Tuesday, March 08, 2005
An Open Conversation with Robert Scoble, Microsoft Geek Blogger
Transcript of 38-minute interview with Robert Scoble, March 7, 2005.
In a 38-minute conversation, we discussed a wide range of topics, including evangelism, anti-marketing, blogging, RSS and reading feeds, email mailing lists, relationships with colleagues, internal blogs at Microsoft, The Red Couch book project, a blogging ombudsman, and advice for communicators.
You can download the conversation (MP3, 25Mb) and listen to what we talked about. Follow the overall show with the show notes. And, sign up to the RSS feed to get future shows automatically in your RSS reader.
As we always do our show and interviews over Skype, this one was the same. We Skyped Robert in from his office in Redmond, USA, and, after fixing a few little sound glitches at the start, had a terrific discussion!
Here’s the transcript of our conversation. For clarity and continuity, I’ve edited out the little sound or connection glitches we encountered in a few parts of our conversation.
Neville: Thanks for joining us, Robert. For the benefit of our listeners, can you tell us a little about your role at Microsoft?
Robert: My job at Microsoft is doing the Channel 9 videos. I’m in the evangelism group and, you know, evangelists are people who work with software developers to get them to build software for the next version of something, of Windows or the next version of .NET. [glitch edit] If you’re Bill Gates announcing that Longhorn is shipping today and if you turn around and there’s no software that works on it, then who will buy it, right? But if there are a thousand software packages that work on it, then it has a decent chance of being successful.
So that’s pretty much what any of us in the evangelism team work on. We work on getting developers to build software for the next stuff. My day job is Channel 9, so I’m in a community of evangelists. A lot of the evangelists at Microsoft are assigned to a specific company, like, you know, Quicken, Yahoo or Adobe, and they work with those companies to sell them the vision of the new API, for instance, and they even develop prototypes of the next version of, say, Photoshop, and they’ll bring in those prototypes to Adobe and sell the vision of what the next version of Photoshop could look like.
I’m not assigned to any one company - I’m assigned to everybody!
Shel: The evangelism concept doesn’t sound terribly far removed from what you’re doing with the [Channel 9] blog in that you’re a direct interface to the customer.
Robert: Absolutely. And I’m using video to show the same kinds of things. Like we have a video of Avalon 3D. Anybody can see what the next APIs are doing, how to use them and then they can start a conversation with us on those APIs.
Neville: The Channel 9 site has a 9-point doctrine. Point 5 says, “Marketing has no place on Channel 9. When we spend money on Channel 9 the goal is to surprise and delight, not to promote or preach.” Can you talk a bit more about that?
Robert: We’re just trying to be the anti-marketing site. If you go to Steve Rubel’s site today, he links over to an Office site that is total marketing, right - there’s no real people there, it’s very slick, it’s very produced, um, it’s all messages and it’s not conversational. It’s a one-way advertisement kind of thing.
We didn’t want to do any of that. You know, I’m using $350 camcorders, I’m not a professional video guy, I disintermediate all sorts of intermediaries, I take it right into the geeks’ office. We don’t try to do a TV studio or anything like that; we don’t use lights or makeup; we don’t use specialized microphones or anything like that. We just go in there and have a chat, and then underneath [the blog post], you can write your own comments, so if you think the technology sucks, you can write that right there.
We’re completely not in control of the situation.
Shel: Given the growth of that type of channel that you’re producing, is there still a place for the kind of thing those Office folks are doing in that slick produced marketing site?
Robert: They think so. I don’t know if it resonates with anybody. I think there is a place for some if it because, you know, you want to know what some of the new features are and having them in a very produced way is more efficient than maybe having to watch a half-hour of video that I do, you know. So maybe you can click over there and in one minute you can figure out all five of the new features. I don’t know, um…
Neville: That’s very interesting. You commented today on Steve Rubel’s excellent post comparing Office marketing to dinosaurs and suggesting some things those Office guys in charge of marketing ought to be doing with blogs.
