A journey of engagement.

Social media is about people – people engaging with each other. So simple, and yet this basic concept has, I believe, been the major stumbling block for companies trying to embrace social media.

Lots of people like using social media. They like the social interaction, the sharing and collaborating. But companies aren’t people and, I believe, are inherently at a disadvantage when using this technology.

So many companies use social media so very poorly.

On Twitter, I hardly even follow any companies anymore. If I have a reason to tweet with a company, I actually feel a little vulnerable. They know who I am, they can see my profile, my photo, links to my website. I’m a person. Who are they? Who am I speaking with? When I deal with a company in person, I deal with a customer service representative, often wearing a name tag. On the phone they always tell me their name (or at least a name). The interactions get humanized, at least somewhat.

But on social media, a very human way of interacting, it’s all anonymous on the company’s side. Some have taken steps to add tags indicating which person on the social media team is tweeting, but I don’t think that really works – it’s unintuitive and clunky. And, ultimately, who the hell wants to engage with someone on a company’s social media team?

Why can’t social media connect the network of employees at a company to their customers? Why not decentralize the staffing of an organization’s social media presence? Why can’t this model of human interaction actually drive the social media strategy?

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll explore some of my evolving views on social media. I think we’re finally coming out of the experimentation phase and embarking on something much more interesting. I often reflect on something Ron Shevlin once said to me, that social media will be as profound a change as people think, but it will come at a much slower pace (did I get that right, Ron?). In the meantime, here’s a professional Vancity example I want to share.

Vancity’s Twitter pilot.

Vancity got on Twitter “late”. And there are good reasons for that – mostly we weren’t ready to do it in a way that was as authentic as how we like to show up in community. Now that we have jumped on board, we’re taking a slightly different approach. My view is that social media is about illuminating the network that makes up Vancity. As a co-operative, Vancity is a network of employees, individual members, business members and not-for-profit, social enterprise & co-operative members. Social media should make it easier for those people and groups to connect directly with each other. That’s an exciting part of our value proposition as a financial co-operative that we’ve only just started to really explore.

Vancity on TwitterA couple of months back, we quietly started a Twitter pilot at Vancity. We recruited staff across the organization who met basic criteria, like having their manager’s approval, gave them some basic training, our super-simple social media guidelines, asked them to use the #VancityCU hashtag and unleashed them to represent us, just like they do in real life. We had a nice mix of staff sign up and the group slowly expanded to represent a decent cross-section of departments across Vancity and the geographic regions of our branches.

My own view is that on Twitter, mostly the @Vancity account should merely retweet what our employees have to say. When a member walks into a branch, they don’t speak to Vancity, they speak to a specific person, with whom they hopefully develop a relationship. I believe that, in a perfect world, the @Vancity account would have nothing original to say, and all news, information and interactions would directly originate with one of our employees (but life isn’t that pure).

At Vancity, our approach is on community engagement, not straight-up communications or member service. We published our employees’ social media guidelines transparently on Vancity.com for all to see, and trust that the people who interact with members on a daily basis, handling large cash transactions and financial advice, can handle social media equally responsibly.

This subtle difference in approach is, I think, fairly profound. Allowing any responsible employee to be on social media, and use @Vancity to amplify their voice when what they tweet is relevant to the Vancity world is a pretty cool model. Not a model just any organization can replicate, because it gets to the heart of the culture we have.

I’m learning a lot from our employees, because we’re harnessing the wisdom of crowds a little. I’m only as smart and creative as I can be, but 25 employees across the organization bring their own ideas to the game and make us all better. (I distrust rules for stuff like this, but I have started preaching the 1% rule, where I’d like 1% of Vancity’s 2,200 employees engaging authentically on social media.)

It’s an exciting time, and we’re embarking on some new ways of doing old things. I’ll be posting more about our journey in the coming weeks and months. Please stay tuned, and leave a comment so I know what you think.

The value of an Intranet.

On November 30th, we launched a new Intranet for Vancity staff. It was an initiative we started a year and a half earlier, and some people on my team had been talking about this upgrade for three years.

Vancity Intranet Screenshot

In the summer of 2009, with our partners in IT, we selected a local web and Intranet design and development company, Habañero as our partner to build a business case for a new Intranet. In my mind there was one main reason for tossing out our old Intranet and launching a new one: Improved ability to find information and people.

