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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