Robert: I don’t know, I look at that [the Office marketing site] and I’m not impressed. I’d rather hear from the developers of Office what they think is the hot feature.
To me, knowing the passion of someone who develops something is a lot more interesting, but… I don’t know, maybe somebody out there is into dinosaurs.
Neville: When I read Steve’s post, I agree with him, blogs don’t seem to appear in the planning and I would argue that blogs should play a role. A bit like your call not long ago on Tablet PC evangelism, what it needs to get that awareness raised, get people moving and talking about it. Blogs could really help!
Robert: Yep, yep, yep!
Shel: That leads to a question, which is what is your relationship with the professional full-time communicators in the organization - the people doing employee communication, or PR or even the agency? I know you guys are joined at the hip with Waggener Edstrom.
Robert: Yeah. I have good relationship with PR and I think they’re starting to understand this new world and how they need to support it. They gave a blogger an interview with Bill Gates, that was really interesting. They had me come and speak to them and show them how I read so many feeds and I think a lot of them are now using RSS aggregators to watch what people are saying about Microsoft.
I think over the next year, you’re going to start seeing them doing some interesting blogging kinds of things, you know, conversational kinds of things. They just added RSS feeds to our PressPass site, too.
Neville: That was a good move. Better late than never, I thought.
Robert: Yeah! It’s not too late, you know. There’s still… out of all the companies’ sites out there, how many of them have RSS feeds? Not very many, actually.
Neville: But it’s definitely moving that way. You can see more and more people… In fact, every time I see a new RSS feed, I keep thinking about that post you wrote saying if you do a marketing site and you don’t have an RSS feed, you should be fired.
Robert: Yep. I’m sensing that the world is changing, and I’m trying to warn everybody that the world is changing and if they don’t get on top of it, they’re going to be left behind.
Shel: There was some resistance to that statement.
Robert: Oh, of course. During the time of change, people resist. People are like that! Also, a lot of people misunderstand what I’m trying to say, too, But, um, that’s ok.
Back when I was in college in 1990, I remember a whole bunch of the geeks at school say, oh, who needs a mouse, who needs menus, nobody needs a Macintosh, that’s a toy computer for idiots, you know. I remember them saying this, and I was, like, you guys are so messed up by not paying attention to what’s going on. Today, they’re all using menus and a mouse…
Shel: You mean they’re not typing at the command prompt?
Robert: No! They might be, but they’re using a menu and mouse system and obviously their idea did not win.
These are conflicts between ideas, and some people just put their heads in the sand and think that their old idea is going to win and it’s not true.
Shel: Well, we had a comment from Eric Peterson at Jupiter who was one of the people who resisted that notion, who said that he still thinks that nobody’s going to want to subscribe to a feed of ‘marketing puke’ and he may have been talking about something like that Office site you referenced. Do you think he’s right?
Robert: Ok, maybe not. But, the fact that you don’t have RSS tells me that there’s a a bigger disease. It tells me you don’t want a relationship with me as a connector and that you don’t want to update the site or put anything new up there. In other words, you’re building a static site. Well, why would I visit this thing again, you know? Maybe it’s a one-time thing, you just want me to visit once, you know, click around for ten minutes and then leave.
That’s ok, but how am I going to find out about this site? You know, you’re going to have to get a connector to click through it. Um… I offered the [indistinguishable] I’m the marketing puke, right? I do want a relationship with the Office guys. I want to know when they ship updates. I want to know when they ship bug fixes. I want to know when they see something cool out there that works with Office. I want to see videos of people using Office in a new and interesting way. I want to see PowerPoint slides maybe explaining a cool new scenario that they hadn’t thought about before when they launched the product, you know.
And I want an ongoing relationship with the company I do business with, and I’m not going to do it with a web browser.
Neville: I’m in tune with you Robert, to be frank. I’ve unsubscribed from email newsletters where there are RSS feeds. I look at RSS feeds more than anything and that’s the way to get that information and develop the relationship, I think. it’s one of the means to start doing that process.
