Ann All spoke with Toby Richards, general manager of Community & Online Support at Microsoft about the role of online communities in the company's support strategy.
All: How many online communities does Microsoft have? I found a list online and it looks pretty extensive.
Richards: We have a lot of communities. I don't even know how many. It's not a metric I care to track. There are thousands, and they are aligned by three different audiences: developers, IT professionals and consumers. There's MSDN for developers, TechNet for IT professionals, and Answers for consumers. They are further broken out by product, by language.
"When you come out with new products, features or programs, from an advocacy reach perspective, there's a social benefit in tapping into the experts out there. When we think about value, the three things we look at are feedback, advocacy and support."
All: That sounds like a challenge, to moderate or manage all of them. Does Microsoft manage all of them or are some managed by users?
Richards: Philosophically as a company, it's really difficult to manage conversations. I can't manage everything that goes on on Twitter. Our goal is to participate and to do it in such a way that brings communities together on common topics. When we think about management of our forums, it's typically in areas where we know community exists. Our philosophy is to let the community manage itself. But I will tell you that's not always successful. You can create environments where some people abuse that privilege and maybe make a conversation other people don't want to follow. Over the course of the last three years, we have invested more of our time and energy in participating in those communities. I wouldn't necessarily say we manage them.
All: Right. I guess management is not the best word. But let's say I start a SharePoint community. Do I come to Microsoft? Does Microsoft come to me? How would that usually work?
Richards: It's a combination of both. If people want to come to a Microsoft online property, we want to have a great community for them. That said, it's unrealistic to think that, with the explosion of social media and the Web, we could ever control or even want to control the conversation. One of the ways we reach out to external communities is by awarding thought leaders and experts out in the field. We have a community influencer award program, the Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals. This is represented by the top 4,200 technical experts of various Microsoft products who are community leaders. Many of them have their own online communities. Many of them have the more traditional user group, meet-in-person types of communities.
Those 4,200 people are spread across the globe in 90 countries and coincidentally in about 90 different technical areas. Some of them have their own communities, and a lot of them participate as experts in our communities as moderators. So our strategy isn't to be the end-all, be-all community site, although if you want to engage with community on Microsoft support sites, we feel as if we've got compelling places where conversation is thriving and where we are actively participating. We support our partners' communities as well. When Windows 7 launched in October, we worked with HP within their own technical communities because their products ship with Windows on them. We had some of our MVPs and our support engineers there to help deliver value to our common set of customers.
All: In the unlikely event I became an MVP, what would I get? I assume recognition is a huge part of it, but are there benefits beyond that?
Richards: Recognition is first and foremost. We award people based on their past 12 months' contribution to the community. Thank you is step No. 1. Then it's around opportunities for them to speak directly with product engineering. That is probably the most highly rated of the benefits we provide. There's an ongoing dialogue between product engineers and MVPs to provide feedback. They also gain early access to products. So they're pretty influential as it relates to the feedback they provide. I'd say that's the main thing. Plus, there's the general connection and affiliation with Microsoft.
Next page: Reacting to Feedback