Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Commentary: The Social CRM Quandary

A few days ago, my friend Jennifer Vides wrote an excellent piece on social media; something she is quite familiar with as she consults on the matter (and other media) from a marketing perspective. Many of the points in her article mirrored my own feelings towards social media. And although it is not my area of focus, there is an ever increasing level of attention towards it from the CRM community at large that makes it a common topic of discussion.

Social media and Social CRM, as the marriage of the two is being called, is, in my opinion, a mixed bag of good and bad. The good has fueled an intense interest by CRM vendors, to a level that easily leads one to believe they are bordering on forgetting that social media is not a replacement for CRM, but instead a complement. 

Personally, I have a measured liking of social media in that I understand and accept its value and potential, but am also weary of its negatives. 

Some positives we can highlight include its propensity for facilitating networking and connecting with others that share (or perhaps not) similar interests, jobs, likes, dislikes, etc. It is also an inexpensive way of reaching a lot of people which one can generally assume have an interest in something that one has to offer, whether it be a product, comic relief or knowledge about a specific topic.

Blogs are an excellent example. They are an invaluable resource on just about any topic, specially for those us working within the world of technology. Many other positive examples can be easily referenced, such as the person who lands a job via their LinkedIn profile, reconnecting with long lost friends and family via Facebook, etc.

Now for the bad.

Security issues are well know, specially in relation to under age children, but one of the points from Jennifer's piece that resonates the most with me is the matter of social media being people driven. It seems too many users forget this point. 

Social media, just like CRM systems, do not do anything on their own. Successful use of either tool requires discipline, an investment in time and most of all, interpersonal skills. Ironically, social media has made relationships very impersonal, although the medium itself is strongly tied to interpersonal skills. 

I often draw a parallel between the hype surrounding social media and the adoption of email as a mainstream communication tool. Thinking back to the time when email started to become the norm in business communications, people also quickly recognized it as a fast and inexpensive medium. Soon thereafter, CRM systems incorporated email into their core feature sets. Conversely, users expected the functionality to exist, and nowadays, a CRM system seems to be lacking if it doesn't include it. I believe the same will happen with social media and the social CRM concept.

All that aside, it is interesting to analyze what happened in that period of time from email first appearing in the business world to the point where it became expected functionality of a CRM system.

First, marketers immediately exploited what email had to offer, just like they have done so with social media. Over time, the effectiveness of email marketing has dwindled because it has to compete with a lot of noise in the form of spam. The same is happening with social media, but not yet at the same scale.

Heavy reliance on email communication has also obscured the people factor. Anyone that has worked in a customer service environment can attest to the fact of impolite, and often times, unwarranted messages that are received on a regular basis within those environments. This is exactly what is happening with social media. There are Twitter accounts devoted to mocking people, blogs with heavily biased comments against products, companies, individuals, anything and everything. 

Heavy promoters of social media and social CRM tend to counter these points by highlighting its value through the use of examples illustrating the nuggets of information one can gather about a client, vendor, etc. through social media. The idea being that said information in turn can help improve relationships that directly translate to increased sales. There is certainly validity to their claims, just as there are effective ways to market one's products/services via social media. 

However, what is often glossed over or only inferred, is that social media only contains what a user puts into it.  It is not a complete picture of an individual, organization or other subject. Hence my earlier point that social media should be considered a complement, not a replacement for interpersonal skills.

Lacking an actual relationship to provide the full context puts one at a serious disadvantage. For example, does a person's Facebook account accurately reflect the person as a whole or does it only accurately reflect the person's taste in music inferred by the music they post? 

Coincidentally, a recent event in my own personal life serves to highlight this particular point. 

This year, my birthday happened to fall on a Saturday, not a particularly busy day on Twitter or Facebook. Throughout the day, my social media friends wished me a Happy Birthday. Some were folks I actually know in person, while others are individuals that I have come to know through social media. Not unexpectedly, some of my social media friends did not wish me a Happy Birthday. How should I interpret that action?

Before I proceed, I want to STRONGLY emphasize that I am merely using this as an example of things that can be missed when one relies on social media for a relationship, versus complementing the relationship with its use. It is my nature to be rather reserved when it comes to celebrations, so I am not in the least bit offended, but it does serve our purposes rather well.

Back to the example. 

Should I assume that the people that didn't wish me a Happy Birthday do not care? Or does social media content only matter on weekdays? What if I had lost a relative? Lets assume I did and then someone that didn't comment on the death on Saturday calls me on Monday trying to sell me something, should I be offended if they don't say anything about it during the call? Would you want to do business with that person?  

This is one of the main problems of relying on social media and why I don't buy the hype. It is like trying to build a relationship with someone by limiting your interactions with them to casual glances through their living room window.

As it turns out, I can easily identify the reason why those people didn't post a message  (and without needing to ask them) -- assuming I have an actual relationship with them that extends beyond social media. This is because I know them beyond the small slice of their being that Facebook or Twitter provides. For all others, I am at a complete loss, but it begs the question, what if I posted something that they could in turn use to sell me something? Hmmm. Might be an interesting experiment.

Don't misinterpret my comments as a general dislike of social media. 

Per my earlier statement, there is value to it, but it is unwise to enter said world without being fully aware of both the negative and positives. Or worse, assuming you can use it to replace the actual art of building relationships.

Likewise, CRM vendors need to be aware of these nuances. Although, by the accelerated pace at which they are developing links to social media tools, it would appear as though this is not a concern. Lets hope they make the right choices, because social media is also a finicky world. What's hot today, is dead tomorrow. Those that put all their eggs into the Facebook basket today may find that 2 years down the road, all their work is of little value.


  1. Angel,
    This is a very well written & thought out post. It appears we share a similar love/hate relationship with social media. I particularly enjoyed your comparison with online relationship building to "casual glances through their living room window". It's very true.

    This leads me to the beaten and bloodied social media buzzwords "Authenticity" and "Transparency". Why do people continue to cry out for these two words on relationships (for lack of a better word) that are based primarily on twitter bios, tweets, "likes" & blogs? It's the topic of a blog post I'm currently writing.

    I think the reason is to your point in your last paragraph: many people "are" putting all their eggs into the social media basket; they are betting their livelihoods on it so they must hope (pray) for authenticity & transparency so it's less of a gamble. They'll soon find out that they've "lost the substance by grasping at a shadow".

    Terrific post :)

  2. @Dan:

    Many thanks for your comments.

    The transparency issue in particular seems bizarre to me. Do people really expect companies that rely (at least in part) on secrecy for their success to just blurt out all their secrets? I am sure Steve Jobs would have a different idea on that.

    That's a bit of an extreme example, but most services based organizations can't afford to be transparent. In many cases that would equate to them revealing trade secrets to their competitors. There is certainly an amount of transparency that is nice to see, but I don't expect any person or company to share everything about how they do business or the like.

    We don't do that in real life, e.g. I don't go around blurting to people how much or little money I have in my bank account. Why people expect greater transparency online than is exhibited by the general populous in real life is puzzling to me.

    Post a link to your blog so I can check it out. Sounds interesting.


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