Book Review: Tales From a Veteran Blogger

I’ve been a reader of Ed Brill’s blog for several years, not because of any particular  interest in the IBM/Lotus products that he long championed, but because he’s just so good at blogging.

Opting In by Ed BrillBrill was a longtime product manager for IBM’s Social Business products, where he fought an uphill and often public battle against Microsoft. Brill’s barbs were notable because IBM’s buttoned-down culture had historically discouraged direct public engagement. How did a product manager get away with poking a stick in the eye of a major competitor?

The fact that he did get away with it is one of the sub themes of Opting In, Brill’s new book about social product management. “Only twice did someone ask for me to be fired at the chairman’s level,” he jokes. That seems funny today, but at the time it was a bold test of new management principles that challenged IBM’s 100-year-old prohibitions against individual expression.

Brill’s engaging and readable book is aimed at product managers, those corporate jacks of all trades who fret about everything from market research to customer support. Product managers are the ones who ultimately take the credit or blame for a product’s performance in the marketplace, and Brill sees social media as their ally at almost every level. Opting In covers everything from Google Alerts to Pinterest, and Brill not only outlines the unique utility of each of these tools but usually provide stories to support his points.

Telling Stories

For me, the benchmark of an enjoyable business book is storytelling, and Opting In has stories aplenty. They include detailed accounts of some of his more notable confrontations, such as a 2004 dustup with the influential Radicati Group and a 2010 challenge to a controversial Gartner report. Conventional wisdom holds that you don’t pick fights with these influencers, but Brill went to war and lived to tell about it. The explanations of his reasoning behind these actions are valuable competitive intelligence for any product manager.

Ed_Brill

Ed Brill

Most of the tales in Opting In are more upbeat. For example, Brill tells how a single tweet on a trip to Sydney led to a meeting with a local follower and fellow foodie and a friendship that has lasted for years. Social media is about more than business, he emphasizes. Those glimpses into your experiences, hobbies and interests create touch points that lead to meaningful relationships.

Product managers will learn much from scrutinizing Brill’s insight on topics common to the profession. He introduces the concept of “progressive disclosure” as an alternative to the traditional Big Bang product announcement, with the idea being to use social media to build awareness and buzz leading up to the communication of the news.

He describes how Lotus has increasingly moved toward open product development as a way to integrate user feedback into the process and even shares a story about how his group handled an unforeseen customer backlash to some changes that everyone expected to be a hit. Fellow product managers will relate to all of this.

Opening Up

The hero of the book is IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines, which get a full appendix entry of their own. Brill frequently praises these rules, which are often cited as a model of social media policy, for giving him the courage to take on some of his more notable battles and to continually give voice to his opinions.

The guidelines, which were first drafted in 2005, have changed IBM fundamentally. To dramatize the scope of that change, Brill recalls how he was slapped down by corporate communications in 2003 for identifying an employee in a blog post because, “we don’t have celebrities at IBM.” Less than a decade later, IBM was running ads celebrating individual employees.

“The guidelines…signaled to employees, clients and the market that IBM would stand behind its [people],” he writes. In a day when corporate loyalty seems almost a quaint historical curiosity, the kind of faith must be pretty empowering.

Full disclosure: I have a consulting relationship with an IBM subcontractor.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Unfair Rap on Gates

Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum ,2007.

Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum ,2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bill Gates is getting bashed over comments he made that are critical of capitalism, and I think he’s getting a bad rap.

Wired reported on comments Gates made in London last week in which he complained that more funding is directed to male baldness research than to malaria vaccines because the wealthy people who write the checks are more concerned with their own problems than bigger humanitarian issues. He said governments and philanthropic organizations have to take steps to correct this ”flaw in the pure capitalistic approach”.

