How to successfully use social media on your projects
Cornelius Fichtner, CSM, PMP
President, OSP International, LLC
Where does social media fit into project management? Is social media even used on projects? And if required, how can project managers integrate social media into their projects?
This paper examines how social media has affected individuals, organizations, and projects. It proposes that social media is not a passing fad. Instead, social media is here to stay and is becoming ever more universal in how we do business and execute our projects. It is, therefore, the responsibility of the project manager to guide the project team in determining how to best implement and use social media on their projects.
This work acknowledges that social media is not without its own set of challenges. If a project can overcome these challenges, social media can ultimately become a success factor and competitive advantage. These challenges are discussed through the review of social media themes, types, and lessons learned, concluding with a list of actionable items that will further the use of social media in a project-driven environment.
Social Media in Review
The Deloitte Shift Index (Deloitte, 2013) talks about our changing work environment. The data includes information about the trend for the participation in inter-firm knowledge flows and how social media is being used to achieve this. Exhibit 1 shows a graph that highlights the changes in social media use for sharing knowledge between companies across a period of several years. Participation in online forums, professional and community organizations, and social media networks decreased from 2011 levels.
This contrasts starkly to the researchers’ opinion that “while individuals are eagerly embracing new technologies and practices in their personal lives, they found that outdated institutional structures and practices continue to inhibit organizational knowledge flows, limiting learning and performance improvement” (Deloitte, 2013).
Exhibit 1: Participation in inter-firm knowledge flows (Deloitte, 2013).
The author also carried out an informal survey in which questions were posed on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other project management websites, as well as an online survey circulated by email to the 70,000 subscribers of the “Project Management Podcast” and associated newsletters. This activity asked respondents whether they used social media and, if so, for what activities.
Ninety percent of respondents to the informal survey did not use social media on projects and only 10% stated they did use social media, and then they went on to explain how they did this on their projects.
Lesson #1: Social Media is Here to Stay
The author believes that this downward trend is a dip and the use of social media in the workplace will rise again, perhaps not in the next six to twelve months, but definitely over the longer term. Why? Because everyone uses social media and it will continue to fight its way into the workplace.
Data from We Are Social (Kemp, 2014) show that there is:
- 37% internet penetration,
- 26% social networking penetration, and
- Over 93% mobile subscription penetration.
It is predicted that there will be 2 billion social media users by 2016.
The trend is not just to be social, but to be mobile and social.
Taking the U.S. snapshot, the data illustrate that:
- 75% of the population is using social media,
- 74% spend over 2 hours on social media everyday, and
- More than half of whom are mobile users.
To further support these findings that social media is here to stay, research by Forrester (cited in Ad Age, 2013) concluded that 85% of executives found social media to be important.
The challenge for project teams in using this data to illuminate and shape project activity is that it is impossible to tell from this what “important” means and how exactly to harness the promise of social media.
It’s up to the project managers, as the movers and shakers of business to figure this out and make it work.
Social Media Themes
Prior to moving on to the next lessons to be discussed by this paper, it is worth pausing to reflect on the major themes driving and underpinning the social media usage that business is seeing.
Social media use is driven by the 6 C's—community, collaboration, conversation, curation, content, and culture. These will now be discussed, in turn.
This is the way we do things; how we treat each other around here. It’s the social aspect of social media, defined as “the interaction among people in which they create, share, or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks” (Wikipedia, n.d.).
Social media is all about collaboration on files, ideas, or projects. There are a lot of tools that help users collaborate on documents, share files, or send messages back and forth. Project management tools, in particular, provide collaborative ways of tracking tasks, activities, milestones, and deadlines.
Social media is also about conversation; people coming together in the community to discuss items of common interest. It enables the message to reach a much wider audience than would otherwise be possible as social technology amplifies and shares the message across platforms. Social media allows you to be much louder, and that can sometimes be an effective project management tool, as being louder can enable messages about your project to be heard.
The old saying that “content is king” is still true for social media. Sharing and using valuable content is at the center of social media engagement.
The volume of content means that curation becomes a valuable skill. Curation means organizing and maintaining a database or a collection of information works and entertainment artifacts.
