Creating Custom Social Networks

Custom social networks are a whole 'nother monster when it comes to user engagement and experience. UX Booth managing editor Kristina Bjoran examines the problem space through the lens of enterprise social media platforms.

Creating and launching a custom social environment can be a little like crossing your fingers and hoping the stars align.

Organizations and niche networks large and small have long been playing around with the idea of using social media to leverage user engagement around specific ecosystems. But in these new, hybridized territories, what can UX designers expect?

While Facebook employees no doubt have Facebook profiles, it’s tough to imagine that they use their own social platform to communicate within the office, especially about company projects, important proprietary data, and so on. What is Facebook’s internal Facebook? Do Google+ engineers use Google+ to chat with each other about secret Google projects?

Creating a specialized or focused social media platform is tough from all angles. Users don’t adopt them quickly, and if they do, interaction and engagement falls off quickly (see iTunes Ping, Walmart’s The Hub, Vital Skate, and many more).

Without getting into the deep, deep ins and outs of why specialized social networks fail, let’s consider the types of specialized social networks where users can’t opt out: large-scale businesses.

The way of the [business] world

The social giants (yes—I’m making the leap to call Google+ a contender) may very well use secure versions of their platforms for organizational communication and networking, but companies without their own social networks don’t have this luxury. They are concerned with keeping their organizational data, ideas, and development secure and in a controlled environment. Aside from productivity concerns, security is one of the primary reasons for limiting employees’ public social media site interactions.

Because businesses—especially as they scale up—are realizing a number of things:

  • Statistically speaking, the majority of their employees are on some social media site. And they like it.

  • It’s impossible to oversee or control the exchange of organizational data and ideas on public social sites.
  • Employees might be sorely underutilized, especially in larger scale organizations.
  • To leverage the best of both worlds, some IT giants like HP, IBM, Infosys, and Jive have entered in a solution: enterprise social media platforms (eSMPs). These options allow for the controlled exchange of ideas and social interactions of employees within the office.

    But finding the middle ground between corporate and typical social interactions has proven difficult for developers of eSMPs. In other words, releasing employees into a newly-minted social platform and telling them to “act naturally” doesn’t always go according to plan. In fact, it tends toward the “huge disaster” end of the spectrum.

    And it’s giving corporate-minded UX professionals something new to think about, whether it’s from a design and development or community management perspective.

    What exactly is an enterprise social media platform?

    I’ll take the obnoxious route and explain first what an eSMP isn’t. Most importantly, it’s not a Facebook or Twitter clone. Even in these early stages of development, the developers of eSMPs understand that employees are looking for different kinds of engagement within a workplace than they are at home. Next, these platforms are not primarily collaboration tools, such as Basecamp and FlowDock, both of which best serve relatively smaller organizations as a meeting ground for project-based communication and file exchange. While eSMPs can certain help employees organize projects, this is not their sole function.

    eSMPs primarily function as a way to engage employees in the workplace (though other iterations of these platforms can facilitate customer service and a number of other communications-based activities). The idea is, give ‘em a platform to open up, and let the magic happen. By creating an “online water cooler,” companies try to capitalize on the knowledgebase and skill sets of their employees by allowing them freedom to work things out beyond their cubicle or department. Meanwhile, organizations can oversee the interactions, monitor the exchange of company information, and watch as new ideas and innovations emerge. In the words of Lew Platt, the former chief executive of Hewlett Packard, “If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times as profitable.”

    Businesses hope that eSMPs will give managers and officers insight into what their employees know, and how they can capitalize on it.

    Where problems arise

    This all sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course, releasing employees into a newly minted corporate social network doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll use it the way it’s intended to be used. One of the biggest issues occurs when companies buy these expensive proprietary platforms, have them customized, and launch, all without considering what the users (read: employees) actually want from a work-based social platform.

    This is where the user experience professional comes in—or should, rather. The problem often arises, though, that no matter how excellent the actions of an eSMP are designed, the community that this social network is aimed at still needs a reason to participate.

    Deployment – a checklist

    Getting people to open up in an otherwise contrived environment is, to say the least, a user experience challenge for all involved. Therefore, I’ve created a user-oriented checklist that’s applicable to both developers of social platforms and those looking to deploy them. Oftentimes when businesses use highly customizable eSMPs —from IBM, Jive, and others that scale highly—those in charge are must do some makeshift interaction design of their own.

