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In my work with purpose-driven organisations, I’ve spotted a very basic divide between those who think in terms of channels and those who think in terms of networks. And it’s the latter who tend to outperform.
We used to live in a world of channels dominated by broadcast TV, radio, and newspapers. The digital media revolution expanded that by bringing us first email, then websites, and most recently, social media networks. The reality is that we now live in a world of channels and networks.
That’s made the role of communicators more complicated, but also a lot more interesting.
Organisations are adapting to this more complex world at different speeds. Winners have realised that using the mental models of the linear broadcast era are no longer sufficient. However, the majority are comfortable treating the new world the same way as the old one, albeit with an expanded set of channels – a viewpoint I summarise as ‘channel vision’.
As with most things, there are pros and cons to adopting either approach, and the most progressive organisations freely mix and match between the two.
This post draws on best practices in mixing channels and networks and sets out a practical guide to how to navigate this new world.
Linear thinking involves a sequential approach to problem-solving. One step logically follows the next, and the focus is on direct cause-and-effect relationships. It’s a mode of thinking that is easy to get your head round, and simple to explain. It’s also relatively simple to manage programmes built on linear thinking. As such, it tends to be the default mode of thinking for communications teams.
Network Thinking emphasises interconnectedness and relationships, considers multiple perspectives and connections simultaneously, and understands the broader ecosystem of factors. It’s more complex to manage, and comms teams lacking in confidence or agency have a tendency to shy away from it.
It’s partly evolutionary – early humans needed to react quickly to threats. Simplifying complex situations into straightforward cause-and-effect relationships (e.g., “See a lion, run away”) was advantageous.
Likewise, the brain is an energy-intensive organ and linear thinking can be less taxing than considering a multitude of interconnected factors. To a certain extent, we’re hard-wired for linear thinking.
But in a complex world there are additional factors like the reduction of cognitive dissonance: Linear thinking can provide clear and straightforward solutions or explanations, reducing the discomfort of holding two or more conflicting ideas at once.
While linear thinking is deeply rooted in human cognition and culture, it’s worth noting that humans are also capable of complex, networked, and abstract thought. The challenge lies in recognising when to apply linear models and when to delve into more intricate, interconnected systems thinking.
The crucial difference is that in linear campaigns nearly all the big decisions are made upfront. The confidence to do this comes from the analysis of target audience segments, the construction of a ‘marketing funnel’, the creation of ‘core messages’, and the development of programming that connects these three things.
With such a tight structure, there is relatively little scope to change the campaign, and there is only a small role for reviews and adjustments.
Campaigns drawn up with a network mindset are far more flexible and accept that the behaviour of networks is hard to predict, necessitating a more playful, experimental approach. The starting point is a desire to harness the power of networks and to subjugate decisions over programming to this objective.
Teams running such campaigns need to listen to the engagement data closely and have the freedom to pivot according to emerging patterns of behaviour.
Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” Campaign: Coca-Cola replaced its iconic logo with the most popular first names in 70 countries to encourage sharing both online and offline. People shared photos of bottles with their names on social platforms, creating an interconnected web of user-generated content and personal stories. It helped boost sales, particularly among the 18-25 age group that Coca Cola had been struggling to attract.
ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: People dumped a bucket of ice-cold water over their heads and then nominated others to do the same, all while raising awareness for ALS (motor neurone disease). The challenge’s viral nature was inherently networked. Each participant expanded the campaign’s reach by nominating others, creating a vast web of interconnected challenges across various platforms.
#HeForShe: Launched by UN Women, this campaign encouraged men and boys to stand in solidarity with women to create a united force for gender equality. The campaign was designed for sharing, with men around the world pledging support and then nominating friends to do the same, creating a cascading effect of interconnected supporters.
Linear thinking creates campaigns that are clear, predictable and easy to manage. But they tend to be rigid, have a tendency to miss the interconnectedness of activities, and may be slow to adapt. Network thinking leads to campaigns that are highly adaptable, holistic, and tap into collective intelligence. But they are tough to manage, can lack focus, and require lots of knowledge about the dynamics of networks.
The nature of today’s digital landscape often calls for a combination of both.
To make the most of networked thinking in the digital media realm, a digital media manager can take the following practical steps:
1. Understand Your Ecosystem: Map out the digital landscape relevant to your brand, including social media platforms, influencers, communities, competitors, and collaborators. Understand the dynamics and relationships within this ecosystem.
2. Leverage User-Generated Content (UGC): Encourage and promote content created by your community. UGC can lead to organic discussions and shares, widening your reach. Create campaigns or challenges that incentivise users to participate and share their experiences.
3. Engage with Communities: Instead of focusing solely on your brand’s channels, engage with relevant online communities, forums, and groups. Participate in existing conversations and understand the nuances and values of each community before sharing your message.
4. Collaborate with Influencers and Partners: Identify key influencers and partners in your ecosystem. Collaborations can lead to cross-promotion, reaching new audiences, and deeper engagements. Consider influencers not just as spokespersons but as collaborators in content creation.
5. Iterative Learning: Try different tactics, measure their impact, learn from the results, and then scale successful strategies. Regularly analyse metrics to understand network dynamics, such as which content gets the most shares, which communities drive the most engagement, etc.
6. Create Shareable Content: Focus on producing content that people will want to share with their networks. This could be because it’s informative, entertaining, relatable, or evokes emotion. Utilise formats that are native and popular on different platforms, such as Stories on Instagram or short videos on TikTok.
7. Stay Updated with Platform Innovations: Platforms continually evolve, introducing new features and algorithms. Stay updated and adapt your strategy to make the most of these changes.
8. Promote Cross-Platform Engagement: If you have a presence on multiple platforms, create content that encourages followers from one platform to engage with your other channels. For example, tease content from your YouTube channel on Instagram or promote a Twitter chat on LinkedIn.
9. Encourage Community Building: Instead of just building followers, aim to foster a sense of community among your audience. Communities are more engaged, loyal, and likely to share within their networks. Create spaces for your community to interact, such as Facebook groups or Discord servers.