Steve Bendt and I will be breaking it (BSN) down for a folks working as directors and veeps of internal communication. I've posted the "script" we'll be using for our presentation. I'll post a video later.
What is BlueShirt Nation? BSN?
Here we have a robust community of people with a common interest, Best Buy. They share knowledge, best practices, frustrations, aspirations and jokes.
Within a year 20,000 of them have signed up. All have come to the site from referrals or through word of mouth.
They form groups, make friends, stay in touch and prop each other up. They help each other. They seem to like each other. How cool.
And it's a fluke.
BSN is a corporate sponsored social network site that is outside of the corporate firewall. It is moderated largely by it's users and it's completely voluntary. Plus it was built with open source software and is managed by a couple of ad guys.
In the traditional sense, it shouldn't work.
It wasn't architected by IT professionals. It wasn't coded or designed by web developers. It wasn't endorsed and pushed by management, and its launch wasn't unveiled by Internal Communications.
Yet by all indications, its working and is actually thriving.
So if this is a fluke, how did it happen?
It started with an idea- an idea that we couldn't get sponsored. The idea was to create a place where employees could talk to each other. The hope was that we could learn more about what our customers were going through in the stores so we could create better marketing. People loved the idea, they talked about it, supported it, but no one would fund it.
So in June of 2006 blueshirtnation.com went online- funded by Gary Koelling. For the domain name and a year of hosting it cost a hundred dollars. The software that built the site was free. There was one user, the administrator.
After Gary's hacked version was live and there was a usable prototype, people started to take notice. Management shifted and our new CMO heard what we were doing. He decided to give us some time, some cover and a little money to see if this thing could grow.
Roll Up was our first slogan. It's embarassing now but it's important to recognize why it sucked. It sucked because we came up with it in a vacuum. We thought it was cool. It was dorky. The important thing is we dropped it. As soon as we found out it sucked, it was gone. One of the first lessons that kept us focused on keeping the center of ownership on the user. That's not to say you don't need experts bringing their copywriting or graphic design or marketing skills to the table. You do. But they need to be guided by the user.
The first thing we did was get to know the people that we thought would want to use it. We held what we called Hack Slams. Twenty volunteers from our stores came to Minneapolis to talk about BSN. We sat in a room, talked politely about what it is and then went bowling. We went bowling to get to know each other. We took cameras. We ate pizza. We came back and got honest. We talked about what really sucked about the current site. We took the pics and videos from bowling and posted them to the site. We talked about what it would take for them to use the site. We made changes to BSN right there in the room. Then we talked about those changes.
We talked about things like trust and anonymity on the site. We talked about things that would ruin the experience for them and make them never come back. We talked about the things that would make them want to tell others to join.
After the Hack Slams we went out on the road. We personally visited 130 stores across the country. We brought stickers and t-shirts. We met with thousands of employees and told them a simple message. "We built a site that's kind of like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Digg. Its just for Best Buy employees. Here's a t-shirt- will you check it out?. If you like it, tell others. If you think it sucks- go ahead and post it on the site." They did both.
While all of this was going on, we tried to stick to a few key principals. Build the site fast, be able to adapt quickly, listen closely. We focused on winning the trust of the most skeptical audience which was our store employees. We did that by talking 1:1 with them in our store visits. Promoting the site in ways that were frankly counter culture. We tried to address the main problem they told us- "My opinion doesn't matter."
U R BIG
And it worked. People started to show up. Then they went beyond showing up and actually started to stick around. They talked about what was important to them. Like a Geek Squad Agent who had a niece that was born 12 weeks prematurely. He was asking for people's thoughts and prayers.
Or a Supervisor from Iowa who was serving in Iraq giving her fellow employees an update.
It was open to the user as to what they wanted to talk about. The one thing they all had in common was Best Buy. Since that was the case, the majority of the conversation revolved around their collective experience as employees of Best Buy. In general, they talk about how to make Best Buy a better place. Improve on the things we don't do well, share the things that we do do well, talk about and express the culture that we have, talk about customers- both good and bad.
They bring their perspective- whether its a cashier from store 264 in Columbia South Carolina or a GM from Las Vegas. Each brings their point of view and each has the power to create real change.
They've impacted huge changes to Best Buy. Like the 401K Challenge- a video contest hosted on BSN to promote enrollment in our 401K. The simple assignment of creating a video in your words that tells others about the benefits of the 401K program.
