Who owns ‘social media’ in an enterprise? How do you engage your users? How do you sustain a community? How do you measure ‘success’? We ask Microsoft social media strategist Douglas Crets.

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By Sudarshana Banerjee

Douglas Crets is a social media strategist with Microsoft. He interacts with several hundred entrepreneurs and enthusiasts in a given week, manages a thriving community, leads and coordinates events, and formulates strategy, among other things.

We present an in-depth interview with Mr. Crets, as part of the Techtaffy Thought Leaders series. 

What is BizSpark? What is the BizSpark Lab? Could you tell us a bit about the BizSpark Plus Accelerator and Incubator Program?

BizSpark is a program that provides free licensing of software exclusively to startups, so that they can build software for mobile devices and the Cloud in the most efficient way possible, as fast as possible, without going broke doing it.

It’s also a program of support and community that helps introduce developers and founders to others who can help them with their business, coding and program ideas, regardless of whether those others are Microsoft people, other developers, or other founders, whether or not they are nearby or far away.

We have about 50k plus startups and their members in this group, and we are on all social platforms having conversations on a daily basis.

You can find us on Facebook and you can tweet to us at @bizspark. You can also join our LinkedIn Group, whether or not you have applied to Bizspark.

We put together the BizSpark Lab on our Mountain View campus so that founders and developers can come and work for a couple hours or a couple of days. We also hold hackathons, meetups, and business model programs there, and you are all welcome to ping @bizspark for some more info about when you can drop by.

We also run a radio program from there, where we interview founders, investors and CEOs of established tech companies.


What is your role with BizSpark? How does a typical day at work go?

My job is to be the social media strategist, content developer, community manager and internal social media advocate for BizSpark, and our community of developer evangelists and developers, as well as founders around the world.

A typical day starts at about 5am, with responding to tweets that happened over bizsparknight, picking up on yesterday’s conversations and routing information and tweets to people around the world who would likely be able to respond and interact with our community.

I then spend a few minutes checking tech blogs, news, market analysis and content that comes from members of our community and figure out ways to make that more visible. I build some blog posts and edit some material.

Then the rest of the day is just being responsive to the community while working with other Microsoft folks on strategy in the developer and startup community. If I am somewhere in the world other than the US, I am probably spending some time with a startup team, learning about their product and their story.

I probably, in a given week, see or talk to hundreds of startup companies. It’s kind of like being a VC without money, since I am usually getting intimate details about their business models and their marketing tactics and strategy.

Sometimes I will fly to Seattle and have meetings with folks there, both in Microsoft and in the community. Sometimes I will spend a few hours in an incubator talking with startups and discussing their ideas in San Francisco. Sometimes I will meet with a startup founder to talk about her messaging or branding ideas. Sometimes I will be interviewing founders on the phone or on Skype, while building blog posts about them. Sometimes I will be planning events and holding events. In any case, I work until late at night and either go to bed, or drive home and go to bed. The given day depends on what needs to be done.

You play a prominent role at Bing Fund as well. Do you have any other companies besides Buddy and pinion you are working with at the moment?

My role at Bing Fund is not prominent. I simply help companies in the program with questions about social media marketing. I sometimes also assist Bing Fund in some of their social media strategy.

PrintLikeBright, a social dating tool, just got added to the portfolio. Some more are on the way. I have also done this with the Microsoft Accelerator for Windows Azure, powered by TechStars. They just graduated a class last month, and the second one is getting ready to start. One of the companies for that, MetricsHub, got bought by Microsoft. Another one, Realty Mogul, just launched and received $500k in funding. It’s been pretty exciting to watch.

How do you create and sustain a thriving community? How do you engage with your users? What are some of the things you do to ensure stickiness?

There’s not a lot of rocket science to this. You just need to be an authentic and sincere person who generally cares about the things the community cares about.

I think of it a lot like being on Survivor. Somehow you got picked to be on this island with a whole bunch of other people you don’t know. You have to find out how you are bound together and by what values. You need to focus on how those values get translated into the actions in the community, how they are verbalized by the people in the community, and how you, as a steward to a powerful and global brand can be responsive to each one of those people in a broad way and in a microscopic way.

It’s really the craft of listening bound together by the crafts of writing, business model thinking, design thinking, product awareness, emotional intelligence and the ability to help others speak up and be noticed.

The ironic thing about being a community manager is that it’s really not about the brand, at all. It’s mostly about how people feel in connection with and interaction with someone who represents the brand.

