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Interview: Lenn Pryor, creator of Microsoft’s “Channel 9″

In 2004, when blogs were still in their infancy (and known as web logs or even online diaries), a small group of developers inside Microsoft hatched a way to get closer to customers. Led by Lenn Pryor, the group launched Channel 9, a website that provided a direct line of communication between Microsoft’s “technical evangelists” and the development community. The site was one of the first corporate embraces of the concept of social media. As Wired noted in a March 2007 article, “While the rest of corporate America is scrambling to figure out whether it wants to allow blogging at all, famously guarded, control-freak Microsoft has embraced the idea of transparency with messianic fervor.” Channel 9 laid the foundation for that transparency.   In February 2005, I interviewed Pryor for a Microsoft profile I was doing for CMO magazine. (Pryor left Microsoft in April 2005 to join Skype; he’s now at Nokia.) The interview never made it to print, but I offer it here now as an interesting historical view into the early days of corporate blogging and social media.  

Rob O’Regan: Talk about the idea behind this site – where did it originate?  

Lenn Pryor: We’re in a unique role at Microsoft, called technical evangelism. Some say it is a form of marketing and, if you take it in the purest sense, it is.  It’s a communication activity to build relationships, provide information, and ultimately secure partners.  So really, it’s a very high touch, personal form of direct marketing.   

Our job has traditionally been about getting on airplanes, going around the world, meeting people face-to-face, and helping them get the information they need to build products for Windows.  That’s sort of the core of what we do. The bigger the company gets, and the more customers we have, the harder it gets to properly get all the information we need out there.  

I was thinking about how to find a way to scale my team and my resources.  In a global age where we have literally a billion customers around the world, and hundreds and thousands of partners and people building software for Windows, how do we actually pull this off?  The Internet became a really obvious tool for how we continue this relationship, this dialogue, to address the information distribution problem we have.  

Obviously, Microsoft has been on the Web [for many years]. We’ve had tools like MSDN for providing developers technical information and documentation and stuff like that.  But there was a unique aspect that we couldn’t get across: What’s really happening at the company?  Who are these people?  What are they doing?  Why are they doing it?  How do you get to know them?

I wanted to build relationships.  I wanted people to get to know me and my team. I wanted them to get to know the people inside the company who are building the products, and I wanted them to have a more personal dialogue around the products to help us get feedback and close the feedback loop between the partner and the product team. This is a really critical part of what we do. 

When I was younger, I used to be afraid to fly.  I was able to get over my fear of flying by having a much more high-touch relationship with what was happening during the process. By understanding who was flying the plane, why they were doing what they were doing, I felt more safe and in control. I did that by getting educated by pilots, and also whenever I would fly United, I would listen to Channel 9 on the in-flight audio system [the channel allowed passengers to listen in on cockpit conversations]. Channel 9 would give me a sense of comfort that what was happening in the cockpit was totally relaxed and great, and so I should be relaxed and comfortable with the whole process too.  

I wanted to build this sort of Channel 9-type dialogue at Microsoft. So customers could hear as we fly the plane, they can understand who we are, what we’re doing, why we’re doing it.  And feel much more comfortable about the other aspects of this relationship.

Who did you pitch the idea to originally? 

Pryor:  Originally, I pitched it to my boss, Vic Gundotra, the general manager in charge of developer relations. He was really excited about it, and he gave me the air cover to start developing it. We launched it on April 5, 2004.  

How many folks do you have working on it now? 

Pryor:  Right now there are two people who pretty much work on it about three-quarters of their time right now.  We found out that we can talk to millions of people with just two people.  

So you still have your day job? 

Pryor:  I still have my day job.  I still manage a team and I have direct reports doing lots of different things.  But it’s not my full-time job other than I definitely stay in the loop and help these guys continue to grow and evolve.  

How do you manage the perception that this is not a marketing vehicle? That this is not being used just to promote what Microsoft is doing to the developer community? 

