Dell, a company typically known for the strength of its customer service, saw that reputation fade in 2005 when one popular blogger's personal experience exposed an undercurrent of negative opinions.
Jeff Jarvis, a former Entertainment Weekly editor, griped on his blog, BuzzMachine.com, about his dealings with Dell customer support. His so-named "Dell Hell" entries touched off many more complaints online. That the Dell marketing team had a "look, but don't interact" blog policy at the time - when Jarvis and others were demanding interaction - further fueled the fury. Jarvis catalogued Dell's glacial pace taken to rectify the situation on his blog.
Followers of these blogs and online forums took Dell's lack of any significant response as a sign that the firm didn't understand the digital environment or, worse, did not care.
But with the launch of the Direct2Dell blog in April 2006 - intended to interact with that populace - as well the creation of other, recent new media initiatives such as IR blog DellShares, service videos, and a Web site where users suggest ideas, Dell has not only regained its reputation for customer service, but also is considered by many - including Jarvis - as a leader in the new media space.
While negative incidents suffered by Jarvis and others definitely influenced the implementation of these tools, Dell communications pros say that the rush into social media was driven by trends and data.
"It's fair to say all of those issues were contributors to helping the process along," says Lionel Menchaca, digital media manager and lead Direct2Dell blogger. "If things were going great, I don't think we would have had the same level of urgency to get out there and have the conversations.
"Did Dell launch the blog because of Jeff Jarvis?" he adds. "Not specifically, but Jeff was a key indicator of customer-service issues."
Listening to grievances
Andy Lark, Dell VP of global marketing and communications, says that while customer interaction was previously the major domain of customer and tech support, the fact that so many people are taking their grievances to public forums now makes it a responsibility of the PR function.
"[The communications team is] the nexus point inside the enterprise where the message comes in and the message goes out," he explains. "You absolutely need to have technical support; but as you see, so many customer issues and concerns are being expressed as conversations."
Given the travails of 2005 and early 2006, it's interesting to find out just how quickly the corporate communications team, working in tandem with Michael Dell, ramped up its new media tools.
"This started in April  when [then-chairman] Michael Dell asked, "Why aren't we going out to people in the blogosphere?" Menchaca says.
The plan was to create the blog and establish a code of conduct over multiple months. But, according to Menchaca, Dell then said, "I like the idea. Why don't we do it in three weeks?"
It took more than three weeks, but the blog was up and running by July 2006. Menchaca says his participation was contingent on ensuring the blog would truly address the issues.
"I [was] only going to sign up for it if we're going to blog the right way, [and] address the negative comments," he says. "There were a lot of people saying, 'They don't deserve to be here.' It was just a matter of us proving that we would talk about [the issues]."
"Direct2Dell is not a 'good news' outlet; it's a reality outlet," says Bob Pearson, VP of corporate group communications. "We link to good news and to bad news. We link to people who like us and to people who can't stand us."
Menchaca oversees a weekly meeting of 25 Dell bloggers, who are experts in their respective areas. They decide on content based on their own ideas, comments from Direct2Dell readers, and from their monitoring of external trends on Web sites like Techmeme.com and Technorati.com.
"If I see two to three people asking about a specific topic, I think, 'Instead of responding in the comment thread, maybe I should expand [the discussion] into its own blog post,'" Menchaca says.
Open to everyone's ideas
Caroline Dietz, a member of the Dell corporate communications team, is manager of IdeaStorm, the company's Digg-like Web site where anyone can submit ideas and the community votes on which ones it likes best.
IdeaStorm's genesis came at a Dell roundtable between Michael Dell and community forum VIPs at the Consumer Electronics Show. The goal of the roundtable, Dietz says, was to provide bloggers and customers with a chance to communicate their thoughts about the company. Spurred by the success of the event, and by Salesforce.com's similar Web property, IdeaExchange, Dell launched IdeaStorm as a place for its stakeholders to contribute ideas for the company's direction.
Since its launch, more than 8,500 ideas have been submitted. So far, the biggest idea to become reality was a clamor for Dell to offer computers with the Linux operating system, Ubuntu, installed.
When Microsoft Vista came out, Pearson says the firm reflexively meant to move all computers to that operating system. On IdeaStorm, multiple users pleaded for the ability to get computers with Windows XP, so Dell offers both.
"This isn't a one-way communication. What makes these efforts [part of PR] is that it's a democracy," Dietz says. "IdeaStorm is open to any customer."
Traffic to Dell.com now runs to about 3 million unique visitors a day, or 90 million unique users per month. Lark says the size of Dell's audience makes the Web site its own media opportunity.
"We have one of the most trafficked Web sites on the Internet," he reports. "We are bigger than most of the media sites we seek to influence. So, shame on us in the communications role if we don't take the lead in managing those conversations."
Dell's online initiatives by the numbers*
First post: July 5, 2006
Approximately 300,000 unique visitors per month
About 4 million unique visits per month
About 400-800 comments per month
First post: January 30, 2007
1,176,747 average page views per month
5,790 average comments per month
First post: November 1, 2007
About 5 comments per post
*Stats as of 1/11/08