The Value of User Perception in Intranet Development

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (29-May-2007)

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An ounce of user criticism is worth more than a pound of developer marketing.

Intranet developers and owners love to promote their own wares because it allows them to market their system on their terms—they have full control over what to tell users. They will highlight all the things they want users to see and will do everything in their power to hide their system's dirty little secrets, hoping users won't take notice of them.

But there's another side to marketing, a side that developers and owners have little-to-no control over: User perception. All the carefully planned hype and marketing surrounding a system can be undone by a steady stream of negative feedback from within the user community itself—justified or not. Sometimes it's even enough for a single, well-respected intranet expert to say "this stinks" to unravel months of promotion and spin. You can never underestimate the power of one voice to sway user opinion.

When Marketing Goes Viral

Consumers have gotten weary of traditional marketing campaigns that tell them their lives will be so much better if they simply buy one product over another. Commercials show euphoric drivers speeding down empty city streets in a brand new Nissan, twenty-somethings party around a monolithic case of Molson without a care in the word, and tiny English geckos try to save you 15-percent on your car insurance. It's all very tiring.

Marketers are not blind to this fact either. Many have added viral and stealth marketing techniques to their traditional campaigns to grab consumers' attention in a less in-your-face manner. Viral marketing is a low cost, word-of-mouth strategy that encourages users to pass along marketing content by taking advantage of existing social and digital infrastructures. And unlike pesky spam, users actually want to share viral content because of the high entertainment value.

This is evidenced by the numerous "homemade" videos posted on YouTube by companies marketing their products without actually mentioning their products. The most recent and highly publicized of these is the now infamous "bridezilla" who snaps and shaves her head on her wedding day. It was later revealed that the so-called homemade movie was actually produced as a viral video for Unilever's Sunsilk hair care products.

That single, six-minute clip spread like wildfire on the Internet; and it was the users who did all the work of spreading the content. One person would see it and send it to twenty friends, and then each of those twenty friends would send it to another fifty friends, and so on. The content proliferate, much like a biological virus, on an exponential level.

In cases like this, users are doing all the marketing for you—but it only works if the buzz that's created is positive. As effect as the word-of-mouth network can be in creating positive buzz, it can also be used to spread venom.

Peer-based Feedback vs. Intranet Owner Marketing

There's only so much marketing a user can stomach. No one is gullible to enough to believe everything dished out by system creators and marketing professionals who loudly proclaim the success of their product while downplaying its weaknesses. They have a vested interest in seeing the success of what they produce and might even stretch the truth to do so.

The majority of objective information about a system will come from fellow users. They're much more likely to believe feedback from peers than the spin offered up by system creators and owners. If you want facts and technical specifications of a system, you ask the developers; if you want an objective review on the performance of this system, you ask anymore but the developers. Product makers aren't here to provide you with balanced information, they're here to sell you a product and nothing else.

The significance of this work-of-mouth network can't be overlooked. If you concentrate solely on traditional, unidirectional marketing and don't pay any attention to what's being said at the peer-to-peer level, users' criticism can easily drown out that flashy marketing campaign set to a rock-and-roll anthem.

Creating Positive User Perception

There are a number of things, aside from the actual performance and design of a system, that can affect user perception of an intranet. In order to maximize positive user buzz, you should always:

Closing Thoughts

Never underestimate the impact of word-of-mouth marketing to affect overall user opinion of a system. Traditional marketing can only do so much. It can be used to create awareness of a system, but the real marketing will come from within the user community itself. It will come from HR Suzanne telling Payroll Brian and that she's saving over an hour everyday not having to go searching for information on the Internet; it will come from Engineering Albert telling IT Carol that he's able to search through hundreds of technical schematics and manuals; and it will come from Aussie Charlie extolling the ease with with he can collaborate with Canuck James via the corporate extranet.

This type of word-of-mouth marketing can't be bought or artificially fabricated (at least not ethically), but you have to create the right conditions for this positive feedback. If you don't pay attention to what's being said at this level, you might eventually discover that users are treating your marketing efforts—no matter how loud—as white noise on par with the vacuum cleaner.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.