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March 26, 2008

Turning radicals into revolutionaries: the key to kick-starting your social strategy

by Charlene Li

In my work, I often find that companies eager to create a social strategy often struggle with how to get started. One of the key recommendations we have in the book is to find the spark, champion, and evangelist within the company -- the person who is most passionate about forming a relationship with your audience, be it customers or employees.

You probably already know who this person is within your organization. It may be the technie who brags that she's been blogging since 1999, or the corporate communications person who loves to talk with customers on external bulletin boards. This person is probably also a bit a thorn in the side of management, constantly agitating for under-represented customers who are suffering some sort of injustice at the hands of management that just "doesn't get it".

As Shel Israel and Robert Scoble put it so nicely in "Naked Conversations", these radicals constantly push against the corporate membrane, stretching it close to the breaking point.

Well, it's time to get these radicals turned into revolutionaries. Let me explain by telling the tale of two Thomas' -- Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense in 1776, which advocated for American independence from Great Britain and stimulated colonial fervor toward independence. He was the spark that lit the American revolution. But Paine never really settled down and after the American Revolution was over, he headed off to France and its revolution, got thrown in jail and almost executed. Prominent Americans interceded and he was released to return to the US. Back home, he cast about for a role, but the revolution was over. He was a man without a cause, and when he died only six people attended his funeral. One obituary read, "He lived long, did some good, and much harm." Paine was a radical, agitating for freedom and challenging authority.

Thomas Jefferson, in contrast, was a revolutionary. A writer and scholar like Paine, Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. But it wasn't just his writing skills, but also his ability to forge compromise and consensus that won him the job. Through the hot summer of 1776, Jefferson worked with the Second Continental Congress to draft the Declaration. It took time and effort to put together the framework and the process to bring about the revolution. He forged relationships with the other members of Congress, and brought them to the table to sign the document. There was fear about the consequences, but the Founding Fathers leaned on each other for support. Jefferson went on to become the Governor of Virginia and third President of the US.

I tell these stories because companies are in the midst of a social revolution -- specifically, one being led by their customers and employees. The question becomes how do companies deal with it, but more importantly, how do they tap into the energy of potentially disruptive radicals and channel them into being revolutionaries who can lead positive, lasting change?

This was the gist of the speech I made at SXSW last week (slides are available). I believe that:

Making revolution stick will require frameworks and process

The POST method provides much of that framework and process. It's a blueprint, and starting point for the revolutionaries in your organization. They need to know that executives are bought into the process, and they need to know what the goal is. After that, I suggest that you let them do their thing -- stand back and watch them revolutionize and transform your organization.

Lionel That's what happened at Dell, my poster child of social strategy and the focus of an extensive case study in Groundswell. Lionel Menchaca was the "perfect storm" to lead the transformation process at Dell. He had a technical background, ran product testing PR, and in the process of his PR work, got to work with all of the key managers within Dell. As a result, Lionel knows nearly every product manager at Dell and they all trust and respect him. So in February 2006, he was put in charge of the blog resolution team, and then launched the Dell blog in July 2006. Throughout the process, he had the support of his manager, Bob Pearson, as well as Michael Dell himself.

What makes Lionel special is his passion and ability to develop relationships with Dell's customers. But what makes him a true revolutionary is that he was able to channel that passion and his skill to bring about change. His secret -- he used his relationships with managers to get them to write a blog post to promote a product. And then they would be on the hook to read and respond to comments on the post. And then they would want to monitor discussions from other parts of the Web. Person by person, product by product, Lionel patiently waged his revolution.

So here's my challenge.

First to companies: how will you find and embrace the potential revolutionaries in your company? Believe me, they are there and in increasingly great numbers. Three key things: 1)D efine the "box" (policies, legal clearance, etc.) within which they are allowed to act; 2) Make it safe(r) for them to try things - and to fail; and 3) Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.If you don't feel slightly queasy embarking on a social strategy, you're probably not moving fast or far enough.

My second challenge is to the budding revolutionaries out there -- you know who you are! How prepared are you to lead a transformation? You need to embrace, work with, and lead the process, rather than railing like Thomas Paine against a management that "just doesn't get it". Take a course on change management -- you'll need every trick and tactic to transform your organization. Enlist the support of executives who can soothe the frayed nerves of your legal and corporate communications department. And ground the objectives of your social strategy constantly by conveying the deepening relationships you're building with customers or other employees.

Our Groundswell book is filled with many revolutionaries who have been successful in bringing about transformations. If you have examples, please add them below in comments, or send them to me via email at cli at forrester dot com.




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Steve Ellis

I agree 100% - except - when you get to 3 key actions actions corporates need to take.

If 1. 'Define the box'... in my experience, this is where positive impetus gets seriously dissipated.

They need to only very, very loosely 'define the box', or they will apply the sort of mind numbing corporate sensibilities that will purge all goodness from the experiment. If 'defining the box' mean de-risking the experiment from a corporate perspective it is doomed.

It takes bravery, but they have to leap with minimal safety net. Requirement for a corporate quality safety net will ground all these experiments.

Richard Millington

In all the companies and clients i've worked with, nearly every one struggles to let that control go. They see it as a threat to their personal position if they can't directly control everything.

Luis Alberola

It is indeed a difficult move for executive management to let control go. But the framework you talked about helps if they are a part in building that framework.

To my mind, most of the work needs to be done with Executive Management (as usual with change management). Managing social networks and turning them into assets is a big change for management and governance practices and learning to fine-tune the "control - delegate" button is not easy

Becky Carroll

I agree that the "box" needs to be defined somewhat loosely. However, it is still a critical step. Without some kind of guideline for what management is willing to accept, our "revolutionaries" may create something that execs can't swallow at all, frustrating everyone - and possibly driving away the revolutionaries.

Adrian Monck

In fairness, Jefferson was a wealthy landowner who lived off his slave estates, Paine was a radical who lived off his wits.

Wealth and security are also helpful when it comes to taking risks. They lessen the pain of failure.

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