Consensus in a 24/7 global glasshouse 3 of 4

3 of 4: Moving forward by looking backward

In the first two sections, I presented and discussed a small experiment on consensus building within an online social networking environment.

This section was supposed to go online next Tuesday, as the previous ones, but I decided to post it online today.

This third section presents a simple framework built on knowledge and experience, a framework to actually design and monitor online consensus building.

As I presented in the introduction, a knowledge and observation of the past is, in my view, the starting point.

Before discussing the model, I will start with sharing some practical, experience-based ideas.

This week-end: some case studies from the experience.

Preaching beyond the choir

Building consensus between those who already agree with you is a nice motivational exercise- useful to both you and your audience.

In other articles I discussed a basic principle: if you want to achieve an impact, you have to preach beyond the choir.

But, in business as in politics, you can easily identify those mistaking approval from their own “choir” with approval from their audience.

As for poll-based approvals: frankly, I am more of the school “consumers vote with their feets”.

Therefore, instead of polling people with misleading questions where the interaction between the interviewer, the structure and sequence of the questions, and the interviewee has a significant impact on the answers given, I prefer to focus on monitoring actions produced by the target audience- direct and indirect ones.

My observations were first in politics, then experiences/experiments in teaching when required to deliver lesson on laws, parts of science, etc in high-school, before business.

I was a smart-but-lazy bookworm with a tendency of being more often on the picket line or spreading political tracts than in class (I did not care about votes- I cared about knowledge).

Asking me to teach about a subject that required research was the best way to keep me in class.

My approach was based on delivering a fact-based presentation, followed by my position associated with specific points in the presentation, and then in the Q&A refer to the points and, when relevant, my position.

If you want: was presenting first, and influencing after having shared the information needed to ensure a level playing field.

The critical issue was building credibility on the first step- the presentation.

But mixing (some) science with politics, history, and media knowledge produces interesting effects.

Consensus building as communication

In the old time, few people would have been assumed to bother with double-checking any information that you provided, but nowadays anybody is few clicks away from checking (yes, I am one of those people who, while writing/chatting/talking checks the information online).

So, you could have adopted small distortions- or go as far as an actress within an old movie, who made up statistics to assert her point- as she had seen that, in a 1950s, as a woman was given more credibility if she provided quantitive information supporting her position- but nobody bothered to check!

When introducing change (also before business), the first step was to identify potential influencers- and converting them into members of the choir.

Motivation is part of the issue: beside transmitting information, you have also to create a positive reason for the target members of your audience to feel as if that information is “theirs” information.

And then, spread it further, by influencing their own circles.

And this brings another issue: the “code” to be adopted to communicate your message in a way that survives the processing through the audience.

The reason? Ensure that your message will be passed on with limited distortions- only those needed to allow the one spreading the message to be personally involved, i.e. to be more than a mouthpiece.

As you can see- this is quite ancient, as it is based on person-to-person relationships, and circles of influence based on personal credibility.

And quite modern- as it is the way you can build long-term relationships with members of your audiences.

Circles of influence

Nothing really new- and based more on perception and mutual interest (sometimes, represented just by the possibility of being able to present to one’s circle a reasoned position on something on which said member has supposedly no knowledge at all), than on any form or shape of direct remuneration.

Reread this section from the beginning: I described a logic based on selecting the message, building your own “territory”, using the appropriate “code” to communicate with your target audience, and ensuring, in delivery, that your message is redundant enough to survive the “word-of-mouth”.

In the first section of this article, I referred to epidemiology, Sun Tzu, and rhetoric: and this part assumes that you already read the first and second section.

No need to summarize here material that you can find elsewhere: read it, apply it, and build your own approach.

This model is based on the assumption that you will use the online channels along with various forms of traditional face-to-face communication.

As for the traditional mass-media: if you work properly, you will have a limited need to use the “broadcast-type” media, as if and when needed (e.g. political or social campaign) it will be the media who will choose to broadcast.

Not out of kindness or to abide to some “fairness” rules- but for their own self-interest.

The value added? It lends more credibility being invited to speak for 30 seconds or 3 minutes than buying the equivalent time as advertisement.

Consensus vs. conversion

A further element: “consensus” is often considered a synonym of “conversion”- in this model, this is not.

Also in change management, while I was obviously asked to “convert”, sometimes the circle of influence created did not enclose just people who shared the perspective.

But also those who, as representative of the “status quo” replaced or alternative perspectives, could help, through their acceptance of the “territory” (the framework of the discussion) and constructive criticism actually help to enforce, evolve, and reinforce.

