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By Edward Cone  |  Posted 09-29-2006

Robert Scoble: Life After Microsoft

Robert Scoble has earned a place in the history of corporate communications. Starting at Microsoft Corp. in 2003, he became the first high-profile blogger within a large business, ushering in a new era of interaction among companies, customers, critics and the general public. Using his blog, called Scobleizer, and now-familiar tools such as podcasts, RSS and Web video, he helped give Microsoft a human face.

Though knocked by critics as just another tool of the marketing department, Scoble's blog showed some genuine independence. He touted cool products from Apple and criticized Microsoft's censorship of a Chinese blogger. People paid attention. By the time he resigned this spring, Microsoft had more than 3,000 blogs (both internal and accessible to the public), and the phrase "enterprise 2.0" was well on its way to becoming a cliché. Scoble had become a brand unto himself, with more than 20,000 subscribers to his Scobleizer blog and a much-hyped book, Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers, co-authored with Shel Israel (John Wiley & Sons, 2006).

Quite a heady experience for a guy with a low-glamour background in trade publishing and conference organizing. Scoble got turned onto blogging while organizing a tech conference for publisher Fawcette in 2000. "I was looking for the new trends, and Dave Winer and Dori Smith [both programmers, writers and seminal bloggers] pointed me to blogs," he says. "I didn't think it was interesting enough to do a conference session on, but they did talk me into starting one myself." His big break came when a Microsoft executive who read Scobleizer suggested that he work for the company.

Through it all, Scoble has maintained the same regular-guy persona that made him—and business blogging—such a hit in the first place. Yet his latest career move (he is now a vice president at PodTech, a Silicon Valley startup that produces Web video and audio programming) raises some questions about the personality-driven model of corporate relations that he pioneered: What happens when the enterprise blogger turns into a star and then leaves? Scoble spoke with Senior Writer Edward Cone about the tools that are changing communications inside and outside the enterprise. An edited version of their conversation follows.

CIO Insight: What was the value of your blog at Microsoft? Obviously the public relations benefit was there, but did it make any real impact on the products and culture of the company?

Scoble: It allowed Microsoft to demonstrate that it was listening. Listening is more than PR. You get some PR value, but if you don't improve the product at the end of the day, people figure out you are not really listening. It will take a couple of years to see the benefits, but we got it started.

We used blog-search engines to find anyone who wrote the word "Microsoft" on their blog. Even if they had no readers and were just ranting, "I hate Microsoft," I could see that and link to it, or I could participate in their comments, or send them an e-mail saying, "What's going on?" And that told those people that someone was listening to their rants, that this is a different world than the one in which no one listens. It was an invaluable focus group that Microsoft didn't have to pay for.

So I would often e-mail a Microsoft product team leader, like Dean Hachamovitch over at the Internet Explorer team, and say, "Hey, man, here's someone out here complaining about your product, what are you going to do about it?" That would prompt him to blog about a lot of things, to tell people what they were going to do about CSS [Cascading Style Sheets, a design tool for HTML and XML pages] support and security, or crashing, or whatever. I think that helped improve the products. The One Note team [One Note is an application in the Microsoft Office suite that syncs text and audio] told me they got a lot of feature requests through their blog, features that they actually implemented in the next version of the product. They thought it was an important way to listen to customers and give them what they wanted.

What about the internal culture of the company? Is there a benefit to blogs behind the firewall as well?

There is a great benefit inside the firewall, and that has started to become clear at Microsoft and other companies. Especially towards the end, I saw a lot of executives using blogs for internal communications, almost as a replacement for all the e-mail that nobody reads. But there's always resistance to change. People don't see the benefits, and unless a manager starts getting into blogging in the outside world, he might not see the power of it.

What are some of those internal benefits?

One of the problems at a big company is the e-mail flow. Let's say I was the manager of a sales team, 60 or 100 salespeople, and every day I wanted a report from them on what they were doing, their experiences, did they close sales. The old way was, everyone would e-mail it to me. Now it's cluttering up my inbox, maybe keeping me from seeing an important e-mail exchange I should have with a customer. And it doesn't let the employees help each other. It locks the knowledge into these silos.

Let's say I left the company—my replacement wouldn't have access to that information. When I left Microsoft, I left a gig and a half of e-mail that neither I nor my replacement has access to. I'm not allowed to look at it, and Microsoft has it stored on a server somewhere, but they don't share it with employees, because it's private. So my replacement can't look into it, and my coworkers can't see any of the knowledge I was storing there. And I was storing quite a bit, actually. But if I could get that knowledge out and put it on a blog, then that stuff stays around, because the blog doesn't get closed down. It's also searchable, so a manager or employee can look for keywords.

You become a far better organization when you share that kind of reporting information with each other, behind the firewall. Blogging is easy, whereas a lot of knowledge management systems are hard to use, and you hate using them, you have to get trained to use them. With a blog you go to a URL and type in a box.

Next page: Why did Scoble leave Microsoft?

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Why did Scoble leave

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You seemed to have freedom to speak your mind at Microsoft. Did you feel supported by senior management?

Absolutely. They understood the importance of having a guy seven levels down talking to customers. I never had anything that I posted killed at Microsoft, but I got yelled at for a few things. When I first wrote about legal issues I was told that it's really dangerous to get close to. They said, if you get close, you'll get subpoenaed and spend six months in a courtroom. They knew from experience on that one. I touched it a few times, but I knew that risk. That kind of stuff is like being a gold miner, and using dynamite on the job. Dynamite is dangerous, but you need it to get the gold.

