I first met Shashi Bellamkonda through Twitter. In the virtual neighborhood where I hang out, everyone knows him as ShashiB and he is highly regarded. Shashi is a prolific Tweeter, generous with useful information. He also maintains three personal blogs and is on Linked in as well as Flickr.
The fact that I knew him for several weeks, or perhaps months, before I discovered that he worked for Network Solutions and would be setting up that company's first official blog. It's relevant because people who know Shashi trust him and when a firestorm hit Network Solutions, he used his personal blog to let his employer join a conversation and by so doing seems to have changed that conversation at least to some degree.
The issue was something called "front running." It has nothing to do with presidential politics. In domain registration, opportunists try to see what domains people are looking up, and then buy them quickly so that they can charge people and businesses who actually intend to use them, a highly inflated price. Global Neighbourhoods, for example, used to be a dot com site. It became a dot net site when I let it expire for a period of six hours. The Front Runner wh grabbed it anted $5K.
Just as Shashi started a new position as the first-ever Network Solutions social media person, Network Solutions took action in the area of front running. They said they were holding domain names for three days to protect users from front runners. Users said they had become front runners themselves, forcing users to buy a name from them rather than a less pricey competitor.
Shashi's first days as the Network Solutions blogger were filled with turmoil, shouting and accusations. They are not yet resolved. But the shouting has subsided. I'll let the Q&A pick up the story from there.
1. Can you give me a general picture of Network Solutions and social media? How many bloggers are there identified as Network Solutions?Are employees encouraged to participate in social media? Is there any corporate policy or strategy related to social media?
The very fact that Network Solutions realized that they need a social media person is a positive step toward joining the conversation. We got over the first milestone--getting people inside the company to understand the challenges and the power of social media presence. I have been part of discussions to open new ways for customer communication (blogs, forums).
We may be going slowly but we are trying and do it right.
Network Solutions (NetSol) employee advocates have long advocated we set up a social media “listening post.” By creating my position as the NetSol social media person we have taken a huge step. It did take a lot of pushing and convincing for everyone to be on the same page and may still require more pushing. But I don’t think that is uncommon in established companies.
Folks at Network Solutions have been reading blogs since the beginning and are aware of the best practices advocated by blogs and books on social media. I say this because being a technology company many employees engage in social media at personal level. A lot of people I know read new media sites like Digg, TechCrunch, Techmeme, Slashdot, etc. avidly. We had to get everyone on the same page at all levels. I have read “Naked Conversations” and particularly liked the small business success examples you have in the book and quoted them to people.
We have been using Communispace as a social media tool for a few years and now we're taking steps in mainstream social media. In a very small way, I experimented using social media to spread the word about a product that I managed called BuildMyMobi. I wanted to let people know that it was an easy to use tool to create a website for mobile phones. I joined conversations in blogs and forums where the people might be looking for such tools. We asked people to try the product. This helped us understand that with the right approach social media can add a new dimension to our efforts to reach customers.
I am thrilled that I moved to this new social media position and I think Network Solutions has gained as well. They needed a person already connected in social media and I was a perfect fit.
To have some fun, I started a contest inside Network Solutions to pick a title for my new post and got about 34 entries. My favorite so far is “Social Media Swami”!
In a nutshell, the company has a blogging policy which is more of a common sense approach. The policy is for people to be conscious of confidentiality of information and to ensure there is no conflict with their work. Basically, it says be smart when you blog. There are some avid bloggers and most bloggers I know at work have personal blogs.
2. How long have you been at Network Solutions? What was your job before you became the company's primary blogger? What percentage of your time is involved in social media for your employer?
In 2001, I came in on the ground level, taking tech support calls. I have fond memories of talking with customers. Some conversations are etched in memory - people setting up websites to propose to their Fiancée or to commemorate the experience of having a baby. O once talked with a Bruce Lee fan who took me way beyond my shift .The customer was so concerned that the website had to look right. I stayed on the phone with him until we got it right.
My opportunity really came when Network Solutions introduced hosting. I could leverage the experience I had gained at home in my basement, dallying with hosting and programming. I worked hard and learned quickly. This gave me a chance to move up and change workgroups.
I am proud that my dream is coming true not just at Network Solutions. I believe in the American dream--that hard work and perseverance get rewarded.
I progressed from customer service management to marketing and then on to product management. Before I moved to my new social media position I managed a product that I love – an easy to use website builder that I supported when I first joined Network Solutions.
I am now devoted exclusively to social media, not just for Network Solutions but because it has become my passion to be involved in the DC social media community. I love blogging and maintain three personal Blogs along with enjoying Twitter. I am currently brain-storming new ideas and hope to create a good social media strategy for Network Solutions to reach the small business. We will learn as we go and I am confident that I will get a lot of help from blogosphere friends. We want to do it right.
3. Last month, you got to experience the thrill of trial by fire over the issue of "front running," or grabbing the registration of an available website name for the purpose of reselling it . Network Solutions said it was reserving site names for customers. What was/is NetSol's thinking on this?
“Trial by Fire” is certainly right! In a way, I am happy that I started with a challenge. Having bulldozed myself into the position, this was the first opportunity to prove that there was a conversation about us in which we were not participating.
I've always advised people to buy the domain name immediately after finding it. So have other bloggers. Network Solutions decided to reserve domains in an effort to prevent front runners from scamming our customers. We were concerned with customer complaints that they search for a domain and find it has been registered by someone else especially when the chances of a coincidence are remote. We have taken it up with ICANN in the past.
In retrospect, we might have avoided such a furor if we had added more notification on the website and provided a better explanation to our users on this measure at the very beginning.
