Friday, April 17, 2009

Thinking about changing behaviors

I had a conversation with a doctor recently that got me thinking. This doctor works in a large, inner-city teaching hospital. He was talking about how to get groups of people to do something... in this case getting people tested for HIV.

It's a significant behavior change. It means addressing at lot of things that people don't like to think about, much less talk about.

He was gently trying to tell me that computer mediated-communication wasn't the best way to change behavior. He said that, in his experience, the most successful outreach was through traditional broadcast media. It was important to reach people with their own communities. There was also a need to have a physical presence in those communities somehow.

But even that doesn't always work. His point was that to make people change dangerous behaviors (like smoking, not getting tested for HIV, or even not getting enough exercise), you are dealing with a lot of complicated norms and attitudes -- some very social and some very personal.

Creating healthy behavior (like creating world peace or fixing the environment) is a "wicked problem". It impacts a very large number of diverse people -- all of whom have different ideas of what "success" looks like and all of whom have problems and issues in their lives that impact making these healthy changes in some significant way. "Wicked" problems are basically problems that are impossible to solve.

Yet things do change.

The doctor I was talking to said that people needed a catalyst to make these behavior changes a priority. They needed a close call -- a close friend or family member unexpectedly dying perhaps -- to pluck this one issue out of mad soup of day-to-day problems and make it a priority. If the issue stayed a priority in the person's life for more than about three months, it tended to become a permanent behavior change.

As a strategist who spends a lot of her time working wicked problems, this is an interesting insight -- a subtle consistency to hang a theory on. It tells me that:
  • There is probably not much my web site will do to change a behavior, except keep reminding people that there is a behavior that should be changed.
  • I need to be ready when this person experiences his or her "close call" and strongly support the changes that he or she is willing to make for about three months.
  • This is all happening on a very personal, very individual level and that I need to speak to that person with a very personal voice.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Get A Grip: The Summary

Yeah. I'm finally going to climb off my soapbox on this. I just thought I'd summarize things a bit.

At some point (I don't really remember when anymore), I asked five questions. Here's your executive summary of the answers:

Now what do I do?
  • Make sure that this social media tools actually support your goals.
  • Make sure your intended audience members are actually using the tools you choose (as opposed to just jumping into whatever online tools make the morning news shows).
How fast does it work?
  • Not fast. Get over it and set your expectations appropriately. Be suspicious of people or organizations offering "quick results" for a price.
How much will it cost to run?
  • Unless you are very lucky, a lot. Adjust your strategy and budget to allow for a long haul.
What can I do to get results?
  • Look for ways to engage many voices toward your communication goals. That helps the credibility of your efforts, as well as spreads the tasks across many people (giving your team energy for the long haul mentioned above).
Now what do I do?
  • Clear your mind of the "overnight success" stories about using a social media tool or network. I think that you'd find that very few happened "overnight" and that even fewer were "successes" when measured against the original goals or (*gulp*) corporate ROI.
Social media is here to stay. To not engage with it is to miss a wonderful opportunity for really talking with your customers or members in a very individualized way -- but be realistic about it. People have lives and loves and joys and problems and aren't just visiting these networks hoping that you'll pop up and tell them what to do. You can't ignore the customs and norms of human communication just because you are talking via a computer.

I like to keep going back to a wonderful list of "reality checks" created in 1999: the Cluetrain Manifesto. Nine years later, many of the cautions listed here are still valid for most organizations:
  • "These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked."

  • "Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do."

  • "But learning to speak in a human voice is not some trick, nor will corporations convince us they are human with lip service about "listening to customers." They will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf."

  • "While many such people already work for companies today, most companies ignore their ability to deliver genuine knowledge, opting instead to crank out sterile happytalk that insults the intelligence of markets literally too smart to buy it."
You can use these tools strategically and effectively. Just do your homework, speak with a genuine voice (or many voices), and get a grip on your expectations.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Get A Grip: How much will it cost to run?

Twitter is free. That's the part that usually hooks people. "Whoa! Free access to millions of people who are just sitting around waiting to do our bidding! Let's do it!"

Then this excited person skips lightly to wherever the web team (or web person) sits and shares this fantastic new insight.... only to be crushed by the lack of enthusiasm in the web person. You might see frozen smile or the rolling eyes and probably assume that person thinks you are an idiot.

Let me fill you in on what's really going on inside that web person's head....

*frozen smile* "Great, they've discovered Twitter. Now I have to maintain that on top of the 50 other random requests I get from you people every day plus the stuff I'm actually committed to doing in order to keep my job... and, of course, there's the stupid custom code that blew up about 10 minutes ago that I'm trying to band-aid back together with digital duct tape and spit so that the site doesn't go down...." *eyes rolling* ..."And you think I should drop everything to start tweeting I-don't-know-what because no one gives me any content."

Most often it's not arrogance... it's panic overlayed and mellowed by being really tired.