People tell me all the time that they appreciate the time that Microsoft spends with them to learn about their program, their interests and the future they hope to create. I think that’s really the best thing we could hope for – that, and then making sure that with the software and the support we give them they actually can launch a company.

We know it’s really hard to launch a startup. These things can actually take years. If we are there helping them, and the people in our community feel that we are answering questions, connecting them to others, and sharing their values, then I think we are doing something right.

As far as stickiness, that’s sort of a Web bubble, or dot com term. I think we’ve moved beyond stickiness, and in a fragmented media environment woven together by people reaching out to others, it’s whether or not your brand is a facilitator.

People may not stick around at all, in fact. But if you were there as part of their transit, then you have done your job.

In that sense, I think that brands can also be about being like an airport. Everyone is heading somewhere. Have you done your best to get them there?

Who are your key influencers? How do you reach out to them? How do you measure ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of a particular piece of strategy? What role does analytics play?

The idea of people being influencers is a tricky one. It’s really gotten a lot of attention in the past three years, and it’s really something that people say they have figured out, or it doesn’t really matter. I think that influencers are a momentary role that people play. For example, there’s a guy named Jerry Reynolds who is building a travel app hosted on Azure. He’s sometimes not around to talk, because he’s working on his own thing, but every once in a while, if the questions in the community and the conversations in the forums are of the right tone and subject matter, Jerry pops up and gives his voice and really shapes the conversation. Same for a guy named Troy Walker. Here’s a thread where that conversation was happening. You can see that they both say some pretty interesting things. I think, in the moment, that’s what an influencer does.

Influencers are not meant to be “used” by a brand to push something out to someone. I firmly believe that outside the necessary management of messaging of a brand’s PR firm or internal team, there is no real reason to push or influence someone to say something, regardless of whether they are an “influencer” or not.

Social media management is more about making sure that the channels exist so that those people are there and can be there when needed. And it also facilitates opportunities for anyone to step up and be an influencer. It really depends on the situation.

To use another analogy, if I am a journalist – as I used to be in China and Hong Kong – and I am visiting a country I don’t know, I don’t take the same translator with me every country I go. I rely on someone who is from the country, who can help me gain access to information I might need. It works something like that in our social communities. I can easily look at a list of people I know from our community and say, “X knows about Y.” But instead of using them to push out a message, I actually turn to them for help. Can you help me find out more about Y? Sometimes that is a really direct question, sometimes it just comes out of the day’s conversation, and I have not planted it, planned it or willed it to happen.

As a journalist, this is often how great stories get broken in the news. You don’t wake up one day and say, “I’d really like to find a scandal in government.” What actually happens is you have a relationship with someone. You know them for three years. One day you are taking the bus to work, and you see your source. Your source casually mentions something, you go hunting. You find something.

As a community person for a brand, you want to make sure these relationships happen, not just for the brand, but for the people in the community and each other. Everyone is looking for something – sometimes it’s business ideas; sometimes it’s investment capital; sometimes it’s just truth or inspiration. Like a news hound, you just want to make sure you are there – and they are there – when that time comes.

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Analytics is extremely important, and it’s a combination of data and intuition. I don’t want to get into that. That will take a while and some people might find it boring.

You mention ‘internal emotional physics’ in purchase decisions, in a recent BizSpark event. What role does ’emotion’ or ‘ethics’ play in user communities and social media?

I’m not sure that the emotional physics I talked about in the talk can translate well, or be seen in the same way as I meant them, when you look at social communities. I was talking about how products are not reasons in themselves, a product does not cause someone to buy it.

Sometimes you see advertising and marketing in the market that shows off features, as if someone is sitting at a kitchen table eating eggs and thinking to themselves, “When are they going to come out with a 13.2 megapixel camera,” whoever “they” is. I don’t think consumers think that way. People who write about what consumers want think that way. Marketing people think that way.

Consumers – or let’s just call them people – think about their own internal struggles. There’s a guy named Clayton Christensen, he teaches at Harvard Business School. He came up with something called “Jobs-to-be-Done” thinking. In that kind of thinking, based strongly on IDEO’s design thinking, he suggests that consumers make choices, not about a brand or a product, but about something they are struggling with. They “choose” a product based on their own personal dynamics. Someone may like a phone or a tablet not because of the feature, but because of how they felt about why they used it.

This is hard for product marketers to stomach, I think, because marketing people are really intelligent, but it’s very very hard to know why someone does something. You can only base your understanding of why they do something on what you know, and you only know what you know because you asked them to tell them.

