Going social: design engineers communicating on the web

The recent influx of social media channels over the last two years has led to an entirely new form of business communication. The problem is, as these new tools evolve at a breakneck pace, it can be difficult and overwhelming to identify how and where to use them all.

0 January 19, 2010
Staff

This is a challenge vendors in the CAD world are looking to overcome. Over the past year and a half, the industry’s major brands – namely, Solid Edge, SolidWorks and Autodesk – have devoted time, money and infrastructure towards demystifying this new terrain. Their goal is to move beyond the notion of “technology for technology’s sake” and to implement social media strategies that will allow them to strengthen their customer relationships.

“When we were developing our social media strategy, we had to ask ourselves, ‘What makes sense for our organization?’,” said Matt West, social media manager at SolidWorks. “There are a number of platforms where we could be active, but we wanted to focus our attention on the ones where our customers were already frequenting.”

Instead of targeting a site like MySpace – which is typically frequented by teenagers and musicians, two of the furthest groups from a SolidWorks audience – West said the company opted to look at YouTube, Twitter and, to some extent, Facebook.

Maura Ginty, senior manager of global web content at Autodesk, agreed that these three portals are the most effective for business communication.

“Each has a slightly different use," she said. "YouTube is used often as a reference point. Twitter allows for instant real time conversation and immediate response. Facebook or LinkedIn are still evolving.”

Just because a certain tool is popular today doesn’t mean it’s going to be tomorrow – and the same goes for evolving tools. You never know when Facebook will introduce a new app or program that will allow it to shift from the personal realm to the B2B arena.

“The most popular forums change from quarter to quarter,” said Dora Smith, director of global social media for Siemens Product Lifecycle Management software, the developer of Solid Edge. “People prefer different types of social media for different things. One trick we’ve learned is that you need to be in different places at different times.”

Big brother is listening
Being omnipresent in the social media realm allows companies to listen to what people are saying about them and learn from the often-unintentional feedback.

“When we go out to visit a customer to gather feedback, they don’t say ‘SolidWorks, I hate you’ – but they say that kind of stuff on Twitter,” said West. “When I see comments like that I’ll message them and see if we can help. Most of the time they’re just having a bad day and venting their frustrations, but it helps to see people in the wild like that.”

West finds Twitter invaluable for learning about customer views and industry news. A simple search for "SolidWorks" allows him to keep track of anything and everything that’s being tweeted about the company and respond in real time.

Similarly, Solid Edge has designated social media ambassadors within the company to act as subject matter experts and monitor social media activity in their specific niche areas.

“We have a listening platform tool that we use to scan blogs, Twitter and our ambassadors do basic RSS searches to see what people are saying about us,” said Dora Smith. “We also ask our customers about how they use social media and what tools they prefer.”

Establishing a better connection
The information gathered from online research has allowed these CAD companies to better serve their consumers through more efficient communication pathways, transparency and a feeling of connectivity.

“We try to make sure we tailor activity specifically to each platform,” said West of SolidWorks. “For example, a lot of students use YouTube to better understand our product, so we try to put more tutorials there.”

Autodesk uncovered a similar need revolving around its AutoCAD software. In response, the company started its own YouTube channel in the beginning of 2009 that features show reels, rapid energy modelling, Sketchbook Pro tutorials and various AutoCAD support videos.

These companies are also using social media – specifically Twitter – to open themselves up to the public. Solid Edge is actively working on getting all of its employees on the social media bandwagon through monthly training sessions.

“Our marketing team used to be the face of the organization, but social media is making other people in the company more accessible. Consumers have more touch points – they feel more of a connection,” said Smith. “We want our subject matter experts to start using these tools and to find ways to integrate social media into their jobs. Instead of e-mail, for example, we’re telling them to post information on their blog or on Twitter and make their job a little more visible to clients.”

Autodesk has a number of different Twitter accounts that represent different aspects of the company, including the product development team, PR team as well as different regional groups. Autodesk University has its own Twitter account as well, and it saw a lot of action leading up to and during the company’s December 2009 event.

“Before Autodesk University this year, there was a lot of activity on Twitter. People at the conference were recording their reactions, while people at home were requesting handouts and asking questions via Twitter,” said Ginty. “Bloggers at the conference were using Twitter to let people know when and where they were going to grab a beer.”

While the CAD companies are still trying to uncover social media’s full potential, so far it’s enabled them to keep in touch with their everyday users – not just the evangelists – all year round, rather than merely through an annual conference.

If you haven’t yet started to take advantage of these tools, but are interested in hopping on the bandwagon, West suggests starting slow.

“People tend to get scared because there’s so much out there,” he said. “Be selective. Figure out what works for you and how much time you’re willing to devote. Sometimes adding a couple of blogs to your RSS feed is all you need to feel more connected and expand your networking opportunities.”

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