Building a movement at work (and the biggest mistake I made trying to build one)

This year, I’ve been trying to make work better at my firm by building a large collaboration movement. Part of that has been getting people to know about and use a new social platform.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes but the biggest one wasted effort, slowed adoption, and could have killed the project entirely. Gradually, I learned the principles of building a movement from Gladwell, viral YouTube videos, and spontaneous dancers at a music festival.

The Law of the Few

Malcolm Gladwell described one of these principles in “The Tipping Point” more than 10 years ago:

“The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.”

Simply put, whether you’re spreading information or trying to get more people to adopt your product or service, it’s a waste of precious resources to try and focus on everyone. Instead, focus on connectors, mavens, and salesmen – “people in a community who know large numbers of people”, “people we rely upon to connect us with new information”, and “persuaders”.

Tastemakers combined with a participating community

The power of Tastemakers

The power of Tastemakers

Data from YouTube now provides some of the clearest examples of the importance of reaching key people. Every minute, another 48 hours of video uploaded to YouTube. Why do some go viral? Just as Gladwell tried to answer what made Hush Puppies shoes popular, Kevin Allocca, the YouTube trends manager, answered what makes particular videos popular.

In his funny and insightful TED talk, he analyzed the viewing history of famous videos like “Double Rainbow” (35 million views) and “Friday” (45 million views). These are videos by unknown people whose work had gone unnoticed. The viral movement only started when they got recognized by key people he called “Tastemakers”.

“Tastemakers introduce us to new and interesting things and bring them to a larger audience.”

Once you have attention, a second principle to building a movement is to include the audience in some way. The social nature of YouTube, for example, inspires part of the audience to use the content in new ways. “We don’t just enjoy now, we participate.” The Friday video, for example, has inspired over 10,000 parodies. That’s over 10,000 people who took the original idea, created something new, and expanded the movement by sharing their own contribution.

Enabling and encouraging an audience to shape the movement helps amplify it.

The power of the 2nd dancer

All the keys to building a movement

All the keys to building a movement

These principles for building a movement came to life at a music festival in 2009 that Derek Sivers wrote about and later described in his TED talk.

During the festival, people are just laying on blankets, listening to music, until one guy gets up and starts to dance. Someone starts recording a video on their phone, capturing this stranger’s goofy, public dance. But they wind up capturing something more interesting.

For a while, the first dancer is alone, oblivious to the crowd. It’s awkward to watch. Then, a second dancer joins him. Still awkward but a bit less so. Then, a third and fourth person start dancing. Now it’s a group, something you can join. (“We don’t just enjoy now, we participate.”) More and more people join, each doing their own dance, each attracting yet more people. By the end of the 3-minute video, people are racing from all directions to become part of the group. Hundreds of people are now dancing and screaming.

It’s a movement.

Applying this at work

My mistake at work was in trying to appeal to broad audiences from the start and treating it like my project alone. Instead of appealing to all executives, I should have focused on a few early adopters. Instead of trying to entice all the content providers, I should have focused on a few influential ones. Instead of diffuse evangelism, I should have put my scarce resources into making a few tastemakers passionate about what we were doing and empowering them to shape it.

Lesson learned.

If you’re trying to build an audience and start a movement – whether it’s a YouTube video or a dance group or a new social collaboration platform – don’t start with everyone. Start by focusing on the tastemakers, doing whatever you can to interest them in your offering. Then encourage a broader community to participate and make it their own so they can help you expand the movement.

About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
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11 Responses to Building a movement at work (and the biggest mistake I made trying to build one)

  1. Claudio Giulietti says:

    Just keep on going!

  2. exorbite says:

    Hey John,

    I think this is a wonderful, albeit hard lesson to have learned. I would be interested in hearing how exactly you identified and found the “tastemakers” that would be willing and well-connected enough to help you introduce the platform and with it a new way of working. Did you sit down with your team and came up with a list? Did you use any categorisation? Did you use any tools to perform a network analysis (e.g. looking at anonymised email traffic)? Did you also specifically target people still on the fence? Sometimes critics that you convinced can turn into your biggest supporters. And once you formed this kind of community how did you enlist and sustain their support? I guess the last question is food for more blog posts. Love your observations from work, so I am keen to read more 🙂

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you for your comment. Those are great questions.

      I’ll give a specific real-world example in a separate post. In short, though, I’m still not using any network analysis or other sophisticated tools. Even in a big company, it’s much easier to spot the influencers than on the Internet. (Tens of thousands of users on one network versus 2 billion users on many networks.)

      And the key people differ by movement. For some, the early adopters pop up based on their contribution. For others, it’s based on their role in the org chart or even my own relationship with them.

      Your questions are making me think I’ll need to give a few examples to cover that range.

      • Kenneth says:

        As an employee at the company in question, I am a potential dancer in this festival. But the question … here … is whether I am a commenting as someone who stumbled on a cool blog or as someone who might have to send you an official work email coordinating the effort to reduce spend by directing people in my division to use a new platform. The line is blurred, isn’t it? Very cool and very exciting. And THIS is the future. It’s weird today, but in 5 years, I think it will be normal. I’m sure that it will be. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the dancing is inevitable.

  3. Julie Challinor says:

    This post could not have been more timely for me! Thanks.

  4. Well, as the saying goes.. If you haven´t made any mistake, you haven´t try hard enough. I guess that´s how we learn, either individually or as a group.

    The biggest learning I had from my very first 2.0 initiative in R&D units, started in the end of 2006, was to understands how important people factors are, in comparison to the tools and “logic” of Web2.0. More importantly, that “part time” initiative has enabled me to build strong ties with a few like-minded colleagues. And today, they are the core of our strongest supporters, best critics and most effective multipliers – in some sense the 2nd dancers – of our internal social platform…

  5. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Being the first dancer is brave. Being the second dancer (as the previous commenter noted) is often the key to multiplying your social platform. The big influencers are very important to have on board at the outset but the “second dancers” are often better connectors and users at ground level. They can tell you what’s really happening, make connections outside of the early executive adopters, can feel empowered in what they do, and provide the reason for the rest to join in…
    These are the tastemakers and you usually find their passion is already there – you just need to nurture it.

  6. Ana Silva says:

    Lovely post John but this issue is usually a bit tricky. While it makes sense to concentrate on influencers to get them on board and help spread the movement, we should also mind those that do not necessarily act as propellers of the message but could act as a bottleneck afterwards because they feel they weren’t involved from the beginning. Oh the trials and tribulations of change agents inside the office 🙂

  7. molehill says:

    If you look closely, isn’t it the third dancer that made it tip? Three legs on a stool, minimum.

  8. Pingback: The doctor at the fast food convention | johnstepper

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