What does this all have to do with cost? The biggest cost you will have (assuming you aren't reinventing the wheel by creating your own version of Twitter because you can't stand the thought of people interacting on a site that isn't your own) is in human resources. If you dump this on the web person described above, you will get negligible (if any) response. He or she is probably juggling too much already to do it properly.

Hire a full-time "tweeter"? Probably not. What does that job description look like anyway? Alternatives? One organization I ran across took a bold move to make this happen -- though the solution had some problems.

This organization identified the web site as central to doing business and demanded that social media become part of everyone's job -- basically a small, controlled crowdsourcing of this task, extending well beyond Twitter into participation in other social networks and blogging. You train everyone about social media culture and etiquette and give them talking points. This gives your organization a diverse group of voices all pointing toward a single set of coordinated tasks and goals. Sound strategy.

Here's the problem: Not everyone in the organization thought that they had bandwidth for another responsibility and they definitely didn't think that "tweeting" was a good use of their valuable time. Others had personal presences on these social networks -- some rather extensive -- and they weren't anxious to mix business with personal. Others were straight-out technophobes (or just nervous perfectionists), afraid of "doing it wrong".

Here's what happened: The efforts were lackluster. People did only what they were specifically told to do and tended to do it only when told to do it... by their immediate supervisors. These supervisors weren't all completely bought into the strategy or sophisticated about social media and so the specific instructions were not always coordinated or strategic. The problems snowballed to the point where the strategy just couldn't work anymore. Responsibility for the social media efforts once again fell to small group of "web people" and consequently fell far short of both stated organizational goals and its real potential for effective outreach.

I still think this is a useful strategy, but I'd suggest some adjustments:
  • The supervision and management of this task needs to be constant and strong. If there needs to be a full-time person anywhere, it should be the manager of the effort rather than the "tweeters".

  • A 2-hour briefing about online etiquette won't do it -- education needs to be constant as well. Everything makes sense in the briefing... the questions come up when people sit down and start to apply what they learned.

  • There needs to be a constant sharing of what different people are doing, what information and insights they are uncovering, and best practices. People can't just go back to their desks and do this in isolation.

  • This might have worked better if people came into the organization more experienced with (and enthusiastic about) web. While this would have been an unreasonable expectation ten years ago, it's becoming more reasonable with every wave of people graduating from college.
It's going to be a significant outlay of time and will impact the rest of your business.

I know I started out writing about costs and seemed to devolve quickly into whining about human resources again. It's a constant theme in this series because it is the fundamental barrier you are facing. It takes a lot to maintain these presences the way they are need to be maintained in order to "move the needle" on your overall web strategy. Human resources cost a lot, at every step -- the person doing the work, the person managing him or her, and the organizational resources needed to support this person.

The tools are generally low cost or free. Your costs are in the craftsmen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Get a Grip: How fast does it work?

Unless you are very, very, very lucky, it'll take some time. For every YouTube video that goes viral and hits the morning news shows, there are hundreds of thousands that never see the light of day. Don't wrap your strategy and measurements around... you know... luck. Strategy takes patience and work.

Look around at what else is happening in the world. Look at what's on the news and what people are talking about. If you are talking about a guarenteed way to land a job in a bad economy, you are more likely (at this particular moment) to get a following more quickly. If you need to talk about travel to exotic four-star resorts... well... maybe not.

You are going to be building an audience. It takes the same amount of time (and a lot of the same steps) it took to build the audience/market/customer base that you currently have. Look at these tools as a way to enhance your communications with people, not build a new audience. A great example of this is how Comcast decided to use Twitter. They scanned the tweets for complaints and then proactively dealt with the problems. It became viral when the people who had been helped reported back to the larger Twitter community. While this looks like a no-brainer use of the tool, there was certain amount of social context around this. Comcast needed to have a reputation for incredibly bad customer service for this sort of thing to become "news" and proliferate. An organization that has a much better reputation for customer service would likely not see nearly this kind of buzz.

Remember that this isn't like advertising on the Super Bowl. Social media isn't about people randomly stumbling across you. You are walking into a party where everyone is already talking in little clumps all over the place. The easiest thing to do is join a group where you are already known and ask to be referred to other groups hopefully becoming the center of a larger and larger group. You need to talk to people -- as much as humanly possible -- as individuals or very small, tight groups. Applying traditional mass marketing techniques* and assumptions won't work.

What do you do?
  1. Don't treat your Twitter account as the "silver bullet" that will save you from your online goals. It will let you down.
  2. Start by using your account to better support your existing customer base. You can reach out from there.
  3. Set reasonable expectations for this tool and then adjust your effort and financial support accordingly. If you are just going to use it for talking to a group of 50 people who need tech support on your widget that probably should have been better designed to start with, don't put a full-time staff person on it.

* I am watching an organization that is trying to apply mass marketing techniques to building social media engagement. So far, the return on the investment has been... well... disappointing. They are doing some interesting things around marketing and incentives, though, and I plan to keep watching. This world changes very quickly and any solid statement like "traditional mass marketing techniques and assumptions won't work" is likely to be proven wrong at some point. Stay tuned.