Prattle & Jaw

Copy, blogs, and bits and bobs

An interview with Bill Johnston, Director of Dell's Global Online Community

So it was time for my third article for The Danish Communications Association, and it just so happened to be around the same time as Community Conference 2011 - of which there'll be more in just a tick. Bill Johnston was giving a keynote there, and as I was heading to the conference on behalf of Designit, I volunteered to interview Bill for my next article. Here it is.

Today I was lucky enough to meet Bill Johnston, Dell’s Global Community Manager. Bill was in Copenhagen for Community Conference 2011, a “conference that focuses on the business value of social media and communities for established brands and organizations, as well as emerging companies. 

The conference, organised by Seismonaut and Update, was a complete success – at least that’s what I, as a participant, felt. Every talk proved to be thought provoking and relevant, and the subject matter was broad enough to keep your mind active, yet not so broad as to bore or confuse. Along with Bill, we heard from David Armano from Edelman, Astrid Haug from Berlingske, Max Schorr, from GOOD Magazine; Lars Damgaard Nielsen, from DR; Christian H. Kamhaug from SAS, Oliver Majumdar from Lufthansa, Benjamin Elberth from The Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterne), Susanna Rankenberg from DR, Mette Lykke from Endomondo, Rolf Ask Clausen from Ingeniøren, and Filip Rasmussen from Gyldendals – a really good line-up. Well done, Seismonaut.

The location was superb too; Mogens Dahl Concert Hall; Smart, yet casual, and being a concert hall – great acoustics. Of course, the glorious weather we had put everyone in a good mood, resulting in a happy, bright, and inspiring. I hope you can make it to the next.

The conference was very well covered by bloggers, Twitter (search for #ccdk) and of course, Seismonaut themselves. Hardly surprising really with such renowned speakers, but I hope that in this interview I touch upon some subjects that weren’t covered, or at least not in as much detail.

I managed to steal Bill for around 30 minutes, and throw some questions about Dell, strategy, and social media his way. He was kind enough to let himself be stolen, and more importantly, answer my questions. Now, I will put my questions and his answers down on paper, and hope that I manage to convey just how excited and passionate I felt Bill was about social media, and his work at Dell.

Lara – So Bill. Tell me, what did you study at university?

Bill – I actually studied graphic design, and very quickly discovered I did not want to go in to advertising.

Lara – Understandable.

Bill – So, I took a position as an industrial designer. The process of learning design and design thinking has actually helped in my career. I’ve primarily been a community architect throughout various stages, so understanding and matching a company’s intention and business goals, with their customers and their needs to create a successful strategy has been almost a natural progression.

Lara – So what got you into social media? What was the break from design?

Bill – I started on the web first, the year I was graduating college, I was having these thoughts that I didn’t want to go into advertising, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. I saw a TV show on public television that showed the Mosaic browser on the NASA site, and I just thought it was fantastic. I’ve always been interested in computers, so I’ve always had this certain spot at the back of my mind thinking that this internet thing will eventually be big. So, I’m an industrial designer for two years, the president of the company where I’m at knows I’m kind of a nerd, and asks me to help create an e-commerce site for a framing product division [picture frames]. So I design an e-commerce site for picture frames and then I just knew; I love the web, and this is what I want to do. I completely lucked into an interview with a company that became Tech Republic which is now part of CBS Interactive and I took the job as essentially an interaction designer, and within about 3 months of launch I’m working late one night and I’m monitoring something on our forums and it’s an IT admin in the States talking with someone in Latin America and they’re solving a problem. It suddently occurs to me that there are probably 15 people in the world who have this kind of expertise to solve this problem and we’ve managed in our community to match two of them. Now that’s amazingly powerful. From that point forward I was hooked.

Lara – So that was it, brilliant. Well in Denmark we’re yet to see the full acceptance of social media, there are still quite a lot of companies who see it is a one-hit-wonder, and even more who are still treading very cautiously around it. When did you see the tipping point in the States for businesses using social media as a tool for crisis management, reputation management, HR, support and so on?

Bill – Well it was really interesting as there was this huge amount of energy around online communities leading up to the dotcom burst, then in 2001 the bottom fell out of everything. I was at Autodesk at this time and I saw this happen across all the technology companies in the Bay area [San Francisco]. The investment in communities, essentially social media, pulled way back, everybody dropped their community initiatives. I managed to hold on to our support forums at Autodesk and that was about it. So 2001 we ride out the storm, 2002 blogging starts to emerge, and I start to lobby for our tech evangelists to blog. They were two people, and all they did was go on the road and talk about how great Autodesk’s products were, so we started to set up Typepad blogs for about 100 bucks a year and very quickly, their blogs started climbing up our hit counters eventually ending up in the top 10. I was then able to pitch social media engagement because I could just point to the screen and say, ‘see that folder that costs us a million dollars a year to maintain? See this blogs folder that’s climbing the charts? That’s 200 bucks plus two people’s time.’ That was when the social media wave really crashed and it became accepted as a valid business tool, at least with leading edge type companies. I do still think there is some suspicion with online communities even today because of the dotcom burst and a little bit of stigma attached, but at Dell we find it’s one of the most valuable activities we have, it’s one of the things we can point at real ROI from.

