Microsoft, Partners Fumbling Toward Community

As part of the recent overhaul of its partner program, Microsoft made a big bet on leveraging existing social networks. The software giant and its partners are still in the experimental phase for figuring out the value of Twitter, LinkedIn and so on to both their business relationships and bottom lines.

This past July, the Microsoft Partner Program received a new name -- the Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) -- and, in addition to new competency requirements, programs and technologies, a new social networking attitude.

As Julie Bennani, general manager of the MPN, notes, the social media effort "is part of our strategy to go where our partners are." That means sites such as Twitter, Facebook, flickr, YouTube and LinkedIn, for example.

She explains: "Our vision for the Microsoft Partner Network is simple -- we want to provide opportunities for partners to develop and expand their businesses, provide expertise and resources that help partners better serve their customers, and create passionate communities that spark innovation by connecting partners with one another."

To that end, Microsoft partners can now participate in even more LinkedIn groups and Facebook groups, watch more YouTube videos and even follow Twitter feeds that promise to connect "U.S. partners to the information they need to manage their Microsoft relationship."

Moreover, as Bennani explains, Microsoft is now providing training for its partners on digital marketing and social media through a webinar series. The company is offering a new Web site analytics guide for its partners along with a social media playbook, social media analytics guide and a Facebook guide. Additionally there are new Webinar and search engine optimization (SEO) service offerings for partners to better utilize digital marketing.

Working Together
It's a lot of information and it takes a lot of time. Will it help partners help their businesses?

"All partners want is opportunities to get smart about products and make connections," says Reed Overfelt, CEO of OptimizedNow LLC, a social media marketing firm. "Microsoft has done a ton of research on this and they know that partners want synergistic partners." Social networking, according to Overfelt, is the only way to get partners to interact.

Other analysts agree that Microsoft's social networking strategy is a necessity. "Partner-to-partner [P2P] networking is growing and social networking is growing so Microsoft is definitely on the right track," says Darren Bibby, program director for IDC's Software Channel Research group. In fact, in a recent study conducted by Bibby's group at IDC, based on a survey of the International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners, P2P collaboration increased to $10.1 billion in 2008 from $6.8 billion just two years before. That's a 22 percent growth rate per year over two years.

Adds Bibby in his report on the study, "Partners are accomplishing more together than they are doing on their own. They realize that to put together these complex solutions, they need to work together. We also know that social media is taking off at an alarming rate. So now we've got a confluence of these two factors."

But the confluence is happening on open sites, as Bennani notes, and, rather than emphasize a Microsoft-only network, much of the social media focus of the newly revamped MPN seems to be on participation in existing social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed, along with a variety of blogs.

"These are our initial social networking forays," Bennani adds. "As we evolve our understanding of where partners would like us to engage, we will expand our social networking efforts as we continue to listen and respond."

That, says Overfelt, will be more effective.

"People don't have time to go somewhere else," he says. "Most people will rebuild their LinkedIn contacts. I won't accept connections [from other social networks] because I don't want to start on something else."

The virtue of social networking is in its participants, and Microsoft, at least initially, recognizes that. "These aren't things Microsoft built for partners," Paul DeGroot, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent research firm focused on Microsoft strategies and technology, points out. "They are existing social media."

The import of that move cannot be overstated. As DeGroot notes, "The point is not to have Microsoft talk to partners but to have partners talk to partners."

But, as Bibby adds, while Microsoft is facilitating th communication, "it would be a mistake if they tried to control it. It doesn't seem like that yet," he adds.

According to Bennani, Microsoft does not moderate the communities it manages, including Twitter. "Instead of focusing on moderating conversations, we have focused on supporting partners and helping them connect with Microsoft resources, Microsoft staff and other partners," she says. "The partners appreciate Microsoft engaging and having a presence in their social networks. We have an active Twitter following and are using Twitter as one of our channels to promote active conversations in real time," she adds.

But non-managed communities tend to run into trouble, too. According to Overfelt, "Communities won't grow unless people are managing them and moderating these communities. If they're not managed, [partners] are putting a lot of work into them and not getting a lot of value. Often, they turn into job boards."

So far, at least, MPN's social media's efforts -- its blogs, Tweets, YouTube videos, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups and more -- indicate that that hasn't happened.

Russell Yearwood is director of marketing and sales for accounting software firm Think I.T. Works, a Certified Partner based in Hattiesburg, Miss. He gets the Microsoft Partner Network on Twitter and recently followed the Tweets on the 2009 Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference. "Some of it is garbage but I'll read some of it and say, 'Wow,'" he says. Yearwood says he is a member of a number of the MPN LinkedIn groups and gets some articles -- "Some useless, some interesting," he says -- and relevant information. "In an indirect way, it's helping," he says of MPN's social media effort. "We're getting knowledge from other people. Unless we came across a problem, we wouldn't know about it."

