Dell switched its social platform and saw traffic grow 30% overnight Credit: Dell's Official Flickr Page via Flickr

Based on its popular TV commercials over the years, it’s easy to think of Dell as a computer company that targets the consumer market.

But consumer sales were just 22% of Dell’s global revenue in fiscal 2012. Far more important to the company are its large enterprise and public divisions, which combined for 56% of Dell’s 2012 revenue (SMB sales made up the remaining 22%). Indeed, Dell is the world’s top provider of PCs to large enterprises.

And unlike consumer buyers who might not go much beyond comparing screen sizes and processing speed, enterprise customers deploying large-scale and costly projects have a lot of questions and want a lot of technical information.

Dell since the mid-2000s had been interacting with enterprise customers on its TechCenter site, which “was started by a community of IT administrators for IT administrators,” says Jeff Sullivan, Dell’s senior marketing manager for communities and social media.

“It was more about doing performance benchmarking and best practices kind of documents,” Sullivan says. “It served its purpose at the time.”

Eventually, however, Dell executives felt the third-party platform on which TechCenter was running was hurting the company.

“A couple of years ago we got to the point where it was time to grow up and get a real community platform,” Sullivan says.

“We had done studies on the effectiveness of community within Dell and its impact on revenue,” Sullivan says. “We were able to show that TechCenter makes an impact on Dell’s bottom line,” despite the existing platform’s shortcomings.

Given the go-ahead to find a better platform, Sullivan’s team did “a full review of a number of different platforms” before settling on Telligent Community.

Telligent, an enterprise collaboration and community software vendor founded in 2004 and based in Dallas, already ran Dell’s community forums via its Enterprise platform, so the company was familiar to the computer maker.

Community essentially provides a social community platform that allows TechCenter to provide valuable technical and feature information about Dell products to potential IT buyers. That’s a role TechCenter always has sought to fulfill, but Sullivan says Telligent Community allowed TechCenter to do it better.

“The platform offered a lot of advantages,” Sullivan says. For one, he says, “the search was light years better than it was on the other platform.” Sounds minor, but as Sullivan points out, “this is incredibly important to the online experience” of IT professionals.

Dell switched over to the Telligent platform on Nov. 11, 2011. Sullivan says the positive impact was immediate.

“Right after we moved to Telligent, we experienced a 30 percent traffic growth,” he says. “Ease of use and search capabilities were probably the biggest benefits.”

Currently TechCenter attracts more than 300,000 unique monthly visitors. But traffic on TechCenter matters to Dell not because it gets ad revenue based on page views; rather, traffic translates into sales – even though “selling” is prohibited on the community platform.

By analyzing TechCenter web traffic patterns tracked by customer accounts, Dell could see that frequent visits were a strong indicator of eventual purchases. So for Dell, Sullivan says, Telligent Community has led to increased revenue.

TechCenter provides Dell’s customers a place to discuss not just Dell products, but IT topics such as cloud computing, virtualization and systems management. Of course, if they do have questions about Dell products, company reps can provide answers as well as product documentation and instructional videos.

Telligent Community also has helped Dell improve product research and development by enabling customers to comment on and discuss products in beta.

Unlike some social platforms that try to keep users from straying, TechCenter allows for easy access – by employees and customers -- to Twitter, Facebook and other social outlets.

“We think it’s important that we talk to customers wherever they are,” Sullivan says.

The Telligent-based TechCenter platform was so popular among Dell employees, Sullivan says, that “we had to reduce the number of people who have direct blog access.” Still, about 80 bloggers regularly contribute posts to TechCenter.

Beyond the software platform itself, Sullivan says the key to making a social community work is to have it run by people who speak the customers’ language.

“In the U.S., we have five full-time dedicated staff to this TechCenter community, and they are all from the community,” he says.

Sullivan says Telligent’s products (Dell uses Telligent Enterprise internally) have helped the computer maker become a social company.

“When I got to Dell three and a half years ago, I spent most of my time explaining why community was important,” he says. “It’s the opposite now.”

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