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March 10, 2008

Corporate social technology strategy, Purists, and Corporatists -- why companies CAN participate

by Josh Bernoff

It's time for me to weigh in on the question: can companies be part of the social world?

This is in part a reaction to Shel Israel's comments of a few months back and my colleague Jeremiah's Owyang's responses. But it's an ongoing issue that comes up often in the blogosphere in my conversations with corporate clients.

On the one side are the folks who say, "The social world is an emergent phenomenon generated by people connecting." The original Cluetrain Manifesto rails against many aspects of the corporate world and basically posits that the right way for companies to get involved is for people inside those companies to connect to their customers. Based on my recent participation at a Cluetrain event, Cluetrain author Doc Searls still harbors a lot of skepticism toward corporations pursuing goals in the social world. For shorthand, let's call these folks the Purists.

On the other side are companies who are looking at the social Internet and saying "how can we exploit this to do what we already do -- PR and advertising, for example?" PR and advertising are mostly one-way, broadcast type communications, and these folks continue to try to adapt those one-way modes of thinking in the two-way, read-write world of social computing. I'll caricature these folks as the Corporatists.

I'm here to stand up and proudly say, Purists and Corporatists, you're both wrong.

Here's how I suggest people in companies think about social computing.

If you're in a company, your company can participate. In fact, you must participate. Your customers and prospects are connecting and talking about your products and your company right now -- this is what we call the groundswell. You need to be a part of the conversation. You might start a blog, you might start a Facebook group, you might start a community, or begin twittering, but until you start connecting as a corporate employee, you won't understand what's going on out there. And it can and will bite you.

You also need to start with the recognition that you are not now, nor will you ever be, in control of this "channel," "world," "phenomenon," or whatever you want to call it. It goes its own way and it will continually surprise you. This is where the Purists are right and the Corporatists are fooling themselves. But this is not so new. When my colleague Charlene Li was writing about how to deal with Wikipedia, I suggested it's no different in some ways from the New York Times -- you can influence it, but you're not in charge of it. Same with the rest of the social world -- you can participate, but not control. If this scares you, great. If you can't deal with it, somebody else in your company had better head up your social technology efforts.

Groundswell_departments_and_objecti But the fundamental principle behind about 80% of our book Groundswell is that you can accomplish corporate objectives in the social world. This is what bugs the Purists. As a corporate staffer, you have no business in the groundswell unless you know what you are trying to do there. You could be trying to increase awareness, generate word of mouth, surface leads, save on support costs, on tap into innovation. But regardless, no corporate activity should go forward without a measurable goal, and this is no different.

So, do you participate as an individual or a corporation? Of course, as a corporation. Companies may be made of people, but those people are not free agents. Your boss needs to know what you're doing, and, we argue in the book, your top management should, too, since they're going to inevitably get some surprises from these efforts. You'll need budget (maybe not a lot), and you need cover. Sometimes you need to push the membrane that Rob Scoble and Shel Israel talk about, finding ways to stretch corporate attitudes just enough to succeed. But you'd better be aligned with the corporation's goals, if not necessarily its tactics and every single one of its rules.

There's a lot of talk about authenticity, too. But the tone I hear from some Purists seems to be that if it's corporate, it has to involve lying, or at least deception. Please. Corporations, like people, have interests. They can talk about their products and services honestly. Of course they will be pro-company -- that's authentic, to believe in what you're making. But a pro-company attitude doesn't prevent two-way communication. In fact, in idea-generating applications like salesforce.com's IdeaExchange, or Credit Mutuel's sijetaisbanquier.com, it's that give and take between customers and people inside the company that fuels the innovation.

Teams -- small teams -- get most social projects done. Corporate bloggers may need help with moderation. Specifying, managing, and moderating communities is not a one-person job. These applications work best when they support corporate goals anyway. That's what gets you backers within the company, not just fearful detractors.

So it is no sin to conceive, create, and deploy a corporate social application. If you have a clear objective and can measure it, you are even likely to succeed. Just recognize that you must start from authenticity, it's a dialogue, and that the social world cannot be controlled. The companies I work with are starting to do this. It's not impossible -- in fact, it's the beginning of an incredible transformation. And their participation won't kill the groundswell, it will make it richer.


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Tabitha Grace Smith

Totally needs to come with authenticity. If not, get out now or social media users will chew you up and spit you out when they find out.

Mark Szpakowski

Authenticity is the key world. This is relevant both to purists, who can be subject to ego-blogging, self-promotion, reputation enhancement, and striving to out-cool everybody else, and to corporatists, who can see people as eyeballs and cofactors in pursuit of the bottom line (a single number representing corporation value makes as much sense as the meaning of life, the universe and everything being "42"). In both cases what off-puts is greed, and evident lack of "care". Social networks are about who and what you care about. A purist can be seen to be "using" his/her numerous "friends", while a company employee can very well tangibly express care about customers, and furthermore have that care be embodied in social software that customers genuinely appreciate.

Since so far individuals tend to get their identities from sites/companies, the advent of user-centric identity (OpenID) could introduce a sea change for how individuals see themselves relative to and are seen by corporations. You're not just dealing with me: you're dealing with me and my big brother, my Identity/OpenID Provider. Individuals then finally become first-class entities on the internet.