My boss refers to our old Intranet as “arthritic”, and it definitely kept our employees from finding the information they needed to do their job, as well as subject matter experts across the organization, quickly and easily.

Habeñero has been a great partner for us, and I was very happy to be able to work with them. They have written a case study of the project where you can see more details about the project as well as some screenshots.

In our research for the business case, we identified front-line staff as the main priority for our work. Their need to get information quickly so they can serve our members more accurately and efficiently trumped all other reasons for funding this work. We kept that priority in mind through every decision and challenge.

This was not a member-facing project, and yet our members were the main driver of this work. And search was the main way to achieve this – on Intranets many times employees know the document or policy or procedure they need to get their job done, and search for it directly. Search is King.

We also completely trashed our old navigation structure, which was convenient for content publishers, but not for content consumers. If every time someone publishes content it takes them a couple of extra minutes to decide where to put it to make it most logically findable, they will make the thousands of times people need to find that content easier and quicker. The business rationale is self-explanatory.

So we focused the navigation on serving members and everything else was secondary. Information that was scattered through different sections of the old Intranet was brought together in a single section designed specifically for front-line staff. We called that section simply Serving Members and it contains product information, tools, policies and procedures, rates, in-market information, and more.

We also needed to make it easier to find subject matter experts throughout the organization. Lets say a member in a branch has a question that is slightly esoteric or unusual, the employee helping them needs to be able to easily find a product manager in head office who might know the answer without wasting a lot of the employee’s or the member’s time.

For me, an exciting opportunity to further this goal was introducing social media within the organization so that the network of employees could be strengthened and enabled to connect in new ways.

When we wrote the business case, there wasn’t a tremendous interest in the social media aspects of an Intranet, so we took a bit of a Trojan Horse approach. We’d create the business case and build the new Intranet to achieve the business goals without compromise (finding information and subject matter experts quickly), and also quietly build in social media for employees knowing that this was something we needed to provide to the organization, even though most weren’t (yet) asking for it.

For an organization like Vancity that has a mission and attracts employees who care about that mission, creating a space where employees have voice, can share stories and comment on each other’s work is critical. It recognizes that our staff need to connect to do their work better and feel greater affinity for their employer. It is also a strong signal that we are modernizing our approach, and staying current.

Our partners in IT selected Microsoft SharePoint as our platform, which at first caused me some angst. The open source, Mac-tastic guy I am just didn’t buy it. But it wasn’t my call so I accepted it and moved on. But in the intervening months SharePoint 2010 was released and it is a major step forward. Microsoft has embraced social media in this new release and it is surprisingly good. We were lucky to be able to launch on this brand new platform so we don’t have to worry about an upgrade for a while, and we get all the new toys and bells and whistles.

And in the months of working to launch the Portal, a nice shift took place. People in the organization have become more open to, and even excited about, the social media features of the Intranet. It has gone mainstream. The My Site feature, like a LinkedIn or Facebook profile page for every staff member, has been widely embraced.

So our open approach to social media has paid off. Almost every page allows commenting, rating and tagging. We wrote good, simple community guidelines for our employees, and focused on launch adoption (including a kick-ass promotional video for employees by Vancouver-based Giant Ant) to prepare people for what was to come. It has been a major change, and one that will be good for the culture. Introducing social media within the organization will have profound implications on our ability to harness social media and engagement marketing as an organization, I am sure.

And a great thing happened starting on day one. People across the company started commenting on stories. Employees whom I’m sure have never commented on a blog before are commenting on articles about things happening at Vancity, and content authors are responding. As Jane in our Communications team says, “We’ve gone two-way, baby!”

There’s lots left to do. Some things we just got wrong and need to fix, some enhancements we couldn’t do for launch, a strong focus on governance. But it feels great to have it out there. It looks great, and provides a whole new way we as employees can get vital information we need to do our jobs, connect, collaborate and learn about each other and the organization we work for.

Internet Marketing Conference returns to Vancouver

Internet Marketing Conference Vancouver 2010I’m excited to be on a panel at the upcoming Internet Marketing Conference coming to Vancouver from September 21-23rd. This will be my third year in a row speaking at the conference. Guy Kawasaki is the keynote, so I likely need not say more…

The topic of the panel is: When is Social Media not working? Social Media is the popular way of reaching people online. At the same time many businesses are failing to gain business advantage from Social Media. How do you know when Social Media is right for you and when it’s not?

If you’ll be there, make sure to say hello…