Sunday, September 5, 2010

The one time something I did went viral

Over at the High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess is starting a new book discussion on Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The book was first published in 2007, and if today you head the word “stickiness” about the power of ideas, you can attribute that comment to the Heath brothers.

The authors outline six characteristics for ideas that stick:
• Simple
• Unexpected
• Concrete
• Credible
• Emotional and
• Stories.

(Note what’s spelled when you combine the first letter of each word.)

The book is divided into six longish chapters on each characteristic, followed by an epilogue. The first chapter is about simple – the simplicity of powerful ideas – or the idea that ideas need to be simple to become powerful.

I once did a project that went viral inside the company I was working for at the time. And it has all six characteristics of “stickiness.”

In 1993, a colleague went to a communications conference and came backnotes from one of the sessions she’d attended – a person for ATT had talked about their company’s email employee newsletter.

Yes, I know what that sounds like in 2010; antique and quaint. But 17 years ago, it was so revolutionary that it was almost frightening. The only other company that had one was an insurance company in British Columbia. And I thought, what a great idea! My team was responsible for employee communications, among other things. So we set out to figure out how to do it.

IT said no; it would crash the system. And I said a simply text-only newsletter will crash the system? And they nodded their heads. Vigorously. I spent several weeks patiently arguing, and then had a blinding flash of the obvious: the only way to stop the newsletter would be to shut down the email system. So I said we would do a test – 100 people worldwide, crossing different computers, systems, firewalls, everything (In the days before Microsoft Office, things were borderline riots when it came to consistency and compatibility.

We launch the newsletter to the 100 people in August, and told them they were free to forward it to colleagues. Within a month, the newsletter had saturated the email system. Everyone wanted to be in the distribution. We never advertised its existence. In four weeks, our little text newsletter had moved from 100 people to tens of thousands.

The CEO would later tell a senior management meeting that our newsletter was one of the two most innovative things done by the company in 1993. And he specifically cited two things: its reach across the company in a way nothing else had ever done before, and its voice.

The voice was what was simple. We assumed that employees were adults and could handle bad news and disagreement. Our letters policy was simple: no personal attacks, no profanity. Other than that, everything was a go. We had employees debating each other on company products and policies – and it was extraordinary to see employees teaching each other. We had people talk about products in one part of the world that people in other parts of the world had no idea even existed within the company. PR helped create markets and sell products.

We also didn’t get clearances for anything we did from Law or HR. That’s what the CEO meant by “voice” – it was the voice of employees that wasn’t being stifled. And the impact showed up in surveys we did – the email newsletter had the highest credibility rating of any communication medium in the company – and that included immediate supervisors and top management.

It was a simple idea, with a simple philosophy. And it worked beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Including mine.


Today's discussion at The High Calling Blogs.

Six Steps to Going Viral by L.L. Barkat at Green Inventions Central.

At the Core of Action by Monica Sharman at My Big Three.


Anonymous said...


L.L. Barkat said...

that is very cool. And, yes, how quaint it must feel now. Which makes me smile.

Louise Gallagher said...

lol -- ah, the quaintness of it all!

Smiling-- and applauding you!

well done.

Michael said...

It's kinda wild to think that the simple things are usually the things that work best.

Laura said...

This makes me smile. It's a lot like the story about the local newspaper in the book...did you do a lot of namedropping in the newsletter?

I started an in-house newsletter for the first hospital I worked for. The workers loved it like crazy and I kept my identity as the author/editor a secret. They got as much buzz over who was doing it as the content.

I think these "quaint" things never go out of style, Glynn.

Glad to have you along on this one! Your expertise will add so much.

Monica Sharman said...

I think this story is great! And I especially love this part:
"We assumed that employees were adults and could handle bad news and disagreement."
This is grace. And one way to love one another---assume the best of each one.

Anne Lang Bundy said...

This is SO like you, Glynn! I don't know how to adequately express my appreciation for your drive to promote those with an important message to be shared, those with a good message to be shared—and those with simply a voice to be shared.

I hope you're having a WONDERFUL birthday! I thank God that He's brought you into the world and into my life. :D

Sandra Heska King said...

How cool!

Unknown said...

Glynn, I started a "Sam Landers" break room notebook at my local McDonalds. I was 16 and though it didn't go viral in any way, the managers said it gave them insights into employee frustrations that they couldn't otherwise access.

It was simple and it worked.