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December 4, 2009

Q&A: Rob Howard, founder and CTO of enterprise collaboration firm Telligent

Rob Howard explains how social media is becoming the established way for businesses to communicate

By Vinod

Q What made you get into the social media market and set up the company in 2004?
A I’d spent six years at Microsoft where I worked in software development and marketing and at the end of my tour I was involved in developing and marketing the ASP.NET development community. One of the frustrations I had was how technology as a communications mechanism was a barrier to getting the message out. Some users wanted to use email, some preferred web-based forms, others newsgroups.

I left in 2004 to set up Telligent and establish a single platform to communicate with newsgroups, email and the enterprise all together. And in 2004 we were one of the first companies to roll out an integrated set of Enterprise 2.0 technologies.

Q That was early days for social media. Was it hard to get people to understand what you were doing?
A It was a very hard sell at that time. Lots of technologists were interested in what we were doing from a technology perspective, but there was not a lot of business interest. The transformation came about in 2007, first, when MySpace approached us and asked us if we’d power the MySpace.com forum and second, when Dell Computers came to use and wanted to use social media technology to communicate with customers and rolled out on the Telligent platform. So when Dell became a customer we crossed the chasm in terms of real business users coming to us.

Since then, the market has gone from ‘let’s try this out’ to in some cases becoming business critical. At Proctor & Gamble, for example, it’s the way they communicate internally.

Q Now the social networking and media market is becoming more crowded, what differentiates Telligent from the rest of the pack?
A We noticed that customers had no ROI on what they were doing, so we decided to invest in ROI which has become our analytics product to help customers understand what they are doing with social media. Social analysis can tell you all about users and how influential they can be. It’s not web analytics – it provides a lot of insight apart from page views, but we connect web analytics.

We focus on external and internal solutions. A great example of an external solution would be SLAs for support and to help customers get what they need faster. At Dell they use a community-driven forum and companies like Dell see this as a way of augmenting sales activity and use the community and analysis to find out what’s relevant to them.

Q Social media often bypasses IT. Who do you speak to when you talk to companies?
A IT is part of the approval process, but in terms of procurement we talk to the department-level managers. We’re talking with brand people at organisations who view this as transformational.

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Q So what should CIOs do to prepare for social media?
A They shouldn’t think of it exclusively as social media. The words mean different things to different people and ‘social’ doesn’t sound like a business service. So we do a little re-education. Social media are things like Facebook and Twitter, but what we’re doing is collaboration that has a background in social media.

When we talk with executives about the decision process to adopt social media, if the end objective is to put a blog in, then Telligent is not right for them. Another area companies need to think of is measurement. Just like any other activity they have to measure results.

When I look out across the landscape, what I see is collaboration truly coming together – not just what we do, but Voice over IP and all different technologies.  The future for us is in investing in relationships with organisations that bring Voice over IP and these other technologies and integrating them together.

Q Now social media has become more established, traditional vendors are muscling in on the market. How does that affect you?
A Obviously, we are aware of everyone coming into the market and it’s both quite exciting and quite scary at the same time. This market is so fluid and fast and dynamic. Microsoft, for example, is our partner and what we see ourselves doing is integrating between SharePoint and Telligent. It’s a great opportunity for us because the big vendors educate the market and customers, so it’s building momentum.

Q So will 2010 be the year of social media?
A I don’t think we’re there yet – we’re 12 to 18 months out. It’s changed from technologists doing it to business people, but it’s not turned the corner yet. We’re at the same place as the content management vendors in the late 1990s: there’s lot of vendors things are picking up steam, but it will take years to mature.

Q What are the risks and challenges of adopting the technology?
A The biggest risk and challenge is when companies adopt it with the attitude that it’s supposed to replace the way they are working – for example, replacing email with Enterprise 2.0 technology. It shouldn’t be about replacing email but about integration.

It should be used, for example, when a CEO sends out a communication via a email to the organisation. That information will still be valid if someone joins the company in a year, and if it’s integrated with a collaboration platform it will live indefinitely.

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