• June 1, 2009
  • By Jessica Tsai, Assistant Editor, CRM magazine

On the Scene: Users Converge

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For the rest of the June 2009 issue of CRM magazine — The Social Media Issue — please click here.

In preparation for its annual Dynamics user conference Convergence, Microsoft alerted attendees to the event’s Twitter hashtag: #MBSEvents. If you had a Twitter account, you were probably followed by the event’s own account, @MBSConvergence. Before launching, it was evident in discussions with Microsoft executives that they weren’t sure what to expect from a Twitter strategy. Even so, recollects Paul Harris, an independent interactive marketing consultant for the Dynamics user groups, “I was impressed that they were willing to try.”

Despite hosting nearly 7,000 attendees who were likely to be technologically adept, Microsoft Convergence was surprisingly weak on Twitter. Only 90 updates were made by the @MBSConvergence Twitter account, more than a third of which were schedule-related. (Poor wireless access could have been a big contributing factor. “I personally felt crippled,” Harris says.)

Across all the Dynamics user groups, Harris aggregated 618 comments from Twitter and 120 comments from the user group’s live blog. “It’s relatively low,” he says, especially compared to conferences he’s attended for associations of online journalists where tweets were coming in at 15 to 20 per minute. “We’re definitely going to grow from here.”

Relying on the distributed nature of social networking—that is, without Microsoft’s assistance—independent Dynamics user groups jumped on board. Members of the Dynamics CRM user group, for example — @CRMug on Twitter — created their dues-funded organization two years ago to connect with each other and to exchange best practices. The purpose of Twitter, Harris explains, was to sustain networking that was as robust as the face-to-face version that only occurred at shows a handful of times a year. Otherwise, users interact through digital events such as Webinars.

Harris says that Twitter — where other Dynamics user groups include @NAVug, @AXug, and @GPug — may be the most relevant network right now, but adds the user groups are considering Facebook and LinkedIn strategies as well. (Microsoft is obviously no stranger to the value of social networking, having made a $240 million deal with Facebook in October 2007 for a 1.6 percent ownership stake and exclusive rights to Facebook’s advertising positions. For more on this generation’s leading social network, see page 32 for a special excerpt of the new book, The Facebook Era, by Clara Shih.)

Some Microsoft users recall a time when social networks were unavailable. “It [was] much more challenging to obtain product information, get solutions to issues, and have questions answered,” says Donna Edwards, manager of business systems at VisionAir, a Microsoft partner that sells software for the public safety and criminal justice verticals. Edwards remembers relying instead on Microsoft Technical Support or VisionAir’s implementation consultant — both, she says, at an additional cost.

With access to social networking, Edwards — who twitters as @edwardsdna — enjoys the “give-and-take” relationship and access to the latest information about the software. “[Users] can do that faster, with greater scale, and reach out to a group so much more efficiently,” Harris adds. It’s different from grabbing someone’s business card at a trade show and following up with a random question months later. Users are in an open environment that extends even beyond the Dynamics CRM community to those who may have similar interests.

The user group itself is also leveraging social networks to raise awareness and attract new members. Harris saw an attendee approach the CRM user group booth at the Convergence exhibit hall, having never heard of the group prior to the conference, but feeling connected as a follower on Twitter. This mutual interest, Harris says, points to a highly effective lead-generation mechanism.

Unlike the usual post-session evaluation surveys, Twitter provides real-time responses, and most important, it’s voluntary. “It’s a new paradigm,” Harris says, “where we have all these thoughts, all these updates that are naturally occurring.” The tweets can be aggregated to create a snapshot of the event in a report to the entire group. Though a work-in-progress now, such networks will one day be a prime source of relevant content.

The plan for how tweets and other social networking communication devices will be used is far from cemented. Jason Ferguson, a CRM practice manager at Australia-based technology service provider CSG — he uses the nom de tweet @TheCRMGuy — predicts that, as Twitter and other social media channels gain credibility among business users, not only will general participation grow exponentially, but traditional CRM solution providers (such as Dynamics CRM) will be forced to develop platforms to support the insight generated by these channels.

What Twitter can do is provide an easy channel through which individuals can connect and disseminate information at an extraordinary scale, but it’s not a panacea. Edwards says that, in her experience, “users still struggle with obtaining the information they need to leverage the [Dynamics] application.”

Twitter’s simple model — say what you want, but in no more than 140 characters — makes it difficult for many to see the true business value.

“It’s the Wild West,” Harris says. “We’re still trying to figure it out.”

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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