What companies are leaders in using blogs and similar new technologies?

In terms of the quantity of bloggers, I think it's between Sun, Adobe and Microsoft, with Microsoft in the lead. I like the executive blog that Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz has. General Motors has a public relations feel to their blogs, but they are using them as well.

What does it mean for a company when a blogger who has been its public face leaves? And why did you leave Microsoft, anyway?

Take care of your employees so they don't leave [laughs]. My son is down here in Petaluma [Calif.] and my wife and I were flying from Seattle every other weekend to see him. That took a toll on us. We were looking for opportunities to be closer to him. Even if I had moved to Silicon Valley with Microsoft, I would have been making so many trips back to Redmond that the problem would have still been there.

You'll always have employees leave, even if you are the best of companies. It's the same as when an executive leaves, or a head engineer, or a secretary who leaves with a bunch of knowledge about a company that is hard to replace. Turnover is something every company should worry about. I don't think it means you stop using bloggers. You would miss all the goodness that happen with blogss if you did. And a lot of that goodness stuck around at Microsoft. I mean, Channel 9 [Microsoft's multimedia site, where Scoble blogged] didn't lose all of its readers because I left. They have more than four million unique visitors a month now.

There's an impact on the blogger's own brand, too. What does leaving Microsoft mean for you, and for your successor there?

When you have access to something other journalists don't have access to, you can get attention. I have some access at PodTech, and I'm sure my blog will get interesting again.

I don't have one successor at Microsoft. I don't think I'd wish that on anyone. You have to have so many connections inside the company to funnel things through, it's hard to build that kind of relationship network, and it's just hard to be the public face of a company like that on an ongoing basis, without being tied into the inner core structure. Maybe an executive could do it, but it would be hard. The magic of search engines allows the blogging job to be distributed. The first hit on Google for "One Note blog" is for Chris Pratley, who runs the One Note team, and he is the person who should speak about it. I'm really happy that's what happened at Microsoft, that what I was doing grew across the company.

What's your new gig all about?

My formal title is vice president of media development at PodTech. I have two jobs. One is to do my own tech video show—this morning I interviewed the CEO of Wikia. [a wiki-community company co-founded by Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales]. So 20 percent of my job is interviewing cool people about what they're doing, about their services, products and trends. But most of my time is going to be spent building a network of interesting video and audio bloggers, or content people, to create content for computers and iPods.

Next page: Google vs. Microsoft

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Google vs

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What's the value to the enterprise, beyond marketing and PR, of technologies like Web video and audio?

One easy answer is that there's a lot of training to be done out there. A lot of it is already available. Search online for "Ruby on Rails" [an open-source application framework] and you can find conference video and training video, and developers who just turn the camera on and say, "Hey, I'm going to teach you something about Ruby on Rails." So the corporate training side is going to be interesting.

This is also important for CEOs and executives. A CEO is paid to communicate. If I'm a CEO who can't communicate with the written word, I'd be worrying about my future. How else do you convince people to buy your product, that your new products are good? But let's say you have a CEO who can't write very well, so you put him on video every week. Let him podcast. There are ways to get an executive out there. Executives should be looking at these things not in terms of TV-sized audiences, but smaller audiences. These are great ways to communicate with investors, or the press. I interviewed Bill Gates for 17 minutes, and that meant he didn't have to gas up the jet and go talk to a small crowd at a conference to get his point across. You can get geekier, go more in depth. [Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban gets really geeky on his blog about referees and what happened in a game, much more than Sports Illustrated would in an article.

Also, IT departments need to know that this stuff is going to hit their networks. If you're building a company based on video, or using a lot of video, you need to understand it. These aren't little text files, they're 200- to 800-megabyte files. You have to be prepared for bandwidth costs and scalability issues that come with serving video out to a lot of people.

As part of your new job you've spent some time inside Google. That must make for some interesting comparisons to your former employer, Microsoft. What's your take on Google as a player in the enterprise?

Google hasn't made an impact on the enterprise yet. And I don't see them challenging Microsoft or taking money off the Office team's plate in the enterprise for the next two years. Further out, however, they are positioned to come in and take some business from Microsoft. If I were still at Microsoft, I would be freaking out. The first thing Google will do is stop the growth of Microsoft Office. Small startups aren't going to buy Office anymore, they're going to use the free apps on the Internet. Is Google going to get Chevron to switch from Exchange? No. Not soon. What they are going to do is add new value that Microsoft can't, like the Google calendar team showing me how to put my calendar on my blog. It's really nice. Those kinds of things are what you'll see enterprise companies start to use in little projects here and there. Google will sneak in the back door, just as Microsoft did 25 years ago with DOS and PCs.

Everyone uses Google to search, but I don't see things like GoogleTalk being used a lot in big companies. Even Google Maps has just around 18 percent market share, and certainly big companies aren't ready to use Google's Apps for Your Domain office suite. But at small companies like ours, it's different. We're using it everywhere, because you don't have to pay for it, and it requires no IT manager. Our PodTech e-mail goes through Google.

There's a lot of buzz on blogs that so-called Web 2.0 companies are in something of a bubble mindset. Obviously it's not a big financial bubble involving retail investors, but do you see this market overheating?

Absolutely. It's all froth, all the time. That doesn't mean there aren't a lot of companies building interesting businesses around community involvement. Companies like Wikia are seeing their traffic going up and up. But their business model is selling ads, and there's no telling if that is going to work over time.

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