Robert: Yeah. The other thing is, RSS… you know, let’s say you spend, you know, $50,000 developing a website, or $100,000. I don’t know what these things cost; they’re not free, you know. But, what does it cost to add an RSS feed? It costs maybe $500 more. Pay the developer another $500 to put up an RSS feed, even a marketing site like the one Steve linked to. What does it hurt? You know? And then I can consume the information in the way that I want to, you know, why are you arguing with the customer?
Neville: You’re right. Shel, that fits with a lot of the stuff we talk about, with the audience being in charge and all that.
Shel: Right. The control of the message is in the audience’s hands.
Robert: Yeah. Look at Channel 9. We have RSS on everything including your personal profile, so I can subscribe to your personal profile so any time you change that, it would show up in my RSS aggregator.
Now of course, how many people are going actually to subscribe to me, you know, on Channel 9? Very, very few people, but the fact that we did it sets us apart and says you’ re leading edge and we did something that most other companies haven’t done. Or most other teams.
Neville: Just one other question on RSS. I’m curious - you read 1200 or 1300 feeds a day. How do you do that? What do you fix on to look at that stuff? You share a lot of this stuff on your link blog, which is a very useful resource and thanks for doing it. What do you actually do when you look at all these feeds? You use Outlook with the NewsGator plugin, I recall you’ve mentioned - what’s the secret of how you manage this and your time?
Robert: I just have a lot of time at night, heh!
I’ll tell you what I do. I mean, I do a feed read around 5pm at night. I’ll start NewsGator up and I’ll tell it to start going through my feeds and collect stuff. And they’re just arranged in… there’s 1300 folders in Outlook, so it’s like, you know, going through a bunch of folders in email, and they’re arranged from A to Z, alphabetically, and I’ll just click on them, like I just clicked on one right now that has something in there…
Now this is where the productivity of RSS comes in, right? Out of the first ten feeds I have in my aggregator right now, only two have changed since last night since I did the feed read. So I’m only needing to read two sites. If you’re using a web browser and trying to keep up with me and get the same information I do, you have to read all ten sites. So I’m kicking your ass right from the get-go because I only have to read the sites that have actually published something since the last time I’ve read.
The other things is, if you go to a site in a web browser, you actually have to look at a page and parse it with your brain and then figure out what’s new there. I don’t need to do that. In my aggregator, all the new stuff is bold so I only need to pay attention to the new things - all the old things are just there for archive purposes, but I only need to read the new things that are bold.
The other thing is, I don’t need to wait for the server to load the page into the browser - my aggregator has loaded everything locally so it’s fast.
So I just poke at this folder and the first thing is automatically previewed so I can read that. I look at the headlines for the other things; if there’s something that’s interesting, I’ll click on it, you know, and if I see something that’s good enough for my readers to see, I drag it over to a ‘blog this’ folder and it automatically goes up on my link blog. So I mark all as read and go on to the next one.
Neville: So it must be the headline that grabs you?
Robert: Yeah, mostly I’m scanning. Most people think I’m reading but I’m scanning for information and I’m looking for something that catches my eye. I’m looking for patterns, right? I’m looking for Java, or Linux, or Apple, or Macintosh, or Microsoft, or, you know, Visual C#. or… something that catches my eye, you know. And a lot of times most feeds have only one new item in them anyway so I can look at the text very, very fast, and I’m just a very fast reader.
I’m basically, um, fishing for information, for any cool stuff. When I find something that’s longer… because most posts, like the one I’m looking at now on screen, is less than a screenful, right, so it’s three paragraphs so it’s very short, and I can see what it’s about… um, sometimes, like, you guys write longer stuff, and when I find something longer, I’ll scan the first third of it and if it’s not interesting, I’ll go on. If it’s really interesting, I’ll sit there and read it and I’ll spend a minute going through the whole thing and reading it. If it’s really interesting, I’ll come back to it and read it more in depth later.