Reader comments on Wired are a bit more thoughtful than the ones on the U.K.’s Mail, but the criticism in both forums centers on Gates’ implied criticism of capitalism, which made him one of the richest people on earth.
For one thing, Gates didn’t trash capitalism in general. What he said was that there was a “flaw in the pure capitalistic approach” that created funding inequities. Most people would agree that capitalism in its purest form creates imbalances that lead to lead to things like the Great Depression, and that’s why some regulation is needed. It’s the best economic model humans have yet invented, but it isn’t perfect.

I also think Gates’ image needs revisiting in light of all the good he has done over the last decade.

If you read the rest of the Wired story, you see that Gates has his fingers on the pulse of some huge humanitarian issues, and the Gates Foundation is doing some of the world’s best work to address the problems of the desperately poor. I now believe that the Gates Foundation – not Microsoft – has been Bill Gates’ life goal for a very long time. Microsoft was his way to make the Foundation real.

Back in my technology media days I had the chance to interview Gates on several occasions. I once asked him why he continued to accumulate so much wealth. Did he ever think about scaling back and enjoying the fruits of his success (This was in the early 90s, when he was worth only around $8 billion)?

Gates’ answer surprised me. He said he planned to give away most of the money eventually and that he was in the best possible place to generate the maximum amount of wealth for that purpose  While the Gates Foundation didn’t have a name at the time, it was clearly a goal in his mind.

Since leaving Microsoft in 2008, Gates has all but disappeared from the industry he helped create, devoting himself instead to his foundation. He has thrown himself into that task with all the energy he brought to crushing Microsoft competitors, only this time has goals are perhaps more commendable. Microsoft stock has languished for a decade. Gates cashed out his winnings when there was nothing more to be gained, just as he told me he would 20 years ago.

I think we’re seeing another side to Bill Gates, and I hope it’s part of his legacy. While he is a brilliant and often ruthless competitor, he’s also capable of great compassion. I think it’s a shame that Steve Jobs, who gave away very little of the wealth he accumulated, is viewed more positively than a man who seems determined to spend the rest of his life tackling some of the world’s toughest health and humanitarian issues.

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Microsoft Down, But Hardly Out

I followed Microsoft closely for many years when I was in the technology press, visited the company every year or so and even sat down with Bill Gates for interviews a few times. I was always impressed by the competitiveness of the Microsoft culture, and wondered whether it could resist the disease that killed companies like Digital Equipment, Wang Laboratories and Compaq, and that nearly killed IBM and Novell.

That disease is described in Clayton Christiansen’s 1997 classic The Innovator’s Dilemma. Companies that dominate technology industries tend to become so addicted to the products that made them successful that they fail to respond to changes in the market and are done in either by low-cost competitors or a platform shift.

A new article by Kurt Eichenwald in Vanity Fair paints a dismal picture of Microsoft’s performance over the last decade and doesn’t offer much optimism for the future. The article is currently available only in the printed edition of VF, but you can find a summary here and dig up scans of the printed piece if you look around a bit.

Creeping Bureaucracy

Eichenwald documents a decade of missed opportunities, unforgivable delays, bureaucratic infighting and intellectual stagnation that made this once-fearsome competitor a caricature of the company that regulators on two continents tried to break up a little more than a decade ago. He recalls the Windows 95 launch, when people lined up around the block outside consumer electronics stores to get the first copies. Today, the idea that anyone would get that excited about any kind of Microsoft product launch seems unfathomable.

I only have a couple of comments to add to this well-reported piece. The first is that Bill Gates’ departure from the helm of Microsoft at the end of 1999 was the beginning of the downward spiral. While many people thought his self-imposed demotion from CEO to Chief Software Architect was a ruse at the time, it now appears that Gates really did step away from active management of the company.

Steve Ballmer at CES 2010He handed it over to the wrong guy. I personally like Steve Ballmer, and I have great respect for his competitiveness and sales/marketing skills, but he’s not a product guy. It seems that great tech companies only stay on top as long as there are technical visionaries at the helm, and it’s clear that Microsoft lost its vision years ago. Jim Allchin and Ray Ozzie perhaps had the technical chops to do the job, but neither seemed to have the natural leadership skills. Ballmer is the perfect guy to take a completed product and drive it into the market, but he’s obviously not the guy to get the product to market in the first place. I don’t see that changing, and I don’t see Microsoft turning around as long as Ballmer is in charge.

