The Marketing Strategist:

How Dell Mobilized a Disciplined Army of Social Media Ambassadors

May 16, 2013

A formative incident in Dell history is blogger Jeff Jarvis’s 2005 “Dell Hell” post, which triggered a torrent of negative media and threatened to become a “United breaks guitars” moment for Dell. What’s less well-known is the fact that even before Jarvis wrote his post, Michael Dell was pushing for the company to become more active in social media (which at that time meant reaching out to the blogging community). The Jarvis incident may have accelerated the change, but there was already momentum towards a social media presence. Dell’s social media efforts started in 2006 with a program to seek out and contact bloggers even if they had not gotten in touch with Dell. Dell found that simply joining the conversations caused negative commentary to drop by 30%, even if Dell staffers and bloggers had agreed to disagree. As its social media approach developed, Dell created a central body to coordinate activity around the company. This unit—Social Media and Community (SMaC)—provides governance and training to all of Dell’s business units. The governance and oversight is centralized, but participation is distributed. It’s a hub-and-spoke model in the sense that there is regular coordination to share knowledge and best practices. But the spokes—the social media activities within the business units—now dwarf the hub in size. For Dell, an important question is how social media can support its transition from hardware to services. The social media infrastructure was developed before the PC market tanked, yet it is still likely to yield a competitive edge as Dell develops its newer, solutions-focused businesses. The perils and potential of social media are greater in services and solutions. A services contract is the start of a relationship between teams on both sides, with peaks and valleys and ongoing problems to be solved. The mechanics of staying close to the customer becomes more complex as more individuals are touched by the project. And because each project participant has his or her own social graph, things about the project that go poorly—or well—have the potential to be instantly shared, creating both risks and opportunities to be managed. If social media is one vast collection of focus groups, Dell’s social-enabled employees are now embedded in those groups, listening and facilitating. It’s an approach that supports all four imperatives in the ITSMA Marketing Framework: setting strategic direction, meeting customer needs, engaging stakeholders, and strengthening relationships. Companies that seek out and engage customers can get an edge in any market. But when markets are disrupted—when new business models rather than mere product improvements are called for—scrutiny of social signals can help companies start their transitions sooner and get them right faster. And if one of Dell’s goals in embracing social media was to turn ranters into ravers, the biggest prize was converting the original ranter: in a piece published two years later titled “Dell Hell: The end?” Jarvis wrote that “a company that was vilified as the worst at blogs, social media, and customer relations in the broad sense is now, one could argue, the best at this.”

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