- Mark (@szpak)


Excellent post Josh.

Of course, to be successful, the company has to sufficiently loosen the reins and trust that their employees will adequately reflect the corporate line.

A successful community needs both proactive and reactive members - a continuing presence. By nature more junior (or dedicated) staff will fulfil that remit more successfully. But if these people are constrained to go through channels of clearance before they can post/respond, the venture is doomed.



Authenticity is the wrong word and camoflauges the issue. Blogs can only be from people. The essence of Cluetrain (my bias is showing) lies in the intereactions
- customer --> customer
- employee --> employee
- employee --> customer

In all cases the interaction is person to person. So no, its impossible for corporations to participate, but yes, people can, and if they do so transparently acknowledging their corporate allegiance, then so be it, and let the people decide.


Colin - companies face a great challenge in letting go. For instance, are people here for Charlene and Josh, or for Forrester? If they left, would readers follow them?

I am of the opinion that more companies should take the plunge. The Forrester blog is popular because of the qualities of its writers - going through the trauama of them leaving is preferable to not having had this success in the first place

shel israel

Josh, good post. But I am puzzled. Who is the "you" that you address repeatedly? Who is the you that should blog. A corporation is not a "you," but an "it." Nothing I recall saying would argue against social media being used to achieve corporate objectives. Nor would I characterize myself as a "purist."

What I do believe, as I think Doc Searls believes is that people should blog and they should blog about whatever the know about and feel passionate about. If that happens to be a real person doing a real job and speaking with transparency and hoping to have a conversation with a customer, prospect,partner, competitor or even a Forrester analyst, then that's what social media is all about.

What Cluetrain and Naked Conversations and I object to are contrived attempts to push messages into people foreheads. We object to talking brands and press releases that drop datelines and are called blogs. Mostly we object to companies and institutions that delude themselves into thinking they are in command and have control. We object to monologues and a certain adjective-heavy, risk avoidant lingoism that I have labeled as "corpspeak."

POersonally this has little to do with purism. It has to do with smart ways to get closer to customers and ecosystems. It has to do with listening to customers and building better products and services by so doing reducing the costs of traditional marketing and PR. It has to do realizing that customers, not companies are in control and this is in the company's economic interest.

Perhap the executive summary to all this comes from author Deb Weiss who says "Companies don't blog. People do."

So just what is that I said previously or now that you disagree with?

Tom O'Brien


Nice post. Personally, and professionally I am a purist.

I believe that corporations can't participate in the conversation directly - but the people who represent them can.

This participation is governed by the organization's goals, objectives and limitations - but if these are explicit - then there is no reason that PEOPLE representing corporations or brands cannot participate in real, meaningful and useful ways.

I agree with you on the main point - everyone better pay attention AND have a strategy.

Tom O'Brien

Scott Bauman

Really like this post. My only issue is that I don't think PR SHOULD be one-way/broadcast. Yes, the profession lost its way over the last few decades, but now is the time to clearly differentiate from advertising and ensure we're enabling the groundswell. I'd agree that PR agencies hold back the evolution as much as the companies they represent. Time to fire those agencies and the dinosaurs inside them.

Thanks, Scott

Jeremy C. Lundberg, MSSW

Josh, I could not agree more about the importance of small teams managing these social networks. My firm, DLC Solutions, has been developing social network communities for health care organizations big and small for years and I would say that a common challenge we encounter is convincing our clients to dedicate the small group (of the right people) to manage & moderate the communities. We always say to them, "The technology is actually the easy part. But creating a multi-directional experience that is useful and meaningful to users is what is going to built the community's momentum and ongoing success. And, that requires a small committed team."

On a side note, I do believe that corporations can engage in these technologies as they are comprised of people. Just need to have the right people on the bus and a willingness to relinquish degrees of control.

Keep up the great work!

Ted Shelton

Josh - I am drawn to this line in your post: "Please. Corporations, like people, have interests. They can talk about their products and services honestly."

As a number of the other people who have commented have said -- actually corporations are NOT people. Corporations cannot talk. People talk. People can talk FOR the views in which their collective (in this case a company) believes. Doesn't have to be a company - can also be a government, a school, etc.

When people speak for a collective, cluetrain suggests that it is important that those people also agree with the views that they are stating. So the views of the person and the collective ar aligned.

Cluetrain suggests that when people speak for a collective and don't believe in those views, that the market will detect this disconnect.

I don't think there are purists or corporatists in the way you use those phrases. I do think there are people who believe that people who speak for their companies should believe in what they are saying and if they don't that the market will reject the communication. And there are people who believe that you can spin any position and smile while you say it and you'll fool enough of the people enough of the time.

Groundswell suggests that this latter position will go away.


Can you speak to how or what kind of strategies corporations can look to when implementing an internal social network or community?

Laibeus Lord

Excellent. But I don't see Corporations as "people". They are an "it".

Yes I am a purist by the categorization above. If an "it" starts to blog and talk, those who are talking are still the "people" not the "corporation". If a blog is blogged by a "corporation" then it will sound as another advertisement channel.

However, "people" and "it" aside. I agree overall. And I like to emphasize on this one:

"Specifying, managing, and moderating communities is not a one-person job."

I can only dream that :p

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