The Un-RFP and Its Unexpected Benefits

Photo by zetson, via flickrI thought I’d update you about a topic I wrote earlier this year, when we began a search process to hire a new communications consultant. I had written that I solicited expressions of interest via an RFP, and how the very term “RFP” give consultants the same reaction that “Niagara Falls” gave the Three Stooges.

Clearly, RFPs have gotten a bad rap, because there are so many bad ones out there. My posts attracted many great comments, and the resulting “un-RFP” we wrote benefited from that great feedback.

So what happened? We put together a team of eight people to review the proposals and select a consultant. They came from communications, education, membership and IT. Twenty consultants and agencies responded to the first RFP. We selected eight of them to make a one-hour webinar presentation, and answer our questions.  From the eight, we selected three to come to our offices for a 90-minute presentation. From the three finalists, we selected Ignite Social Media, a group from Cary, N.C.

What did we learn?

  • There are a lot of people out there doing great work in social media, producing impressive results for their clients.
  • There are a lot of great specialists in this area, but a smaller number had a compelling vision of how to incorporate social media into an organization’s total communications footprint.
  • Despite this, many agencies and consultants understood the challenge we were presenting them. We felt we couldn’t go wrong with any of the finalists, so it was a matter of selecting the best fit among some really, really good professionals. It was hard to say no to those we didn’t select.
  • Finally, one awesome, unexpected benefit. I deliberately created a diverse team – not just in job function, but in their attitudes towards social media. Some were believers, others were skeptics. In our selection meetings, I spoke last, so I didn’t skew the result. I had hoped that the diversity would keep each others’ extreme viewpoints in check, and we did get that.
    • And we got more. What I didn’t expect was how everyone – even the skeptics – began to appreciate the potentially world-changing nature of social media. It didn’t require a bit of selling on my part, just a willingness to step back and let the process do its magic.
    • So I learned that this process is a great way to organically grow the conversation about anything new in an organization, not just social media.

Lots of people in our business are trying to figure out the same thing. So as we embark on our exciting journey, I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.


Digital Now 2009: What Will You Do on Monday?

Digital Now logoDigital Now’s annual conference last week, as always, wonderfully captured the spirit of the association community, and its love/hate affair with technology. There was no need to persuade people that social media will be the media of the future, nor of the idea that social media is the modern expression of the association’s core purpose. That’s been done.

Instead, what arose were two things: The eyewitness experience of the potential of microblogs, and a quiet determination to do social media right.

Let’s rewind a bit.

At Digital Now three years ago, social media was just beginning to leak into the association world. It was intriguing and enticing.

Two years ago, many speakers were singing the praises of blogs, online communities, Second Life, and more. The cool tools were the drug of the day.

A year ago, there was palpable disillusionment. Memorably, one guy said, “We started a social network last year, and the crickets are chirping.”

Clay ShirkyThis year, with the euphoria gone and the hangover eased, there was a new spirit – we have to get this right. Clay Shirky, the keynote speaker on the first day, said that the public doesn’t find technology useful, until it’s technically boring. It’s not about the tools, dude.

He also began the main theme of the weekend when he said that it’s much easier to start small with a good system, and let it grow, than to start with a bad system and try to fix it.

That’s what theme of the weekend was: Go simple. It was repeated again, and again, and again.

For me this has always been difficult. I always want to do things with a splash. I like the idea of the big bang, the serial atta-boys, and so forth. But as I shared with about a dozen attendees at the small session I led, the big bang approach got us a few crickets, some bruises, and the possibility of many lessons learned. One observed, “Sometimes, it comes down to ego.”

He’s right. So simple it will be.

At the same time, the conference created a trap for the attendees. Twitter is the phenomenon of the year, right? This was the weekend that Oprah went into rapture with her first tweet, and singlehandedly slowed Twitter to a frustrating crawl.

Twitter was the wow technology of Digital Now. About a quarter of attendees (including me) tweeted throughout the conference, using #dn09 and #digitalnow. Reading back on the tweets, it’s like reading the transcript of a good baseball game: Long stretches of ordinariness and tedium, punctuated by spontaneous outbursts of spectacular brilliance.

As a whole, Twitter got the job done. Its power to create a community was plainly visible. But the trap is that it creates the temptation run home and recreate this for the folks at home. Wrong. OK, no technology could be simpler. But if you build it, they won’t come – not even for Twitter.

Charlene LiSo how does this become like the “air” of the association? On the final day, the soft-spoken and wise Charlene Li, the co-author of the great social media book “Groundswell,” wrapped it all up.

Her talk was a little about strategy, but mostly about implementation. As she said, this has to relate back to your corporate strategy. She said that when she works with a company, the first things she asks for is the company’s strategic plan. Without that link, social media is a waste of time.

Her four parting points:

1-    Find your revolutionaries, and cultivate the “realist/optimists;” the people who will eagerly try new things but never lose sight of the pragmatic impulse. These people will be your most effective at promoting adoption throughout the organization.
2-    Start really small.
3-    Measure the right things. She didn’t talk about visits, or links, or such. She talked about “net promoter scores,” and “lifetime value” of each of your customers. These get closer to the strategic heart of your business than any clickstream could ever do.
4-    Embrace failure, because it’s a guarantee that you will fail (whew!). Relationships are hard to do right 100% of the time. She pointed out that Walmart failed spectacularly three times before hitting the right note with its blog for merchandise buyers.

Charlene ended with a simple question: “What will you do on Monday?” This brought it all home. Pick one thing to start on Monday, and act on it. This started about 25 different small group discussions that could have lasted for an hour.

The conversation continues. One speaker, Peter Hirshberg of Technorati, reminded us of how recent this whole social media thing is. It was only five years ago that blogs dethroned CBS News. Yet today, as he demonstrated in a video, social media is the air that 12 and 13 years olds breathe. TV is so … old.

It will be like air for associations, too, and soon – if we get it right before our competitors do.