    Determine need

    We’ve talked a lot here at UX Booth about asking “why?” A good designer, of interactions or otherwise, always asks such questions before embarking on a long design trip. As I discovered first in a discussion with the crew at Effective UI, it’s always important to first ask “do I really need this feature?” before going nuts.

    This is where most businesses go wrong. Instead of asking whether or not their employees would engage within such a platform, or whether they should, they dive in wholeheartedly like magpies after shiny things. The allure of new technologies (well, new when it comes to enterprise systems) is blinding, and if the employees aren’t taken into consideration, those in charge may be stuck with a very expensive mistake.

    Everyone loves consistency

    Sure, the big, bad, new and awesome social network could come out of nowhere someday soon and trump Facebook, Twitter, and every other player in the game. But don’t try and make a number one contender out of an eSMP. Users already expect a certain type of interaction when using a social network, and an enterprise social network is no place to try and break new interaction or engagement ground.

    Trust is a must

    By nature, an eSMP already feels a little bit like a prison—a way to ensure that employees behave under company supervision. It’s imperative early on to educate users on the principles behind the platform, that its purpose isn’t to be a monitor, but a uniter.

    Provide freedom

    One reason Facebook is so ubiquitous is that it allows users to share whatever content they wish to share (barring that you wish to share pornographic content) from any source they wish to share it from. An eSMP should do the same, which also plays into the need for consistency discussed above.

    Listen to feedback

    Like with any new feature rollouts, those in charge of an eSMP rollout need to put on their user research hats and actually pay attention to the feedback of the platform’s users. Check out comment boards. Look at forums. Comb through emails and other messages. Perform search analytics. This may go without saying to many, but it’s an easy thing to sweep under the rug or simply forget about—especially for those new to their role.

    As a bonus, not only will such feedback provide insight into what does and doesn’t work, it’ll also make the users happy. After all, people love being listened to.

    Getting the conversation started

    As the role of user experience professional bleeds into many other job titles, from community manager to director of customer engagement and so on (and so on, ad nauseum), it’s important that a conversation get started between those folks and interaction designers.

    As you, loyal reader, may or may not have noticed, UX Booth hasn’t run too many corporate UX articles, and it’s because user experience roles within large-scale organizations aren’t tidy. There are interaction designers, user experience designers, community managers, directors of customer engagement, internal community moderators, and so on, ad nauseum. All deal with the overarching User Experience, and should therefore be considered within the same principle boundaries.

    We’d love to hear any first-hand accounts with enterprise social media platforms, from any perspective—if you’ve got ‘em, share them below. With such relatively new ground, it’s a great time to hone in on best (and worst) practices.

    About the Author

    Kristina Bjoran

    Kristina is in content production at CareZone, a San Francisco- and Seattle-based startup. She helps out the good folks at UX Booth with editorial work when they throw up the bat signal, too (a bat is more recognizable than an editor). When she finds the time, Kristina writes for Wired Magazine, Technology Review, and, occasionally, Scientific American. You can find her on Twitter. She tweets weird science and rants about marketing and SEO.

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    12 Comments

    • AC Reply

      Actually, people at Google -do- use G+ for internal communication, as evidenced by Steve Yegge’s mis-shared post a few weeks ago. With G+’s circle-specific sharing, it’s actually a pretty good platform for enterprise use.

      • Kristina Bjoran Reply

        I remember a few months back with the Google+ launch that businesses were excited about the platform on a number of levels…but that Google didn’t too well support the enterprise side of things (not to mention the lack of feature customization). Has Google’s position since changed?

        (Also, thanks for reading!)

      • AC Reply

        I’m not sure Google has an official position on anything (!) but they do use it internally to “chat about secret projects”. Of the major social networks it’s by far the best suited for internal communication IMO because it has much more granular access controls. I think it could certainly solve most enterprises’ virtual watercooler needs.

        They still don’t allow corporate pages though, which I believe was the major sticking point preventing widespread enterprise adoption. They’ve recently begun allowing aliases though (as opposed to their previously rigid real-name policy) so I’m assuming it isn’t too far off.

