LOS ANGELES -- Larry Sanger knows a thing or two about social media, and how powerful it can become. A cofounder of online knowledge resource (and Web 2.0 wonder) Wikipedia, Sanger says that sometimes even he can't believe what his Web site grew to be. Relying on his own experiences as a blueprint, Sanger used his morning keynote at the Gartner Web Portals, Content, and Collaboration (PCC) Summit here this week to convey to attendees how professionals and experts can tap into the power of online communities.
"Anyone who's plugged in and observing occasionally has to step back and stand in awe and admiration of what's being built. The sheer quantity and availability is stunning," Sanger said of the vast array of social media sites. "What stuns us is not [just] the quantity and availability, it's the fact that we know that there are millions upon millions of people coming together to create all of that information."
So what's the secret? Well, Sanger equates online collaboration among social communities to barn-raising, of all things: Neither is done overnight, and the end result often leaves participants amazed by what collective work was capable of accomplishing. "But online communities are not things you can put a harness over and drive where you want to go," Sanger reminded attendees. "Contributors have to believe something useful might result from [their] labor," Sanger said, adding that they often want to know what that result might eventually look like. "If the resource is so poorly designed that no one can determine why to use it, few will contribute." But while he stressed the importance of settling out with at least an intention in mind, a certain amount of chaotic uncertainty remains a cherished commodity common to many social sites. "Sloppiness seems necessary, and part of the coolness that we love," he said. It's all about finding that muddled, yet organized balance.
Anthony Bradley, a Gartner analyst and PCC presenter, touched on the sloppiness factor in his session, "Characteristics of Social Applications." Outlining not only what social applications are but also why businesses need them, Bradley detailed the complexities involved with getting social media right. "It's also all about embracing the messiness of how people interact, understanding that there's a lot of social aspects. [It requires] not trying to design out inefficiencies. It's different from the way you build [other] applications."
Bradley maintained that any company trying to create an engaging social product first needs to engage with the community it's targeting. He shared several recommendations for leveraging those groups of people:
- Turn your prospects into your design team;
- Turn your customers into your sales force;
- Turn your employees into your brain trust for innovation; and
- Break the culture of legacy hubris.
Bradley also stressed the importance of starting small. "Every successful complex system starts as a simple system," he said, citing as an example the massively popular wheel-and-deal Web site Craigslist, which began as little more than a two-person outfit helping connect renters and vacancies in the San Francisco Bay Area.
And paraphrasing the old "location" joke about what matters most in real estate, Bradley listed the three most important requirements of Enterprise 2.0 initiatives:
- purpose; and
"Unless you understand purpose you don't understand what you're building and you don't know what technology you need," he said. For all the messiness inherent in social applications, he said, a real danger dangles overhead, and experimentation can sometime backfire: "Don't pilot on the community," he warned. "If you lose them you might never get them back."
To close, the analyst unleashed his 10 commandments for success in deploying social applications:
- Purpose, purpose, purpose: Let intent be your driver.
- Build and execute a purpose roadmap: Even "messy" social applications require a strategy.
- Don't fight the culture; change it incrementally: In other words, stay relevant.
- Expect and prepare for bad behavior: Think of poorly behaved visitors as that family member who occasionally makes a scene. You just have to deal with it.
- Create leverage from community participation: Let the community help with marketing and innovation.
- Capitalize on communities that already exist: Why waste the time and effort to reinvent the wheel?
- Restrict scope to grow scale: Wikipedia didn't explode overnight.
- Never break Gall's Law: Simply said, start simply.
- Build and execute a "tipping point" plan: Get ready for growth.
- Recognize that you can't ignore social applications: That said, they aren't the answer to every challenge.
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