Scoble, Robert

Robert Scoble works at Microsoft (title: technical evangelist). He helps to run their Channel 9 website, and his blog, scobleizer, is one of the most widely read, with over 3 million readers a year. With Shel Israel, he is the coauthor of Naked Conversations. Shel has helped to launch many technology products, Sun Microsystems workstations, PowerPoint, FileMaker, and dBase among them. Currently, he consults to CEOs. See itseemstome.net for more by and about Shel.



In the picture, Robert Scoble is on the right, Shel Israel, on the left. The photo is linked from amazon.com.

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tompeters.com asks ...

What have you been doing in Switzerland recently?

RS: I spoke at LIFT, a new conference that just started up over there.

What does LIFT stand for?

RS: Life, Ideas, Futures. Together. It's sort of a Pop!Tech-in-Europe kind of thing. I liked it a lot. I like the energy in Europe. It's different than American conferences. They're still trying to feel their oats over in Europe. It creates an interesting mix of new ideas and new people that you haven't heard before, which is nice.

Do you get the sense, when attending so many conferences in the U.S., that you end up seeing a lot of the same people?

RS: Yeah. If you go to all the blogger conferences, you hear the same people. Or you meet a core group of people, and they create an energy. Marc Canter shows up at every conference, it seems. Dave Winer is at most of them, or Doc Searls. I'm always hanging out with Doc and Buzz Bruggeman at CES. You keep seeing common people throughout the world.

It's also a way for friends to see each other physically.

RS: Absolutely. I love going to the United States conferences, it's just different. When you go over to Europe, you meet people you don't really read. I met a whole bunch of Swiss bloggers that I can't read because they write in French. I hear new ideas or meet new people that I haven't been following. I read Doc [Searls] everyday. So when I see him at a conference in the United States, it's like we've had conversations every night for the last two years. [Laughter]

So, you're not taking up French.

RS: No. [Laughter]

You and Shel [Israel] wrote a book called Naked Conversations. Who did you write this for?

RS: For businesspeople who are trying to figure out this new world of marketing, I guess: marketers, executives, and PR people.

What's your main point?

RS: That the world has changed and that blogging lets you join the word-of-mouth conversation that always was there, but you couldn’t participate in. It used to be you only had to deal with 14 press guys to get a story out because information distribution was centralized. You talked to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, ABC TV, and a few others like Newsweek. If you were in the tech industry, you talked to the four or five magazines. That was pretty much it. You talked to 14 people, and you got your story out.

Today, you have to pay attention to everybody. Everybody has the ability to go from obscurity to the front page of the New York Times in 48 hours. That freaks people out in the PR business, or marketers and executives.

Do you think it's over for the old-style PR folks?

RS: No. Their skills are still needed because the press still has a lot of power. Steven Levy at Newsweek still talks to millions of people. You still have to figure out how to keep him happy, how to get him to pay attention to you.

In the '80s when I helped run a camera store, word-of-mouth was really important to business. Eighty percent of my sales came from word-of-mouth, from people telling each other, "Hey, you should go check out this great camera store." But back then, word-of-mouth was very inefficient. Now, word-of-mouth is a thousand times more efficient because of IM [instant messages], email, and blogging. So I can write, "Hey, go to B&H Photo," and a thousand people are going to read that or, in my case, 20,000 people are going to read that. Ideas get passed along much, much faster. And it's speeding up. Every couple of months, I notice that it is getting faster and faster, especially with tools now like memeorandum that watch what people are thinking about.

What is that?

RS: Tech.memeorandum is a website that watches about 2,000 of the world's top tech bloggers. On a separate page (www.memeorandum.com), it watches a couple of thousand of the world's top political and news bloggers. Every five minutes, it goes through those 2,000 blogs and looks at the linking behavior of those blogs.

Let's say you started a blog this morning. If I found it to be interesting, and link to it, and then five other people link to it, you're probably going to get on that page because it noticed that a bunch of bloggers are linking to something new. The page changes every five to ten minutes and it's looking at linking behavior.

Does it archive this information?

