Viral marketing

Want to change your company? Go viral.

August 3, 2011: 9:28 AM ET

The energy to truly change a company over the course of months or years has to come from the grassroots. How managers can use viral marketing to support this kind of change.

By Scott Keller and Colin Price, contributors

(Management Innovation eXchange) -- You've begun to make major changes at your company. Maybe you've decided to restructure your business to reach new markets or perhaps you're cutting costs in response to a crisis.

You know that rallying your employees is central to making this change work, and you've done a lot to engage them. They understand why change is necessary and offered their input into achieving these goals, for example. But now you need to sustain their energy and sense of ownership over the months or years it will take to see results. Too often, cynicism, parochialism, and exhaustion get in the way.

But when employees have a sense of personal ownership, they're much more likely to give their all to any organization. This is particularly important when you're going through a long-term, organization-wide change program.

Offering formal incentives and accountability are part of the answer, but a company's culture is equally important. The energy to actually change over months or years before seeing any results has to come from the grassroots.

We've seen tactics from the field of viral marketing help avoid what we sometimes call "the valley of desolation." Since viral communication happens every day in every organization – through employee email exchanges, instant messages, or a simple chat by the water cooler -- doing your best to ensure that it's supporting change rather than suppressing it is crucial.

Do you want the people at the coffee machine talking about the latest nonsense memo from the CEO, or about how they found a new way to do their jobs better? And technology only amplifies the effect on morale, good or bad.

The key elements to a successful viral program are:

  • Drawing attention to what's happening right here, right now
  • Using raw, direct, personal messages
  • Focusing on "what's in it for me," not "what the bosses want"
  • Relying on direct communication among peers, not formal corporate channels
  • Building grassroots curiosity and demand for information

Such efforts can be kicked off by the corporation -- and often have a little funding -- but they're only effective when they spread through the organization under their own steam.

IBM (IBM), for example, developed a proprietary social networking tool called BeeHive for internal use. It allows employees to promote projects and generate enthusiasm and followers by drawing on their own informal networks. Users can, for example, create and share brief lists of ideas they're passionate about or projects that would benefit from wider sponsorship. Colleagues can comment on the list or repost it as part of their own profiles, spreading ideas across informal networks the company might not even know exist.

In another example, a large telecom company that was changing from a government-owned organization to a customer-oriented private enterprise, started by releasing a flood of communications to explain what was happening.

There were limited print runs of edgy, unofficial-looking materials, a "rogue" comic strip that expressed -- and corrected -- cynical views of the change; a fly-on-the-wall video of a senior team working session "leaked" to the intranet; blogs from influential leaders; and hidden intranet functionality that used a video-game style approach for unlocking new bits of information.

The viral spread happened faster than leaders had imagined, as photocopied versions of materials started to appear around the company and web traffic for "secret" areas grew exponentially.

Within a matter of days of each release, virtually everyone in the organization was talking about the content, which greatly aided the attitude shift toward the change.  Soon, employees were producing their own 'viral' material from a grassroots level to get the word out regarding how to support the changes at the company. The expected resistance to the company's newfound focus on private customers melted away, clearing the path for other efforts.

This article was adapted from Beyond Performance: How great organizations build ultimate competitive advantage by Scott Keller and Colin Price.

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