Lessons Learned From Social Software Implementations

It’s been almost eighteen months since I decided to give social media consulting, development and implementation in corporate South Africa a go. It’s been tough, I’ve paid school fees and then some, but I’ve also learned some really valuable lessons that may help you if you are wanting to get into this space, are already in this space or just have a general interest in the Enterprise 2.0 movement…

1. Social Software is not for Everyone

Despite what us Web 2.0 enthusiasts may want to believe, not every society, community and individual can find value in 2.0-ness. Some companies do fine without it and forcing a social media inplementation on a community can only get ugly. Be as objective as you can when you draw up a strategic plan or functional specification for a project. If you’re not convinced that social software can add value, walk away from it.

2. Social Software is About People

…And therefore is about culture. Certain corporate cultures find it easy to integrate social software, others kick up against it. This often has to do with change management, but sometimes it’s impossible to force (or even encourage) change. Competitive internal environments where intellectual property is regarded a personal competitive differentiator can often be difficult to penetrate in this regard. It also depends heavily on the size of the community, but I’ll get to that point later.

3. Don’t be an IT Consultant

Never ever walk into a CTO or CIO’s office (or anyone for that matter) and try to sell ‘the next big thing’ in IT. They’ve heard that pitch and it usually ended in wailing and gnashing of teeth. The fundamental function of 95% of the IT executives I’ve met is damage control. They don’t want to hear that the infrastructure they made a decision on and they signed the cheque for is a sunk cost. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, never tell and exec they’ve made a crap decision. Rather tell them that you’re not their to introduce software or tools or services that will replace their systems – motivate it rather by saying that social software can AUGMENT existing IT infrastructure. This is true if planned and managed carefully. If they choose to ditch the old system after that, so be it – it was their decision.

4. Find a Sponsor

Like Paul who preached the gospel in the New Testament, it will help you to have a champion – a Timothy or a Stephen – in each town (company) you plant a church (implementation) in. You need a champion. A believer. An evangelist. Someone who will speak for you and walk you through the ins and the outs of the company.

Select and nurture these humans carefully. They are usually creative, influential Jacks of All Trades. They most likely have many job descriptions (or none at all) and live and breath the mechanism of the company they work for. They are inluential – not necessarily on the board – but have clout and can influence the highest level decision makers. They are smart and can see the big picture. They enjoy being spoilt over a good lunch. They are phenomenal connectors. In all of my major clients I have at least one of these humans on speed dial. They are priceless.

5. Cool Tools are NOT Enough

It doesn’t matter how sexy you think your product is, unless users see real value and benefit in engaging with the tools they simply won’t. They’ll look at it, sniff around a bit and if you’re lucky have a nibble. But if for one second ot tastes more like cabbage than chocolate, they’ll spit it out and you’ll see your ass.

Cerebra (my company) believes that one way to do this is with great content. You can’t force someone to read or use Wikipedia but if they sit down for 5 minutes, run a search on a subject they care about and realise the depth of the resource, they’ll be hooked. We try our best to sell value in the platforms and tools we provide, but bolster the service ten-fold with the content we aggregate and deliver to the platform. This is not generic – our content (or IP Package) is tailor-made for each client, community, society or team’s individual needs. If you provide a well with fresh water, users will come and drink. But a big hole with a nifty pulley system, shiny new rope and gold-plated bucket is useless on its own.

6. Cater for the Dumbest Person in the Room (Building, Office Park, Multi-national)

Yes, I mean it. Never underestimate (and I say this with love and empathy) the outright stupidity of your users. Ok maybe I should say ignorance. Especially in South Africa, users are dead-scared of breaking stuff. Your role is to assure them that they cannot break the system, but that their participation is necessary if the group is to benefit as a whole (name me a social software platform that gets messier as more people use it – it always works the other way around…).

When you present, train, build, develop, plan… keep in mind your 85-year old gran and whether she’d be able to cope or not.

7. Start Small to Get Big

If you’re looking to get buy-in from a larger community, start with a smaller team selected from that group and work your way up. If you’re lucky, it’ll be viral and take off on it’s own. If you’re not, solve the problems at the sample level and expand in concentric circles from there.

8. Design is Everything

Spend money on great design. Users love pretty, shiny things. You could argue that decent developers are a commodity, but great designers never will be. They are artists. I know many designers in South Africa, but I reckon I could name on one hand the ‘great ones’. Find them and pay them appropriately. It will pay dividends in the long run.

Oh and designers – get your asses into gear and figure out open source CMS themeing, i.e. Drupal as a random example.

9. Get Your Hands Dirty

Read user’s posts. Comment on them. Be involved in the community you’re building for. Teach through participation. Be inclusive. Be responsive. Be proactive. If you get your hands dirty 90% of your projects will succeed.

10. Don’t Flog a Dead Horse

If you’ve tried everything, done your level best and it still doesn’t work, be woman enough to cut your losses and walk away. You gave it your best shot and it didn’t work – so what? Learn something and move on to the next one. But leaving it too long could do irreparable harm to your brand, your confidence and worse yet, your client!

  • Brilliant. I’m going to print this out and hang it up on my wall. I’m also tagging it in del.icio.us with the term “adoption.”

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  • I agree with these lessons. Thanks for posting them!

  • Stii

    Awesome, mate. Really, really a great article.

  • Joe

    Thank Mike, good posting, I found number 4 to be the most interesting point.

  • Thanks for your comments dudes. Joe – interested to hear why no. 4 was significant to you specifically?

  • Outstanding post, very well thought out and presented. Many of your points can be used (should be used) by champions of change within companies as well. Definitely going into my “favorite posts” file.

  • Miguel

    Great post Mike. I think a lot of tips you’ve mentioned can also be applied to developing websites and applications in general.

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  • Great post Mike. You make a number of really good points and I certainly appreciate you sharing these lessons. You’ve spoken about why you do it but I appreciate it anyway.

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  • Mike – you are quite an exceptional young man. I’m delighted at what you’ve written and delighted as well with what you are doing.

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