Starting a community on your intranet social network

When I first started working on intranets back in the late 90s I remember searching high and low for tips on starting up a forum on an intranet. How do you get the ball rolling? But it seemed there was little interest in the dynamics of digital communities whether on intranets or even the world wide web. Dan Hawtrey from Content Formula guests for us and shares  his insights on building community.

Things are very different today. Companies have now invested large budgets on exciting toys like SharePoint 2103, Office 365, Yammer, Jive, Newsgator, Chatter and so on… Whilst there is something to be said for ‘just switching it on for people to use’ this is certainly leaving things to chance and may mean slow uptake. A better bet is to focus your efforts on a few particular areas of the business where ESN is likely to be in demand and create quick returns.

Here is my list of things you need to get right for your first social community (or ‘group’) to get up and running, collaborative and above all, productive.

1. Choose your first ESN communities carefully and go where there’s energy

Just because you have the technology does not mean that your business area will jump onto it. A community simply focused on a business department or function is not likely to take off*. Instead it’s a good idea to focus on a specific need where collaboration and social is likely to be valuable. For example, your company may be beavering away on a new product – setting up a community group around this is likely to fill a useful need for the cross-disciplinary team working on your new product.

*There are one or two exceptions to this rule. In my travels I’ve noticed R&D and IT people are generally pretty open to joining and participating in communities focused around their departments.

2) Don’t try to define your community too rigidly

This may seem to contradict my first point but what I am getting at is that you need to strike a balance. The most productive online communities are fairly loose and contain members from various business areas. The community will to a great extent set its own raison d’être and will welcome new members who share passion and interest, irrespective of where they come from. Don’t set too many rules. Just set a broad objective and name your community in line with this. Think carefully about the name.

3) Involve the influencers in your community

By now you’ve probably got a fairly good idea of some of the people who make up your community, even before it’s actually launched. The chances are, the first ones who spring to mind are influencers in your company. And let’s be clear, an influencer is not necessarily someone senior who holds budget and power. It’s someone to whom people go when they have questions – they are widely considered as experts. Here’s a great piece on influencers and the value that they bring. Talk to your influencers about what you are trying to do and involve them in the planning. They will then become the first joiners in your community and their influence will draw in others.

4) Promote your community before, during and after launch

This is common sense but worth stressing as internal launch campaigns often fall flat because they are not sustained beyond the first few days. Find creative ways to get the message out there that a new community is launching, sure, but keep doing it long after you have launched. Put in place a communication campaign that lasts several weeks if not months. You don’t have to hit people with a constant barrage of messaging but do make sure you pop up again and again into people’s everyday lives.

5) Nurture and feed your community

Although you’ve lined up your top influencers to help you get your community started, you will increase your chances of success if you work with them to plan content and discussions in the early days to really get the ball rolling. This certainly shouldn’t be staged and unnatural but do aim to have some ideas on what topics will first be aired. It’s also a good idea to find and plan in advance suitable content to upload or link to (people like to comment and discuss content). Make it easy for your influencers by offering to find this content and repurpose it to be ‘snackable’.

6) Don’t oversell your community

With all the hype created by the big ESN software vendors you might be tempted to believe that everyone in your target employee audience will be all over your community – posting, commenting, liking etc. However, understand that most communities do not work like that. I always like to use some rule of thumb numbers to manage expectations. These go something like this: a typical healthy community will see approx 10% of the target audience as active members – I like to call them ‘content creators’ after Josh Bernoff’s brilliant Social Technographics Ladder.

Your content creators will be posting and having lively discussions. However, the reality is that many community users –  probably 20–50% – will be silent. Bernoff calls this silent majority ‘spectators’ and some label them ‘lurkers’.  But get this: just because they are silent doesn’t mean they are not valuable. After all, they are ingesting the pearls of wisdom posted by your content creators and no doubt acting upon them. Finally, you will get a sizeable group of people who just aren’t interested or don’t have the time. Maybe as many as 50% if not more. All these numbers are very rough and some communities will segment very differently. However, educating your boss about the dynamics of social communities is important. Here’s a tip – I always show clients the Social Technographics Ladder – it’s very simple to grasp – and you will visibly see the penny drop when you run them through it. That’s got to a be a good thing.

I hope you find these tips useful. And if you have any others to add from your own research or experience, do please leave a comment.