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Five Lessons on Social Media from an Unexpected Source

Summary: A true-life story of collaboration in action; social media done right, with plenty of lessons learned. Because coffee!

I heard a fascinating (and funny) story the other day, detailing one person’s interaction with a consumer product manufacturer and their social media outreach program. Fascinating, because as the story unfolded, I kept getting these Aha! moments of insight – validating important concepts around building and fostering communities of practice. Funny, because some of the Aha! moments were familiar antipatterns (and, the tale involves mechanical repair using manual force).

The story starts as a group of experienced business types are sitting around a meeting table during a break in the action. The group knows each other well, and conversation wanders towards less heavy subjects, like coffee makers – specifically, those fancy one-cup kinds of brew machines. Our storyteller relates his tale of frustration and triumph, fixing a relatively new machine which, unfortunately, has decided not to dispense with the coffee. And so, he went to the manufacturer’s web site to browse the support forum and check to see if anyone else had experienced this problem.

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Ouch!

Aha! thought I, this is an “older guy”, not necessarily someone who works hard to be on the edge of technology – not the typical web forum user? Lesson #1 – the breathless stats are really true; social media is actively used, to great effect, by a broad range of people.

And yes, he found that a number of people have reported this problem (relatively new and disappointingly stingy brew boxes) – but there were also plenty of reports on the Best Way To Fix It. Unfortunate, the Best Way To Fix It involved smacking the machine just right – and the majority of the posts went on to detail exactly where to slap the poor percolator, how much force to use, with the heel of the palm, etc.

“And so”, our intrepid storyteller continues, “I started smacking the thing, but with no effect. And I had to stop, because I ended up hurting my hand!”

Lesson #2 – Public knowledge sharing can come up with some unique answers – maybe not the preferred, and maybe not the best.

“So then I [of the hurting hand] thought, No, this can’t be the right way to fix this. And as I bent down to actually look over the mechanism, I noticed a small tube through which water was supposed to flow through – and it occurred to me that the tube might’ve been plugged. So I took out a paper clip and cleared out the tubing, and lo and behold – coffee maker works again.”

“Great”, says our storyteller, “success … so I went back online to report my new (and better way) to fix the problem.”

Wow – that statement was the one that really got my attention. I admit it; after my own google-binges searching for tech solutions, I rarely go back to the source to add my own discoveries to the knowledge base. Lesson #3 – this ‘collaboration’ stuff only works when readers become contributors; and this interaction is (in my opinion) rather tough to cajole out of people.

“So I write up my notes, and submit it to the web site – and a few days later, the manufacturer drops me a line to ask if they can use my solution in one of their on-line troubleshooting manuals.”

Aha! again – a nice one by the coffee maker company, they really seem to be doing this social collaboration stuff correctly. Lesson #4 – there is a lot of information coming in, and someone from the sponsoring company should be actively curating the content and nurturing this customer connection point to get real value out of it.

“But then, it kinda backfired on me – I started getting emails from other folks in the discussion thread, with the strangest questions. How big of a paper clip, what shape do you bend it in, can I use a plastic paper clip, etc. …”

That one got me chuckling out loud. Lesson #5, you can’t really control the conversation, and it can veer off in any direction.

Caveat collaborator

# 7 October, 2012

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.