Curation is a collaborative effort, carried out by all participants. They decide what content is important and should be shared and discussed. Social media shifts a participant's role from the gatekeeping of information or knowledge to gatewatching or curating. Participants gather together to classify, organize, and maintain media content on their own, without the intervention of professional librarians.
Individuals take the piece of interesting and valuable content to their community and summarize it, explaining why it adds value and what they have learned from it.
Social media is also about group culture. Communicating and collaborating inevitably leads to a culture.
Think about how quickly ideas can be shared and how news travels nowadays. Think about how, with one click, an individual can participate and vote or express disagreement on an issue.
It’s important to note that all of these C’s are interconnected. For example, curated (quality) content can spark a conversation, and these conversations are the foundation of your community and culture.
Social Media Types
Sites where users can connect with other users, which includes the likes of Facebook (no pun intended), Myspace, LinkedIn, and Ning.
Blogs (or weblogs) include text, audio, video, and multimedia.
A microblog differs from a traditional blog in that its content is typically smaller in both actual and aggregated file size; for example, Twitter limits were originally set to 140 characters for a text message. But there are many others: Tumblr, Squidoo, Mysay, Hictu, Moodmill, frazr, and emotionr.
Discussion forums are places for online communities to discuss topics of common interest. Posts are organized into related threads around questions and answers, or community discussions.
Sets of related content displayed as web pages that can be collectively edited to record information on any subject.
Sharing photos and videos on Flickr and YouTube, for example.
A way of publishing MP3 audio files on the web so they can be downloaded onto computers or portable listening devices, such as iPods or other MP3 players.
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication (among other things). It is a web content format which, when used with an RSS aggregator, can allow you to alert users to new or exciting content on your website.
Tools like Yammer are used for private communication within organizations.
A centralized online service which enables users to add, annotate, edit, and share bookmarks of web documents, for example, Pinterest, Delicious, StumbleUpon, and Furl.
Services that allow people to post various news items or links to outside articles and then allows its users to "vote” on the items (e.g., Digg, Reddit).
The practice of using game technology or design principles for something that is not inherently game‐like. An example would be offering bronze, silver, and gold “badges” for reading a set number of books.
This brief overview of social media themes and types explains one thing: there is a lot that needs to be understood in order to make informed decisions about social media usage on projects. This leads us to the second lesson.
Lesson #2: Develop a Strategy
Today’s working practices mean project team members and project managers often feel like they are working 24/7. This is only possible because the technology that supports this is here. The way our projects run today demands screens for all those instant exchanges of information between the various groups participating on the project. ‘Then’ versus the ‘now’ is also an important factor of how project management is slowly moving toward the use of social media.
As the surveys discussed above show, social media is not in widespread use amongst project managers. The primary reason for that is that businesses lack the strategy to implement it effectively. This section will look at how to develop the strategy.
First, the goals. Goals are required for using social media in your organization on your projects. This includes:
- Set your goals,
- Define your audience: internal or external to your organization,
- Define the content that you intend to share, and
- Agree on the platforms that are appropriate for use.
Additional items to include are:
- Unique Selling Proposition (USP). What makes this different from all the other social media voices out there?
- Training needs
- Editorial calendar
- Analytics used for tracking
- Who will be your social media team?
- Employee participation
Finally, there is one more item that needs to go into your social media strategy, but because it is so important, it stands alone as a separate lesson.
Lesson #3: Measure, Adjust, Repeat
Social media without having metrics is hopeless. It's like running a project without business goals. It will not be possible to see what you're doing and how it is affecting your project management approaches.
The question for project managers is, therefore, what metrics to use. The right metrics for your project and organization will depend on a number of factors and link back to your strategy, tailored to this project. Sample metrics that are appropriate for internally-facing social tools include:
- Reach: Total number of people who logged in and used our social media tools. Here we just measure the total number.
- Engagement: Here we measure actual participation; how many comments, time spent by users reading pages, contributions per user.
- Experience: Did this project allow us to gain the experience we were seeking to gain with a new way of project communication?
- Anecdotes: Not everything can be measured with data and analytics tools. An informal survey of the users and how they think social media worked on the project can be beneficial.