RS: It archives it. On the front page, there is no story that's older than 24 hours. Last week, on a Saturday night, these guys showed me a new tool called coComment and I wrote about it. Within a few hours, 100 people had linked to it, and it was at the top of the page by the morning.

That shows how fast things can go, from a little room where there are eight people to having that kind of exposure. I think 2,000 people have looked at my Flickr photos now. That might not sound like that many people but, damn, I remember trying to get 2,000 people into a conference room. It took millions of dollars of PR and advertising.

Exactly. I think 2,000 is a lot.

RS: How many people does Tom Peters speak in front of? A few thousand people at a time? It's hard to get 2,000 people in a room. And that's for Tom Peters. He's a famous author. [Laughter]

What's the usual readership at your blog?

RS: Somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 a day.

I'm guessing a lot of our readers will have read your blog. What will be new for them in your book? What will surprise them?

RS: For the book, we've interviewed 188 companies about how they're using blogging. So it's not necessarily just my ideas, but I hung them as a framework. We interviewed companies big and small: a coffee shop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is using blogging and seeing dramatic returns, a tailor in England, L'Oréal, General Motors, Microsoft, and Sun [Microsystems].

Your first chapter is a bit of a history of your own blogging. It's also about your employer, Microsoft, softening its image through employee blogging. This blogging has humanized Microsoft.

RS: We've been allowed to blog in a very non-corporate way. When you're a corporate employee, you have these fears of talking favorably about competitors or linking to them. But I do that all the time.

Some people don't want to share their knowledge because they're being paid for their knowledge. I talk to lawyers all the time and try to get them to blog. They say, "I can't blog that way. You're paying me $300 an hour for what I know." They don't understand that if they shared what they know, they would get even more business.

For someone who's not involved in this world of blogging, it's counterintuitive; that if you give away what you know, it'll come back to you in spades. I had a friend that I played Monopoly with when I was a kid. Despite the fact that you're trying to amass money in Monopoly, he would always try to give his money away. He would pay more than the normal rent or whatever. But somehow, he always ended up making more money. I don't know how it happened. There's an analogous situation here. The more information you give away, the more it pays off.

RS: Well, there is a reason for that, and it's called Google. Let's say we're competing plumbers in Seattle. When someone does a search for plumbers in Seattle on Google, you want to be the first one listed in the results. In order to do that, you have to get people to link to you because that's how the Google algorithm works. It works that way with Microsoft's algorithm, Yahoo's algorithm; they all work the same way. The more links you have, the higher in Google you go.

Here at Microsoft, I track research on searchers. We've noticed that most people don't visit the links on the second page of search results.

Good point.

RS: They don't hit next page. They do another search. They know that if they don't find something on the first page, they won't on any of the other pages.

So they enter something like "plumber, Seattle," or maybe "fix leaky pipe." Who's going to be in the first ten links? Well, let's say you, a plumber in Seattle, have a site that never changes, and I, another plumber in Seattle, have a site, even a crappy site, that changes every day. I'm going to get more accidental links. People will link to me just because I have a new press release up or a new picture of a tool or something.

But let's say we both have a page that changes every day. And then let's say I actually teach readers how to do plumbing. I post pictures of how to change toilets or how to fix a pipe leak. I'm teaching readers how to do stuff. You're just putting out, "Oh, my service rocks, and here is a press release," kind of thing.

People are going to link to me and say, "Hey, there's a really cool plumber who's showing you how to fix a shower fixture." So I'll have more links and I'll move higher than you in the Google results or ranks. When people click on us in the search results for a Seattle plumber to check us out, I'm going to look more authoritative because I'm actually teaching you how to do it. Let's say I allow comments to be posted on my site. People can then say, "Yeah, this is really cool," or you can see people linking to me. So it infers authority and passion about the topic that you're searching.

You must have a fixation on plumbers because I've heard you talk about that before.

RS: Well, it's any business, really. I talk about the plumber because everybody is self-centered. "I'm going to talk about Microsoft because I know Microsoft." Then you fall into this rut. So by talking about something I don't know about, it forces me to get out of that rut, and to think differently about the world. It also forces me to go up to businesspeople and talk about their business rather than mine. I learn a lot by doing that. For example, if you go wine tasting, ask, "How do you get customers? How do they find you? Are you doing any advertising? Where are you doing advertising?"

