Information channels stop working when the customer is collaboratively involved in the delivery of the message. When that happens, the message (and sometimes the definition of the product and its value) changes as it is propagated through the network. Moreover, some customers will be more “important” than others, due to their location and status in the network. The message may also change in response to what the network feels the message is, or should be, or simply because of the typical sharpening (the emphasizing of what the speaker considers the gist of the message) and leveling (the de-emphasizing of those pieces considered less important) that happen to messages when they travel through networks made up of humans 1.0. Accordingly, the message might have to be clarified by the company or another interested human, or the actual propagation might force a review of what the desired message was or should be. What’s the upshot of all of this uncertainty? One clear answer is that discrete business “channels” are an endangered species.
In a networked world, where your customers, potential customers, and detractors are all nodes equally visible to every other node, there is no such opportunity for the company to control “the channel” as they might have in the past. In a Hyper-Social environment, where you don’t know who will be participating in the conversation until the conversation actually begins, it is impossible to create separate pathways where you can message a retailer, a customer, or a business partner.
That being said, you need to be aware of the topology of the networks that exist within your tribes, as differences among them call for different approaches. In some cases you will have very tightly connected members at the core of you network with others at the fringes that are less connected; in some cases you may have more evenly distributed networks; or you may even have networks that have ring networks inside of them. The tribal network characteristics will determine where you might want to position yourself within the network (if they allow you to become part of it) and how to most effectively have your content travel through them. In some cases you will want to target the members who are the most connected at the center of your network, and in some cases you will be better off by targeting those who are loosely connected to them. You should also understand the nature of the social bonds and leadership structures that exist within your Hyper-Social networks. If the leadership does not rotate on a periodic basis, or doesn’t allow for newcomers to achieve status within reasonable amount of time, that is a problem. The type of bonds that people have with one another is also an important characteristic. In certain environments, such as sites with product reviews, connectedness is not all that important, but status might be. In other environments, where people are helping one another in the context of complex problem solving, connection is an important factor that will determine how knowledge flows within those communities. In all cases you will need to gather network characteristics for active lurkers – the largest and potentially most influential participation group within your community. They are those who participate and share information with others, but do so using different channels (phone, face-to-face, or email) than the public community forums.
Another fundamental difference between channels and networks lies in what flows through them. Data and information flow through channels, whereas networks allow knowledge to flow. As John Hagel said when I talked with him: “unlike information or data flows, knowledge does not flow easily – as it relies on long-term trust-based relationships.”
There are two reasons why this is an important distinction to make – one for buyers and one for companies.
Besides the fact that as potential buyers we don’t trust the non-reciprocal communications that companies want to have with us through fixed interrupt-based channels, we turn to our trusted networks because we can gain actual knowledge about products and services – a commodity much more valuable than plain old data or information about them.
As for companies, they need to increase their external knowledge flows if they are to survive. When I spoke with John Hagel he explained how he believes that in this era of intensifying competition, we need to shift from a knowledge stock mentality, where you aggressively protect and hoard proprietary knowledge, build scalable offerings around it, and then extract value from it for the longest possible time, to a knowledge flow mentality, where you realize that what you know today has rapidly diminishing value and where you refresh your knowledge stocks by participating in knowledge flows. So the key to success in this new economic reality is to move from a transactional world to a long-term trust-based world. Examples of taking on a knowledge flow approach include letting your key customers participate in product innovation, or turning them into affiliates to allow them to help one another.
What do you think? As usual, I would be interested in your thoughts.