In my case, it was focused on influencing the influencers- a typical face-to-face activity.

And the same applies online, in each and any form of consensus building, be it for a cause, a policy, a product, or just a choice that requires surrendering some entitlements in exchange of a greater, longer-term benefit.

A last caveat: as this is an outline, the discussion of the logic and its basis is really beyond the scope of this article, along with the discussion not on positive consensus building “per se”, but also consensus building as part of negotiations, crisis management, or other forms of repair and trade activities.

If your interest in consensus is within those areas- I already posted in this blog since 2009 (and “reprinted” articles that I had posted elsewhere since 2007) articles on both the concepts and case studies.

I also said that this article will be structured in easily digestible sections.

Not a discussion on each one of the three components, but how to decide the appropriate blend.

The interesting part? This model requires brains and time, not money and infrastructure.

Actually- having just financial resources and staff could have a negative side-effect, by building a sense of complacency, that could descend into a 9-to-5 attitude, where the message is spread by paid bureaucrats, not by people who feel associated with it in any shape or form.

Not really what you need, should you have a discussion with disagreement, and your opponents might be highly motivated individuals or grass-root groups, and you need to be nimble.

The model

This framework is based on study and experience, and a permanent monitoring to enable continuous improvement.

Testing the effects on the audience, with methods appropriate for each circle of influence, and observation of the demographic are part and parcel of this model.

But do not forget to monitor something more than successful trends- also potential failure risks need to be taken into account, as they could generate negative externalities whose short- to long-term side-effects on your own initiatives and brand exceed any short-term gains.

I saw way too many KPI and controlling systems designed on self-fulfilling prophecies of success, while ignoring the mounting information paving the way to a resounding crash.

Remember to clearly differentiate between messages that you can try to release in segments and control (e.g. the typical product release nowadays, from a movie to a book), to those messages that are based on interaction with supporters and opponents alike (e.g. a social or political change, also within a company, such as logistics).

The former, will allow a level of “control” usually associated with traditional “broadcast-type” mass-media (including newspapers), and could be managed to a certain extent by a traditional approach.

The latter, would instead require something akin to setting a course, direction, and destination, but would assume a stronger personal commitment by those acting in the various “circle of influence”, commitment that can be obtained only by delegating to a certain degree not only the execution, but also some local choices.

Of course- the first one could be heavy on “human and technical infrastructure”, while the other one requires a deep preliminary coaching and training to ensure the overall message coherence by the various independent initiatives that would have to be adopted in each channel by each “circle of influence”.

To further streamline, in a bullet list form:

  • Don’t preach to the choir: online audience, unlike close communities, are indifferentiated; luckily, only online audiences’ demographics are more transparent than their offline counterparts
  • Keep coherence: you can deliver to each part of the audience a variation on the them, but with a more limited latitude than in music, as the main message should survive both your variations and to the changes that will be applied in each circle of influence
  • Target messages and message threads to specific audiences and, for larger audiences, identify circles of influence, the appropriate code for each circle of influence, and the timeframe to be associated with each circle of influence
    short-term
    e.g. a single marketing, product, election cycle
    medium-term
    e.g. a specific buying profile linked to a specific lifetime segment, set of products, political term (between election cycles)
    long-term
    e.g. brand loyalty, product-related consumables, political affiliation

How do you define the message?

  1. identify the aim, basic elements, codes, structure (notably: release by segmentation or by interaction with the audience)
  2. identify the demographics and channels, along with the “standard code” adopted on both
  3. build questions/checklists that your messages should get through (your “format”), unless you are really confident that it is “one-off”
  4. aim the checklists: define direction, speed, acceleration to monitor the diffusion and feed-back on the message
  5. build the mix of technology, code, starting point, level of ambiguity appropriate for each mix found under 2.
  6. identify the communication signposts (e.g. feed-back, measures) to monitor based on 2., 4., 5.- including the negative ones
  7. associate to 6. the key players to monitor (whatever their position)

Point 5. requires some explanation: it assumes that you have already a kind of “Lego(tm) bricks collection” to use if and when needed (while identifying, as part of your monitoring, any need to update, prune, or expand your “collection”).

As any model, it has its limitation and its uses.

In my case- I used it for a couple of decades, after experimenting in various forms, and it survived few technological changes: it requires keeping not only your eyes and ears, but also those of your inner circle to innovation- wherever it comes from.

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