Building a movement at work (and the biggest mistake I made trying to build one)

This year, I’ve been trying to make work better at my firm by building a large collaboration movement. Part of that has been getting people to know about and use a new social platform. I’ve made plenty of mistakes but the biggest one wasted effort, slowed adoption, and could have killed the project entirely. Gradually, I learned the principles of building a movement from Gladwell, viral YouTube videos, and spontaneous dancers at a music festival.

The Law of the Few

Malcolm Gladwell described one of these principles in “The Tipping Point” more than 10 years ago:

"The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts."

Simply put, whether you’re spreading information or trying to get more people to adopt your product or service, it’s a waste of precious resources to try and focus on everyone. Instead, focus on connectors, mavens, and salesmen - “people in a community who know large numbers of people”, “people we rely upon to connect us with new information”, and “persuaders”.

Tastemakers combined with a participating community

The power of Tastemakers

Data from YouTube now provides some of the clearest examples of the importance of reaching key people. Every minute, another 48 hours of video uploaded to YouTube. Why do some go viral? Just as Gladwell tried to answer what made Hush Puppies shoes popular, Kevin Allocca, the YouTube trends manager, answered what makes particular videos popular.

In his funny and insightful TED talk, he analyzed the viewing history of famous videos like “Double Rainbow” (35 million views) and “Friday” (45 million views). These are videos by unknown people whose work had gone unnoticed. The viral movement only started when they got recognized by key people he called “Tastemakers”.

“Tastemakers introduce us to new and interesting things and bring them to a larger audience.”

Once you have attention, a second principle to building a movement is to include the audience in some way. The social nature of YouTube, for example, inspires part of the audience to use the content in new ways. “We don’t just enjoy now, we participate.” The Friday video, for example, has inspired over 10,000 parodies. That’s over 10,000 people who took the original idea, created something new, and expanded the movement by sharing their own contribution.

Enabling and encouraging an audience to shape the movement helps amplify it.

The power of the 2nd dancer

All the keys to building a movement

These principles for building a movement came to life at a music festival in 2009 that Derek Sivers wrote about and later described in his TED talk.

During the festival, people are just laying on blankets, listening to music, until one guy gets up and starts to dance. Someone starts recording a video on their phone, capturing this stranger's goofy, public dance. But they wind up capturing something more interesting.

For a while, the first dancer is alone, oblivious to the crowd. It's awkward to watch. Then, a second dancer joins him. Still awkward but a bit less so. Then, a third and fourth person start dancing. Now it’s a group, something you can join. (“We don’t just enjoy now, we participate.”) More and more people join, each doing their own dance, each attracting yet more people. By the end of the 3-minute video, people are racing from all directions to become part of the group. Hundreds of people are now dancing and screaming.

It’s a movement.

Applying this at work

My mistake at work was in trying to appeal to broad audiences from the start and treating it like my project alone. Instead of appealing to all executives, I should have focused on a few early adopters. Instead of trying to entice all the content providers, I should have focused on a few influential ones. Instead of diffuse evangelism, I should have put my scarce resources into making a few tastemakers passionate about what we were doing and empowering them to shape it.

Lesson learned.

If you’re trying to build an audience and start a movement - whether it’s a YouTube video or a dance group or a new social collaboration platform - don't start with everyone. Start by focusing on the tastemakers, doing whatever you can to interest them in your offering. Then encourage a broader community to participate and make it their own so they can help you expand the movement.