Shel: Well, not to make a blinding statement of the obvious, but it speaks to the importance of good headline-writing, doesn’t it?
Robert: Absolutely. That’s one of my ideas! You know, it’s also… journalists learn early on to write in an inverse pyramid style of writing. In other words, you put the really important stuff up at the top of the story. You know, that’s how newspaper journalists learn to write - they put the, er… all the facts are in the first paragraph. You know, somebody murdered somebody else, where did they murder them, you know, da da da. And whether they were arrested or found or what not, is all in the first paragraph of the story.
So even if you read just one paragraph of the story, you get the gist of the story. And they write in a way that pulls you into the story, right? Because they’ve done eye-track research on readers and they found that of the people who read the headline, only X percent read the first paragraph. And then of people who read the first paragraph, only X percent read the second paragraph. So, you know, by the end of the story, only the really committed people are still reading where everybody else went away.
Neville: So that’s a lesson for anyone, actually, in communicating anything and this is a classic example as RSS gets out there more, you’re going to get a lot more information you have to manage and you’ve got to know yourself what’s important and paying attention on, and most people will do precisely that - scan headlines. So that’s a big lesson for people - pay attention to your content, what you write and how you write it.
Shel: And I imagine, Bob, that this is something you’ve been doing with Scobleizer?
Robert: Yeah, with the link blog I’m reading 3500 items a night and I put about 100 items a night over there. So I’m just sifting through these 3500 items a night looking for, you know, 100 things that my readers would be interested in, you know, and that I’m interested in really. And I assume most of my readers are sort of like me, interested in technology, you know, not interested in cat photos!
Actually, I’m just going through right now and actually do look at probably 80 percent of the items, even the ones with the bad headlines. A lot of people use such bad headlines that I just have to read through everything anyways! But because it’s all local, it’s really fast; I just click on it with my pen and go boom, boom, boom. I can go through all items really, really fast. I’m looking in ActiveWin right now…
Neville: So you’re doing this on a Tablet PC, right?
Robert: Oh yeah. That’s a little secret, actually, um, reading on the tablet is way better than reading on a laptop mode. Because I read in portrait mode so the screen is vertical, and that makes me have to do less scrolling to read, and scrolling is bad for readability.
If you actually do eye-track research and learn how the eye works, um, any time you scroll, your eye has to refocus on the text and your brain has to parse that text and find where it was in the text, so it really slows you down when you have to scroll. And one of my tricks is not have to scroll on a vertical screen, which shows more text.
Shel: We wanted to talk a little bit about your blog, and Neville and I had the same question when we were talking earlier about what we were going to ask you. You’re without question the best-known of the many people at Microsoft who are blogging. I’ve heard you referred to as an A-list blogger. What’s that done to your relationships with other employees? Are they jealous? Are you a celebrity?
Robert: You know what they say about A-list bloggers, what A means, right? Heh, heh!
Um, I don’t know, you know, I expect there is jealousy because, I mean, I’d be jealous of somebody who came in to Microsoft for two years and is now in all these magazines and stuff. But on the other hand, a lot of employees like the fact that I’m there sort of, um, pushing a lot of the boundaries so that they can blog without feeling too much fear, you know.
When you’re at a company, you always have to worry is this ok to do and, hey, Scoble is getting away with linking to Google and talking about Apple. Well, that makes me feel good about the kind of blogging I’m going to be doing, so… I notice that when I came on board, we went from about 100 bloggers to 1300 in about a year and I think it was just because of the fear that got removed from the corporation, like, hey, Scoble’s doing this kind of blogging and he’s surviving, so obviously, you know, the executives and what not are letting this happen.
Neville: So you still don’t have any formalized policies on blogging, but I expect you’ve got what I’d call guidelines, let’s say. Is that in place now at Microsoft?
Robert: Yeah… You know, Microsoft doesn’t have a lot of rules; it tells stories about itself and that’s why it sort of looks like a board from the outside. You know, we have really good email mailing lists for hundreds of different things. There’s an email mailing list on trading tickets; there’s an email mailing list on… oh, you could name any topic and there’s probably an email mailing list about it.
