Headquartered in the neighboring town of Waltham, MA, SolidWorks is one of the most innovative companies in New England, developing 3D design software for over 1.6 million global users. Corporate and student customers alike use the SolidWorks tools to design everything from perfume bottles to medical devices to army tanks.

Beyond creating world-changing software, SolidWorks is rocking an incredible social media campaign, with nearly 7,000 Twitter followers, over 23,000 Facebook fans and 445 YouTube uploads. We sat down with SolidWorks’ Social Media Manager, Matthew West, to pick his brain about how he’s successfully running an engaging global campaign. From why he doesn’t measure ROI to why businesses should hire a “nice” person to run their social media, check out our conversation.

Describe yourself. What’s your background?

I moved here with my wife and kids three years ago from Richmond, VA where I grew up and spent ten years working for Circuit City after graduating from college. I did lots of different things there, from running a technology lab to managing editorial for CircuitCity.com to serving as internal industry advisor. In my last two years there, I was developing and managing some of our social computing programs. I came to work at SolidWorks in 2008 when it became evident that Circuit City was not long for this world. I have a degree in English language & literature, I love sour beer, and I spent 15 years playing guitar and singing in indie rock bands of varying artistic merit. I’m not in one now, but if there’s anyone out there in their mid-30s interested in starting up an old-guy post-punk band in the suburbs, hit me up.

Describe your day-to-day.

It depends on the day, but I generally start off with half an hour of triage, fielding questions and comments that came in overnight, as well as catching up on blog posts and other conversations relevant to our products and business. The rest of the day could be spent scheduling and writing blog entries, researching and reporting on program metrics, updating our CEO and executive committee on trends and competitor news, coordinating campaigns with our advertising and marketing teams, working with R&D on integrating social capabilities into our products, helping to develop talking points for field employees with the PR manager, managing advertising efforts on YouTube, and helping other employees and channel partners figure out how they can represent the brand online.

Describe some of Solidworks’ goals and initiatives with their social media. Why and how are you using social media to accomplish those goals?

We have a few different (but related) goals. We have over 1.6 million commercial and student users, and our primary goal is to engage our audience as much as possible to help build and maintain long-term relationships. We also want to help inspire the next generation of designers and engineers who will use our software to design the products that will change the world in the future. And we also use social channels as a way of defending our brand and keeping up with competitive threats. We go about this in different ways. For example, we create blog entries and YouTube videos that include tutorials for students, provide updates on new products and services, answer questions from customers about upcoming events, turn our Facebook fan pages into mini resource centers, and using SaaS and human analysis to investigate the competitive landscape.

How did you build up your following?

We’re lucky to have a huge audience of people who have been using our products for many years and who are already active online. We’ve had an active self-support forum going on ten years now, which was originally staffed by employees, but which now is mostly customer-driven. When it comes to Twitter, I launched our company handle @SolidWorks shortly after starting in June of 2008. For the first year or so, I would follow anyone who so much as mentioned SolidWorks, but at this point, growth is really organic. We get referrals from our websites and other properties, but I think usage has grown enough that people know we’re out there, and they come to us. In my mind, that’s a much more natural way of building a base as opposed to some kind of proactive campaign to add followers who may not really be interested in your brand.

When it comes to Facebook (we have several fan pages) and YouTube, we really built followings by providing content that’s useful to our audiences, or at least relevant to their jobs and interests. Our education team is constantly developing student tutorials for YouTube, and those are consistently our most popular videos. We post a consistent mix of company updates and curated content on Facebook. We know that our customers are interested in things besides our products, and we try to use stories from other sites and sources to help excite them. Again, this has been purely organic, with most new fans coming from viral sources rather than acquisition efforts.

How do you consistently interact and engage those followers?

We’re careful to keep an eye out for questions and comments. I (usually) keep a standing search for SolidWorks running in TweetDeck, and check in on other services a few times a day for issues that might need to be addressed. We also periodically run contests, or other efforts to drive interest. And we continue to do the things that helped us build our audiences to start with, providing useful and engaging content.

How do you measure ROI from Twitter?

We stopped worrying about this a while back, at least from a dollar perspective. At this point, we think of Twitter and other social platforms as standard communication channels, just like email or telephone or newsletters. Engaging on social platforms is a cost of doing business, and there’s no need to consistently justify the return on involvement. That said, I do keep an eye on what kind of activity is generating the most feedback and referral traffic to our websites and allocate internal efforts accordingly. We’re careful to tailor activity to the audience on each particular platform and engage where we see the most value from a feedback or referral perspective.

