Internal Open Source Marketing

    January 31, 2006

Open source marketing is a great notion, but it’s slow to catch on.

Eventually it will become common, but it’s a dramatic a shift from an approach to advertising and marketing that has become entrenched over 50 years. Few high-powered Madison Avenue execs would be excited about the idea of turning their creative over to the person on the street. So while open source marketing has persuasive evangeilists who can point to some brilliant case studies that make us hopeful, we have to realize that these are, for the time being, exceptions and not the rule.

Inside our organizations is another matter altogether.

Internal communicators have been practicing forms of open source marketing for years. In an effort to involve employees, we have solicited their contributions to our communication programs in an amazing variety of ways.

I’ve heard that the benefits videos produced for employee consumption at Southwest Airlines use employees as performers, even in singing-and-dancing bits. I’ve seen more than one internal publication that featured a photo of the month selected from among several submitted by employees. More than one intranet was named in a “name the intranet” contest. Some progressive companies have been known to turn to their employees to craft their vision, mission, and values statements. The list goes on.

These examples of internal open source marketing were not undertaken with open source marketing in mind. Internal communicators always seek to get employees more engaged in the process. After all, employee communication staffs tend to be small and getting employees to contribute helps to stretch the budget. I never held an employee communications position where I didn’t try to cajole employees at non-headquarters locations to write an article for us now and then. If employee communicators DID approach their work with open source marketing in mind, the possibilities for engaging employees in the communication process expand considerably.

Unlike simple contests and solicitation of employee contributions, open source marketing sets the parameters for a communication campaign and turns the creative over to employees. It’s a small but significant step away from what most employee communicators are already doing. Here’s an example:

It’s benefits enrollment season. Your primary challenge for the current year’s campaign: Convince employees enrolled in an expensive medical plan to switch to a cheaper managed care program. These employees perceive that managed care is inferior care. You turn to employees who are already enrolled in the managed care program, and you turn them loose. “Tell us a story about an experience with your healthcare provider,” you ask them. “Any story. Using any medium. Write an article, produce a video, record an audio file, draw a comic strip, we really don’t care HOW you tell the story. Just tell it.” Why would an employee take the time to produce and submit such content? A prize for the best submission as voted by other employees, of course. Or a banquet dinner for all employees who submit an entry. Or some other incentive.

You cull from among the submissions and pick those that best convey the quality of the plan’s managed care provider and turn this into your communication. Written recollections go into your newsletter or onto your intranet (or both). Videos go up on the intranet as a special feature. You can turn some of the submissions into posters, incorporate some into other benefits communication vehicles. The employees’ positive stories about their managed care healthcare experiences becomes the consistent theme of your communications.

That’s just one idea, off the top of my head. Give it some thought and you can probably come up with a half-dozen more uses for open source marketing that your organization could benefit from right now. And unlike the external world, you’re not introducing a true paradigm shift. (Yes, I know, paradigm is a hackneyed word, but its overuse began with a legitimate definition, and a transition from inside-out marketing to outside-out fits the definition.) Internally, everybody’s already positioned to contribute to an open source effort. Internal communicators simply need to build the concept into their communication plans and programs to get the most out of it.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.