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Business Transparency

Chris Shipley is executive producer of BlogOn. Lenn Pryor is the director of platform evangelism for Microsoft Corp. Jeff Sandquist works as a technical evangelist for Microsoft. Robert Scoble is an evangelist for Microsoft. Mena Trott cofounded and serves as president of Six Apart. Barak Berkowitz is CEO of Six Apart.

Chris Shipley is executive producer of BlogOn. Lenn Pryor is the director of platform evangelism for Microsoft Corp. Jeff Sandquist works as a technical evangelist for Microsoft. Robert Scoble is an evangelist for Microsoft. Mena Trott cofounded and serves as president of Six Apart. Barak Berkowitz is CEO of Six Apart. During their BlogOn panel discussion, they explored two solid case studies of how companies have successfully opened themselves to customers. What follows is a partial transcript of their panel:

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Chris Shipley: Business transparency came up during our panel just before the break. How do you make your business more open to customers? This has happened at Microsoft through their Channel 9 initiative.

Lenn Pryor: I want to talk about how we’re applying social media products and techniques to improve our business. Essentially, this is the meaning and the metaphor behind Channel 9. You most likely think that it’s blogging at Microsoft. Is this marketing? Is this a trick? Absolutely not. We’re using social network software within our organization. It can be a challenge to communicate with your colleagues and your customers as you scale.

This started after a developers’ conference at which people had a great time. Why did they have a great time? Because they got to know the staff of Microsoft as people. How can we make this scale? It reminds me of a story. Several years ago, I was scared to death about flying. That was based on irrational fears. How do you overcome irrational fear? Learn as much as possible about what scares you. One time, when I was going to go on a trip, a colleague said that instead of taking me to the airport, I’d be picked up by a pilot of United who would tell be absolutely anything I wanted to know about flying. He told me to tune into Channel 9 to listen in on the pilots and control tower. That’s basically what we’re doing with the employees of Microsoft.

Jeff Sandquist: We launched Channel 9 in April. It was built in 2-3 weeks. We embed video in there. Lean and mean. People shoot footage on campus. We edit. We put it up on the home page. There are all sorts of ways to participate in Channel 9. Not every employee can write a weblog. Some people contribute video. Some people just take a snapshot of what they’re doing on any given day. This is an example of one of our videos. Bill Hill is fascinating. But he doesn’t do a weblog. He does do the videos. And here’s the discussion about the video. That’s community.

Channel 9 also has a Wiki. Whoever thought that people would want to help us edit Microsoft.com? People are working to improve Explorer. The product group is working with those customers. There are many different ways to participate in channel 9, and people can also participate without even visiting the site.

Robert Scoble: Channel 9 helped us humanize Microsoft, but it also helps humanize our customers.

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Sandquist: My favorite view of Channel 9 is this: The Technorati view of Channel 9. It fascinates me what people pick up and think is important.

Pryor: Without any marketing, we pull in on average 700,000 unique visitors a month. It’s been an amazing reception from customers, and we’ve managed to reach out beyond the accustomed base. Last month, 6% of the traffic came from Linux. No. 5 on our referrals was Slashdot. We want everyone to get the chance to come to the table. The challenge has been how to teach an organization to turn on a dime and listen to your customers?

There’s a fine line between controlled messaging and brutal honesty. Robert Scoble has taught us a lot about how to have a conversation. Blogging has been accepted in Microsoft’s corporate culture. We have 1,000 corporate bloggers. We don’t have blogging police. We don’t even have a corporate blogging policy. We have one rule: Be smart.

Shipley: Mena, you mentioned last night that you got a “bit of noise” when you changed the pricing policy.

Mena Trott: What Chris alludes to is the pricing change for Moveable Type. It had always been a donationware model with the option to pay. Six Apart has grown since when we did this out of our bedrooms, and we had to adjust our pricing to allow Moveable Type to evolve. Each download brought in something like 38 cents, and we had to revisit that. We made the licenses less restrictive. Our first license was drafted by our fathers, both lawyers. You know what that got: Protect the children. Once we released the changes, we started to hear back a lot. Trackback allowed us to follow what people felt explicitly about the changes. People wrote these posts knowing fully well that we would see them. We received 800-900 trackbacks. The majority them were negative. We’d personally betrayed our users. Personal attacks on Ben. The VC’s were doing this. The trackback mechanism was one of the best ways to learn what people needed.

Some people aren’t going to pay for software. We don’t want to hear from you right now. Some people will pay but the licenses don’t fit. We asked people to tell us why. Take out your emotion. We took another look at it, and people said it was great — we really listened to them. What did we do wrong? It wasn’t the licensing changes and pricing changes that affected them, it was that we’d sprung it on them. We’re so associated with blogging that people wanted to trust us more. We’d gone from the darlings to being evil. We were more evil than Microsoft. Overnight, we became the Microsoft of the blogging world, so it’s nice to be on a panel with the real Microsoft of the blogging world.

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Barak Berkowitz: The important lesson here hit me when I was flying to New York awhile ago. I was listening to Channel 9, the real Channel 9. They turned it off. They blocked the cabin with a food cart. And they said that only one person could get up to go to the bathroom at a time. The challenge about Channel 9 is that you can’t turn it off.

Trott: If you’re going to do it, you need to take the good and the bad. They’re going to get it somewhere else.

Berkowitz: And unlike the real Channel 9, this is bi-directional. Customers can read things and see how you respond to it. It is hard. It is painful. People said nasty things about Ben and Mena. But we did it.