Where do you tweet from? Is there a homebase?

Mostly my office. If I’m away from my desk, I’m probably doing something that involves actually interacting with people face-to-face.

What’s your favorite part of tweeting for a “corporate” handle?

Probably the ability to reach a lot of people very quickly, as well as providing an identifiable presence for customers who might have questions. I’ve found over the years that a lot of people are uncomfortable interacting with an individual they may not know when it comes to a business issue. Interacting with a brand presence is more comforting and inspires more confidence. I actually started out three years ago conducting most activity from my personal handle and only using the corporate one on occasion. At that point, the user base on Twitter was small enough that I could build personal relationships with all of our customers, or at least the most active and influential ones. At some point about 18-24 months ago, that changed, and I started using the corporate handle more.

What’s the most difficult part of your job?

Trying to scale the social computing program globally. Being a design software company, we’re not staffed to the hilt with digital natives. Many of our employees don’t use social tools (beyond Facebook) in their day-to-day lives, and our regional teams are generally small and don’t really have a lot of time to spend managing blogs, Twitter handles, YouTube accounts etc. in their native languages. While I’m starting to find that more people outside of the US, Canada and the UK are willing to follow English-language presences (likely due to the fact that other countries teach English starting in primary school), there are still customers who only speak and read their own languages. We’ve been seeing a huge amount of activity in countries like Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia. In some of those countries, we don’t have any staff at all.

Do you respond to every single @-reply or mention?

Not EVERY time. A lot of times people use the @ indicator when they’re just talking about our products or company, where most would use a hashtag, or no indicator at all. If something is actually directed to us as a question or comment, we’ll always respond. Other instances (where it’s just a comment or reply to other users) get responses on a case-by-case basis.

What’s the craziest @-reply or direct message you’ve ever gotten?

I’ve seen students send images of…let’s call them marital aids…that they’ve designed using our software. I’m never quite sure how to respond to those. It’s like, “thanks…good job…I guess.”

What’s the craziest thing SolidWorks has done for a customer as a result of a tweet?

We’ve never done anything crazy—I think it’s really important that customers who contact you via social channels are treated the same as customers who contact you by telephone or email, so we don’t give special treatment just because someone is on Twitter or Facebook. That said, we have learned about things through Twitter that we wouldn’t have otherwise known about and responded proactively. My favorite story comes from the fall of 2008, shortly after I started.

We have a yearly customer event in January/February called SolidWorks World. It’s a four-day affair that draws about 5,000 people on average, and is sort of like Mac World or E3 for 3D CAD geeks. One day I saw a customer who I recognized say that his employer had approved his trip to SolidWorks World, and he was really excited. The next week, I saw him say that he had been laid off, and actually apologized to me personally for not being able to attend. I mentioned this to our CEO in my weekly meeting with him. The CEO then asked me for the customer’s contact information, and then called the customer personally to express his condolences. He then let the customer know that if he could still make the trip, we would cover his costs. I can’t even begin to tell you how excited the customer was. He even got mentioned by name during the CEO’s keynote at the event.

Any advice for businesses looking to build up their social media?

Understand who your current or potential audience is, and figure out where they’re hanging out. If you’re selling tacos, spending a lot of time on LinkedIn might not be the best idea. If you’re selling CRM software, you might not want to prioritize heavy Facebook involvement over other efforts. Don’t delegate your social strategy to someone young just because you think “they get this stuff.” A recent graduate might understand how Twitter and Facebook work, but may not understand the dynamics of personal interactions in a business setting or be able to represent your brand well. Look for people versed in web analytics, advertising and branding. Be sure to hire people who can write well and express themselves coherently. If you can’t hire new staff, find people in your existing organization who are nice and enjoy talking to your customers. It’s easier to teach a nice person how to use technology than it is to transform a curmudgeonly tech nerd into a friendly brand rep. Make sure your efforts can scale, and make sure the people in your executive committee understand that social is something that touches all departments, not just marketing and communications. Get your sales and support teams active and involved. Make sure you’re sending traffic to your blog or website when appropriate. Stress the value of real personal interaction as opposed to ghost-written updates. As much as you can, respond to questions and comments, even if just to say “thanks” or “sorry.”