Back in 2007, Network Solutions stepped into a public relations quagmire. A leading provider of domain registrations, the company was accused of “front running,” a practice that lets speculators buy up domain names, then resell them at inflated prices.
The incident kicked up a social media storm, quickly and seriously damaging the company’s reputation. But Network Solutions didn’t know this was going on; its customer satisfaction surveys showed everything was going along just fine. Because the company didn’t participate in any form of social media at the time, it could not hear the rising online chorus of angry voices.
“There were conversations going on about us all over the Internet," says Shashi Bellamkonda, who has been instrumental in giving a social media voice and face to the company. "We weren’t listening to them so we could not join them."
A former hotel chef, Bellamkonda switched to the tech industry about 10 years ago. He worked his way up the ranks at Network Solutions, starting in support where he took customer calls, then product management, and, eventually, marketing.
Though his employer was not active in social media when the front-running incident erupted, Bellamkonda was. He was blogging and active in social networks. He had built a credible personal reputation.
If his employer was going to remain deaf and mute, he decided he would use his own blog to show that Network Solutions employees cared and wanted to improve company policies. He began posting regularly, acknowledging that the company needed to adjust policy. He weathered some insults, but soon people stopped shouting and starting becoming more polite.
As time went on Bellamkonda’s personal brand started to favorably impact his employer’s brand. Network Solutions slowly reversed itself, and Bellamkonda was assigned to start a company blog where he would be the principal writer.
This is now an old story in social media circles. It has become a case study for how social media can turn ranters into ravers. It has been written up in at least five books and is discussed in MBA classrooms.
When I interviewed Bellamkonda in 2007, I had the impression he was struggling to keep his job. People inside the company seemed to me to be concerned that company laundry was being aired in public. But steadily, Network Solutions came to understand that the business advantages of social media go well beyond crisis management.
Bellamkonda's role as company blogger eventually evolved into becoming Network Solutions’ director of social media. He manages a small team. He likes to call himself “social media swami,” a title he has come to own. He has also become part of the Network Solutions’ senior team, which means that social media has a seat at the strategic table internally. And externally, the swami has become the face of Network Solutions.
“Social media has played a steadily increasing role in how Network Solutions understands and communicates with it’s customers,” he says.
Simultaneously, the company has evolved and shifted its focus. While at its core, the company still sells domain registrations, it has changed focus from the large enterprise to small business. Very few companies have ventured such a move. Fewer have succeeded.
“Small businesses represent the most under-served segment of the market," Bellamkonda tells me. "They have the greatest need for high quality Web services and appreciate -- will pay for -- great customer service."
Like most significant companies, Network Solutions just wet its ankles before actually diving into the social media ocean. In 2008, it’s first full year in social media, it learned the strategic advantages of listening. Since then, it has been serving up a steadily expanding smorgasbord of social media and real-life services.
It seems to me that Network Solutions has become the little guy’s online buddy, guiding him or her along the often-daunting journey from the world of bricks into the world of clicks.
In the past two years the company has become prolific in social media content and events. Bellamkonda now oversees a small team. Together, they’ve created two Twitter accounts: @NetsolCares and @NSOffers, primarily focused on small business. The company blog strives to be a thought leader for small business. The company has also started a community for women entrepreneurs.
Network Solutions also demonstrates that it understands social media is the next best thing to being there live and in color. The company has started GrowSmartBusiness, an annual conference that it keeps alive year round on Twitter and in blog posts.
The company also participates in small business and social media events, training workshops, and other real life gatherings. The company hosts a monthly tweet chat on various small business topics. (This is accomplished by creating a hashtag such as #SmBiz or #netsol and having all participants use it in their posts.)
Lastly, the company has shown how companies can use social media to poke a wealthy competitor in the eye. Network Solutions’ archrival in domain registration is GoDaddy, best known for annual Superbowl ads highlighted by well-endowed women in tight shirts. This year, Network Solutions contracted the usually motherly Cloris Leachman, to pose in a tight leather biker suit, to star in a parody, which it uploaded to YouTube.
The clip did not eclipse the GoDaddy effort, but it showed how a smaller company can use social media to hit a low-cost home run against an imposing competitor.