Misplaced Management Technique

My second comment is about the Microsoft management tactic called “stack ranking.” This forces managers at review time to designate two people out of every 10 as superstars, seven as average and one as trouble. The person at the bottom isn’t likely to be around very long.

Bloggers have been kicking the crap out of stack ranking since the VF article appeared, but it’s really not as bad an idea as it sounds. I worked at a company that used a similar system, and in the right scenario it’s actually pretty effective.

The goal of stack ranking is to force managers to make hard decisions about weak performers. Most managers hate even to give bad reviews, much less fire people, and stack ranking enforces a certain toughness that many managers could use, in my experience. It sends a message to the organization that poor performers won’t be punished by merely getting a 2% smaller raise than the top performers.

The problem is that stack ranking doesn’t work in organizations that put a premium on innovation and creativity. If Xerox had used it at PARC in the 1960s, we’d probably still be using MS-DOS today. Creative people shouldn’t have to worry about sucking up to managers and competing with the person at the next desk. They should spend their time being creative. Stack ranking works great for sales forces and process-oriented jobs, but it’s a disaster when applied to engineers, programmers, graphic artists or writers.

A lot of people are beating up on Microsoft right now, and with good reason, but this company is hardly a basket case. Futurist Thornton May recently told me that Microsoft goes into the top engineering schools each year and scoops up as many of the best graduates as it can get. It has a desktop franchise that won’t stop throwing off cash anytime soon and its position in the corporate data center is secure. The biggest problem there is that the future of the corporate data center is in some doubt right now.

Eichenwald contrasts Microsoft’s performance to Apple’s, and the Redmond giant comes off looking pretty pathetic. But then again, so does everyone else. This piece will hopefully cause some soul-searching within the Microsoft executive suite, and maybe restore some of the drive that once made that company so terrifyingly great.


Update: Dan Gillmor reaches much the same conclusion, although for different reasons. He points to some Microsoft innovations that the VF piece overlooked, and also notes the depressing effective of an antitrust settlement on the way a company works.

Facebook Can Work for B2B Marketers, But You Gotta Know the Rules

In my work with B2B organizations, the question of how to use Facebook is invariably front and center. This Is despite the fact that numerous surveys have shown that Facebook is one of the least effective social networks for B2B marketing.

In a survey of marketers conducted by BtoB magazine last year, Facebook was ranked last in usefulness among the top five social networks, trailing blogs, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter, in that order.

Nevertheless, some B2B companies have mined gold out of Facebook’s audience, particularly for recruiting young college graduates. Let’s look at some examples of what they do well.

Storage maker EMC makes particularlyEMC page on Facebook good use of Facebook’s “Welcome” page. This is an under-utilized tool that enables companies to present an HTML page as their default front door. It’s done with an application called Static FBML (Facebook Markup Language) but there is little difference between FBML and HTML.

The advantage of a Welcome page is that you can use all the tricks of an HTML page, including hotspots, embeds and even forms. Buddy Media uses it to capture leads, as does e-mail marketing provider Infusionsoft. SAP plays inline videos. Use welcome pages to present an attractive and exciting introduction to your company.

EMC has several FBML pages, including a list of its other social media accounts and a game you can play only after liking the page. EMC doesn’t use Facebook’s wall to much effect, but its purpose seems more promotional than interactive. On that front, it hits the mark.

Other B2B companies that use their welcome pages well include VMWare, Lenovo, UPS and Intel. Fedex uses a cool Flash animation to link to its sub-pages. SocialMediaB2B.com has a nice roundup of Eight B2B Facebook Landing Pages

Conversation Equation

LinkedIn is all about efficiency, but Facebook is about generating discussion, even if it’s around trivial things.

