Enterprise social networks (ESN) are buzzing. Or so we hear. Yet for every company bragging about their amazing ESN adoption rates, we also hear many more tales of how hard it’s been, of how an organization has struggled to find any real purpose.

Like any new enterprise initiative — be it tools, campaigns or strategies — employees won't buy into it unless: a. they have to use it or b. they need to use it. You may find pockets of enthusiasm, but you'll also find plenty of apathy and even a loss of credibility. "What's the point of this," or "I don't have time for idle chat."

If you're still in the planning stages, you have time to develop goals for your ESN, such as peer-to-peer innovation engines or learning tools, although this should be part of a wider program. But if you’ve already deployed your ESN or it's part of a wider suite of tools, all is not lost. Here are five things you can do today to energize your enterprise social network.

1. Host a 'Jam'

Tweet Jams or YamJams refer to live Q&As that take place over social media. While I'm not a big fan of the "jam" term, we don't really have an analogue equivalent, so let's run with it. 

Town Hall sessions or roadshows, the traditional way of engaging with staff, are typically one-way: delivering a corporate message or results with an allocated time for questions. Meetings typically focus on strategic, team or project issues with a clear itinerary. Jams, on the other hand, are about throwing a topic out there with no expectation of what will come out of it. It's about opening up, inviting unexpected contributions and allowing for randomness. 

Choose a topic — something that will pique interest in the community at large. A topic like "identifying savings plans for 2018" won't do this. But topics such as "big trends for 2018: what are you expecting?" is open to everyone, is positively framed and therefore invites contributions.

Set up a time. Keep it short and lively, ideally an hour in duration. And invite everybody. Start your jam with an opening statement. Something about your own expectations, what you are excited about, what you are fearful of. Naturally, it may take some courage for the first person to respond, so line up some friendly colleagues ready to pitch in if necessary.

Another way of running these is to present two counter-arguments. One person makes a statement at one extreme, the other makes an opposite pitch. This creates a huge "safe place" in the middle ground for inviting contribution.

2. Create a Community

Online communities can take time to develop, but actually creating them takes no time at all. What do people in your organization care about? What skills are represented but do not reside in the same business group? Many areas of shared needs are not represented by formal business structure or process, and any one of these would benefit enormously from having a community created around it. 

The other, easier option, is to migrate existing communities from their current format to your ESN (I'm talking to you, email-based communities!). Whether it's formal communities of practice, or informal groups such as social communities, corporate social responsibility teams or clubs, the activities of these can be directly transplanted into closed groups on your ESN tool. Whoever initiates conversations in these groups can simply start a more open conversation on your ESN — somewhere where conversations are fluid and more engaging than email lists.

Related Article: 9 Big Community and Collaboration Platform Trends for 2018

3. Tell Stories

We all love stories. It's what human learning thrives on, from traditional children's fables to fast-paced TED talks. Stories are hugely important. We can apply our own creative interpretation to them, understand the context more thoroughly, and absorb them more effectively when compared with facts and figures.

Telling stories on your ESN is simply writing up an experience from your own perspective. Why did you decide to do this? What did you learn from it? An example could be your experiences from a conference or even what you loved recently from a customer experience. The trick to make this a successful tactic for your ESN is to make it personal. Don't present facts and figures. Write from your emotional perspective. How did you feel? What did you love about it, what annoyed you? Use the kind of everyday language you would if you were talking to a colleague over a coffee.

Telling stories displays a personal connection that makes them more open to discussion, and invites contribution from others. That's how we start a conversation. And that's what makes ESNs thrive.

Learning Opportunities

4. Ask the Right Questions to Crowdsource Answers

Crowdsourcing is a natural fit for ESNs. But before you start, you need to make sure that you're asking the right questions. The wrong question at best clogs up your ESN with content regarded as "noise" and at worst removes credibility of your initiative and even of the ESN deployment. The right question, however, engages and empowers your workforce.

So what constitutes a "right" question? Simply put, it's a question that piques the interest of the workforce, asked in a way that invites them in, so they feel comfortable offering a response. Too vague and people may feel uncertain about what is expected. Too specific and people may feel they have to hit the nail on the head straight away, otherwise they'll stand out as the "one that gave a stupid answer." Good ways to frame questions are "Has anyone got any experience of ..." or "I'm looking for help. I can't achieve X."

Focusing on someone's experience is a way of asking a question without making an objective demand for an answer — it's a less intimidating way of asking a question. With the second method, stating you can't do something opens yourself up by phrasing the question in a way that creates trust and invites people to respond honestly.

Think of what you post as conversations rather than questions and answers. That way you'll invite responses rather than intimidate or fail to connect with people. 

Related Article: Do Enterprise Social Networks Really Help Collaboration?

5. Find the Catalysts

Some people will already thrive in your ESN. Using social network analysis, you can identify these people and see who they are networking with. They may have found a process that works well on an ESN, or they prefer to manage project communications this way. Talk to them and learn why they use the tool and what they achieve. Then share it: have them tell their stories.

Legitimizing the use of ESNs by telling stories of how they work and why people find them useful opens the door to wider adoption. It's more than being inspired, it's a sense of, "it's OK, we have permission to perform business tasks here."

British Gas in the UK ran a #Yamwins campaign which showed real examples of customer problems being successfully solved by conversations held on Yammer. This drove further engagement over a 30 day period with over 10,000 employees actively engaged.

With all of these examples, we simply need conversation starters. Something to pull people in, not pushing content out. Communications will not drive engagement. Interactions are what provide the purpose and energy.

Put the effort into making conversations happen, and you'll reap the rewards: problem-solving, the emergence of new thinking, new connections being made, less email traffic. Sometimes it just means making the first move. 

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