The below four metrics are examples of what would be appropriate for measuring a social tool aimed at external stakeholders, and cover more marketing and engagement:
- Traffic: How much traffic did our social media channels send us?
- Feedback: How much input did we receive from our external stakeholders regarding the project?
- Likes: How many people clicked on the like buttons?
- Shares: How many people shared our messages with their friends?
Lesson #4: Embrace Social Media
Anecdotal research from the author’s survey shows that the best results are achieved when you fully embrace the possibilities of social media and approach it with enthusiasm. Half-heartedness will not lead to positive and long-lasting benefits.
Lesson #5: Listen to Stakeholders
Social media provides project managers with another way to share information with the public—it brings information to the public, rather than forcing the public to come to a meeting. This is a good way of listening to and engaging stakeholders on your project, with the added advantage of being cost effective and easy to implement. However, project teams do need to take care to continually monitor the site: survey respondents in the author's survey referred to this as “care and feeding.”
Lesson #6: Use the Power of the Crowd
Crowdsourcing is a practice whereby an individual or team can obtain services, ideas, or content from a wide group of people, generally online, rather than sourcing them from traditional routes such as established suppliers.
Again, these techniques are most appropriate when the project lends itself to the external participation of stakeholder groups.
Crowdvoting, crowdfunding, and crowdsearching are other crowd-based techniques where the power of the group is paramount, either in expressing an opinion, raising money, or locating and returning lost objects or pets.
Example: Tourism Australia
Tourism Australia has a website where you can upload your image from Australia and, in this way, they are able to create connections between a tourist that has already been in Australia and a tourist that is wanting to go to Australia.
Lesson #7: Create Connections
One of the most obvious reasons to use social media is to create connections and build relationships. Social media enables creating communities of common interests and practices. For example, there is an online project manager community that can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, and other channels.
The power of social networks is underpinned by the increased ability to harness weak ties. Networking used to be limited to face-to-face activities, such as PMI meetings, but now social tools make online connections possible.
Connections can also be formed across virtual and distributed teams in this way. The challenges of distributed teams include distance and different time zones, which contribute to trust issues. In a personal anecdote that was contributed as part of the author’s survey, Dave Cornelius offered evidence that camaraderie was built in his project team through the use of social media profiles and photographs.
Lesson #8: Harness Your Team’s Strengths
Social media can provide more than just a virtual water cooler. Think beyond considering ideation programs that use crowdsourcing, brainstorming, or tools to collect innovative ideas from your team. Harness the strength and interest of your team members to build better working relationships. Specifically, focus on:
- Team building,
- Collaboration (which will be discussed in more detail below),
- Innovation, and
Lesson #9: Collaborate
Social media lends itself to collaboration, and on project teams, the first forays into social media use is through the use of tools such as Google Docs, where two or more people can work on a document at the same time. Successful project teams can take this a lot further.
In 2007, without evidence of substantial new gold deposits, Toronto-based Goldcorp, Inc. was likely to fold. Its chief executive officer, Rob McEwen, did something unheard of in his industry: He published his geological data online and challenged the world to do the prospecting. The “Goldcorp Challenge” made a total of US$575,000 in prize money available to participants who submitted the best methods and estimates.
Within weeks, the company received submissions from around the world, identifying 110 targets, more than 80% of which yielded substantial quantities of gold. Eight million ounces of gold have been found since the challenge was announced, at a value of US$3 billion, far outweighing the prize money investment (Tapscott & Williams, 2007).
Lesson #10: Share and Manage Knowledge
The classic example for sharing and managing knowledge online is a wiki, similar to Wikipedia. Wikis work well for end-user and technical documentation, as well as project FAQs. The author’s research shows that while lots of project stakeholders used the wiki to read and learn, it was just a small core group of users who contributed actively and added new content.
Project teams should consider ways to incentivize others to actively contribute to the wiki including:
- Appointing moderators,
- Welcoming new members,
- Sending thank yous and complimenting contributors,
- Including a call to action on all pages, and
- Simplifying the process to contribute.
