When Forces Collide: Social Networking, Community, & Brand

How critical is social networking to an organization’s success?  How important is an organization’s brand?  Those two seemingly different questions collided for the Council just this week, creating considerable insight into just what defines a community.  I think the implications can also translate to your organization.  Let me explain…

As many of you know, the Council is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year — an exciting time to reflect on our first quarter century and prepare for our second 25 years of advancing performance excellence (join us June 5 for our annual conference/celebration)!  To mark this milestone, to address our expanding footprint into both Dakotas (see article 5 in the August 2011 newsletter), and to more accurately reflect our mission and purpose, the Council’s board has agreed to reposition our brand in 2012.  The process has been anything but linear, and the insights we’ve gained – not only about the brand, but about how communities work and the power of social networking – could be insightful for any organization, any community…

Let me begin by saying that, admittedly, I’m somewhat of a holdout on social media.  I am on LinkedIn, and I just registered for my first Twitter account (@LassiterBrian – more on that in a minute).  However, I refuse to sign up for FaceBook, FourSquare, Pinterest, or any number of similar sites (I just don’t need people to know what I had or where I ate my breakfast, and I certainly don’t care what others had!).  Nevertheless, I’m beginning to understand the power of social networks as it relates to building professional (and personal) community.

In our rebranding effort, the Council took all the traditional steps that an organization should probably take: we had two or three frank conversations at a board level about our history, our mission, our position in the marketplace; we conducted several focus groups in key markets and with key stakeholders; we researched what other similar state quality award programs have done across the US; and we hired an expert branding firm (Spangler Design Team) to guide our thinking.  Spangler has taken our information and has helped us narrow our choices to eight potential brand names and taglines.  We are now seeking feedback from various stakeholders in additional focus groups and live conversations.

But we did one more thing that, until last week, I would have personally considered inconsequential: we opened a LinkedIn dialogue with several hundred stakeholders who track the Council’s group.  I really didn’t know what to expect by doing so, and since the invitation to start the conversation was sent on a Sunday afternoon, I figured if we got four or five comments, we’d have useful feedback and would consider it a successful attempt at some virtual dialogue.  To date, we’re nearly at 80 comments and growing (not to mention all the phone calls and personal emails I’ve received in addition)!

Of course, the perspectives in that dialogue vary – some people have strong opinions about certain brand names, and there isn’t yet a universal consensus.  I guess I really didn’t expect one, as rebranding, I’ve been told, is a very messy process – rife with emotion, perception, and preferential differences.  But the difference of opinion isn’t my point here (indeed, all of that feedback is useful, and some trends and consensus are emerging).

My point is this: many have said that social media is a method to build community – to create groups that share an affinity and can therefore relate and interact.  I would assert that it’s the exact opposite: social media ENABLES communities that already share an affinity to better relate and interact.  Subtle but very, very different.

By the way, if you’re interested in reading the dialogue on the Council’s new brand, we invite you to do so.  In fact, we’d welcome you to join in the conversation and offer your reaction to the brands we are considering.  The link to the virtual dialogue is here (and if you are not yet part of the Council’s LinkedIn group, just let us know and we’ll approve you in!).  We plan to reveal our new brand at the 25th anniversary celebration on June 5!

But our experience with social media this week doesn’t stop there.  Feeling pleased with the unintended success of my first real attempt at social media, I decided to set up a Twitter account.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I find zero interest in hearing from an athlete in some locker room at halftime, or from a celebrity on what he or she just bought at Tiffany’s in Beverley Hills, or from some actress on how her salad tasted at lunch, or even from some random mom in my personal network that is pleased that their little Johnny or Jane just at his or her first bite of apple.  I’m sure there are those who love that stuff, but speaking personally: I just don’t have the time to follow anyone else’s life – I barely have time to enjoy my own mundane life.

But I’m beginning to see the potential power of Twitter in a professional sense.  If a community really exists – if you have relationships with customers, stakeholders, or some group with a common affinity – then what a great channel to facilitate a (very brief) dialogue with that community!  My Twitter account (@LassiterBrian) – brand new and without many followers – will be used exclusively to share insights and witticisms about the journey to performance excellence.