So the bloggers have an email mailing list and people go there and say, hey, do you think this is cool to do and people will write back and say, ah, I’d probably not do that, you know. Or if you do that, here are some of the consequences that could come into play.
In other words, we have a really good cross-departmental sharing system which a lot of companies don’t have. And if you don’t have that, then you’d better have policies to sort of explain what’s expected.
Shel: I met somebody from Microsoft at a show a couple of years ago, at the National Association of Broadcasters where we were both speaking, and he told me something that I thought was interesting. It was your status at Microsoft was based on which mailing lists you’d been invited to subscribe to. And I’m wondering if the blogs have had any impact on that culturally.
Robert: Hmm. I don’t know; that’s an interesting question. I’ve certainly got invited onto some better mailing lists since I’ve started, heh!
There’s a new set of blogs internally that people can subscribe to and employees can write their own internal blogs as well. And that will be interesting to see how that changes information sharing, you know, internally. But the external blogs are more interesting to me still.
Neville: It’s interesting, because before we started chatting to you, Shel and I were talking about the news the other day about the 2800 internal blogs at IBM. That kind of thing you don’t hear about publicly until either the company chooses to let the news out or someone finds out about it. But it makes you think, you know, you mentioned just now, information sharing, project management, all those things. I expect that’s exactly the kind of thing going on at Microsoft as well?
Robert: Yeah, I think blogging will be better internally at a culture that does not have a good email tool. Outlook already lets you do a lot of public folders, lets you do… I don’t know, I find Outlook is a good enough tool and getting someone to accept that they need to do a blog is difficult when they have Outlook.
At other companies that I didn’t have Outlook, I would have been much more aggressive about doing a blog because I just couldn’t find the email tool very efficient to deal with. And that’s a [indistinguishable] bit for Microsoft because we have so many great, um, email mailing lists and stuff like that.
The one area where I do think blogging will really take off [internally] is getting information outside of Outlook and into the corporate space for searchability and stuff. When I left NEC, I left with a gig, 1.3 gigs of email, right, and I don’t have access to that email and NEC killed my email account and the worker who took my spot didn’t have any access to that email either.
Shel: So no ‘institutional memory,’ huh?
Robert: Well in there, I have a folder, even at Microsoft now, I have a folder called ‘resources’... Let me just get that folder so I can tell you what’s in there… It’s a really useful folder to me. So, yeah, in the resources folder I have, you know, hundreds of things and it’s like people will email me with a cool URL internally, or the contact information for somebody, or, you know, an email newsletter that they’d written about their team or something like that, right? Something that would be useful for other people to share but isn’t really confidential information, you know, at least its not confidential to my team.
But all that knowledge is locked up in my email folder. So if you’re one of my co-workers, you can’t get to this folder. And how do I share this with you? Well, I could see a place where I would set up a server of some kind, you know at Microsoft we have Sharepoint servers, and use my Outlook MT folder and my Outlook MT tool to drag these items to a folder and have them automatically put up on a weblog kind of thing. And that way you could use, er, a search engine, you know, you could find them, and you could read this blog to see what interesting resources I’ve gotten lately.
Neville: Right. So to me, that comes into that area of content. If we describe all that as content, it’s great to have all that but if no one can connect to it, if you can’t enable other people to link to it, it doesn’t matter how good the content is.
Shel: We’re kind of running out of time, getting close to an hour on our show, so I think we’ll take one more question each.
Neville: Ok, if I may, I want to ask you about Blog or Die, as the debating title currently is. For the benefit of everyone listening, this is the book that Robert and Shel Israel are collaborating on about business blogging. It’s being driven through the book blog called The Red Couch. I’m wondering, Robert, you signed a publishing deal with Wiley recently and the first chapter’s been written in draft. There is a debate going on about the title Blog or Die. How do you see that shaping up?
Robert: We’re probably going to leave it until later on to decide.
