The fewer followers the better on internal micro-blogs

Do social media tenets apply within your company’s firewall? Different purposes call for different approaches.

Internal social media tools such as Yammer and Status.Net are bringing a familiar flavor of communication into the enterprise. However, the same strategies that work outside the firewall might not translate well for conversations taking place within. Those who try to apply what they have learned from the outside drag a laundry list of unnecessary assumptions that can create noise and hamper productivity.

Out in the wild of Facebook and Twitter, the only thing you can claim in common with others you encounter is some degree of connectivity. You are “there,” and so are they; that’s the only guaranteed commonality. Think for a moment about all of the relevant strategies you’ve acquired either through your own experience or from the popular mythology of social media. They are predicated upon finding relevance in a global open structure. Within your business, there are several commonalities operating:

  • Shared goals
  • Financial stakes
  • Industrial interest
  • Educational background
  • Socioeconomic status

Depending upon the nature of the business, some of those may apply more than others; yet they are assuredly guaranteed to be composed of stronger ties than Twitter’s public timeline. So what changes?

Don’t follow me.

Out of the 6,000 registered accounts on our Yammer, there are nearly 1,100 following my updates. How many of them really ought to be following me? Maybe a dozen. There is a paradox at work here: The more interesting you are for one reason, the more your value is tied to being just that one thing. And as humans, being “one thing” is monotonous.

On Twitter, you can organize the people you follow into Lists, but you can’t publish to a list. This means that all of those “Ikes”—the Quipster, the Tech Support Guy, the libertarian, the Sci-Fi Geek and the Amateur Economist have to share the same stream. People who follow Ike get all of those Ikes until they choose to turn me off.

Internal micro-blogs don’t suffer that restriction, because you have several different means of curating your stream. You can follow Individuals, you can follow Groups, and you can follow Topics.

(Unsure how to approach micro-blogging internally? Read my first-hand account.)

If I am interested in being the first to know about that virus that is floating through the email system, I shouldn’t have to follow 15 different employees from the Information Technology team. I’ll just follow the “IT Security” Topic instead. (Yes, Twitter and Facebook have robust search functions, but so far neither has allowed you to insert those results or hashtags into your stream.)

Ideally, on the internal social network you will follow just a handful of people you know—the people you see every day, the people you eat lunch with, the people likely to know if you weren’t in the office. The rest are best handled in Groups and Topics. This strategy will be more likely to provide a healthy ratio of balance between relevance and irrelevance, and it will make the process more palatable to a new user.

That’s the final reason you shouldn’t follow me: We are dealing with a closed ecosystem. In the open Internet, there are always new users coming in and out—and to be honest, the retention rates have not been that flattering. New Twitter users are notorious for dropping out, either because they aren’t sure what to do or get overwhelmed with irrelevant noise.

Any business that banks on internal social media can’t afford to drive users away, because they just won’t come back. Those lost users become holes in the fabric, and enough of them can cause projects to unravel or disappear completely. It would be a mistake to assume that anyone with a Facebook account will thrive on the internal Web without addressing changes in starting conditions, behavior and even game theory that affect adoption and retention.

Ike Pigott works in corporate communications for Alabama Power. A two-time presenter at Ragan’s Social Media Conferences, he owns a crisis communications training practice, consults on social media strategy, and advises nonprofits on the use of new media tools. He blogs at Occam’s Razr, and is a contributor at Social Media Explorer. Connect with him on Twitter.

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