We might as well get the introductions out of the way first. That big, intense-looking guy on the wall in the photo to your left? That's Jack Kilby, a designer who in his first year at Texas Instruments in 1958 put a transistor and some other parts onto a slice of germanium and came up with an early form of microchip, an electronic circuit with all the components fabricated in a single piece of semiconductor material. It was revolutionary enough to win Kilby a Nobel Prize for Physics in 2000 as one of the pioneers in microelectronics. He retired from TI in 1983, before receiving the Nobel but with some 60 patents to his credit, including some for the portable electronic calculator and for the thermal printer.
Kilby's career trajectory, from the design test bench to practical applications for his discoveries and inventions, serves as an inspiration for the business-to-business marketing initiatives of Texas Instruments' analog division. When your business is selling integrated circuits and microchips to be used in electronic products, you want to build and foster relationships that bring you closer to your end-user. TI defines that customer as the design engineer, and has put in place a B-to-B marketing effort specifically designed to serve his or her needs in a variety of ways.
While the TI brand appears on a number of products and is, of course, popularly associated with calculators, the fact is that TI-built circuitry shows up in products from mobile phones and computers to washing machines and automobiles. Rather than sell to the purchasing departments at Sony, Apple, Dell, Panasonic and the rest of its brand clients, TI has opted over the last few years to take aim at the people who design the products they sell while those products are still in the lab, before they head out for mass production. Engineers who can be persuaded to request a chip sample when designing a prototype can, if properly followed up and supported through the early stages, turn that request into large chip shipments months later.
“At the end of the day, it's the designer who is the key decision-maker for electronic products, making decisions about hundreds of integrated circuits that add up to one big decision,” says Melanie Calahan, TI's director of Internet marketing. “For that reason, they are our core decision-maker and our target audience.”
Many Paths to Information
If you weren't good at science in high school, you might be under the impression that this electronics designer community is monolithic. But that's not at all the case, says Dave Youngblood, director of communications for TI's analog product division and Calahan's collaborator in many areas of online marketing.
“We've got an extremely diverse audience, geographically and demographically,” he says. “You've got a younger, greener engineer in China, which is our largest market. And then you've got older, more senior engineers in Europe and North America. And the way they like to get their information about TI products varies greatly.”
There are a number of traditional ways to get technical information out to the electronic engineer (EE) community. EEs have long gone directly to manufacturers such as TI for technical support documents, including what are called “block diagrams” of circuits, those map-like plans of squiggly lines showing circuit layouts. Manufacturers have also long spoken to the design communities through contributed articles in publications; TI does that too, including working with Penton Media's Electronic Design magazine.
But in studying how engineers acquired the information they needed to conceive of new products, TI found that while these traditional sources — manufacturers, third-party publications — saw a lot of use in the early design stage, when it came to actually constructing prototypes, engineers tended to rely more on input from colleagues and peers.
After TI set out to build a social community for these designers that would serve as a forum where they could ask their technical questions, both of other, outside, engineers and of TI's own large stable of in-house designers. So after a few months of internal discussion, the company launched its Engineers2Engineers community at www.ti.com/E2E.
“These designers are a very tech-savvy audience and likely to be ahead of the curve,” says Calahan. “They like to tinker and to be on the leading edge of things, and they already embrace social media as consumers and as professionals.”
Global reach, local flavor
The forums are at the heart of TI's E2E community: areas where engineers from around the world can register and then submit technical or design questions about any of an array of topic areas — from amplifiers and applications to power management and digital radio. The forums are monitored by TI engineers with expertise in those subjects, but the answers to those questions are as likely to come from another forum member outside the company as from a TI representative.
Locally-based TI engineers also keep an eye on the forums in their areas of specialty. “The local applications person in our Orlando, Florida, office might monitor the forums to see what kinds of questions are coming out of Orlando, to see if one of their buddies down the street needs some help,” says Calahan.
The hope in setting up the E2E community was that by providing this online space where engineers could get the answers they need both from the manufacturer and their peers, TI would be positioned as a trusted source and would, over time, reap the benefit in terms of deeper and more frequent “sales” to these designers. Since the company knows who's posting the questions, chip sample or application kit requests that seem particularly promising can sometimes be turned over to the local sales team for follow-up.
The strategy seems to have paid off. A data pull of interactions with the designers who were E2E members, done about a year after the community's rollout, found that on average they requested six-times the number of sample chips that non-members did, and across three-times as many product areas as non-members. By contrast, the more traditional methods of reaching out to designers usually resulted in one TI product request in one product area.
A large part of that impact comes from the fact that actual TI engineers are taking part in the forums, not marketers or social media managers. That lends credibility to the answers. But it also means that monitoring these forums is a team effort for the in-house experts who, after all, need to spend the main part of their day at their own workbenches. TI engineers receive some training in the basic rules of running social media under a corporate banner, learning the importance of speaking with respect to forum members and of not divulging proprietary customer information. (E2E members with sensitive questions that could indicate what they're working on can take their conversations into private chat rooms not available to the whole group.)
“But we also practice the graceful art of letting go, allowing our people to be individuals with the corporate umbrella,” Calahan says. Most of the E2E forums are TI-monitored in teams, with one member stepping up to take primary charge for a week or so, giving the others a break. Answers from TI are thus as timely as possible but don't necessarily arrive in real time.
While English is the accepted language for technical business in most of the world, language and cultural distinctions have led TI to launch versions of the E2E forum in other tongues, with participation from local TI engineers in those regions. This has led to a Russian-language version of E2E and, within the last few months, to the rollout of a Chinese-language version.
It's not just the language that differs. Engineers in China tend to be younger and less advanced in their career development than their Western counterparts, says Calahan, and the questions they ask are often more detailed or require more basic explanations. For that reason, the company decided to spin off a community that spoke directly to their needs — most often in a mixture of English and Chinese.
Beyond tech documents
Technical consults and block diagrams are the heart and root of TI's social marketing efforts, but the company has used E2E as a springboard to roll out many other types of content aimed at the engineering community, to further the aim of giving the diverse designer audience information the way they prefer to get it. Designers are scientists, after all, but they're also people with the same tastes as other web users.
For example, the E2E forums have a kind of rating system in place so that members who consistently participate or whose answers are ranked as especially authoritative can earn “guru” status. TI experts also post to topic area blogs on the E2E page.
More tellingly, TI has been involved in delivering up some of its technical discussions in video form, available both as a tab on the E2E page and in a TI Vlog channel on YouTube.
“Traditionally, we would work with publishing partners on contributed articles and application notes that would actually get printed and have collateral developed for,” says Youngblood. “But we've found that the videos are being adopted quickly, driven by younger engineers and by the emergence of YouTube as one of the top search engines.”
It is a veritable firehose of video; TI's YouTube channel currently has about 620 clips, and the TI Analog channel 190. Most of these are filmed in-house using working TI engineers who give short, five-minute demos or whiteboard talks on specific design aspects of TI's chip products (and who perform pretty well on camera for non-pros). They get, on average, from 5,000 to 15,000 views and are again particularly valuable to Chinese engineers.
Thank you, engineers!
Then there's the video content from TI that is specifically designed to go viral in its target community — most notably a series called “Thank an Engineer” that plays down the TI branding and plays up the social contributions made by the design community.
“Our designer audience are unsung heroes responsible for everything from the next pacemaker and the portable ultrasound to innovations in automotive safety, and we wanted to honor them without putting any specific Texas Instruments spin to the content,” says Youngblood, who helped launch the first series of “Thanks” videos in 2008 and is currently working on a new series.
The videos use working TI engineers to offer a spoof vision of what the world would be like without electronic conveniences such as wireless connectivity (think lugging a spool of cable everywhere you wander), MP3 players and remote controls.
“We've found these are adopted very well inside the industry,” says Youngblood. “They're something our target audience can send to their friends and families and say, ‘This is what I do.’”
But beyond generating good vibes, the “Thanks” videos also proved out by showing results. “We were able to show conversion points after viewing the ‘Thank an Engineer’ videos that led directly to actively designing with our products,” he says.
That kind of success has led Calahan and Youngblood to another viral video launch, “Smash It!” Available on YouTube, the E2E page and TI's Facebook page, the nine-episode-so-far “Smash It!' series features two hosts, Bentley and Taj, who expose what goes into some of the everyday products using TI processors, always in the most destructive fashion possible.
The five-minute clips play on the popularity of everything from “Will It Blend?” to Discovery Channel's “Smash Lab” and definitely resonate with a design audience who are tinkerers in their souls. They also help TI's brand equity: A post-roll voiceover encourages viewers to visit TI's site to learn about the chip products featured; links to related TI product areas run below the player. Clicking on a block diagram of the item being destroyed takes the visitor to an interactive version of that diagram on the TI.com site.
“It's almost lifestyle marketing to our audience's passions outside the workplace,” says Youngblood. “They love to see what's inside stuff. Luckily, TI semiconductors are almost everywhere there's electronics, so we've got a lot of stuff we can smash.”