"We really believe in the power of connecting with your friends to get to the best information," Bing's Social Media Program Manager, Betsy Aoki tells Fast Company. After spearheading Microsoft's corporate blogging program, the tech giant asked Aoki to bring her unbridled enthusiasm for online community to help their nascent search engine tap the wisdom of the crowd. Her approach has been aggressive friendship: Bing has integrated Twitter and Facebook into search results, has been diligent about social media customer service, and they even brought together an all-star developer "social hackathon" to help education crowdfunding portal, Donors Choose, create more loyal users.
"The Algorithm Is Good, But It's Not Good Enough."
Social media is "really about the human proclivity offline, as well as online, to want to connect with other people," explains Aoki. "There's a business and societal gain to people sharing information." For Bing, which touts itself as the premier destination for making decisions about where to shop, eat, and travel, social connections are a treasure trove of accurate user preference data.
"Someone who knows me well" says Aoki, "will never recommend a cheap Mexican restaurant to me, because they know I won't be happy with it." In other words, a computer, simply tracking online behavior, can't compete with the knowledge of someone's best friend. "There are certain things where the algorithm is good, but it's not good enough."
As a result, Bing has a been on a social media integration shopping spree, integrating Facebook and Twitter into all types of results: Friend "likes" will show up under hotel and restaurant search results, there's a streamlined way to ask for friend recommendations while shopping, and Bing will even alert you to friends in the area of a trip being planned.
Make Friends With Everyone
Though social media now occupies the largest chunk of Internet use, big-time players, such as Bing, are still sorting out the best ways to attract attention and motivate action. To get the industry's brightest minds to collaboratively solve some of these common issues, Aoki brought together industry leaders to help out the much-loved crowdfunding education portal, Donor's Choose, who needed a way to decrease donor acquisition costs. "We sort of assembled a cross-industry dream team," she says, who "put aside their competitive hats for a minute and they sat down and worked just on Donor's Choose's problems."
The brainchild of the high-profile gathering was an e-book of best practices that not only helped Bing's own partner education and nonprofits, but allowed Bing itself to ramp up its social media influence.
For instance, the e-book recommends having Facebook ads link to the fan page, not to website itself; picking up long-time loyalists is better than donate-and-run users. Moreover, the team recommended targeting friends of fans, long before MIT had verified this strategy with its groundbreaking study on the secrets of social media virality.
Good First Impressions
Bing hit the ground running amid the typical flurry of skepticism, praise, and rabid user reviews. Aoki ran a no-sleep, 26-hour marathon customer service initiative to answer criticisms directly, route feedback to engineers, and be overly attentive to press and bloggers. "If we hadn't built credibility online right then, that could have poisoned more expensive marketing efforts or more elaborate campaigns."
Aoki is careful to press the importance of being attentive to each each individual user—even the haters. "People become amazing allies," she argues. This is especially important given that key influencers are hard to spot, and no-names users can belie a hidden, powerful following.
At the very least, a user suggestion buried in the haystack of feedback could contain an easily implementable solution that helps distinguish the brand as the more convenient competitor. So, when one thoughtful user asked Bing to make customer support numbers Skype-friendly, the result was a one-click call button within the search result itself.
Customer service is about tone as well as responsiveness, Aoki says. Keeping a sense of humor thoughout communications helps humanize the brand, and reveals the team's genuine situation as a scrappy startup trying its best.
Being down to earth, she says, builds trust: "You're not hearing a lot of BS." A bit of cleverness might even demonstrate a team's latent ingenuity, when the product has failed to do so at first blush. "When you're showing that your creative and innovative, I think humor and irreverence are actually important," says Aoki.
Certainly, many legacy case studies, such as Zappos' Tony Hsieh, have advocated similarly silly personalities to show users that a person lies behind the cold brand avatar
For the future, Aoki and her team are exploring new ways social data can enhance the search process. As Facebook and Twitter continue to add more users and new ways of interacting online, their public databases open up an ocean of possibilities to better understand users and predict what they want from a search engine. "We're only beginning to figure out what we can do will all this stuff," says Aoki, with a noticeable ping of excitement.