As it turns out, you can even find a blogging plumber, is that right?

RS: Probably now, in some markets, you will find them. I found a blogging trucker who's going across the United States.

Yes, there was a piece about him in Southwest Airlines Spirit magazine.

RS: We found 188 companies that are blogging, so it's getting more and more diverse every day. The number of blogs is doubling every five months.

What big companies that we've all heard of are blogging successfully?

RS: Successfully? [Laughter] I find blogging is a progression. The first step is just to blog. General Motors, they have an executive blogging. He's getting good PR. He's actually having a good conversation since he allows comments.

Bob Lutz, right?

RS: Yeah. But you really understand the power of blogging when you let everybody blog. Then, as a customer, I can dig into the company deeply. Also, I can give product ideas. Imagine if I could talk to the guy who's designing the transmission for the next Corvette or something like that. I don't have a Corvette, but let's say I did. I could tell him, "Hey, I don't like the Corvette I have. It shifts weird between 30 and 40 miles per hour. Can you fix that?" All of a sudden, we have a conversation about the product. The designer can hear real feedback in a new way.

Some teams at Microsoft, like the Internet Explorer Team or OneNote Team, are at that point of having conversations with consumers about products. When I see a company doing that, then I know they've really gotten blogging, and are very far along the road of understanding the power of this new medium.

Who's further along than Microsoft or GM?

RS: A lot of the smaller companies. The Stormhoek Winery. English Cut [www.englishcut.com] is the blog of a tailor. You can talk to the guy who's building $4,000 suits. Sure, most people don't care about that. But if you're a customer in that world, now suddenly you have a relationship with this guy. You can't have that kind of relationship with the other guys who are competing against him because they don't write like that.

Who shouldn't blog?

RS: We have a whole chapter on that. People who are evil. [Laughter] I mean truly evil.

No one sees themselves as being evil.

RS: No. People who have something to hide shouldn't blog. Or people who mistreat their employees. If I mistreated my employees, or I knew I had unhappy employees who were forming unions, I would be scared of that. But you can't control it anymore. Even Microsoft, with a very open blogging policy, has an anonymous blogger. He was on the front page of BusinessWeek.

Really? Aren't people madly trying to figure out who that is?

RS: I don't know.

Are you kidding?

RS: I asked Jay Greene [author of the BusinessWeek piece] to give him up. [Laughter] Jay said, "No way." If he were discovered today, I don't think he could be fired because it would cause so much adverse PR. [Laughter]

Exactly. That seems to be the game here. As long as you can generate good PR for something, you're safe. I remember reading in your book that people you were interviewing noted that they have become better listeners since they started blogging. I don't know if it was just blogging or reading the comments to their blogs, but I thought that was interesting.

RS: Comments are one thing. The new search engines are another. For instance, I can enter the word "Linux" into a search engine and anybody in the world who writes the word Linux on their blog today will show up in that folder within about an hour.

Right before I gave a speech to the European Football Association, I wrote a post about EUFA. Twenty minutes into the speech, I did a search on Technorati for EUFA, and my post was there. That lets you listen to anybody in the world who cares about your product in a new way. [EUFA is now UEFA—the Union of European Football Associations]

I do searches on anybody who says "Microsoft." "Microsoft sucks" is a fun phrase to search. I can then link over to that person and say, "Hey, there's somebody who's dissatisfied with our product," and I can put them in touch with the team who runs that product. I can try to get an answer or try to get their problem fixed, or at least just say, "Hey, we see your problem. We're not going to be able to fix it for, let's say, 12 months." But even saying that demonstrates a new kind of listening that people aren't used to.

Some companies don't listen. Take Dell for instance. Some business consortium, I forget which, ran a survey on Dell, and found that they had actually hurt their brand by not listening to this kind of blog feedback.

The whole idea of blogging is that at its most fundamental level, it's about the free flow of information, and most of it is accurate, to the extent that it can be.

