Q: What does promoting an event have in common with the adoption of social tools in the enterprise?

Steph Booth has written a great post over on Climb To The Stars, 5 Lessons in Promoting Events Using Social Media (Back to Basics), wherein she talks about the difficulties she faced when she was promoting her conference, Going Solo. Being in the process of promoting my seminar, Making Social Tools Ubiquitous, I can entirely sympathise, particularly with this:

Even though part of what I do for a living is explain social media and its uses in marketing to my clients, I found it quite a challenge when I actually had to jump in and do it. (Yes, I’m aware this may sound pretty lame. By concentrating on the big picture and the inspiring success stories, one tends to forget some very basic things. Sending managers back to the floor every now and then is a good thing.)

But the more I think about it, the more I see parallels between promoting an event, and promoting the adoption of social tools in business, so I’m going to take Steph’s five lessons one by one:

1. The absolute best channel to promote anything is one-on-one personal conversation with somebody you already have some sort of relationship with.
I’ve been very low-key in promoting my seminar, focusing on sending personal emails to people I know, and this has brought home a very important point: Even when you want to talk to lots of people at once, you can really only talk to one at a time, and talking to lots of people one by one takes a lot of energy and, yes, time.

Of course, promoting anything is a numbers game – the more people you can reach, the more likely you are to connect with someone who is interested in what you’re doing. And if you’re feeling impatient for success, the urge is to reach as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. But mass communication is a shortcut and shortcuts come at a cost. You can spam your entire workforce with an email telling them about the wonderful new wiki you’ve installed, but unless people understand how using a wiki will help them personally, they will just ignore it. That means you have to work with individuals to ensure they fully understand what it is that you’re proposing and how exactly it’s going to help them do their job.

This one-on-one (or at least, one-on-very-small-group-of-similar-people) approach always takes much longer to bear fruit than you might imagine, or might wish to accept. You’re essentially imparting information to people who are running on their own schedule and following their own agenda, which may not immediately mesh with yours. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested in attending your event or using the tool you are promoting, but that you may have to bide your time until your needs and their needs coincide.

2. Blogs and Twitter are essential, but don’t neglect less sexy forms of communication: newsletter, press release, printable material.
In enterprise, the same thing applies. Big companies especially often have printed newsletters or magazines, and talking about your project in these internal publications can help you to spread your message to people who might miss a blog post or ignore an email. Think about all the different channels of communication you have open to you, from newsletters to emails to printing posters to go up on the office walls, and think about how you can best use them. There are probably more opportunities to communicate with your colleagues open to you than you realise.

3. Don’t expect “viral” or “organic” spreading of your promotion to happen, but prepare the field so it can: the forwardable e-mail.
This point I’m going to take in two parts. First: “Don’t expect “viral” or “organic” spreading of your promotion to happen…”

Often people do expect social tools – and events – to promote themselves and are disappointed when they don’t. We’ve all heard about the runaway success of memes that seem to spread across the internet almost overnight, e.g. the way the band Arctic Monkeys stormed the charts by accruing fans from the web, but those events are rare on the internet and even rarer on intranets. In reality, success comes more like it did for 90s pop band Pulp, which lead singer Jarvis Cocker once described as “an overnight success that took 16 years”.

You have to take the long view. If a tool is worth adopting, if a behaviour is worth changing then it’s worth spending the time on it to ensure success. But if things do go nuts, make sure your infrastructure can scale quickly too. There’s nothing like ‘technical difficulties’ to kill someone’s enthusiasm for a new tool.

The second half of this piece of advice is “… but prepare the field so it can: the forwardable e-mail.” Steph’s talking about ensuring that the people you contact have something to send on to colleagues and friends who might be interested in what you’re doing. In the adoption of social tools, this doesn’t just mean creating a forwardable email talking about your project, it also means creating support materials that people can use to train their own colleagues.

Most social tools are really easy to use, and for the experienced digital native they are quick and simple to pick up. But as I have learnt from first-hand experience, lots of people do not find it trivial to learn how to use a new tool on their computer. They are still quite timid when it comes to computer-related matters, and they need help to understand both how the tool works and how it will help them. They need face-to-face coaching, access to simple and easy to understand support material, and they need someone available on demand to help them out when they get stuck.

In a big company it’s impossible to get everyone into a training session, so you have to provide keen early adopters with the advanced understanding, confidence and support materials they need to teach their own colleagues. Then the keen users in that second wave need to be able to train their colleagues, and so on. Without this ripple effect, the software’s dead in the water.

So it’s not just forwardable awareness of the tool you need to provide, but forwardable training too.

4. Go where people are. Be everywhere.
In events promotion, Steph’s talking about using many different social networks to get your message out. In business, this means spread your net beyond the obvious and make sure your project doesn’t get trapped in a single silo. Often, tech projects get started in tech-savvy departments by programmers and researchers, because they are the people who feel most comfortable with new tools. The risk of focusing on these groups in the early stages of your project is that the tool will fail to spread organically to the rest of the company because communications between, say, developers and HR, is inadequate to support the kind of dialogue required for ideas to migrate.

Many big companies are split into silos, with little communication and collaboration between them. Sometimes the silos are based on geography, often it is ‘business function’, but whatever the cause of these silos, you need to work hard to bridge the gaps between them. Work with people from every part of the company, from senior managers to developers to secretaries to HR. Scatter your seeds everywhere, and nurture those seedlings that grow.

5. It’s a full-time job.
This is more of a note to the senior executives that hold the purse strings than anyone. Social media projects don’t just “happen” spontaneously, out of thin air. Facebook didn’t “just happen” and neither did MySpace, Twitter, Seesmic, Wikipedia or any other socio-technological project. Each one took time, effort and nurturing by people whose job it was to work on attracting and retaining new users.

Business is no different. You really can’t just chuck up some software and expect people to use it, you have to think about what you’re doing, put together a sensible strategy and work to implement that strategy. And this means paying someone to do all that, whether it’s a consultant or a member of staff. Far too frequently I come across companies who want to change the way their people work, want to move away from email to more productive tools, want to increase collaboration and improve communication, but they don’t want to actually spend any money on making it happen.

It’s not enough to invest in servers and software licences and technical infrastructure. You have to invest in people too.

If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend popping over to Steph’s blog and reading her original post, because it’s spot on.

Suw is holding a seminar on the adoption of social tools in business on June 27 2008. Deadline to sign up is June 25.