new clients is: “How Do We Get People to Use It?”

It’s a fair question. Whether the corporation is making the investment in a social media app for marketing outreach, employee collaboration and productivity, or closed-network communications, they’re typically spending real money. The bad taste from big-investment-low-usage portals and CMS systems still lingers on many IT buyers’ palettes.

At SelectMinds, how we answer that question is complicated somewhat by varying levels of risk-aversion in our clients concerning end-user freedom and contribution. Put simply, these clients are shy about the anything-goes aesthetic of the consumer social networks they’ve encountered, like MySpace or Facebook.

So, I look at driving user engagement in social media as a question of the right features (of course, I’m a product manager) and active community management (on which I have opinions, but our Services department is an active driver with our clients), all in the appropriate context of risk-aversion and control for the enterprise. More details below…

The Right Features

People of course come to social media apps to use features, to do stuff, and I think user-engagement features which are appropriate for the enterprise context can be grouped as follows:

Outbound communication tools. Unlike Facebook or MySpace, which are essentially platforms for end-user social interaction with little in the way of an ‘ownership’ voice, enterprise social media must allow for the broadcast (or narrowcast) communications which constitute the ‘voice’ of the sponsoring company. While the idea of top-down, ‘official’ news, events, etc., seems anathema for typical consumer Web 2.0 apps, it is still central to the needs of an enterprise with a brand to maintain and a message to communicate.

Profiles. Naturally any social media app must have some basic tool allowing end users to manage and display their identity: Displaying one’s self to the world is a core driver of engagement in these apps. What’s interesting in the enterprise realm is: how flexible is the profile in terms of the specific needs of a given enterprise? What controls are available to the enterprise to ensure the right information gets displayed to the right people?

Social networking. The ability to “friend” people is of course a central tenet of most social media apps, and our metrics indicate it is a strong driver of engagement with end users (compared to our clients who elect not to use the social networking capability of SelectMinds). But again, in the enterprise, questions of which populations should be allowed to interact with which are central concerns which the application must support.

User-contributed content. Just as site sponsors must be able to push their message, any real social media application must support substantive abilities for end-users to contribute as well. The ability for members to have their say is also a key driver of engagement. But, again, to what degree can the sponsoring enterprise maintain control? This is not simply the fear that someone will say “fuck” on the network; there are very real regulatory and governance concerns that the enterprise must be able to accommodate.

Alerts. Finally, alerting users to new content and new activity via the user interface, RSS feeds, and emails are obvious drivers of traffic to the application. But, as always, it is crucial for the enterprise to configure the availability of these alerting mechanisms to correspond with their risk-tolerance.

Active Community Management

So you’ve got a lot of nice features, cool. IT’S NOT ENOUGH! The final point we emphasize with our enterprise prospects and clients is that active and dedicated community management is required to grow traffic and grow the community. Admins need to post news, seed forums, encourage and compliment end-users that are engaged, highlight stars, etc. Just buying the technology, unfortunately, is not enough.

The proof? A few quick points:

  • A recent study (180kb .pdf) by the Social Computing Lab at HP in Palo Alto indicated a strong correspondence between “attention” given to Youtube users and the number of videos they uploaded to the system. More attention generally yielded more participation. (Thanks to Pete for the link.)
  • The foundational story of photo-sharing site Flickr tells how during the first year of the site Flickr employees obsessively complimented users on their photos to get them to come back. It worked, and eventually Flickr reached the self-perpetuating tipping point where users were contributing on a massive scale.
  • Finally, our own metrics at SelectMinds clearly indicate that clients with more actual human beings employed in nurturing and developing the community are rewarded with higher engagement numbers.

So, will they use it? Yes, if you have the right set of features, but also, crucially for the enterprise, if you’re willing to further fund the personnel to nurture and encourage the network.

Rachel Happe at The Social Organization has more thoughts on community management and engagment. Check it out.

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