      • Kristina Bjoran Reply

        Yep, I was remembering Google’s stance on corporate pages; however, it looks like Google only announced a couple of days ago that they were adding functionality to Plus that would allow organizations to easily use the platform internally (http://googleenterprise.blogspot.com/2011/10/google-is-now-available-with-google.html).

        And as for using the Big Social networks for internal use–larger enterprises aren’t willing to do this because it’s more difficult to secure the experience (see: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-09-29/facebook-twitter-usage-increases-companies-security-risks.html). Of course, if Facebook, Twitter, et al released for-purchase enterprise versions of their platforms, that may be a different story.

    • Dana Martinelli Reply

      We are using yammer here in the office and it has taken off big time! Since yammer uses the same interaction conventions as FB, it is easily adopted. We also use Google apps and corp Gmail …but Google has not rolled out Google+ for companies. Google better get their head out of beta and roll it out…

      • Kristina Bjoran Reply

        Dana–I really like Yammer, but haven’t worked in an environment that uses it (I’ve played with Infosys’ iEngage platform). I imagine the biggest plus for enterprise adoption of proprietary social platforms is the security measures they allow.

        I’m with you 100% that Google+ needs to get its act together and support enterprise. With Google Doc functionality and the already existing Hangouts feature, it really would be excellent for corporate use (potential security risks aside).

    • Paul Bryan Reply

      Thanks for this insightful article, Kristina. In the 1990’s, corporate computing was far ahead of the average household in terms of power, flexibility, communications, and sharing. However, in the past decade, corporations have lagged, and now my children’s interaction capabilities and depth of connectivity exceeds the kinds of interactions I experience among coworkers in some large corporations.

      Technology is only a part of the reason for the gap. The safeguarding of intellectual property is a legitimate concern, but not insurmountable.

      Another reason that corporate eSMP systems experience underwhelming adoption is that some, or many, people simply don’t want to share. I found this in user research studies I conducted in the 1980’s in a large corporation, pre-Internet. Holding knowledge tight to the chest was perceived as a way of enhancing job security and advancement. At the end of the day, the business case for eSMP is knowledge transfer, not discussing what you had for lunch.

    • Laurie S. Reply

      Hello,

      While I am familiar with internal social media products, I’ve never heard of these products referred to as the acronym “eSMP”. A Google search of it returns no results. You might want to mention the term “Enterprise 2.0″ or “enterprise collaboration tools” as well in your article.

      I was wondering what things people are measuring to gauge the success of these products.

      • Kristina Bjoran Reply

        Hi Laurie,

        I’ve only shortened the term “enterprise social media platform” to eSMP to make it easier to read. If you search for the term “enterprise social media platform,” you’ll find most of the products I’ve mentioned above, often under some similar term like “enterprise social network,” “enterprise social media,” or any number of other like terms. I chose “enterprise social media platform” because I feel it best represents the problem space, and that I wasn’t quite up to the task using a dozen different terms to address the same problem space.

        In terms of measuring the success of the products, HP Labs in particular launched a great internal study a couple of years back about their own Virtual Watercooler (see this study), and all their criteria can be seen within. Success is determined by different factors depending on the problem space, of course–an international organization with 30,000 employees will obviously have needs different from a local startup with only 10 employees.

    • Web site design company Reply

      Kristina, thank you for writing this informative post! I was also very curios on how social media monsters use their own sites for internal communication. You clarified a lot in the imprortance of creating an enterprise social media platform.

    • Michael Evan Reply

      Currently we are working on social network for the company I work for. It will be integrated into linkedIn, so we will be able use the same information for both networks. As for the recruitment company this will be really useful if it will be done in the proper way. Thanks for the great tips to improve our project!

    • Kok Hong Reply

      UX is certainly important, but I think the organisation culture and structure is a much bigger factor in the successful introduction of enterprise social media.

      My previous organisation had just introduced a customised social media platform when I left it, only a core team was actively participating. (By participating, I mean simply curating content on the web.) I don’t want to be a wet blanket but my prediction is that this so-called “social learning” initiative won’t go far. The company is much too streamlined in operations for innovative self-learning to happen–no one would want to time-log activities such as “social media” for fear of being seen as not concentrating on their projects. In fact I just wrote an article on how the so-called “factory model” is anathema to enterprise social media and its predecessor, knowledge management.

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