The problem with asking someone what they know is that, kind of with the Eisenberg Principle, the answer they give you is going to reflect the question. You are not going to be able to step out of the way of your own question. When you do a marketing survey, you are really stepping on your own shadow. It’s probably the biggest fundamental flaw in marketing, we ask people questions and search for answers we can recognize. So, how will that help you understand why people choose things?

What you have to do instead is help people build stories of their own experience, and this is why I have always said that journalists are better marketing people than marketers. Journalists get out of the way. They really want to know why something happened. So they question, not about what they already know, but about what they don’t know. Why did you do that? What were you doing when you did that? What did it feel like the moment you chose x?

What I do every day in my social media work is ask these types of questions and get out of the way. The community knows much more than I do, and I really want to come to a place where they tell me something I don’t know. I want to be surprised. The thing of it is, I think they do too. That’s why the come to the Bizspark program. In our social communities, we are mirroring and modeling the very same “discovery process” that Steve Blank famously discusses in his book about being a startup. A startup is an idea. It’s an exploration of an idea in search of a business model.

We are a community of thousands of people who don’t know the answer. But we have the tools, and we use the tools. One of those greatest tools, and the cheapest to acquire, is the ability to turn to someone who is also searching and ask, “how are you doing this?”

When you get that answer, you have accomplished so much.

Talking of social media, how did you embark on the role of a social media strategist?

This role really found me, in all seriousness. I had been a journalist in Asia. I then became a digital media researcher for a boutique firm based in Hong Kong, now headquartered in Singapore – Media Partners Asia. (Vivek Cuoto, if you ar ereading this, you changed my life. Thank you!). I learned a ton of things about media and media in the developing world, specifically. I often found myself thinking, “If I had a million dollars, or even $100,000 this is what I would invest in and help change the global media landscape”, for hundreds of companies that I came across in my research. This was happening in 18 countries across Asia.

When I moved back to the US to be closer to family, I had spent nearly seven years visiting, working in, and traveling through 54 countries. I had seen a lot of things, as a journalist and a strategist and editor. I thought, I want to help news organizations change. I went to an interview at the New York Times and talked to one of the VPs of technology and digital media. I told him I wanted to be a journalist who just used Twitter to communicate what was happening in very small countries, in small markets, where wild innovations were happening. I want to be like xxxx, and I named a journalist I can’t even remember his name anymore. The guy interviewing me looked at me, blinked a couple of times, and asked, “Who is that?” The reporter I had named worked for the New York Times.

Honestly, I thought, if a guy in the same organization doesn’t know what his most innovative reporter is doing, then how the hell will he know the future I want to build?

Well, NYC swallowed me up, and I worked for a while consulting and working for big companies helping them strategize social media, and then one day a guy named Matt Thompson at Microsoft in Silicon Valley said something to the woman running digital infrastructure in BizSpark and that woman made a call and then the person she called me texted me right away and said, “Someone at Microsoft just described you in a phone call to me, they are looking for you to run their social media strategy.” I set up an interview. They hired me less than two hours after my last interview that day.

In a best-case scenario, who should own the social media function in an enterprise? How do you think the social media ecosystem will evolve in the future?

Everyone should own some piece of social media, but they should own it with others in a coordinated way. Media requires a lot of responsibility because it helps the people using it wield a lot of power, over messaging; over people; and in communicating what the brand means.

I think in an organization like a big brand everyone should have some kind of role in managing that social media, but it can’t happen unless everyone is on the same page about what it all means for the brand in the long-term.

Thinking only in the short-term, which is often what happens in a corporation, can actually deaden the impact of social media, an then it doesn’t matter who is using it. Ideally, the people running social media at the strategy level should be people who have a background in technology and literature. They should be storytellers first, and technologists second. That’s because the primary function of social media is to communicate and to listen.

You have written extensively and continue to write on enterprise technology and the startup ecosystem, among other things. What are you writing at the moment? Crystal ball-gazing a few years down the line, do you see yourself gravitating more towards social media (or journalism), or would you rather do a lot of both?

Right now I am taking a break. I wrote a lot of blog posts last month and I am trying to pace myself more this month by just putting out brief comments on blogs and showing up for discussions, rather than forcing people to read my writing J.

I hope that in a few years, I can take on a role that helps many people learn how to manage social media in a way that helps people and that changes the way people think about the world around them. Who knows what role that is, or what you call it, or whether it’s social or journalism?

I know that I don’t want to be a journalist. I think that’s not a job I am comfortable taking. That game is changing so fast, and I don’t think the good storytelling will be there, except for in good magazines. I think I will just have to create it. I think I am doing that now at Microsoft. I think I’ll stick to doing that for a while.