Does Viral Adoption of Enterprise Social Business Software work?

by James Dellow 01 Dec 2011 Blog Post

This is an issue I’ve been tracking, pretty much from the moment enterprise social computing hit the stage (later to become “Enterprise 2.0″, and what Dachis Group talk about now in the broader context of Social Business Design – see some of the conversations around the Connected Company in particular).

The short answer is yes, viral adoption can work BUT only in certain situations. This is my attempt to pin down some of the factors I’ve observed out in the field.

Firstly, let me explain what I mean by ‘viral adoption’:

  1. It may involve users by-passing IT (“CoIT“) or the initiative may have corporate sponsorship (to a degree) but the technology is planted without any deliberate effort to facilitate use (and it might even be called a pilot).
  2. The expectation is that the network effect will drive exponential growth.
  3. The software (and human network) is completely self regulating and requires no organised human oversight – i.e. administration, training, community management or content curation.

Looking at these three points, you can actually extrapolate potential issues. But when I compare those theoretical issues, these are the anti-patterns I’ve actually seen:

  • Competing Solutions – someone else has the same great idea, but attempts to solve it with a different solution. Sometimes one solution wins out, but sometimes everyone is a loser.
  • Late Adopters – it all goes well for the first wave of users, but there is a group of users who just ignore the invites and don’t participate. Eventually the network starts to lose momentum.
  • Works for one, but not another – similar to the Late Adopters anti-pattern, but in this case growth stalls not because people won’t use a solution but because the solution doesn’t actually meet the needs of subsequent groups.
  • Lack of Customisation – the solution meets 80% of needs, but can’t be customised to meet that remaining critical 20% that would make a real difference to the organisation. People get frustrated and move on to the next good idea.
  • Growing Too Fast – this is probably a situation many people who love to have, but rapid growth can also be killer when it happens. The social experience that worked for a handful of users at the beginning may not be effective for 1,000s or 10s of thousands.
  • Internal Politics / Lack of Budget – great idea, but for whatever reason the initiative is killed off. Often the stated reason is an excuse, so its hard to pin point the real reasons. Remember, organisations don’t always make decisions rationally.

Clearly these issues can be managed but the difficulty is that there is a cost to fixing these issues after they happen:

  • The organisational culture may not accommodate failure, making it difficult to come back and try again.
  • The pure cost and challenge of retrospectively addressing these issues may be considered too high.

I think a completely viral adoption approach is a big gamble when really what organisations need is an iterative approach that allows for the best solution to emerge. An iterative approach facilitates a network-based adoption approach, by steering and anticipating user needs based on social experience design. This allows the right supporting mechanism to be put in place, including the political and budget support that will be needed over the long term.

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  • Adi Gaskell

    Hi James. This is a nice article. Like many ‘new’ concepts I suspect the best approach is to start small (and cheap) and experiment a lot until you find something that works for your organisation, and then grow it from there. Failure on those terms is often much more palatable and shouldn’t come with the same stigma as a highly expensive failure, but it gives you a chance to find something that really works, and then to use this success to grow things.

    So whilst a viral approach can work it needs to be co-ordinated so you find the positive deviant that really works for you and then work to expand that across the enterprise.

    • James Dellow

      Thanks, Adi. For me, this is where the ‘design’ part of Social Business Design comes in. There is no one best way to do this and we need to really replace the emphasis on expectations of viral adoption with iterative approaches wrapped up in a managed process.

  • Daniel Samper

    One of the main issues is getting enough seeds planted for the idea to grow. As you mention in your article, whether the invited party has a relevant use-case for the application is key and finding the right soil is just as important.

    Also related to this is the fact that if a technology is real new and the degree of innovation disruption is too advanced for the current state of the art, even potential users will ignore it as irrelevant or not use to its full potential.

    In our situation, we’re just launching the open beta of, the first business-grade collaboration platform that enables many-to-many management of internal and external tasks, communications, CRM…

    We’re just getting started and we’re seeing no issue with providers adopting the platform when a client sends them a task to complete. Even though we’ve made it quite easy to know what the options are next (inviting others within their ecosystem into their new management tool for much greater efficiency) many assume this is just their client’s app and have a hard time believing they can use it on their own. They are applying the current paradigm of collaboration tools.

    So, we’re certainly hoping virality can work when it comes to regular b2b operations :)

    Link to video of what I’m talking about:

  • Romesh

    At InKat we believe that social business software can make a significant impact on any business. The trick is to understand what are the core features of social business software. What are the primary use cases you should put social business software into. These seem like very simple statements but in most cases, this understanding is what is hindering adaption.

    Seventy percent of respondents to the 2012 global executive social business survey conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte believe social business is an opportunity to fundamentally change the way their organization works. Yet many companies face meaningful barriers to progress.