Mel Carson is well known across the digital industry as Microsoft Advertising’s Community Manager, although he also takes on dozens of related responsibilities.

Following his five-year tenancy with the technology giant, Econsultancy caught up with him to discuss the ins and outs of successfully setting up and running an online community, the real costs involved and the resources needed.

He’s also generously offered to buy all of our readers refreshing alcoholic beverages…

Why did Microsoft originally decide to form an advertiser community?

Our team was put together back in 2005 when we launched Microsoft adCenter. Given that so many of our customers were going to self-serve, it made perfect sense to set up a blog and forum to service them and provide an official space for us to talk about our news, provide best practices, answer questions and have a very real dialogue with our advertisers.

Our mantra was to “help advertisers help themselves”.

If you want to know something, you don’t necessarily want to spend time on the phone, hence a community where people could search/browse for answers or ask questions online made perfect sense.

Microsoft is a very data-driven company and we recognised, even back then, that the community could be a fantastic source of feedback which we could collate and send to our product and marketing teams to help shape the future of the platform and improve the way we talked about.

To what extent have these initial objectives been met?

A million-fold! Two years ago, we totally revamped the site to be the Microsoft Advertising Community and included all our advertiser audiences.

So we now have blogs for adCenter, adCenter API developers, Atlas and Microsoft Advertising – which I run – creating a vibrant mix of members from those interested in search, display, mobile, games advertising, research and events.

The feedback we’ve had is that advertisers love the fact we’re out there communicating with them on the web and in person at events.

A visible presence and the chance to engage in conversations shows we’re listening. This builds up valuable trust as we partner with our customers to create better experiences for them, and ultimately consumers through effective and relevant advertising.

How fast has the community grown and what kind of engagement have you seen?

We have nearly 5,000 signed-up members on the site and nearly 20,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook, and the engagement is fantastic.

We get a lot of feedback on where we could be doing better, but also everyday someone’s complimenting us on being so quick to react to questions or for helping them out with some new insight, so the service element really works.

What advantages do you see in owning your own community, rather than having it on a third-party site or platform?

We see benefit in being everywhere, and as long as we have the resources we will be. Having your own platform is advantageous as you get to control your message and have an official voice. It also means you have access to the data which will help you be better.

One of the greatest compliments I’ve had was around us continually asking the question “How can we be better? How can we help you more?” 

Sometimes I’ve rung up people who’ve had something negative to say about us or who had written something inaccurate and they can’t believe someone from Microsoft actually cares.

We care about what goes on within our site, but we don’t ignore people’s preferences either.
We’re on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and other places. We’re a social company and understand that not everyone is comfortable on our patch, so we’ll go to them.

What have been the visible benefits to the business of establishing and managing a community?

As we grow our community and engagement, we have the ability to service more and more people who then share those best practices with their following.

It’s not all about us. We’re interested in the industry as a whole, and how to help marketers be better marketers.
We want to be seen as a “go to” source of information and insight. Our research teams spend thousands on producing really valuable studies that give advertisers a leg up. We take that insight, publish it on the web and evangelise about it.

As we create more online experiences, we gain reach with our products and services, but we also lower our costs.
If people can get the information they need from the web, they’re not phoning our call centres…

If they’re better marketers and they trust us, they spend more money.
They get a better return on investment. We get more of their investment in time and money.

Do your efforts require a lot of resources? 

I’m not going to say it’s free and easy. We have four full timers on social media and community. Three in Redmond and me in London. But we have infused the discipline of social media, the mantra of making great content discoverable and shareable, right across the business.

Last year we had 30 or 40 Microsoftees from all over the world submit posts and want to be involved in connecting with their customers on the site.
People will always be your best asset.
Social media provides the tools, but social media marketing is the discipline.
Teach your teams to be social and a community will evolve.

I have no time for folks who say they don’t have time.
Make time for social.

Is much moderation needed, or are members well behaved on the whole?

Not a lot. Yes, we moderate comments, but in the main everyone behaves. We’ll take out some fruity language if it arises so as not offend other readers, but it’s important to be self-critical.

My colleague Carolyn Miller used to have a post it note on her monitor saying, “Don’t take it personally!”… You can’t take it personally. You can’t help how people feel.

I always ask that people provide feedback with detail.
Another colleague once said in order to solve a problem you need, “Actionable specifics, not ambiguous generalities.” By that he meant give us some details. Don’t tell us, “It doesn’t work!” That’s not helpful. What doesn’t work? What’s the expected behavior? What steps did you take to get to that error?
Providing detail really helps answer questions quickly and more efficiently.

How do you identify valuable contributors and how do you reward them, if at all?

We have a recognition program on the site and have been known to invite contributors to special events and onto pilots. If you catch me at a conference somewhere in the world, I’ll buy you a beer if you mention this interview!

Are you developing relationships away from the site and again, what impact does this have on the business?

Always. One of the best kind of relationships is with conference organisers. We are doing more and more coverage of events; 45 over the last 12 months!

We turn up, live blog and tweet, interview folks and bring the event alive for those who can’t be there. The guys running the conferences adore that we’re talking and creating a buzz about their content, and it’s really valuable for our following. We learn a lot personally too.

I’ve recently been out in Cannes for the advertising festival in June and am off to Advertising Week in September in New York. We’ll have a full film crew and team on the ground to provide maximum coverage, so do keep an eye out for it.

You guys blog quite a bit. Recently, there’s been a bit of noise about the “death of corporate blogging”. What is your take on this?

What a load of….erm…..noise!
We don’t see it in terms of corporate blogging. It’s not a cynical bandwagon we’ve jumped on just because XYZ has a blog. It’s not about getting someone in the PR team to big us up ad infinitum.

We’ve created a vibrant community of followers and fans who respect the fact we’ve taken the time and resources to invest in them. We’re trusted to deliver on that promise to help them help themselves and provide them with the edge to help them get ahead in the advertising game.

If you want to read our story and approach, check out our white paper on Learning and Earning in Social Media.

What advice or guidance would you suggest to any organisation looking to develop its own inhouse community?

Always ask yourself: why?
The web is littered with empty blogs, Facebook groups and Twitter accounts because someone thought it was a good idea at the time, but hadn’t set out some clear objectives and goals.

People tend to bite off more than they can chew too.
Start with one tool. Whether it’s a forum or blog, it doesn’t matter.

Don’t rush out into multiple channels as it will be too overwhelming and you’ll run out of steam.
You have to have a plan with KPIs you want to try and hit. Then you have to get the buy-in of your organisation. They all need to understand this new resource is there and that it needs their involvement, their nurturing and their promotion.

Once you see the shoots of success, you can start planting yourself elsewhere and watch your community and engagement grow.

Mel can be found on Twitter, @MelCarson, and has offered to answer any questions, should anyone want to learn more about online communities and how Microsoft engages with theirs.