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« Now accepting entries for the 2010 Forrester Groundswell Awards | Main | Social maturity »

June 08, 2010

What you can learn from PTC's long journey to community

by Josh Bernoff

Ptc PTC is a company with 5,000 employees and 25,000 customers. It makes CAD (computer aided design) and PLM (product lifecycle management) software. The story of what it took for PTC to create a customer community is instructive, because it's not a straight line. In real companies, it's not easy to create social applications, so there's a lot to be learned from PTC. This is a good example of the kind of management stories we have in Empowered.

Robin saitz cropped I encountered PTC in 2009. Robin Saitz, an SVP in marketing, hired Forrester Research to help the company  with the appropriate strategy for creating a customer community. Robin and Rachel Nislick, PTC's Director of Interactive Marketing, had already decided to use Jive Software for the community, but there was some discomfort with the overall initiative from other members of PTC's management. (I'm grateful to Robin and Rachel for allowing me to write about this -- our projects for clients are typically proprietary to the client unless the client wants it to be otherwise.)

Two elements were at the core of the Forrester engagement with PTC. First, we undertook a large survey of their customers worldwide. And second, I interviewed many of their executives.

As it turned out, the customers were enthusiastic. With PTC's permission I'm sharing the Social Technographics Profile of PTC's customers. As you can see, they're not just ready for a social application, they're eager for it. This sentiment was robustly consistent across job roles and geographies and for customers of all of PTC's products. Other elements of the survey helped us to determine just what sort of features they would want in a community.

PTC soctechprof
But this in itself was not sufficient. My interviews with their management revealed all sorts of concerns. Their customer service people were worried that a community might threaten maintenance revenues . Their CIO at the time wondered if Jive was the best platform. There was concern about how a new PTC community would live alongside and complement the existing PTC/USER online forums. And among product managers, some were far more enthusiastic than others. This is what it's like to do social technology projects in real companies.

I presented our recommendations to PTC's management team, who asked provocative and insightful questions -- they were truly engaged. At this point, I left PTC to its own devices and hoped to hear about their community launch soon after.

Instead, almost a year passed. But Robin and Rachel weren't just sitting around. They were building an ironclad case for the community. They conducted an extensive technical review of community platforms (in the end, Jive won). They lobbied and gained the support of management, including Jim Heppelmann, who is about to step up to the CEO job at PTC. They hired a community manager. And the product managers who were skeptical, one by one, started to become believers.

PTC's community launches this week. I expect this community to be very successful. The reason has nothing to do with features. It has to do with the preparation the company undertook to understand its customers and to align both management and IT behind the idea. Rachel and Robin are HEROes, and we profile them in Empowered because they demonstrate how, in real companies, launching social applications for a large customer base requires planning, politics, and support from all across the company.


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This is actually pretty funny.

PTC used to have an active New England user group. They stopped supporting it and the group died. That group kept a set of engineers and companies engaged with and committed to PTC software. There was a relationship between those users and both the product and company that was lost when the group dissolved.

Does PTC currently think that social media can take the place of face to face human interaction, informal technical training, input that comes from listening to users, etc.?

I'm sure they will launch this thing. And some people will respond to it. However that may be, a high tech software company must manage a variety of customer interactions to be successful. Marketing busywork does not substitute for in-depth connections to their user community. Social media is not the same sort of connection, and does not have the same value, as active user groups.

This observation is colored by 12 years of experience with DECUS and several years with the user groups for my own company's software. There's nothing quite like sitting around and talking to people. I'll take that over trying to put a wealth of information online for the user base to presumably read or watch. (Not that I wouldn't do that ALSO, by the way.) Remember the reason "RTFM" became a motto for the computer industry... people just don't read the fine manuals. And when users are frustrated or need a new feature they may not write a reasoned explanation. When they're pleased with what they've accomplished, they'd like to brag a little, not write it up. Engineers being engineers, it will be interesting to see how it works out.

Robin Saitz

In 1990, an independent organization of PTC software users was established. From their website: PTC/USER (http://www.ptcuser.org) is an independent, not-for-profit corporation organized by the user community. Our mission is two-fold: to represent the voice of the customer to PTC, and to promote knowledge sharing among our members to further their professional development.

PTC has a very close relationship with PTC/USER and their board of directors. The organization is volunteer led and offers many opportunities to network in various regions (called Regional User Groups or RUGs) – there are 31 in the US. RUG events are supported by PTC typically in the form of speakers (product managers, product marketers, trainers, etc.). In fact, I really enjoyed speaking at the NOPUG (the Northern Ohio PTC USER Group) event a few years back. In addition to great feedback for PTC and our products, they gave me some great swag! And just this week, I returned from our annual user conference where more than 1,800 users and over 200 PTC representatives networked, trained, and discussed our products - how they can use them more productively and how we can improve them. An A+ event, IMO.

Moreover, we launched PlanetPTC (http://www.ptc.com/planetptc/) at the event. PlanetPTC is a mix of dynamic channels that enables PTC customers and product development professionals to actively participate in exchanging ideas, success stories and best practices through three primary mediums:
• Online community interactions
• Stimulating live events
• Virtual experiences

So we wholeheartedly agree that online communities don’t take the place of face-to-face events, but we do believe they complement them. And our customers are eager to participate in a PTC-hosted online community, as indicated by the survey we did with Forrester.

I’d love to have you join the community and share your ideas and best practices. It's already launched and you can peruse or join here: https://communities.ptc.com . And I hope you find benefit from the interactions. BTW, if you’d like to get a New England RUG started, we’d love to see it rejuvenated. You can contact Ed Stevenson, the Director of RUGs at estevenson [at] pelco [dot] com and he can help you get started.

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