Microsofts Charm Offensive: From Big Brother to Big Buddy?

The company is counting on a raft of new community-building tools and technologies to help boost customer satisfaction.

What more could Microsoft ask for? It has market share, cash reserves and brand recognition that most competitors could only dream of. But one prize still eludes the Redmond software giant: better customer-satisfaction ratings.

To tighten its bonds with users, Microsoft is spinning new tools and initiatives designed to foster a sense of community among Windows-based IT professionals.

Microsoft has already molded its developer community around initiatives such as the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), TechNet and the like. Now, the company is setting its sights on developing a sense of community among users, and especially among the powerful "IT professional" category.

Microsoft isnt doing this on a whim. According to extensive internal studies, a robust and responsive community is the No. 1 satisfaction driver among IT pros.

Theres a direct correlation: By improving community outreach, Microsoft can improve customer satisfaction in one fell swoop, Microsoft has found through its own research.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates called out the need for community at the recent CEO Summit, where he addressed more than 100 of the worlds top CEOs.

"Another big phenomenon is building communities around Web sites, around products. And virtually every company ought to have on their Web site the ability for their customers, their suppliers, various people to interact and their employees to see the dialogue taking place there and jump in and talk to them and help them," Gates said during his summit address late last month.

Microsoft isnt starting from scratch.

There are currently more than 200 "community sites"—more than 70 of which were created in the past 18 months—that fall under the umbrella.

There are hundreds of Microsoft-related newsgroups. Participation in Microsoft Web casts and online chats has grown exponentially. And at last count, there are about 600 Microsoft-employee-authored blogs.

Check out Microsofts current community portal site.

The communities team is seeking to improve these disparate efforts and bring more coordination to the companys community push, according to Olivier Ribet, director of Microsoft communities for the companys content development and delivery team.

To lay the groundwork, Microsoft is readying a number of new tools that it will begin rolling out starting next week. Among them:

  • A new Web-based newsreader that will make perusing newsgroups easier. The newsreader will allow users to either post a message directly into the newsgroups or send suggestions to Microsoft. Microsoft plans to launch it June 8.
  • "Smart components," which are dynamic Web-page elements that Microsoft plans to expose across the community sites. (Examples of these components: a list of the 10 top downloads; the hottest newsgroup discussions; transcripts of the five most popular online chats.) Microsoft plans to make available to developers, customers and other interested parties these components in the form of RSS feeds. This feature will go live in late June.
  • A new "Chat 2.0" client that will allow users to participate in Microsoft online chats from inside their own corporate firewalls. This will ship later this summer.

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