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Piloting Social Media Creates More Risk Than It Mitigates

by Anthony J. Bradley  |  November 3, 2009  |  9 Comments

I have created many successful software application pilots in my day. But these were more traditional process based applications that didn’t hinge on community adoption and participation. Pilot’s are intended to mitigate risk by basically validating that the process and software supporting that process will serve the needs of a “system actor.” This made sense because the process and software was usually complex and the user was mostly acting on that process-software independently.

This practice is not prudent for social media where the software complexity should be minimal and the primary goal is to get people interacting. Community participants are fickle and unforgiving (especially external communities). You may only get one shot at catalyzing community formulation. Don’t pilot, test, prototype, or experiment on the community. Don’t artificially restrict participation. The law of numbers is a critical factor in building a thriving and productive community. Why would you only go after a small subset of a target audience when mass adoption is a critical success factor? You will handicap success from the start. I have spoken with numerous organizations that failed to gain adoption only to find out that they restricted membership as part of a “pilot.” Others, “half bake” the social media environment functionality because it is a “pilot” and they are basically only experimenting. This is a great recipe for a poor user experience that can not only turn off a potential community participant for that pilot but also significantly impede any other social media efforts targeted at that audience.

Often, enterprises don’t execute on the rigor required for social media success under the moniker of a “pilot.” The most successful implementations I’ve seen don’t “pilot,” they execute on a planned increment. When you go to the community with a social media solution, go for real. So how do you mitigate risk? Mitigate risk with a carefully scoped purpose. Minimize the initial business purpose pursued but pursue that purpose with all the execution discipline it requires. Instead of deploying a social network for all your employees to collaborate more effectively (but only starting with a pilot for the “western region”) build a social media solution for your sales people to network specifically on how to successfully identify and overcome the top three sales objections.

I have spent the past few years researching and publishing on best practices (such as “Don’t Pilot”). But unfortunately I still see social media pilot efforts out there, that ironically, create rather than mitigate failure risk. Here are a few of the key reports (available to clients or for a fee).


Anthony J. Bradley
10 years at Gartner
26 years in IT

Anthony J. Bradley is a group vice president in Gartner Research responsible for the research content that Gartner publishes through its three internet businesses (, and These responsibilities include creating and leading the research organization and infrastructure needed for the strategy formulation, planning, research, creation, editing, production and distribution of the content. He has four global teams of highly talented people who are advancing towards the world's greatest destination for content on how small businesses succeed through information technology.

Thoughts on Piloting Social Media Creates More Risk Than It Mitigates

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  3. Isaac Hazard says:

    Very nice post and good points overall. I agree in principle that traditional thinking around software piloting cannot be applied to social media efforts, and largely for the reasons stated. However, i believe a different sort of piloting is essential for any online community effort.

    A ‘Community Barn-Raising’ (term coined by Heather Strout, friend and former colleague) is something I recommend to all of my social media clients. The Barn-Raising starts with inviting 10-50 of your most promising potential members to an online event introducing the community platform and asking for their help in populating the site with real UGC. It then continues for 1-3 weeks to give a chance for that UGC to build organically. The Barn-Raising should always happen on a fully-baked set of tools and have a short and well defined time frame.

    The principle is that when you do your general launch, you’re more likely to get solid adoption when people can see real conversations in place and are not greeted by either blank pages or obviously canned seed content.

  4. […] colleague Anthony Bradley has recently posted about “Piloting Social Media Creates More Risks Than It Mitigates”, where he rightly points out that: You may only get one shot at catalyzing community […]

  5. A slightly different view, as I do believe government is different:

  6. Anthony Bradley says:

    Isaac, great point! I talk about a tipping point plan that has a seeding phase where the enterprise prepopulates the environment with content and courts early participants. I take a page from Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” and talk about courting mavens (subject matter experts) and connectors (people with large networks) to get them involved early in the seeding phase prior to a blitz marketing campaign.

  7. Very late to this one, which is a shame.

    Piloting social media is weird. You ‘test’ it out in an organisation with everything ‘just as it will be’ after the pilot’s finished. Except the scale. As you say, it’s a critical success factor NOT a feature.

    Perhaps the idea of ‘pilot’ doesn’t need to be abandoned but reframed. Pilots shouldn’t be about feasibility but about ‘pathfinders’ – history shows that the early adopters leave a lasting impression on any medium.

    Community Managers would benefit from leaving their social media launches slightly half-baked: we’re settled on this, this and this – but we need the pilot to decide on these norms and these mores and these conventions.

  8. […] the other hand, Gartner’s Anthony Bradley says that piloting does not make sense for social media projects: This practice is not prudent for […]

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