Guest Post by Ethan Yarbrough: Lessons Learned

April 20, 2009
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Ethan Yarbrough is the president of Allyis, a technology development and staffing firm in the state of Washington.
Lessons Learned: Extrapolating value from failed attempts building social networks
I’ve read a number of blog posts that counsel readers about what to ask a social media expert before doing business with them. Invariably, one of the questions that […]


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Ethan Yarbrough is the president of Allyis, a technology development and staffing firm in the state of Washington.

Lessons Learned: Extrapolating value from failed attempts building social networks

Meet Ethan YarbroughI’ve read a number of blog posts that counsel readers about what to ask a social media expert before doing business with them. Invariably, one of the questions that appears in the list is this one: “How many social networks have you managed?” You could ask me that question and my answer would be three–so far.

I think a better question is “How many of the social networks that you’ve managed have succeeded?” If the social media expert you’re talking to is honest, they’ll admit not all of them have worked. In my case, two of the three have failed; the third is showing promise.

I think the real measure of anyone you turn to for social media counsel is what they can tell you about what they’ve learned from their failed attempts at creating social networks. Do they keep trying the same thing over and over again, or have they paid attention to their own missteps along the way? If they have, chances are they’ll have valid experiences to use as a guide in counseling you.

My first failed social network was internal to our business and was designed as a collaboration and knowledge sharing space for employee communities. The problem was, the network was shaped based on assumptions, not on facts:

  • I assumed I knew how people wanted to connect with each other.
  • I assumed people were not already actively connecting since I couldn’t see it happening.
  • I assumed that the communities I defined and prescribed were accurate.

I was wrong in all three cases.

Despite my assumptions, employees were in fact actively connecting with one another and sharing information through processes they’d developed on their own that were invisible to me. Furthermore, the connections being made caught me off guard; the people who found each other and relied on each other were different that I’d assumed.

My connection assumptions were superimposed over the group and based on external definitions. Project managers will want to connect with project managers, I assumed; content managers with content managers; analysts with analysts. While it was true that those groups did want to connect with each other, they did not want to be limited to only connecting with each other. But I had created a rigid structure that did not allow employees to self-select their connections or to cross departmental and experiential lines.

What employees wanted out of the network was the ability to connect with anyone who could be useful to them, regardless of what job title they held or department they worked in. They wanted to find and connect with people who could provide value within the context and the flow of their work. When they found that what I’d provided did not allow for that, they rejected it in droves.

My system was like loading each functional group onto separate buses then parking the buses next to each other; everyone could talk to one another within a single bus, but if they wanted to reach someone who wasn’t on that bus with them, forget it.

Lesson Learned: Conduct ample due diligence to determine how people really want to work, how they’re already working and how you can enhance their ability to do what they’re already trying to do. Let the need shape your vision, then build your social network around those findings.

Failure number two was a social network I built for the local business roundtable in our city. Once a quarter, leaders of local businesses get together for breakfast, to network with each other and local government officials, and to hear presentations from experts on topics of interest to the community.

I joined the roundtable and found the conversations dynamic and invigorating. But they were limited by time and space. When the meeting was over and people walked out into the morning sunshine, the conversation ended, the energy dissipated. To me there always seemed more that could be said if we only had the time, if our communication wasn’t so reliant on our all being in the same place. The beauty of an interactive social network is that it addresses both of those challenges–communication can occur from anywhere and at any time.

I registered a domain name, built a simple social network and excitedly sent out invitations to the roundtable members. There was no tidal wave of response, but I was undiscouraged. People just needed time. I began blogging about topics that had come up in recent meetings. People need to see that there’s activity, I thought. And when they do, they’ll join in and the network will come alive; there’s a tipping point to every social network after which it drives itself and I was going to single-handedly drive our roundtable social network to that tipping point by the straightest route possible.

Problem was, the more I did, the more things stayed the same. The more I invited, the more people stayed away. And after a year of mine being the only voice on the network, the domain name renewal notice came through and I let it expire. My second social network disappeared without ever really existing.

Lesson Learned: Online social networks do not create social behavior, they facilitate social behavior among people who are already inclined to be social. For the business leaders I was trying to reach, the roundtable was a peripheral experience at best; it was not the central, most relevant element of their professional lives. I tried to create and maintain online social activity among people who had neither the time, nor the desire to remain connected when the breakfast conversation ended.

Really, this is another facet of the first lesson above: while in the first example I misdiagnosed the need and thus designed the wrong solution, in the second case I designed a solution for a need that didn’t exist.

I am an idealist and an enthusiast, and my excitement over social networking and media led me to the same mistake that many others have made: I fell for the tools and forgot about the strategy. I fell victim to the Field of Dreams Fallacy: “If you build it, they will come” … it works in the movies, but it’s not a good strategy for designing a social network.

As for my third social network, the one that seems to be doing well so far: it serves a well-defined community that wants to be more effectively and actively connected. It’s a community that has been trying to stay connected through other means and has done so despite the shortcomings of email and phone trees. So there’s a desire to be social and there are existing processes that I can enhance.

It may work this time. If it doesn’t, I just hope I learn something.

Ethan’s blog is called Emerging Web Memo and he tweets @ethany.


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