'Separate the Wheat from the Chaff'
Learning to sift through the multitude of social media channels to glean the information that is valuable is always the bane of social networking and MPN's social media effort is no different. "Having Microsoft go on Twitter is of dubious value to people who need to work," says DeGroot,

According to DeGroot, LinkedIn is more valuable to partners only because the other social media channels -- Facebook, Twitter -- are overloaded with consumer-focused activity. DeGroot likes the Pinpoint directory -- an online directory of the MPN that will be rolling out globally in a few months -- because it's not self-generated so it provides more of a filter for partners. "It could be useful to a partner to go on Pinpoint and access Twitter feeds from a relevant source," he says.

But often, he says, a Twitter feed can provide better information in the comments than the Tweets themselves. "It's all about learning to separate the wheat from the chaff," he notes.

Also in that camp is Matthew Rothman, a senior business development consultant at Watkins Information Technology Group LLC, a Bethesda, Md.-based Gold Certified Partner and provider of Microsoft solutions to small and midsize businesses. He considers MPN's social media effort "too much of a good thing" especially in light of the fact that he already uses LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter as his primary means of networking.

"I need some direction from Microsoft on which groups would be the best use of my time," he says, adding that, "there are so many LinkedIn groups it's hard to know where to put my time and focus."

"These are our initial social networking forays. As we evolve our understanding of where partners would like us to engage, we will expand our social networking efforts as we continue to listen and respond."

Julie Bennani, GM, Microsoft Partner Network, Microsoft

Rothman also followed the 2009 Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference on Twitter and participates in a number of MPN's LinkedIn groups and found that it's working as a way to network with other partners. "It's a place for all of us to go and communicate with one another," he says. "I love the articles that are put out there and from a Microsoft standpoint, they're putting information out there that's valuable."

Lead Generation
Laura Farrelly is vice president of marketing at NewsGator Technologies Inc., which helps media companies implement social computing solutions. NewsGator's product offerings are built on social media so it's no surprise that she applauds Microsoft's latest effort. She finds that MPN LinkedIn groups are very narrowly defined, making them more effective in terms of getting targeted information and finding collaborators. "In these communities, you definitely see partners are active. They interact and we learn about potential partners through these groups," she says.

David Goldstein, principal, and Michael Gilronan, partner, at Knowledge Management Associates, a Waltham, Mass.-based consulting firm and Gold Certified Partner, are also active users of social media and like the informal networking of Microsoft partners through channels like LinkedIn groups. They say the MPN supplements their informal partner network and personal relationships with local Microsoft personnel, but they rely more heavily on relationships with partners and with Microsoft than on MPN for lead sharing.

"The amount of training and free content that Microsoft provides [on the MPN] is incredible but it doesn't get partners leads," says Overfelt. "So far, Microsoft hasn't been able to help with that. Social media is helping partners connect, but getting leads is a tough one."

Rothman uses his own Facebook groups and his LinkedIn network to generate leads. "By using these tools I'm educating people and they know I'm here," he says. "I'm working on a deal now that was generated off of Facebook."

Yearwood uses Facebook and Twitter to maintain and generate relationships with potential clients. Recently, he was competing with another, larger, Microsoft partner for a contract in his area. The client read his blog, which he started as part of a Microsoft pilot program in social media, and awarded his company the contract.

"I need some direction from Microsoft on which groups would be the best use of my time; there are so many LinkedIn groups it's hard to know where to put my time and focus."

Matthew Rothman, Senior Business Development Consultant, Watkins Information Technology Group

Openness, Honesty and Transparency
While partners do collaborate they also compete -- which leads to the obvious downside of social media: It's all out there.

"Is Microsoft saying, We expect you partners to collaborate transparently with each other in a dynamic that we control? Is this possible? Will partners be willing to play that game?" asks Gil Yehuda, an Enterprise 2.0 analyst and collaboration consultant.

Bennani's response to that is what one would expect: "Partners only share what they want to share, and can be as open or as reserved as they feel appropriate. Openness, honesty and transparency are key aspects of social media interactions. That said, we have private forums and online technical communities that are exclusively for Microsoft partners."

According to Jeremy Epstein, founder of Never Stop Marketing, a social media consulting firm, Bennani is right-sharing information is what social media is all about. "The pros outweigh the cons of information being out there," he says. "They get better material and most of the value [of social media] comes from partners being able to create, cultivate and nurture relationships and sharing information. Partners with better networks will get ahead."

For Farrelly, it's all out there anyway. "Everything is open these days, we tend to embrace that," she says. "If a competitor wants to learn something about us, there are so many ways they can. The risks here are less than the rewards. We'd rather share information and be open and attract all potential prospects."