4. There were at least 200 negative blog posts. Your blog received scores of negative comments, some of them pretty ribald. What was your personal response to getting called so many insulting names? How did upper management respond?
I have been mentored well by the Blogging community. I ignored the insults and concentrated on the constructive feedback. I made sure the user's main complaints were discussed internally at a senior level.
Network Solutions listened and made changes quickly.
I posted these changes to the forums and blogs where the suggestions were posted. This is good for the community since the constructive criticism reached the highest levels of the company. Companies should be open additional channels like this for feedback.
Some of the principles of the Social media that I learned from the community helped me.
Listen and participate.
Help give your company a human face.
When companies listen then the conversation changes dramatically. In this case, it changed from criticism to suggestions on how to make it better.
Blogging will expose you. You must expect to deal with criticism.
I will make mistakes but I have the conviction to pick myself up, dust off the mud and carry on with a smile. Everyone says my Twitter picture makes me look very optimistic and I am that way.
5. Did anyone advocate taking the strongest comments down? Who decided to keep them up and why?
Nobody ever suggested taking down the comments. I don't moderate my personal blog posts, except in once where I stated that clearly. I think the general feeling was that we were getting some good suggestions from the comments on the different blogs including mine. Many people supported my new role. I have been in the company for a long time and have a lot of friends and I had people stopping me in the corridors and asking me to hang in there.
Using my personal blog was my decision to be able to reach out quickly to people asking me questions on Twitter and other forums. In the end it achieved the objective for Network Solutions and the community. Bloggers, on the other hand, found out that someone was there in Network Solutions to take their voice to the highest levels.
6. Nasty language aside, there seem to be a lot of people who don't trust the Network Solutions front running policy. They suggested more user-friendly remedies to your locking the URL for several days. Are you considering changing your policy? Why or why not?
In my experience, Network Solutions has always worked on making the customer experience better. I know we are looking at making changes like the ability to reserve the name for the original searcher. This could form part of a future enhancement. On a side note, I learned from blogs and comments that even some of our most vehement critics agreed that our "Who is" search and interface was more intuitive than others.
Our public position stated by Champ Mitchell is “A $0.25 non-refundable domain name registration fee would probably be enough to make domain tasting or front running unprofitable”. The good news is that ICANN just proposed a resolution to charge a 20 cent fee on domains held during the grace period. Network Solutions will support this resolution and will stop our current practices as soon as that is implemented. ( There is a story in the Washington Post that has more info .
7. What has Network Solutions learned from this experience specific to url-locking and front running?
We definitely learned that as domain name pioneers, Network Solutions is held to higher standards. That’s a challenge the company accepts. The key here is that we listened to the community and customers and made the changes even if the majority of the detractors publicly stated that they just used our "WhoIs" search without any intention of registering the domain with us.
This reminds me of a Wharton classroom discussion about branding a few years back. We compared food & grocery stores like Giant and Safeway vs. food specialties like Trader Joe's. The customer’s perception is that the older and more established brands should always have milk and God forbid them if they run out. But if Trader Joe's were to run out of milk, customers are likely to just shrug and say they came at the wrong time. Network Solutions is in the same position in Domaines as Safeway is in groceries.
8. How do you think social media has impacted your corporate reputation? Do you think social media impacts corporate accountability? How so or not so?
Prior to my position being created the conversation on Network Solutions was being held in social media channels and we were not part of it. A lot of employees used to read blogs and forums and pass around the information internally. Network Solutions may have responded on an ad hoc basis, but there wasn’t a formal process to respond. Now, we try to respond to the discussion in the social media, even if it is among domain holders who are typically not our customers.
Network Solutions has reinvented itself to focus in on providing tools to help small businesses succeed online- ImageCafé – the product that I managed was one of them (Publish a website easily with absolutely no tech knowledge.). Change within a large company takes time and is an evolving process.
As I said, we are already a changed company yet at every meet up I go to I am asked questions about Network Solutions and domain names. I use the opportunity to say that that’s only part of our business. Some people in the community seem to remember us for old times when we were a registrar and the registry. We have to keep engaging in the conversation with our customers and the community to nurture a relationship that helps Network Solutions and our customers work together better.
Network Solutions has good customer service and customers come for complete online small business solutions. The perception of Network Solutions as a domain name company in my opinion is yesterday.
I have a lot of aspirations on how my position will help our customers and the company and I am confident the dream will come true of making Network Solutions a social media success.
9. Looking forward, how do you think social media will change Network Solutions internally and in the marketplace?
The day when a company could communicate hiding behind walls and lobbing stuff over the wall to customers is over. My new position at Network Solutions will work toward empowering our customers to carry on conversations using social media. Companies always want to listen to their customers and are accountable to their customers.
I think about 40% of Network Solutions' business is from word of mouth referrals so we are very conscious of its power. As small businesses embrace social media, word of mouth will take a different incarnation. Social media now opens yet another channel for this communication.
Social Media is also the new citizen journalism. Some companies are starting to realize it and embrace it. We are among them. As a Social Media person, I have to be the voice of the customer and the community within Network Solutions--sort of like a Ombudsman.
Seth Godin wrote t hatcustomers are now unionizing themselves through the social media. This is a good thing. Social media cuts down the hierarchy that existed in traditional forms of communication between companies and customers.
There are proven cases of companies where engaging in social media has proven successful in changing brand perception. We may be early. Small business is only now starting to engage.
I have a lot of work cut out for me. I have to do my duty to both Network Solutions and to the community. I will be fair and ensure a conversation where both sides are heard. If I am considered a mere mouthpiece of the corporation I will have lost my credibility. A DC blogger, Andrew Wright says it well on his blog in reference to my position.