I’ve been told that these newsletter columns are (usually) full of ideas, insights, and helpful tips on improving organizational performance, and that I should consider publishing them all someday in a book.  Maybe that will eventually happen (and I sincerely appreciate the feedback), but for now, I’ll publish them in 144-character quips about what drives results in your business, your school, your hospital, your nonprofit – things I’m seeing in my daily interactions with the hundreds of organizations we serve; things I’m reading about in the various publications I scan every day; and things that I’m hearing in the many conferences and events that the Council and our partners frequently host.  Only you can tell me if they are helpful and supportive on your journey to excellence.

Ok, so I’m a laggard.  I’m now sold on LinkedIn and Twitter (and maybe someday the other sites, if I can be convinced they have a true business/professional application).  And I guess I’d be considered a laggard, because the data show that the adoption of these communication channels has literally exploded.  I can’t verify the complete accuracy of these data, but even if they are only for illustrative purposes, I think they prove a point.  Every day, there are:

877,000 new members on FaceBook
457,000 new members on Twitter
142,000 new members on LinkedIn
Over 1 billion items shared on FaceBook
69,000 hours of video uploaded and over 3 billion videos watched on YouTube
142 million tweets on Twitter
27 million iPhone apps downloaded

For an app (of course!) that calculates those – and other mind-boggling social media and technology statistics – visit here.

It has been said that “social media empowers the human desire to connect.”  I think that’s very close the scientific truth.  In fact, what’s behind social networking may surprise you: it’s likely genetic and a trait within all humans.

A recent study by Harvard Medical School researcher Coren Apicella published in the journal “Nature,” found that hunter-gathers in remote Tanzania some 10,000 years ago lived with social networks very similar to ours today (albeit without smart phone applications, FaceBook, and Twitter!).  In that study, researchers “found that individuals who are willing to cooperate prefer the company of other cooperative people, and that free riders [in that society] tend to stick to their own kind as well.”  Seems like groups of affinity to me.  Community.

Statistician Stanley Wasserman of Indiana University (and not involved in the study), said that “these networks of primitive cultures are not that different from the kinds of networks that exist in modern society.”

There are a few theories of why this is, including natural selection and the hypothesis that social networks may have evolved for purposes of survival.  In fact, other research has shown that social networks of identical twins are more similar than those of fraternal twins, suggesting genetics play a role in this.  Indeed, social networks appear to be a genetic, important component to humans as social creatures.  It’s no wonder, then, that electronic forums have literally exploded the last few years to enable this form of networking.

What does all of this mean to you and your organization?

What does all of this mean to you and your organization?

For one, I invite you to join the Council’s LinkedIn group.  In so doing, you’ll join an existing community (I didn’t pick that word lightly) that is passionate about continuous improvement and performance excellence in their organizations, their careers.
Second, consider following my new Twitter account (@LassiterBrian).  If you can read a 1500-word article every month, I trust you can find time for my 144-character tips and insights.  And I hope that I can add just a little value to your day, sharing some of the great practices from within our community.
Third, consider using social media within your own organizations and your other networks.  Due to space, I really can’t offer many examples here, but I know that many of our members have robust and highly effective approaches to using social media (in fact, we’ve already featured Mayo Clinic in live forums and will feature Essentia Health’s use of social media to build relationships with patients).  Not only can social media be used to build relationships and communicate key information to your customers and other stakeholders, but it’s a way that you can monitor what the market is saying about your organization.  In fact, the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence now suggests that it is a best practice when organizations systematically use social media as a method of gathering voice of the customer and marketplace.  Since social media is usually a little more free-flowing than more formal complaint processes (or compliment processes, for that matter), you might just learn a little about what your customers candidly think of you.

So like it or not, social media is here to stay, likely because social networking has been a part of humans for at least 10,000 years.  As a member of our community interested in performance excellence, I hope you’ll use social media to enable further dialogue and relationships with others on the journey to excellence.  And within your own organizations, I encourage you to use social media to develop and expand relationships with other communities.

And, oh yeah, if you want to participate in a discussion on this topic, visit our blog to post a comment!

Yours in Improvement,

Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network (formerly Minnesota Council for Quality)