Lara – Ah yes, ROI, I’ll come back to that. While marketing and advertising are pretty well recognised on social media, what about HR and support? How are these tackled with social media back home?

Bill – Well support is one of the easiest things to quantify from an ROI perspective. There’s a generally accepted principle Stateside that an avoided support call is 5 to 7 dollars saved, so when someone sees a Q&A on a technical forum the accepted value of that call deflection is 5 – 7 dollars. You just have to multiply that to see the cost savings, and thus, the ROI. In terms of HR and recruiting, I get pinged constantly on LinkedIn and Facebook. I scour Facebook and LinkedIn for positions we’re trying to fill, I mean, finding quality candidates via 2 degrees out from people that are already working for Dell – it’s almost completely frictionless,

Lara – I think ROI puts off a lot of businesses; they want to know what’s in it for them. Apart from the direct cash saving, what other kind of ROI do you think social media can offer businesses?

Bill – We’re seeing value in social media engagement across the entire customer lifecycle from acquisition to retention. Just being out there, and having a Dell branded presence on Twitter, Facebook, etc, direct sales from Twitter and Facebook, I mean, we’re able to tie pretty direct ROI back from that. We’re seeing engagement, specifically in communities, shortening sale cycles, increasing order volumes, so across the board we’re seeing value. And then from a reputation management perspective, conversations are happening about most any brand. I mean, I challenge any brand just to do a simple Google search or social media and not find a conversation – a potentially negative conversation – about the brand, so why wouldn’t you want to participate in that, just from a reputation protection perspective? 

Lara – Well said. How do you cope with all the information coming to you through Dell’s social media? There must be a huge amount!

Bill – We do staff to handle it. We have something call the Social Media Listening and Command Centre in Round Rock, and we’ve worked with Radion 6 to monitor, and we have monitoring screens up to show us things that influencers are saying, based upon comments and sentiment, by market, by region, so we’ve done a lot of work in instrumenting our tools to be able to gives us top line information to show where to point the actual human staff and engage and respond if necessary. But it is a lot of information.

Lara – Too much to respond to everyone?

Bill – We definitely try, definitely. Because the ability to reach through social media to where customers are is there, to be able to reach out and solve a problem in 140 characters, or offer them the right support document or even escalate it if needed and have a direct message exchange on Twitter to get them routed to the right support agent, that’s nothing but delight. Especially in local markets, we even have two command centre folks in Denmark so that allows us to monitor local language conversations about Dell, which is awesome.

Lara – Has Dell been a huge learning curve from your previous job at Forum One?

Bill – It’s been really interesting, at Forum One I spent 3 years organising conferences like this, Stateside, building a network of community professionals, that did research around topics like ROI, engagement, staffing, salaries, so essentially just building this massive professional network of people on the leading edge of community development and strategy management. The Dell job has allowed me to take the theoretical frameworks and put them into action which has been really fascinating. For instance, before I came to Dell, I thought this concept of listening in general and doing customer service outreach via social media was completely bogus, a complete waste of time, and then I walk in the door, I look at the frameworks we’re developing and the effect on satisfaction and the effect on customer delight that if offers, and the cost savings, and I’m convinced.

Lara – What do you see happening for Dell’s social strategy in 2012 – don’t feel like you have to divulge anything!

Bill – For me, specifically, it’s going to be three main things potentially. A focus on reputation management, specifically reputation management systems – think of the eBay rating system for sellers, as opposed to this general concept of brand reputation management. I’m focused on evolving our reputation management systems at Dell online in order for our customers and communities in social media to make better-informed decisions about the value of content, the value of participation. The other thing we’re really digging into is the concept of advocacy, so the concept of having advocates more prominently working within our communities, our support forums, IdeaStorm [during Bill’s presentation later in the day, we discovered that after a number of meetings with someone who gave a lot of criticism on IdeaStorm, he actually hired them as a Community Manager], etc, to act on Dell’s behalf in an informed way to create engagement in communities. The last thing is this concept of federation, working with our partners, like Microsoft, to share things like reputations, to mash up identities kinda like Empire Avenue was trying to do, but that juxtaposition of reputation across contexts. I think those are our three key areas that we’re digging into.

Lara – Exciting! Do you think we’re yet to see the full potential of social media realised or are we reaching the peak?

Bill – Well going back to the reputation thing, I do think reputation is going to become increasingly more important and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a more quality version of Empire Avenue, something that’s not so much about your friends trading each other and trading influence, but something more objective for people and brands, I think that’s definitely coming. I also think niche communities and niche social networking, will emerge, like mini-Facebooks, maybe evening including private collaboration, like clouds of people working on things like global hunger or AIDS vaccines. I think there will be a big revolution in terms of internal collaboration to support social efforts, establishing specialists to deal with certain topics and responding to them and so forth. I think we’re starting to see the benefits of having an internal group collaboration service in order to support the social media efforts and external communities.

Lara – Sounds good. Well, thanks a lot Bill. It’s been great.

So there you have it. Clearly a man possessed, and I mean that in an extremely positive way. Meeting people like Bill is always a bit of a slap in the face but also an inspiration.

His slides are available on Slideshare, he writes a blog, he can be found on LinkedIn, and of course Twitter. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see if I can make sure my reputation is secure…

Copyright © 2014, Lara Mulady. All rights reserved.