It’s interesting, because a lot of people like The Red Couch because it’s a fun title that’s conversational. Our publisher and other people like Blog or Die because they think it’ll sell more books. The two different goals that people have and how they approach it. I think we’ll come back to it because the title will just pop out at some point as we start writing and discovering what this book’s going to say.
Shel: As the author of three books, Robert, I can tell you the publisher has never once let me pick my titles!
Robert: Yeah, I have a feeling that’s going to be true in this case, too.
Neville: Well, they’re going to sell the thing so they’re looking at it from that point of view. I find it very interesting, the dialog on The Red Couch blog on this topic, all the different opinions from people. As you say, there are mixtures from people who like The Red Couch for its conversational… I’ve left a couple of comments there with my 50 eurocents worth of contribution, but the interesting thing is that this is so transparent, this whole process and I can see more books being published like this, er, going forward. Looking at some of the books that are in process now on blogging, this is the only one being done like that, unless I’m mistaken. I think that’s true, isn’t it?
Robert: Yeah, I haven’t seen any that have been posting chapters as they’re being written. Um, yeah, I would expect more to be published this way. Dan Gillmor published his chapters [of We The Media] at the end of the process. Well, I guess he published them at some point in the process because he actually had [indistinguishable] improve the table of contents. He deserves a lot of credit for influencing our [indistinguishable] trying to do this.
Neville: So Blog or Die or whatever the title turns out to be is due to be in the bookstores around January 2006, if I’m not wrong. Is that right, Robert?
Robert: Yeah, somewhere in the first quarter of 2006. We’re still arguing on how aggressive we need to be to finish this thing!
Shel: I’d like to come back to your blog for a minute if we could. I remember an instance, I’m going to guess this was a couple of months ago, where you were contacted by a blogger who had gotten a nasty letter from Microsoft’s legal department, and he was asking you to sort of intervene. Do you get a lot of that, where people are asking you to do something on their behalf that they can’t do through the normal corporate channels?
Robert: Oh yeah. It’s getting worse and worse and I’m to the point where I’m having a really hard time keeping up with the email flow at this point.
Shel: Do you worry sometimes that maybe that’s what being a public-facing blogger’s going to turn into, sort of like an online ombudsman?
Robert: Um, yeah, but that’s what I ask for, too! Heh, heh!
Yeah, I see that as part of my role in helping the company out, is, um, you know, being a public face, you know, picking up the low-hanging fruit that other people didn’t catch, or systems didn’t catch, um… Like on one Saturday afternoon [indistinguishable] makeover show and said, hey, we need some computers, what can we do [indistinguishable] the PR department on Saturday, and because I know all these guys, you know, and we jumped into action and by Sunday morning we had all sorts of stuff going on.
You know, that’s sort of my role and I like it, actually, so…
Neville: Well, I think you’re right Shel, we’re approaching the end of the time we’ve got for Robert, and I know you’ve got other stuff to do, Robert…
Shel: Like a job!
Neville: Like a job, yeah! Maybe we can wrap up with one question for you, Robert. If you had one piece of advice for anyone in the communication business - whether it’s PR, or marketing, or internal communication, whatever it is in the communication business - about these new channels and stuff in this era of what we call participatory communication, what would your advice be?
Robert: Ooh! Don’t lose your credibility.
If you lose your ability to have a conversation with people, then, what do you have, you know? Other than that, you know, start talking like a human being.
That’s what I told Steve Ballmer back in an MVP summit. I said, you know, why don’t you guys start talking to us like humans instead of trying to use your marketing and PR departments, and, you know… I never heard him talk to the customer base the way he talked to us in a private meeting, you know.
Now, there’s 1500 people talking and having conversations and you can do a Google search on One Note and blog it, and the product manager on [indistinguishable], you can tell him what you think of his product, and that’s pretty exciting, I think.
Shel: Most definitely. Alright, Bob, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us.
Robert: Hey, no problem!
Neville: Thanks, Robert, talk to you again soon.
Shel: Have a good one!