Every chapter of Living Networks is being released on this blog as a free download, together with commentary and updated perspectives since its original publication in 2002.
Harnessing the Flow of Marketing, Customer Feedback, and Knowledge
OVERVIEW: Today, your company’s success depends on how well it builds its network presence in three key domains:
• Marketing, which is now mainly about influencing the flow of messages through consumer networks;
• Customer feedback loops, that tightly link a company and its customers, enabling them together to constantly create more value;
• Work processes and knowledge, that flow through the networks of workers within and beyond the firm.
The idea of the ‘network presence’ of organizations is still very relevant today. Still today not many companies truly have a strong presence in the social networks of consumers and customers, even though much progress has been made over the last five years.
The first space, where there probably has been the most movement so far, is in marketing. Marketing using social network approaches is now mainstream, though a nascent idea back in 2002. I opened with the example of the online marketing for Lord of the Rings, which took advantage of the strong social cohesion of the book’s fan base. While the concept of the ‘meme’ seems to have lost traction over the last years, I still think it is enormously relevant. I wrote:
One of the most useful tools to understand the new world of marketing is the idea of the meme. A meme is the cultural equivalent of a gene: an idea, belief, or behavior that has a life of its own, and spreads from one person to another by how it influences its carriers. A catchy jingle that people hum,
virus hoaxes that ask to be sent on, and flared trousers coming back in style are all memes. Perhaps the best example is the idea of the meme itself. Coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to help explain his ideas, it rapidly took on a life of its own, spawning millions of conversations, a small library of books, scholarly journals, and now many hundreds of websites. All ideas that flow through the networks, including marketing messages, are memes. Their breeding grounds are people’s minds, and they spread from one mind to another by speech, behavior, and increasingly digital communication. Just like genes or anything living, some are more successful than others.
We know that the propagation of ideas has become immensely easier. Memes have never before had the potential to spread so fast to so many people. It’s as if rabbits could suddenly breed with any other rabbit around the world, and produce offspring in seconds. Certainly a great leap forward for rabbit-kind. But, to continue the analogy, rabbits are not the only animals that can now breed prolifically. Suddenly every animal has the ability to create a massive population overnight. All of these animals may be able to procreate almost infinitely, but in a world of limited resources, only a few will survive. In the case of memes, their common living territory is people’s minds. This, fortunately or unfortunately, is a limited space. With a million memes—and more every day—trying to come to roost in our minds every day, only a few will succeed, let alone motivate us to pass the meme on to others. Certainly memes have the potential to propagate incredibly fast and wide, but the competition is remorseless. Today only the very fittest memes thrive, though if they do they can almost literally conquer the world. The rest die ignominiously.
While the key action steps for marketing in a networked world that I describe in the chapter are now well understood and accepted, they are just as valid as when the book was originally launched. I have since developed my ideas a lot further, particularly in the role of influence networks. One study I did a couple of years ago on technology purchasing influence networks has provided a foundation for some of the new service offerings currently entering the market.
The second key domain of network presence is building customer feedback loops. This is something where there has been far less progress than in social network marketing. There is a great deal of management literature and corporate rhetoric on getting and applying customer feedback, but the reality rarely matches what is espoused.
One of the most important aspects of a hyper-connected world is the acceleration of feedback. As I wrote recently in a different context, the biggest single change is that the feedback cycle has become faster and more accurate. That fundamentally changes how companies should engage with their customers and innovate. Certainly most organizations are now monitoring customer conversations in the social media, as I encouraged them to do six years ago. The problem is that few are actively doing things with the insights they gain to close the loop and make it a true feedback cycle.
The third domain of network presence, work and knowledge, is one in which I have been deeply engaged for the last ten years. As I wrote over two years ago, organizational network analysis has now gone mainstream, providing a specific tool for companies to enhance how they connect people, expertise, and resources inside and outside their organizations. Some of the insights that have come from that stream of research include the characteristics of high-performance personal networks. The advice I offer in the chapter, including identifying network hubs inside the organization, nurturing communities of specialists, and fostering external networks are highly relevant to most companies.
Today tools such as Dell’s Ideastorm exemplify ‘crowdsourcing’, in which the best ideas from large groups become visible. In Chapter 6 I describe the concepts behind how Eli Lilly had used a similar tool to bring out the best ideas for its innovation:
The networks are alive. So we need to treat them as living systems, allowing behaviors to emerge rather than imposing rigid structures. When ants forage for food, they lay down a pheromone trail. When they are in new territory they walk around more or less randomly, but when they stumble
across food, they will take it back to the nest, and return for more. Since ants will tend to follow paths that have stronger pheromone trails—that is have been walked along by more ants—other ants will discover the path and go to the food, further reinforcing the path and bringing other ants to take the spoils. What the ants a