Lesson #11: Establish an Online Presence
Social media can be used to advance an individual's project management career. Résumés are no longer the only option for the project manager wanting to present him- or herself to the world. Whether it is called personal branding or marketability, it's important to establish a professional online presence. This is because before a candidate is interviewed for a new position, the hiring manager is likely to research you online by searching for your name, your Twitter presence, your influence, and connections on LinkedIn and other factors (Meister, 2013).
Projects can have an online presence of their own as well, which is particularly worth considering for those projects, which count the public amongst their stakeholders.
Lesson #12: People, Not Tools
Finally, it is important to remember that tools alone will not deliver better projects. Refer back to the strategy that supports any social media use and ensure that the tools selected will support the people doing the work in a way that is a natural fit for the work you are trying to do.
Next Steps: Six Action Items
Social media is an extension of what project teams do naturally. It's recommended that individuals don't get too hung up on all the technology. There is a wide range of choices and the advantages and disadvantages of each of these are beyond the scope of this paper. Whatever technology option is chosen by the social project team, note that as social beings, team members naturally want to connect, interact, and share. Social media helps to extend what project teams would naturally do.
However, much of what this paper has discussed is related to mind set and attitudes toward social media, the adoption and development of which takes time. Here are six actionable steps to get started with social media on your projects. The first three address strategic priorities; the second three are more tactical.
1. Create Foundations
If it has not been done already, you should encourage your organization to consider how to best use social media and establish a strategy. This includes norms and policies relating to security and privacy.
2. Assess Maturity
It’s important to understand what your own organization and industry is doing in terms of social media. This also applies to stakeholders: assess their attitude and level of maturity on the spectrum of social media, as this will determine how best to use social media. It will also determine how much change management training may be required for it to successfully be used.
Engage in social listening to customers/employees/other projects, and even competitors. Find out more about what they are doing with regard to social media. This internal and competitive intelligence gathering will highlight the types of information that could be effectively shared.
4. Set Expectations
Define what behavior you are encouraging in your team and organization. Define the metrics for the project. Set expectations with regard to what social media can and will do: it is not the silver bullet that will instantly make the project a success. Instead, frame social media usage in a way that meets the strategic goals (e.g., to provide a natural way to communicate and collaborate).
Assess how to use social media and the tools available to the organization. Make practical decisions based on the audience.
Implement the Plan‐Do‐Check‐Act cycle as an ongoing activity. Once social media is operational, it will be relatively easy to gather ongoing results that can lead to improvements. Bring the team together for regular checkpoints and get their feedback to adapt your approach.
Projects are initiated to change and improve how we do business. Project managers have to become knowledgeable about social media and be the ones who lead the transition to new working practices because it is they who lead their companies to and through change.
Adding social media provides a new way of communicating and collaborating on projects and should be considered as a project to improve project management processes. Technology should not bog the team down. Keep it simple. If over-moderated or moderated the wrong way, discussion can be stifled, just as it could be in a live discussion.
Project managers face the social media challenge, but also have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership with this technology. With social media, leaders have the chance to build, maintain, lead, motivate, and inspire their teams. However, in the final analysis, as with all technology, it's still all about people and how people can make it work.
Ad Age. (2013, May 22). Forrester: 85% of execs find social media important. Retrieved from: http://adage.com/article/btob/forrester-85-execs-find-social-mediaimportant/289356/
Deloitte University Press. (2013). The burdens of the past: Deloitte shift index. Retrieved from: http://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/center-for-the-edge/articles/shift-index-metrics-burdens-of-the-past.html
Kemp, S. (2014, January 9). Social, digital and mobile worldwide in 2014. Retrieved from: http://wearesocial.net/blog/2014/01/social-digital-mobile-worldwide-2014/
Meister, J. (2013). The year of social HR. Retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeannemeister/2013/01/03/2013-the-year-of-social-hr/
Social Media. (n.d.). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_media
Tapscott, D. & Williams, A. D. (2007, February 1) Innovation in the age of mass collaboration. Retrieved from: http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/stories/2007-02-01/innovation-in-the-age-of-mass-collaborationbusinessweek-business-news-stock-market-and-financial-advice
© 2015, Cornelius Fichtner
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA