Is Microsoft accessible without Bill Gates?

Summary:Bill Gates cannot escape the perception that he is still Microsoft’s sole visionary. The company is going to have to seriously step up its branding efforts – perhaps through social media – to prove that Microsoft has innovative vision and community staying power without Bill at the helm.

Bill Gates spent the last two years slowly disengaging as he prepared for his final departure from Microsoft at the end of this week. In doing so, he appears to have left the company’s technical direction in strong hands with Ray Ozzie, Craig Mundie and 22 Technical Fellows. However even with stepping out of his role he cannot escape the perception that he is still Microsoft’s sole visionary. The company is going to have to seriously step up its branding efforts – perhaps through social media – to prove that Microsoft has innovative vision and community staying power without Bill at the helm.

Why? Even my 93-year-old grandfather knows who Bill Gates is. Ballmer? Maybe. Though he certainly has personality Ballmer does not have the seemingly genuine accessibility of Gates. And Ozzie? No. He’s been too hidden in the lab to really establish his own brand awareness. Even with all of Microsoft’s bugs and delivery delays, the general consumer seems to still be quite fond of Gates’ rise to riches story. But pull away the warm and fuzzy appeal of Gates and what you’re sometimes left with is the cold perception of a goliath technology-pushing machine.

Robert Scoble, former Microsoft evangelist and current social media pundit, agrees that Microsoft stepping out of Gates’ shadow will be no small feat – but it’s a feat that is necessary.

“Bill set the structure of the company, from its culture to encouraging communication,” Scoble said. “He is so tightly tied with the Microsoft image; everyday people will always think of him as the head of Microsoft. Ballmer does not have that kind of presence.”

Regardless whether or not Gates, still the company’s chairman and largest shareholder, remains involved on the backend Microsoft needs to develop a stronger accessible community presence for its consumer and B2B customers. The “who” is less relevant as the method, as the presence could involve Ballmer or Ozzie or any one of the company’s employee bloggers if done correctly. Scoble says that one of the differentiators that Microsoft has over other large technology vendors is the engagement culture that Gates fostered, from customer communications down to embracing social media, and this could bode well for building a new presence.

“Microsoft employees have always been encouraged to get out and talk to customers,” he said. “When blogging came along the smartest thing Bill did was not get in the way. The only rule he really had was to ‘be smart’ and consider how you and the company were being perceived.”

Microsoft itself does have a lot of employee bloggers but many are not known beyond the development community. This could partially be due to Microsoft not putting its full promotional weight into the blogosphere or because the flurry of activity often created around Gates himself sometimes drowns out the other voices.

“As often happens with a high profile founder or leader, Gates’ presence may, in fact, be overshadowing the work and presence of others,” said Greg Verdino, chief strategy officer of crayon, an advisory firm that focuses on new marketing. “But it won’t be as simple as the flip of a switch. Microsoft is going to need to help their employee bloggers establish more awareness among a wider audience. In the end, this might be a very good thing for Microsoft but it will take time, effort and, most likely, investment to get there.”

Verdino suggests that the company should be looking at ways to put the existing and new leaders front and center through social media platforms such as blogs or podcasts, and make them available as spokespeople to independent bloggers. He even suggests Twitter as a “learning lab” for engaging with the technology community directly.

“Microsoft’s situation is no different from that of any other large technology company. In a rapidly changing social media-centric world, even the largest companies can communicate personally,” said Dan Schawbel, social media specialist for EMC. “Even though Bill Gates was the chief personal brand behind Microsoft, the other 89,000+ employees’ personal brands each have the opportunity to have an impact on the company’s future, leveraging the power of social media.”

View the discussion on Techmeme.

Topics: Microsoft, Social Enterprise

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