The buzz and impact of the contest resulted in a 30% increase in 401K enrollments. That's 40,000 employees signing up for the 401K that hadn't before.
They take things beyond complaints and give really awesome insight into real problems. Email access is a great example. As a technology company, you'd think that everyone would have an email account- its a right of passage these days. 60% of our employees don't. Its always been an issue but BSN helped bridge the gap of understanding around it- it went beyond complaints to insights like-
"My customers ask me for an email to follow up with questions- I give them my personal gmail account or nothing at all"
productivity issues- "We leave a binder with written notes in it for the next shift to let them know the things that need to get done before close." or "I can't tell the rest of my team important news because sometimes we're not physically in the store together for days."
Insights like this made prioritizing email for employees a no-brainer. In March, all full-time employees will have email.
The site has also helped push our culture to embrace innovation and collaboration from anywhere. Here's a video that 2 users put together- its had a huge impact on employees and leadership. It challenges people to think differently.
The site began to answer a fundamental question or problem most employees (if not all employees) were facing. I feel small. I feel like I don't really count.
It sounds like a success right. People are using it, its still growing, its causing things to change for the positive.
YOU CAN'T KNOW ENOUGH
Then why do we think its a fluke?
Its a fluke because we didn't know enough at the beginning to say what it would be. Its a fluke that we built a prototype and someone actually full-heartedly supported it. Its a fluke that people showed up on the site. Its a fluke that people liked our t-shirts and signed up- and then told others. Its a fluke that management started to listen to the employees and make decisions based on their input.
The biggest reason its a fluke is that we could have never planned for what it became. There are two main reasons that it became something real. The first is admitting what we knew when we started. And that one thing we knew is that we didn't know enough. We didn't know what people wanted or how or if they'd even use it. Admitting that forced us to ask questions, to listen, to react quickly.
The second is failure. We're good at it. We fail weekly and we kind of like it. We try tons of new things, some stick and some don't. Most don't. But we do it in a low criticality environment. We do it so it doesn't cost us a lot of money or make an investment on our part that we're too proud to give up. And when we fail, people forgive us and we learn. We do our best to be human on BSN- to be Gary and Steve on the site- not the BlueShirt Nation admin team. We built real relationships with the users, protect them when they need it, respond as quickly as we can, and ask for forgiveness when we screw up.
By doing that, this fluke has turned into a thriving community of our best employees. We have 20,000 of them on the site. 65% are active meaning they come back at least once a month. In a company with a 60% turnover rate, the members of BSN turnover at a rate of 8.5%. We are getting the most engaged employees on the site and talking about how to make the company better.
In the description of our seminar, it says that we're going to help you learn how to build a social network of your own. The truth is, and this might make you mad, we don't think you can. Not because of who you are, or what you believe, or anything personal like that. You won't be able to do something like this because of your company culture. Like we said, BlueShirt Nation is a fluke. The Best Buy culture wasn't set up to take on something like this. That's why its built outside of the IT network, that's why a couple ad guys run it. At every minute of every day, we still face the challenges that you'll face in your organization
There'll be pressure to build the community fast - bad idea. And you'll face pressure to do it - good luck. There'll be a temptation to throw money at it - doesn't work. You'll want to believe it does - call me, I'll talk you down. There'll be talk of scale - big is better.
The truth is, you're at the mercy of the people that you're trying to influence. If you try to force it, its not real and will feel contrived - it'll backfire.
The top will want to control it. Because things like this look dangerous. It flattens the org chart, redistributes responsibility and rewrites the leader/follower contract. Legal hates things like Social Networks. Too many outliers. They'll try to crush the spirit before it ever leaves planning phase. It's scary.
They'll want to measure its success. The truth is, you can't measure success because you don't know what success is in a social network. We still don't. We see the benefits outweigh the costs so we're still alive. You can't measure that though.
They'll want to plan it, build it, launch it when its perfect. If it's done right, though, it'll never be perfect - it'll always be changing.
So if that's the case, what should you do? If we were to give advice, it would be to start small. Find the people that are passionate about it. Give them freedom, give them cover when they need it, give them a small budget, and most of all, give them time. Let them learn, let the idea grow, and encourage them to fail. Better yet, require them to fail and often.
Good Luck. And have fun.