RS: That's a fun thing to talk about. The old style of journalism was edited before publishing. The new style, the blog style, is to edit after you publish. Your readers do the editing. It's a violent process sometimes because if you write something that's not right, your readers jump on you. Your readers are so connected and so smart that they fact check what you've written within minutes. It's a very interesting process to go through. It is possible to hoax the blog world, but it generally cleans itself out within a day. Somebody comes along and says, "Uh, wait a second here. I've actually done my homework, and here's the truth."

I'd like to talk about comments. Here at tompeters.com, we've had our own issues with comments. Yesterday, I saw that Jason Fried at 37signals posted a "Troll cap". Did you see that?

RS: Yeah.

A lot of people are having a difficult time with comments. They're getting a lot of negative comments or they're getting people who just swear at everybody. What do you make of all this? How do you deal with it?

RS: I just put up with it. It disturbs me when people get too sensitive. I think a little bit of pushback is an okay thing. It's hard for me to say that because I really don't like the snarky comments on my blog. But I think they serve a purpose in the world to help people triangulate in on the truth.

On the other hand, if somebody goes over the line (and there is a line somewhere) at my business blog, Channel 9, we delete those comments; racist comments, sexist comments, or graphic comments.

So you eliminate them.

RS: Yeah, on my business blog. On my personal blog, I purposefully don't delete anything. It would have to be something completely over the line, illegal, defamatory, libelous, or something really hateful.

Do you find that the community tends to self-regulate?

RS: It's interesting. The people who actually put their names on things tend to be pretty rational. Generally, out of a thousand posts, you'll see 999 good ones and one bad one. It's the anonymous people who are causing the disruption. I have a feeling that some of it is also astroturfing; companies who are either egging on or actually outright paying people to go and disrupt their competitors' blogs.

That's called astroturfing?

RS: Yeah. I don't have proof of it. It's certainly all anonymous. People who use their real names and are snarky are more consistent. You know where they're coming from. I've actually met one of the guys who attack me. I feel like, "Okay, we disagree. But at least I know who you are, I know where you're coming from, and you're pretty consistent about it. You're always snarky with me."

It's at least civil. There's nothing wrong with disagreement. We ran into a situation where people were cutting and pasting whole articles into the comments. I guess it was for the Google juiciness of it, so they would have their article associated with Tom Peters. We just said, "Guys and gals, this is ..."

RS: Not allowed.

But then we get people starting to rant and rave about censorship. Anyway, there are a lot of issues with comments.

RS: It's not easy, that's for sure.

People are spending a tremendous amount of time trying to figure out what to do about it.

RS: Russell Beattie just turned off comments. Dave Winer doesn't have comments on most of his posts (he does occasionally turn comments on when he wants interaction); he wants people to start their own blog.

People can use search engines to see what bloggers have said. So if you are being censored by a blog, just put it on your own blog, and everybody can still see it, or at least the astute ones can, which are the ones you want to get to anyway.

What are some of your favorite blogs?

RS: Oh geez. I still read Dave Winer every day. TechCrunch for the Web 2.0 stuff. I love Tom Peters. I love Guy Kawasaki now, which is funny, because Guy is a really great writer, but he's not using some of the conversational aspects of blogging (he hasn’t yet linked to a blogger I had no idea existed). He doesn't link out very often, he doesn't talk about people, he doesn't talk about news, or mention that there is a conversation going on about him, or admit that there is one. He just posts this really interesting stuff and is very aloof. [Laughter]

Do you think that's purposeful? Or is he just getting accustomed to blogging?

RS: I think it's maybe both. He already has an audience because of his past work. Me, I use blogging to build an audience, because I didn't have an audience when I first started. I had 18 readers. Guy can be aloof about it and still have a lot of people coming in and commenting. It's the same thing with Tom. Tom doesn't need to link to me or link to anybody else to get noticed. He is already noticed. Bill Gates, if he were to blog, wouldn't need to build an audience. The minute he wrote the first post, he would have 100,000 people showing up.

The other thing is, when you're a writer, you run out of things to say. That's when you start thinking, "Okay, what else am I going to do? Oh wait, there's a whole bunch of people here talking about me. Let's link over to them and see what kind of thing we can get started." So that's when you shift your mindset a little bit, from putting out interesting essays to actually having a conversation. Because that's what you're here to do.

