Computer and technology company Dell Inc. is well-known for the way it's embraced social communities to engage with customers, especially ones with highly technical questions. Rishi Dave, the company's executive director-online marketing, said that reputation didn't come about by chance but, rather, as a result of the need to transform Dell's marketing culture.
“In adjusting our strategy to understand these communities, we completely lost control of our brand,” Dave said. “Brand control had shifted to our communities, the communities we participate in and to influencers in those spaces.
“We've accepted that, and now focus on how we participate to shift customer viewpoints,” he said.
Dell acknowledged the change, Dave said, primarily because of the ability of social communities to bring together highly engaged participants in numbers large enough to make it desirable for Michael Dell, the company's founder and CEO, to personally participate.
The company researches major influencers who have their own blog-driven communities or participants in important ones and regularly flies them to Dell's Round Rock, Texas, headquarters to meet with the founder and to “treat them special so they have a positive view of our brand,” Dave said.
The company also makes sure to participate online using appropriate in-house experts. Dave said that, before the advent of online communities, the company typically assigned its lowest-level employee to address customer issues, simply because one-to-one conversations had little impact overall.
Now, engagement-plus-scale has changed that. Dell typically assigns experts—including engineers, Ph.D.s and other thought leaders—to specific communities concerned with their areas of expertise. Aiding the process is an internal social media training program that encourages social participation.
“You have to make your employees rock stars,” Dave said. “It's not just about having them participate but to become themselves heavily influential in very narrow technical areas. If you can do that, they can have a massive influence on the sales cycle.”
Dave added that social media isn't just about the top of the sales funnel. He said sales reps often will push a late-stage prospect into a particular community to engage with a Dell technical expert.
“That way we can massively scale the number of customers we can help, even late in the sales cycle,” he said.
There are, however, risks associated with social communities specific to b-to-b companies, according to Steve Saunders, managing director of community-building company DeusM, which built some of Dell's own communities, including Enterprise Efficiency. One is creating an expensive site that nobody visits—an embarrassment for a company that wants to be viewed as a significant player in the field.
“Another bad thing is that lots and lots of people come to the community but they're the wrong type of people—the wrong customers for your company or people who just argue and attack the sponsor,” Saunders said. “There are very few companies that haven't had these kinds of bad experiences with online communities.”
DeusM actually screens community members to make sure the “right kind” are allowed in. And Dell tries to ameliorate negativity by emulating its approach to influencers; the company will fly some critics to Texas to meet the boss and get “treated special.”
“In b-to-b, we've found that the influence of a single person on a large multimillion-dollar deal can make all the difference,” Dave said. “We find that b-to-b social communities drive thought leadership, leads and the pipeline.”