Recently many people have been asking how to harness the power of social networking in a business context. An example of how to do it right is a group called Next Director, a group for emerging and current company directors to share information, founded by Michael Field. I asked him about his experience in creating this group, and what he found worked for him in doing so.
Justin: What is it about being a company director that interests you?
Michael: Being a company director for me is about the opportunity to apply your skills toward enhancing the performance of an organisation. Of course there is a great deal more to the role and responsibility of a company director, but the opportunity to influence and guide strategy to deliver performance is what drives me personally.
My experience on not-for-profit (NFP) boards has to some extent provided greater challenges, with even greater rewards. The opportunity to work with exceptionally talented people, grapple with complex problems and focus on a common objective is intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding.
Justin: What sparked the idea for this group?
Michael: The idea for Next Director developed as a result of my observations of the Australian director community. My views were further informed through connecting with directors in other countries through social networking sites such as LinkedIn.
Analysis of the director market shows that there is a significant number of company directors whose needs are not being met by traditional member services organisations. There are many reasons for this, but the evidence is in the tragically low membership of director organisations compared to the total director population. Some research indicates that market penetration is as low as 4% in Australia.
The idea behind the group is to harness the collective expertise of a global director market, deliver meaningful services, information & interaction and utilise technology to increase participation and reduce cost.
Justin: What has been the most surprising thing for you about the group to date?
Michael: The surprises have mostly been pleasant and to some extent were hoped for but not expected. The stand-out experience for me has been the incredible generosity of the group when it comes to answering questions posted by another member. Although it is common for people to experience this in social networking sites such as Twitter, I had not yet tested it in the professional, member services market and was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
Justin: How do you manage the issue of people self promoting?
This is an interesting question and a significant challenge for all social networking sites and open groups or forums. While it is difficult (and often counter-productive) to be excessively restrictive with rules, the general approach is:
1. Membership is not automatic. The CV, work history and/or educational experience of the applicant needs to demonstrate their suitability to the group. For example, if there is inadequate information on the applicants LinkedIn profile, they are asked to update their profile to reflect their director interests.
2. All posts, questions and answers are monitored and moderated regularly to ensure that they are focused on director issues. Where a post is obvious self-promotion, or completely off-topic for directors, the group member is asked to remove the post or it is deleted by a moderator.
Justin: What tips do you have for others that want to create similar groups online?
Michael: Be clear about the audience that you want to attract and the specific subject matter that you wish to focus on. General information groups tend to get flooded with self-promotion and irrelevant clutter. The key to success I believe is having a clearly defined objective and then managing closely to that objective by eliminating content that is not relevant to the group.
Although you run the risk of occasionally offending an individual (if you remove a post for example) there is greater damage done by allowing the groups focus to be diluted with irrelevant material.
Justin: What is your experience with other social networking group tools, such as Facebook, Twitter and any others?
I use different social networking sites for different audiences and different businesses.
Twitter has been an excellent networking tool to connect with key influencers in the technology, online, marketing and innovation space. As an example, I recently connected with an iPhone application developer and we are now collaborating on a different project.
LinkedIn has been the test-bed for the Next Director project and has been enormously successful. I have used facebook for more consumer-focused businesses with a degree of success, although it has been less successful for next Director.
Justin: How frequently do you need to post?
Michael: The Next Director community is very active and to a large extent self-sufficient. It is not uncommon for me to log-on and notice a dozen detailed response to a members question from other members. Although this does not reduce my responsibility to keep the group active and continually provide new information, it does however supplement it and allows the group to choose their own topics of interest and post accordingly.
I log on every day, approve new members, monitor and moderate posts and submit new news articles or add to discussions where I can add value.
Justin: Has this generated any business for you?
Michael: My intention with the Next Director was not to develop business for my strategy consulting business, but rather to build a platform where aspiring and emerging company directors could engage with each other, seek & contribute advice and share ideas & information. To that extent it has been a great success, however I have started to develop more direct relationships with the group members to enhance the experience of social networking.
Justin: How has this helped your profile?
Michael: I see the benefits of participating in selected online communities more as an opportunity to connect with interesting people, be at the leading edge of information exchange and technology developments, and enhance the community experience by contributing ideas and expertise.
Justin: Thanks for your insights
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