There’s a convergence going on: some big social and business trends that have one thing in common – the word open.
Whether it’s open-source software, or enormous information repositories that are open to be accessed and sometimes even edited by anyone, or the growing requirements for transparency on the part of organizations and governments, your customers, supporters and audience are expecting you to be open to them.
Not just in the sense of open-minded… or having a contact form on your web site. But open in the sense that they know what you’re doing, how it affects them, and why. That your organization’s leadership is available and accountable. That they can engage with you and your brand as peers.
Books like Wikinomics and Tactical Transparency explain not only the forces driving the trend toward openness, but the real value that businesses and other organizations can gain when they let in some sunshine. Freeing some of your intellectual property, for instance, can allow your users to run with it – sometimes as brand ambassadors, other times as analysts who generate new and unexpected insights for you. And opening up internally, by creating a place for conversation that cuts across departmental walls, can give your organization new opportunities to collaborate.
Even the more intimidating aspects of openness, like the increased accountability it imposes, can be positive when it keeps organizations true to their mission and their brand values – and aligned with the communities they serve.
There’s more – a lot more – to openness than blogging, of course. But a blog can be the way your organization opens the windows a crack, sniffs the air outside and decides whether to go further.
Here’s how to start opening up:
- Nobody’s expecting you to run naked through the digital streets – and certainly not right off the bat. Get buy-in from your organization, start small, and open up gradually… validating what you’ve done at every step.
- Your first step can be a modest one: bringing in a manager as a guest blogger, for example, available to respond to reader comments and questions about their area of responsibility. A successful outing there can lead to more ambitious efforts later on.
- Focus your efforts on relevant openness – things that actually matter to your readers. And aim at first for the areas with the least controversy and risk, while you build up your organization’s comfort level (and your own knowledge of your community of readers and commenters.)
- Openness is as much about getting to know people as it is about hard facts and controversial issues. Introduce your readers to the behind-the-scenes folks who make things happen. If those people are willing, give your readers access to them with a Q & A or live chat on your blog.
- Let your readers in on what goes on backstage. Take them through the process of making that hot new product you’re selling, or walk them through the processing of a donation all the way to where it makes a difference out in the world.
- Share your challenges. Is the economic downturn causing breaks or bottlenecks in your supply chain that are causing delivery delays? Has heightened interest in your organization meant a slow web server or site outages? Be the first to tell that story to your readers, before they hear it from others or experience it themselves; they’ll appreciate the candor, and respond well to your lack of defensiveness.
- Anticipate the risks of openness: backlash, criticism and tough questions. Plan in advance for how you can deal with them, so a brief spark doesn’t have the time to flare into something more destructive.
- “Open” doesn’t mean “floodgates”. You probably have reams of data you could share on your blog, from the cafeteria’s daily specials to the new guidelines for office allocation. Be judicious, and choose the information that will mean the most to the people you want to reach.
- If you have an especially thorny problem, consider throwing it open to your readers. Be very clear about the kind of help you’d like, so you can focus their contributions and ideas where they’ll actually be useful.
- When the time comes to make a decision that affects your readers, use your blog as consult them
- See if you can make your organization’s logo and wordmark available for reuse (perhaps under a Creative Commons license), and post them to your blog. Invite your readers to use them, even to remix them, when they’re talking about your organization. Do the same with photos of your organization’s leadership, audio and video clips of products or services in action, and other digital assets that your readers can run with.
- Do at least as much listening as talking, and build the reflex of responding with access. If you’re seeing a lot of blog chatter or reading a lot of comments about a particular issue, find ways to open up around it – by exposing some of your internal conversations about the issue, for example, or inviting a conversation between your readers and some of your organization’s key people.
- Look for ways to bring people inside – not just virtually, but in the physical world. Hold a real-world meetup in your offices, for example, or a townhall with your organization’s key leaders. And complete the circle by linking it back to the online world – for instance, via a Twitter feed or liveblog of the conversation.
You’ll know that openness is starting to pay off when:
- Your research and monitoring show an increase in public perception and description of your organization as open, accessible and accountable.
- Ideas from your blog’s readers start getting discussed in your organization, and taken seriously.
- Your organization steps back from the brink of a bad decision because of concern over how it will be received in the community. And your organization takes a courageous good decision for exactly the same reason.
- Internal collaboration starts to cut across silos, as the culture of openness soaks in.
- People in your organization start to approach you with things they’d like to ask or share with your readers.