April 2012

Social Media and Customer Connection

CIDMIconNewsletterJulie MacAller, Microsoft

Social media is old news by now. Many people are using it personally or professionally. Think about yourself: how many accounts do you have? Are they for personal or professional use? Does your team or company use social media channels to connect with your customers, or are you thinking about it? In this article I present some notes about how my team is using social media channels to connect with our customers.

Why We are Doing This

The most important reason we are involved in social media is to engage with our customers where they are. Our customers use social media, so it makes sense for us to use it as well. It is critical to our team’s success to talk to our customers, and social media provides another way to do that. We need to be constantly improving our understanding of our customers and where they are coming from, so we can provide more relevant content and samples.

My Goal

My goal is simple: I want every writer in my organization to have at least one customer they know and chat with. I think of technical communicators today like journalists. They have a “beat,” which is a particular technology. And like a journalist, they cultivate sources. It leads to better “reporting” if every writer has at least one primary source who is a customer. Are all the writers on social media? No. Why not? Because it is not right for everyone. I would like for everyone to end up engaging with our customers one way or another, but social media is just one of those ways.

Where We are Engaged

If you count up all the possible Facebook pages, LinkedIn groups, Twitter accounts, and so on, the sheer number of possibilities is daunting. We have a lot of options. To simplify, we decided to use existing channels and accounts instead of creating our own. For us the decision was a question of resources and using people’s time wisely. The existing accounts are on common channels: Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. We also post to official team blogs. All of these channels were already getting a fair amount of traffic, so the impact of engaging on them was more immediate.

In terms of what customers seem to be using the most, we’ve noticed that blog posts seem to generate the most activity in the form of discussion and readership. Facebook, LinkedIn, Stack Overflow, and our own forums seem to get lots of questions. Popular content types include how tos, content update summaries, and videos: those all seem to draw the most “likes.” One team member noted, “It’s great to be able to see what customers like and don’t like so quickly.”

We Started Small

I didn’t want to make a big splash over several social media channels and then go dark because the team couldn’t keep up with them. My staff had their regular work and deliverables to complete as well. I didn’t have anyone to devote to social media efforts full-time. I also knew about the dangers of “going dark,” trying to re-establish your online voice after you disappear is extremely difficult. It was better to choose even fewer outlets than I thought we really could support. We could always add to them later.

How We got Started

Because the official accounts were owned by others, we had to demonstrate our understanding of the message and our commitment to involvement. We used a few techniques to gain this credibility:

  1. Monitor what’s already going on and alert people when issues crop up. Others might see it, but we were faster in many cases, which helped show our interest and commitment.
  2. Keep track of what’s going on and send out a monthly report. We collected interesting posts or tweets, grouped them by topic, and sent them around, adding our interpretation and suggestions.
  3. Respond to issues by updating the docs. We had a monthly update process in place already, and we began to use it to respond to issues customers were reporting through social media. Then we sent out announcement emails when the updates went live, and noted updates that were specific responses to customer feedback.

One writer on my team used to spend a couple of hours a week monitoring the different sites and posting, as well as about a day to compile a monthly report on social media activity. Currently she has less time to spend, so focuses on moderation and occasional posting. Compiling the monthly reports took too much time and required a manual process. One piece of advice: figure out how to automate your reports. They can easily become the most time-consuming thing you do.

Overall, I see our involvement as positive for the team. Social media makes it easy to connect with customers quickly, and monitoring the same channels they use gives us a picture of their concerns and challenges. Our content update summaries are surprisingly popular and seem to help foster a perception of ongoing value for customers. Using existing channels and starting small helped us get involved and gain credibility. We have yet to solve the problem of automating the reports, but are hopeful that our tools team can give us a hand with that in the near future. CIDMIconNewsletter

 MacAllerJulie MacAller

Microsoft Corporation

Julie MacAller manages the documentation teams for Microsoft developer tools products, including Visual Studio, ALM, and the .NET Framework. Although she reserves Facebook for family and close personal friends, she welcomes connections on LinkedIn and, if you happen to be a knitter, on Ravelry.