For interactivity, it’s hard to beat Intel’s page, which has racked up nearly 2.7 million likes*. Intel uses its wall to great effect. Its language is perfect for the young Facebook audience, and its questions and challenges are often offbeat and fun.

It’s 2026…what are your devices able to do?” Intel asked last week. Nearly 1,100 people have responded. Wow. Earlier in the week it used an in-line poll app to ask “What content are you most excited to see on our Facebook page?” Interestingly, videos and product announcements topped the list.

Cisco is also terrific at generating discussion. A post on Monday offered fans the chance to win a Casio camera by telling how the Cisco Unified Computing System can benefit their business. That’s a great way to generate word-of-mouth, because posts are shared with people’s friends. Contests and giveaways work well on Facebook.

Cisco SuperFanCisco also has a clever concept called the SuperFan, which is a recognition awarded to their most active visitors. There’s no money involved: SuperFans get their name and face on the Cisco page, and that’s good enough for many of them. Here’s how it works.

Salesforce.com leverages Facebook to drive attendance to its many events. The company knows that its core audience is sales professionals, and it uses discounts, referral bonuses and contests to reach these individuals. Salesforce also post lots of photos of people, which reinforces the image that this is a company with a personal touch.

Desperately Seeking People

One of the most popular uses of Facebook for B2B companies is as a recruiting tool. Facebook has an app to support career postings on your page, but some companies take it to the next level.

UPSjobs goes beyond simply posting job opportunities. It makes the extra effort to quickly respond to inquiries from its fans, often within a few hours. As a result, UPS has turned the tables on traditional recruitment: People come to its page seeking jobs because they know they’ll get a rapid response. As a result, most of the wall comments are from people who want to work for UPS.

Microsoft celebrates its interns on its recruiting page, which is a smart move given the young demographics of the Facebook audience. Sodexo is a master of using social media for recruitment. It uses apps for Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Foursquare to pull its content from other social networks into Facebook. This company’s entire recruiting effort  – it hires about 5,000 people in the US every year – is built on social media. Check out its impressive recruitment site, which lists the many social channels it uses. Other notable careers pages on Facebook include Shell, Hilton and Abbott Laboratories.

Takeaways

Now that we’ve looked at examples of Facebook best practices, what can we learn from them? Here are some of my takeaways:

Firehouse.com on FacebookHave fun. I think of Facebook as the after-hours social network. The style that works best is relaxed, informal and a little edgy. Be personable and distinctive. No company does this better than M&M Mars, whose Skittles page is closing in on 19 million likes. Its style is unique: funny, unpredictable and tuned to generate response.

Respond. Facebook is a place for conversation, not publication. If people ask questions, you need to respond and quickly. One common mistake companies make with their Facebook pages is to launch them and leave them. Successful fan pages feature a constant stream of new posts by the company and quick response to visitor comments.

Be Colorful. Welcome pages are one of the big differences between Facebook and LinkedIn. They enable you to add a colorful and multifaceted dimension to your presence. The best welcome pages have lots of entry points and a vigorous, hip feel.

Share. One aspect of Salesforce.com’s Facebook presence that I particularly like is its willingness to share content from other sources that its audience may find useful. This not only makes the Salesforce.com fan page a resource but builds goodwill with the sources it links to.

Ask. Firehouse.com has built an impressive Facebook presence for its audience of firefighters and emergency medical technicians. “Is your department participating in National Night Out?” It asked earlier this week. It’s “Sunday Morning Roll Calls” sometimes generate hundreds of responses. Something as simple as asking people what they plan to do for the weekend can create interaction.


* I’m personally not a big fan of tracking page likes as a measure of success, particularly since Forrester has estimated that less than 15% of people who click that button ever return. What impresses me more about Cisco’s Facebook presence is the number of likes and comments that individual wall posts receive.