That's an interesting progression, initially throwing everything you know out there and then, in time, circling back around to the conversation about those ideas. Any other favorites?

RS: Lately, I've been going to memeorandum. I read that ten times a day. I read 840 or so feeds right now. I used to read them every night but I'm reading them less and less frequently since memeorandum came out. Memeorandum shows me the big stories. It shows me what everybody is linking to and talking about but it doesn't catch the small ones.

If you put on your blog, "It's my birthday today," not very many people are going to link to that. But it's the kind of little detail that will help us build a relationship because I could send you a birthday gift, or I could just email you and say, "Hey, Happy Birthday." Those little conversations are what build relationships.

When blogging, you have to think about fiction writing and what is it to tell a story. In any fiction class, the first thing you learn is that all those little details matter.

RS: They're like salt on a meal. It makes it taste better.

Jumping ahead to WordPress, you recently changed your blogging software. What do you like about WordPress?

RS: It's reliable and it supports most of the latest technologies, like tagging or categories. The comments on it are better than the other blog engines I've used. It has better spam filtering. And it's done by a kid who's innovating and keeps adding features to it. Right now, he's adding more features per month than his competition, which is getting attention.

WordPress is still a pretty small outfit, right?

RS: Oh yeah. They just hired an executive from Yahoo! which is pretty impressive.

I bring that up because you've noted that, usually, you're at the top of "Hot Blogs Today" at WordPress.com. But today there's a blog called AtariBoy outdoing you. What's that all about?

RS: There's a site called digg. It's getting a lot of traffic. Because it's written by a community, it has a lot of cool sites on it everyday. It's grown a huge audience. So if you get on digg twice or even once maybe, you move up the lists of popular blogs really fast. I think AtariBoy got 19,000 visits from one link on there. That gives you an idea of how much traffic digg is throwing around.

What's AtariBoy writing about?

RS: He writes about the tech industry. He's been putting up a whole bunch of Web 2.0 stuff, trying to be like a new TechCrunch. It shows you can come out of nowhere and get noticed. If your content is interesting, and you're writing about something that nobody else is, you can take off.

TechCrunch is only seven months old and it's a must-read in Silicon Valley. [Laughter] It's amazing. My friend, John Furrier, started up PodTech. I think he's now number seven on iTunes. He had five million downloads last month. He's now the official podcaster for DEMO. He's only been podcasting for, I think, seven or eight months. It just shows how fast this world moves if you're good. If you have something that's different and interesting, people will link to it and will talk about it. The word-of-mouth networks are so efficient now that, if you're good, you can get discovered and shared really, really quickly.

Hot stuff.

RS: Yeah, it's a lot of fun. The blog is the best relationship-building device the world has ever seen. The more you can put yourself out there, the more people feel connected to you. That's why I put my cell phone out there, my email out there, I take a lot of Flickr photos, and I do video for Microsoft.

It's easier, for some people, to do a little video than to sit down and type. That's why we did the video blog on Channel 9. It also lets us do visual stuff. For instance, it's really hard to tell you, even over the phone, what Halo 2 looks like. It's amazing what's gone on with our video blog. Last month, we had 2.8 million unique visitors with no advertising, no links from Microsoft.com, and no PR. It's just all word-of-mouth.

Well, as Paris Hilton would say, that's hot.

RS: That's hot. [Laughter] It shows that you can do some fun things with a $700 camcorder. That's the anti-marketing marketing. I talk about that a lot. It's totally antithetical to the belief that everything you put out from the company has to be perfect. I go in with a shaky camera, no makeup, and no light.

And you note that it's okay to have grammatical errors or typos in your blog because it makes you look human. At our blog, we've got somebody copyediting what Tom or others put in. Maybe we need to let it go a little bit.

RS: That slows you down. The world is moving so fast that if you slow it down like that, you're left out of the conversation. The conversation literally happens in an hour now. That's the new world. It's a rough world. But it's fun if you can do it.

Well, you're doing a great job of evangelizing it.

RS: Thanks.

Links:
Robert Scoble's blog scobleizer
Microsoft's Channel 9

Email: robertscoble (at) - hotmail.com