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Like It Or Not, They Heard it Through the Grapevine

“Isn’t this just the return of the ‘grapevine?’  The thing we’ve been fighting for decades?”  One of our members shared this reaction as we were discussing the networked model of influence at a recent cohort event held just south of Lake Grapevine :) in Texas.  We’ve described this model at numerous events and Insider posts over the last seven months and I understand where this reaction comes from: communication within the “grapevine” – i.e., social networks – can be filled with rumors and misinformation.  Wouldn’t it be better if we could provide stakeholders instead with up-to-date, reliable, accurate information?

We haven’t really had to address this question before, mainly because most communicators have come to the conclusion (confirmed by CEC research) that fighting the grapevine is a losing battle.  Stakeholders (employees, customers, activists, etc.) prefer to hear from each other rather than from large organizations, and technology has helped them both connect with peers and filter our messages out.

However, not all communicators (or senior executives) are convinced, so it is probably worth addressing their concern.  Suppose your organization could choose to operate in a world where stakeholders received ALL their information through established channels (e.g., media, newsletters, etc.), and that we could control or at least influence those channels to carry our more trustworthy information.  Would you choose that world?

I’d argue that the answer should be no.  The faulty assumption behind the seductive appeal of that “hub and spoke” model of information flow is that our stakeholders will care so much about what we have to say that they will listen to, believe, and act on it.  But the very reason why they prefer to hear from their peers is because those peers add a lot of value – like relevance, credibility, and reciprocity – that “corporate” mass messages do not provide.

For us to replicate the tailored, compelling dialogue that people can get from their peers, we would need a whole army of communicators, each able to tailor a message that reflects the interests, needs, suspicions, and biases of some set of individual stakeholders.  How much information is important enough to justify funding that army?  The amazing thing about social networks is that they effectively perform audience analysis, tailoring, and calling to action for free.  So while the anarchy of the social network is susceptible to rumor and distortion, it is also a much more powerful and cost-effective mechanism for communication, as long as we can learn to harness its power.

I realize that in all likelihood, I’m preaching to the choir.  So let me ask, do your business partners see that benefit?  Are there any effective mechanisms you’ve used to educate or convince them?  Please share!

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