Tony Perkins, creator of Red Herring magazine, has forgone the "one-way" communication of the print world and is debating with his readers online in real time. He makes a lot of typos while doing so.
Microsoft customers are spending their own time and money making unsanctioned and unsolicited videos featuring Microsoft brands and sending them to Redmond. The funny thing is, Redmond doesn’t mind.
Customers are starting to get their say. They are doing so in public forums. Their comments are unfiltered. And, more surprisingly, so are the responses of the individuals representing the companies. No PR flaks. No spin. No highly-sanitized, focus-group-approved, completely meaningless Dilbert-speak.
In other words, real people interacting with real people.
Weblogs (or blogs) were the first salvo in this new era of the "social customer." Blogs enabled a one-to-one dialog between an individual representing an organization and a constituency of readers, as well as interactions between the readers themselves.
Blogs are one of three emerging technologies that have the potential to break down the walls between companies and their customers, enabling the creation of communities and resulting in significant benefits to all involved. The other two are wikis and social networking systems.
By listening to the social customer, companies have the opportunity to create the tightest relationships between vendor and customer we have seen since the days of the corner store.
The ultimate connection?
Perkins has always been able to spot a trend. He founded the Churchill Club, a well-recognized forum for technology and business thought leadership. He founded Red Herring, one of the premier publications the presaged the rise (and fall) of the dot-com era. Now, he’s created AlwaysOn, an "open source media" property that utterly blurs the line between "publisher" and "reader," providing integrated social networking capabilities that enable readers to connect directly with each other–as well as the individuals who publish articles on the site. (Disclosure: I am a regular contributor.)
To date, most enterprise social networking systems have had limited success in bridging the gap to customers. Vendors such as LinkedIn, Spoke Software and Visible Path have created enterprise social networking systems that enable users to navigate their personal networks to find a contact within a target prospective customer. Unfortunately, these systems are very "one-way" in nature, benefiting the salesperson without necessarily providing any benefits to the individuals who are being contacted. As a result, some individuals have equated receiving inquiries from one of these networks as yet another new type of unsolicited commercial email, or spam.
In contrast, the enterprise social networking capabilities within AlwaysOn are very different. They enable customers (in this case, readers) to participate directly in the creation of the product. Because of the social networking features of AlwaysOn, Perkins says, "we can see all our readers and private-message them and ask them to join our personal network, which has brought me closer to literally hundreds of readers I would have never known otherwise." Readers can and do send messages directly to the authors of postings as well as each other, adding their affirmation or challenges to the site’s content in real time.
This linkage with customers increases the value of Perkins’ product, as customers add their opinions, insights, and contributions. Each time a reader comments on a story, all the other readers, as well as the site’s editors, can immediately view the feedback.
Additionally, because readers can "rate" a particular posting, the site’s editors have real-time insight into the current topics, preferences and trends that are of interest to their readers. As a result, readers and authors alike are able to find others in the community whose opinions they share, as well as those whose opinions they may regularly challenge.
"I think it’s cool that people can dialog about the content they read and see who the other viewers are," Perkins said. "This is the whole mission of AO, to push the ‘open source media’ model, which I think even mainstream media will have to incorporate some day, or no longer be viewed as credible."
Higher education is another industry that is beginning to embrace social networking as a mechanism to better connect with and among its customers. Alumni associations at such institutions as Stanford University, the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California have all implemented social networking systems to connect members.
The Stanford Alumni web site, for example, states that the system gives "Stanford alumni the ability to connect with friends and friends-of-friends based on shared interests, common acquaintances, professions, location, etc." The belief is that by creating networks of connected alumni, not only will the participants in the networks benefit, but also the universities will, by way of increased alumni donations to their alma mater.
Funny name; serious business
If you’ve ever wanted to tell Bill Gates, his minions and the rest of the world what you really think of Microsoft, your chance is on the Channel9 developer site, set up by five Microsoft employees "who want a new level of communication between Microsoft and developers." According to the site, the five employees created it because "we believe that we will all benefit from a little dialog these days." They said that they wanted to "move beyond the newsgroup, the blog and the press release to talk with each other, human to human."
The wiki portion of Channel9 is fertile, dynamic ground. Unlike traditional web pages that are read-only, pages in a wiki are editable by anyone who visits them. Think of a wiki as a web-based whiteboard, where every visitor to the site has been given a marker…and an eraser.
The wiki derives its moniker from the Hawaiian word for "quick."
SIDEBAR: THE NINE GUY
In October 2004, Microsoft’s Channel9 site was parodied by Chris Pirillo, a member of the community, who created an "unsolicited autobiography" video of the Channel9 mascot (a foam creation with an inexplicable hands-free headset). The video showed an uncensored day in the life of "the Nine Guy," complete with a chipmunk-like voiceover. When Pirillo posted the video, he received, not the cease-and-desist order he was expecting, but a note from a Microsoft executive, praising him for his creativity and participation in the community.
The Channel9 wiki contained only eight pages when it was launched in March 2004, with placeholders for discussions on three upcoming products ("Longhorn," "Whidbey" and "Yukon"). However, in its first six months of existence, collaboration between developers who visited the site and the employees who moderate it has generated more than 300 pages of content. These pages are wide-ranging, with everything from product feedback on existing Microsoft products to a page for customers who are dissatisfied with the Microsoft browser. Other than restricting content from users that contains hate speech, the site is allowed to grow on its own–even when it is critical of its host.
Ross Mayfield, CEO of SocialText, thinks wikis are important. He should. His company provides wiki-based collaboration software for customers such as Disney and Kodak. So far, most of SocialText’s customers are using wikis for various types of internal collaboration, some of which is in areas that directly affect the customer experience.
One SocialText customer, Stata Labs, is using wikis as collaboration mechanism to span its geographically-dispersed customer service organizations in the United States and India. According to Mayfield, Stata Labs reduced its call center costs 10 percent by using wikis to connect the first-level support team in India with the second-line support team located in the United States. A sizeable portion of the savings comes from using the wiki as a key piece of institutional memory, greatly reducing the incidents of support technicians re-asking the same question multiple times.
A law firm that is a customer of Mayfield’s "has 400 workspaces, one for each of their clients, where they securely share billable hour info, files and work transparently," Mayfield said. This reduces the time and effort the law firm needs to communicate with its customers, shortening the time it takes to resolve issues.
Put another way, the wiki may be starting to live up to its strange name.
( Social Networking Systems and Wikis Engage The Social Customer originally appeared in CRMGuru.)