This summer, when Shane Atchison, the CEO of WPP's burgeoning global digital agency Possible was ready to lift the veil on a new brand identity for the shop, he took a novel approach to sharing the news with staff.
Instead of calling an all-hands meeting (tough when there are some 20 offices from Cincinnati to Guangzhou) or issuing a "we're thrilled to share some news" memo, he turned to social media.
But rather than post a status update on Facebook, he did it on Possible's own social network: a sleek, thoughtful interface called Colab. Within minutes, Mr. Atchison's post sparked a dialogue with employees, who liked and commented on it.
Expect to see more of this kind of communication going forward, as brands and marketers tap social media to make employees more productive and build out internal platforms that take cues from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.
"There's no reason why our consumer appetite for efficiency, collaboration and engagement can't apply internally," said Pete Blackshaw, global head of digital marketing and social media at Swiss packaged-goods giant Nestle.
The biggest question is whether staffers have the appetite to add yet another network to their daily social-media diet. Companies that tout the benefits of internal social networks -- from agencies such as Olson and Possible to marketers ranging from burger chain Red Robin to global giant Nestle -- increasingly think of them not as add-ons but as supplanting older methods of communication like phone calls and email.
While many firms buy solutions off the shelf, such as Yammer and Salesforce's Chatter, some are building custom platforms or at least large pieces of them.
It's still early days for this type of networking, though. A study by Prescient Digital Media and the International Association of Business Communicators found that 39% of 1,400 companies polled didn't offer employees any social-media tools -- not even instant messaging or discussion forums. Of those providing some social-media tools, only 43% offered intranet social networking.
As Mr. Blackshaw observed, "Nobody's cracked the code on this yet, and it's definitely not going to iterate as fast as a Google or a Facebook."
Want an internal social network? Here are five things to consider.
Choose whether to buy or build
Possible Worldwide built its own social network, while SuperValu and eBay use Yammer and Dell relies on Chatter, originally developed as an internal tool at Salesforce and now marketed as a product. There's a middle ground too, such as Nestle's internal version of Facebook. Dubbed the Nest, it adds a range of custom apps and widgets to Microsoft's Sharepoint. For Possible's Mr. Atchison, building a product from scratch helped it develop another case study on the firm's capabilities.
Forget what Kevin Costner said in "Field of Dreams." Just because you build it, doesn't mean they'll come. Possible has been using big announcements as a carrot; if employees want the latest scoop about the workplace, they need to log on to Colab. At Nestle, Mr. Blackshaw has asked his digital team to lead by example and help bring co-workers onboard. Also critical is making the product easy to use and attractive. Dull, complex interfaces never win fans.
Make it useful and fun
Don't go all utilitarian or all entertainment, as Olson discovered with its social network, Brickhouse. According to CEO Kevin DiLorenzo, you can use the tools download business materials like letterhead, find seating charts or, if you're working on a new-business pitch for a laundry brand, find everyone in the agency with experience in that category. You can also sell Cubs or Blue Jays tickets, see pictures of a co-worker's baby or catch a chiding for leaving dirty dishes in the sink. Meanwhile, Possible's Colab has employee profiles listing the languages they speak, music faves and skills such as 3-D developer proficiency.
Decide on access
Focus on employees first, but then consider others who might benefit from access. Nestle is piloting a program with an agency partner to spark more collaboration. The interface will allow agencies to ask Nestle questions and receive answers all in the same place. Meanwhile, Possible has started letting potential new hires log on to be vetted by current staff, and there are plans to roll out CoLab for clients. "Collective intelligence is the power of the agency," Mr. Atchison said. "If you plug the client into a view [of ] our collective intelligence and have them contribute to it, how interesting would that be?"
Review performance metrics
Get a weekly report about adoption. That also helps to identify hyper-engaged users who could be advocates within the company. Ensure there's a function allowing employees to submit ideas for improvements to the internal social network. And ultimately, consider how its use could be tied into performance. Nestle's Mr. Blackshaw is already tying the digital team's evaluations to the success of the Nest. He is hoping that good work that bubbles up through the platform will be rewarded.