Pryor:  I think we were clear from the beginning with our customers.  We wanted this to be a different kind of dialogue and a different kind of tool at Microsoft.  We set the expectation. You notice we’ll say it’s not a marketing tool.  I know in my heart that any type of relationship-building exercise or information-sharing exercise is good for developers.  And it is good for the company and therefore, it’s a marketing exercise.

At the same time I wanted to set the tone that this resource was not here to collect a name to go into a direct-mail marketing database. This was not here to find leads for partnership-building programs. I wanted to set the playing field as quite level, that this was an open and safe place to exchange ideas.  

If you look at our content, it is far from message, far from polished. The people we approach are just plain old line-of-business guys who are writing code for a living or product mangers. They are not PR professionals. They’re not marketing pros. They don’t come at it with a set of positioning talking points or any traditional marketing label. We have a conversation and we let people who are passionate share their passion.  

We let people speak in their own voice. We leave mistakes in. We don’t have a massive scrub process to make sure everyone holds to the party line. It is a different type of dialogue. 

So there is no discussion ahead of time that, “Okay we’ve got some new tools coming out.  We need to start building some buzz around them.”   

Pryor: Exactly. We don’t have a master PR plan that we streamline this into.  As developers, we usually find things out that are happening in the company that we are excited by. And if we get excited about it, we figure our customers will get excited about it.  But we don’t go to the weekly meetings with corporate marketing or PR.  It’s a natural thing that happens.  

What does Microsoft get out of this? 

Pryor:  A lot of positive things. We’re building trust and renewing trust with our customers that we can have an open and safe product-focused dialogue and that there is a great resource for feedback. It always has been a big part of what we do as a business. 

We’ve also had the chance to present a little bit of ourselves to the industry. I represent 55,000 [Microsoft employees] every time I interact with a customer.  In most cases, customers only know one of those 55,000 people and that’s Bill Gates. In many ways, Channel 9 has brought a face to a lot of people at Microsoft other than Bill Gates. It gives them a chance to build relationships with the customers. I think that’s invaluable. 

The site presentation is pretty informal. Do you have any formal mechanisms on the back end for capturing the feedback and doing any thing with that feedback that you are getting from developers?   

Pryor: We monitor the forums every day. If we do pick up a piece of feedback, the guys who run the site will forward it to the product team. And then we have some product teams who run a wiki on our site. We have a couple thousand wiki topics, one of which is an IE feedback wiki.  

Does the feedback you receive get filtered back into the broader customer research that corporate marketing does? 

Pryor: Not today, no.  Because everything is opt-in and I don’t collect any detailed information – the only thing I need from you is a username and an e-mail address.

So most of these folks are just using aliases or screen names or whatever? 

Pryor:  Yes. By design, I didn’t want this to be another sort of name selection tool. We do enough of that as a business in marketing.  This is the one safe place where you can be sure that’s not our motivation.  

Do you think it’s inevitable that this will get pulled into that broader marketing strategy at some point? 

Pryor:  So far it hasn’t. And so far everyone’s been very supportive of having this type of research for the company.  I haven’t seen any writing on the wall yet.  

How do you quantify the value of what you’re doing? 

Pryor: I measure success in two ways. One is traditional metrics: Are you generating traffic?  How many people are coming?  How long are they staying?  What are they looking at?  

The other is a new metric for success, what I call my buzz or echo metrics. I use tools like Technorati, which measure the conversation echo effects that are popping up in the blog world.  So I measure how many people are talking about us on a weekly basis.  What are they talking about?  What products do we have that are interesting to them?  Are they excited about them?  Are they not getting enough information?  We use some of these new tools as a data module to see if people are interested or confused with what we’re doing.  

That’s one of the ways we’re helping the company think about the value of communication.  How much of an effect does it have in continuing after it leaves our site?  This is a different way of thinking because most sites try to keep you there as long as humanly possible.  

And what do you do with that information?   

Pryor:  We make decisions based on what they were excited about.  If there is a lot of buzz about something super positive, then we will take that buzz and try to give them more contact and keep them coming back.  Keep the conversation going.  We’ll make content decisions with it. And we use it to educate folks inside of marketing and management to help people understand the positive or negative perception of our messages out there.

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