Are you a warden or a prisoner online?

stanford cartoon

The Stanford Prison Experiment looked at what happened psychologically when you placed some people in positions of power and other’s in positions of vulnerability (wardens and prisoners). Irrespective of their previous internal moral ‘clock’ – how would they behave?

The simulation carried out by Stanford University in the summer of 1971 was ended prematurely because of the impact it had on its university participants. Those students who were given the role of prison guards showed themselves capable of brutality. The students consigned to prisoner roles became stressed and depressed (as if their confinement were real).

Stanford, and the earlier Milgram experiment conducted at Yale University, opened up interesting questions, not just about the deeper, darker side of human nature but how we behave when we assume a role, or are put into a certain situation. As psychology professor Phil Zimbardo, who led the Stanford research team, puts it: “Situational variables can exert powerful influences over human behaviour, more so that we recognize or acknowledge.”

Okay, now the digital communication segue…

While I’m not suggesting that digital content ‘controllers’ will ever resort to beatings and electric shocks, there is often a divide between those who police the content and those who do not. These schisms can exist between online content commissioners / editors and content producers / authors. Or between active members of the content team and ‘the rest’. The rest being anybody in an organisation that doesn’t take an active role in web, email, digital messaging strategy, development and delivery. It can also exist between on and offline teams (marketing, editorial, brand…).

The Stanford experiment didn’t end prematurely because the research team had learnt everything there was to know, but because they became alarmed at how quickly the abuse of roles and situations occurred.

So in any situation where there is authority and lack of authority there is the opportunity for abuse.

I can’t make over entire organisational hierarchies on the basis of the above premise, but I can suggest discreet changes to the way online content oligarchies are handled. That may seem a small change but just think about the influence your online content has on your brand and therefore on how wider audiences perceive your organisation. Plus online is relatively young and still relatively fluid. In-house content processes are not set in stone. Change them while you still can.

Where to start?

Who are the content controllers and what power do they have? A healthy content process has checks and balances in place reflecting different content steers. This shouldn’t be a cumbersome process but a light matrix approach to ensure that core organisational values, the needs of marketing and sales, corporate information, plus the rigours of online execution and presentation are held in balance.

When changes are made to online process and / or presentation – a new website, extensions to email campaigns etc – who is consulted (and who isn’t)? It’s hard for people to be all fired up about the company website if the only time they’re consulted about it is retrospectively: “Oh, the new website launches in 3 weeks. We need your new page content ASAP. Did you not get the email?)

How do you regularly test the water in terms of existing content processes and how they are viewed internally? Zimbardo points out that at some stage there is a shift from what’s reasonable to what isn’t. How would you know if this shift happened within your organisation’s digital content process?

If existing online content processes and manifestations aren’t working, do people (outside any content claque) feel empowered to say ‘this isn’t working’ or ‘our new website is rubbish’? If the emperor is in the buff you need to know quickly. Online is everybody’s business.

Checks and balances

A qualitative content audit can throw up weaknesses is existing systems. It needs to be carried out by an external team (but this could involve different departments or areas of online activity critiquing each other’s work).

Content should be reviewed against organisational values and Tone of Voice, online ambition and audiences. You may want to read an earlier post on personas (I’ve popped the link at the bottom of this post). I’ll work up a personality for any site I’m reviewing (as if it was a flesh and blood member of the team). If your website sat at the next desk, would you share your sandwiches with it?

I also came up with this acronym. I think you should be answering ‘yes’ to 6 out of 9 points.

1. Can a wide range of people within your organisation suggest a digital change and / or refinement and know someone will take notice?

2. Have they got a clear idea about who to approach if something isn’t working right – broken website links, poorly coded emails, spelling mistakes online… (or know where to find out)?

3. Are new digital projects only embarked upon after a well-rounded opinion-seeking process and shared collective understanding?

4. Little digital errors (page not found, spelling errors, broken links…) rarely happen.

5. Large digital errors (website down, email campaigns producing little or no response…) rarely happen.

6. Everyone takes an interest in what rour company is doing digitally, even if they’re not actively involved.

7. No faction, department, skillset, business unit, or organisational activity feels excluded (frozen out).

8. Guards need walls. Are the processes and decisions made about how your brand is communicated online done in clear view?

9. Eyes (2), ears (2) mouth (1). Is your organisation watching and listening to what’s been done and said online rather than simply talking about it. You should watch and listen more than you speak.

Internal link

>> More about personas

>> The 7 ages of content maturity table (towards the end of this post)

Find out more about the Stanford and Milgram experiments (I’ll open these links in a new window):

>> Stanford Prison experiment website

>> The Stanley Milgram Experiment