Insight/ Online Media

Listen Up! Dell Lends Its Ear To Social Media

by David Strom
Contributing Writer

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Rule #1 for any social media initiative is: Be a good listener. These days, probably no one is listening as intently as Dell. The computer giant has been slowly improving its listening abilities, and late last year formally opened its Social Media Listening Command Center at Dell headquarters outside of Austin, Texas.

The listening room is just one of many social-media marketing strategies that Dell is using. The company has numerous Twitter accounts that broadcast special prices; a series of Facebook pages with user-generated content promoting its products; and formal ways to incorporate customer-based suggestions into the next round of product features.

The room is a sexy cross between an air traffic control tower and a TV production studio. But the real heart of the room isn’t actually in the room: It’s the people who are listening. "The biggest misconception is that you have to be physically present in the room to listen to the social Web," said Manish Mehta, Dell's vice president for social media and community. "We have listeners located around the company and, indeed, around the world who are monitoring and participating in these conversations."  

A social media listening and command center such as this might not be workable for every marketing operation--it would depend on how one is organized for social media, as well as on the volume of conversations about its business, products, and services. It’s a big undertaking, according to Mehta: "The Social Media Listening Command Center offers us a great, real-time global view of conversations that enables us the aggregate and track data so we understand what topics matter to our customers,” he explained. “When you are embedding social media as a tool across virtually every aspect of the company to be used by employees as one of the ways they stay in touch with customers every day, it simply becomes part of how we do business. Listening is core to our company and our values."

Mehta compared the state of social media to the state of Internet email back in the mid-1990s, when corporate standards were still evolving and not everyone understood the power of such connective technology. "We didn't think about having any return on investment for the telephone or for corporate email back when they were introduced," he said.

Listening has become a big part of Dell's marketing operation and, by extension, its core business. The company tracks tens of thousands of Tweets daily, in 11 different languages, that mention the company and its products. "You have to start by listening to understand how many conversations or places you are being mentioned and which are relevant to your business," Mehta said. Then, issues are tagged and delegated to the appropriate department for quick resolution.

To put the company’s global reach in perspective, the Web site is now delivered in 34 different languages and to as many locales. "Quite a few people use English in Asia and elsewhere, so our coverage works out to about 80 percent of all conversations being in English," he noted. Dell plans on opening new listening rooms in China and Europe later this year to extend its model and to focus attention on the function. "The listening room is a great tool to galvanize our workforce by demonstrating how to do it and how easy it is to participate in these conversations," Mehta explained.

The company, so far, has trained upward of 5,000 out of the more than 100,000 Dell employees worldwide in listening. As part of an effort it calls “Social Media University,” Dell has developed a series of 11 different internally created classes that staffers can take to get certified in using social media, starting with a two-hour basic class. "We have a pretty regimented curriculum to go through," he said.

The classes are held all over the world, including in Dell's offices in China, Germany, and India. "Our goal is to get to the next level, where we do more engagement using social media. We can't expect everyone in the company [to get involved], but we want to certify and train more of our employees," Mehta explained. Once an employee has finished the class, he or she is authorized to blog, Tweet, and post as an official Dell representative. "We need to get the level of engagement where this becomes a natural part of people's jobs," he said. "That is our next frontier."

Next: Social-media standardization.


Dell actually has corporate standards for how to create new social media accounts. Employees are identified by their first names appended by "@Dell" in their Twitter handles, for example. "We register everyone who gets trained so we can keep track of who is posting,” Mehta said. “We also do this so we can terminate an account when someone leaves the company. There are, of course, some issues we haven't really had to deal with yet, such as, what happens when a Twitter user leaves and takes his or her or followers to a new company?"

The same standardization is true for the official Dell Facebook pages. At one time, the company had hundreds of them, with new ones proliferating as various product and account teams set them up. "Now we have less than 50, and we are trying to make more sense out of our Facebook strategy," Mehta said.

Social media can be used for a variety of marketing purposes, including improving communications and handling crisis management. "Some companies use social media as a defense play or for thought leadership, such as promoting their blogs and position pieces,” Mehta said. “And cable companies and airlines will use it for better customer service. Some will use it for idea generation, such as Starbucks, to improve products via customer input. Others use it to generate demand for viral marketing or ad campaigns. And others have used social commerce, putting social media feeds right inside their Web sites to drive conversions and sales. The difference here at Dell is that we are using it in every one of these functions. Every department uses it distinctly for its part of the business."

There are many examples of how Dell uses the information it gets from all of this listening. Social-media conversations have influenced a wide number of its products and plans; it has also helped refine several of its marketing messages. The result? Tighter and quicker feedback between customers and the company has had a profound effect, including new-product launches and/or upgrades based on user reviews and ratings.

In yet another example of its marketing initiative, Dell's main Facebook page contains an item called "tag team," which aggregates user-generated reviews to help customers choose the most appropriate system. This allows much of the marketing of Dell systems to be placed in the hands of customers, who identify how they want to use a certain system and can then compare it to suggestions from other customers.

Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group and author of Open Leadership, gave Dell an award for the way it demonstrates open leadership principals. Said Li: " What started out as basic monitoring and reputation management has turned into a way of doing business that permeates through every department. This does not come easily or quickly, and Dell is being recognized for their dogged determination to being ‘direct’ with their customers in multiple ways."

For example, by listening and engaging with customers in the many ways social media has to offer, Dell’s Enterprise Technology Center has influenced new sales cycles, helping to move them forward.  In one year, the Tech Center community has experienced a 270% growth in Web site traffic, according to Dell representatives.

Concluded Mehta: “I also want to see examples of other companies that are doing great things with social media." Always the listener.