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Whether companies like it or not, their customers are constantly talking about them. With the ubiquity of the smartphone giving people more access to the Internet than ever before, conversations about companies and products go viral in seconds via social media. Companies are finding that social CRM is a business imperative that must be addressed.
Definitions of social CRM vary, but at its core it involves the use of social media platforms to learn what customers are saying about a company and to engage with customers, to provide customer support and sometimes to provide a forum for customers to engage with one another about a company's products and services.
And while social CRM is praised for giving companies new avenues for reaching and engaging with customers, companies have to ensure that they use the channels their customers use -- and not devote so much energy to social CRM that other aspects of the customer relationship are neglected.
To implement a social customer relationship management (CRM) strategy, it takes more than simply choosing the right tool -- it demands that the company's culture be set up for success. According to one Gartner study, business-to-business investment will account for 40% of spending on social software and business services by 2016. Tackling this fast-growing area of CRM can be daunting, but companies need to make a full commitment to their social CRM strategy or risk losing touch with the needs of customers.
Making social CRM a priority
To set themselves up for success with a social CRM strategy, companies should start with a choice of which platforms to build a presence on. A company can't meet its goals by simply setting up a Facebook page and calling that its social "presence." In this realm, meaningful return requires companies to identify which social media channels their customers use and operate within those channels in meaningful ways. According to 2013 data by Pew Research Center, the majority of users are on Facebook (71%) and Twitter (18%).
Robert Peledie, CRM consultant
"I've found that it's about regularity," said Robert Peledie, a consultant with experience implementing CRM systems in many different countries. "The most successful ones push the regular message out -- which then gives you an audience so that people can be your source of information on whatever it is you're selling -- and then acting on that. … For a company to do [social CRM], it's worth doing it properly."
Peledie emphasizes that companies need to use a multichannel approach, not simply a single social media platform. If a company solely uses Twitter, for example, and trumpets the fact that it sends a certain amount of tweets per month as metrics for success, it has failed to look at the broader picture: Those tweets may have impact on other social channels with greater influence among its customers, he said.
This multichannel approach makes sense for an organization like the Oakland Athletics, a Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise where interaction with fans is a crucial part of its brand. The A's regularly post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat, Pinterest and Google+, and this commitment takes many resources to pull off. The A's spread out the social media responsibilities among staff and, through weekly meetings where priorities and action items are discussed, ensure that campaigns have a unified voice so their message stays the same no matter which platform is being used.
"If there's one dedicated person [doing social CRM], there's probably some drawbacks to that," said Travis LoDolce, senior manager of digital marketing for the A's. "If there are more people helping out, it brings more interest, more background, different ideas, and sort of puts them all together."
What defines 'success'?
Some companies might define success when it comes to a social CRM strategy as the amount of exposure a product gets. This might be measured by the sheer number of posts that are generated or their follower count on a particular platform. But not all exposure is "good" exposure – it's all about meaningful exposure, and often this means social conversation that creates word-of-mouth marketing for the company or its products and services.
"To judge a campaign, sometimes someone would say, 'I got 20 million exposures! So, good, right?'" said David Olson, customer marketing manager at Unilever, a consumer goods company that owns such brands as Dove, Axe, and Ben & Jerry's. "But if the quality and substance of your exposure is not a good thing, then it's not necessarily a good exposure."
David Olson, Unilever
For an organization like the A's, the No. 1 priority is engagement, said advertising and marketing manager Amy MacEwen. This is followed by return on investment (ROI) and follower count. While the A's -- considered a small-market MLB team -- are on the lower end of follower count compared with larger-market MLB teams in cities such as New York or Boston, MacEwen said that the A's rank high in terms of engagement among their various platforms. This, she said, is where the organization derives value from its social media campaigns.
"We'd rather be sending messages to engaged fans than sending a message [to someone] where it goes in one ear and out the other," MacEwen said. "That's why follower count isn't necessarily a huge metric for us, but success is really measured in engagement and conversions."
The A's LoDolce cited a recent example of fan engagement when MLB ran its "Face of MLB" contest in February, a Twitter-based competition where fans of each team nominated a player whom they thought most represented each franchise, and pitted each nominee against the others. The player getting the most Twitter support advanced to the next round. A's fans selected Eric Sogard, who is not a household name, but nonetheless is a fan favorite in Oakland. What LoDolce and MacEwen found surprised them: Fans took to Twitter in great numbers, creating funny memes, or zany photos and sayings, and put forth a great effort to promote Sogard's candidacy. Sogard ended up in the finals of the contest and lost to the Mets' David Wright, but not before beating out some of the game's biggest stars. "It was a pretty big thing, a real testament to our fan base and our followers and the fervor that they have when they come together and participate in something online," LoDolce said.
Finding a metric that works
Companies with a limited customer base face a different challenge, and defining metrics for success can be even tougher. Justin Alexander is a bridal dress manufacturer that assigns a value to each customer interaction it receives, and drives its business practices according to whether the interaction yields positive ROI. For example, using Google Analytics, the company can track where a bride who used the store locator portal on the website came from and assign a dollar value to that interaction.
Since a wedding gown is a onetime purchase and is marketed toward engaged or soon-to-be engaged women, Justin Alexander tries to extract the maximum value it can from its social marketing strategy. "I think you continuously need to be evaluating what you're spending time on, prioritizing," said Justin Warshaw, director of Justin Alexander. "[Don't] fall into the trap of saying, 'This is our plan. This is what we need to do.' Social media is always changing, there's always a new algorithm, so it's really about looking at what you're doing and updating your game plan to go along with what's working best."
Warshaw said that five years ago, 90% of his company's advertising was in print, and 10% digital. Now, the ratio is 50:50, and he foresees digital growing to 70% in the next 10 years. As a result, companies need to recognize that the role of social CRM affects marketing and sales, which steers the direction of the business.
"In the past, it's been difficult to measure marketing success, whereas now it's almost quantifiable because you can say, 'Our social marketing can be conceived as leads coming in through a customer using a hashtag or making some mention of a product,' and you can trace that lead opportunity eventually to sales," consultant Peledie said. "I think it's turned the whole sales process upside-down."
When social media goes awry
Of course, not all social media content is positive and companies need to know how to deal with negative customer feedback. The A's keep their distance when fans post negative comments, and the organization responds to address specific issues.
"We don't get involved in the negativity, because it fuels the fire," MacEwen said. "[If] there's a question, we'll give a clear and straightforward response. It's not for us to comment and put our own opinions out there. We'd rather have the action stay on the field."
The visibility of customer negativity has exploded with the advent of social media, Peledie said. Years ago, customers' vitriol was limited to emails as the way to send their thoughts to companies via the Internet. Now, a single post or tweet can go viral, doing damage very quickly.
When the conversation turns negative, Peledie says there are two things a company shouldn't do: Ignore it or exacerbate the situation by arguing. Silence can be taken as guilt, he said, especially if the company is accused of negligence. It's better to offer to rectify the issue than argue and make it worse, he added; as the customer has opted to "expose" you in a public forum, you should also choose to try and fix the problem on the same public forum.
"People will inevitably believe what they want to believe, but if you've made the effort to fix a situation, it goes a long way to mitigating the issue, and maybe even winning over some of the audience," Peledie said.
Fostering a culture
Whether it's one person dealing with all the social media interactions within a company, or a team of people, it's become imperative for businesses to promote a culture of social media awareness. At Unilever, Olson said that all employees are active on social media in general, using many platforms and following competitors to get an overall sense of the market for certain products. The A's employ no formal training in social media and limit the number of staff that has access to each account. But the team fosters input among many employees on campaigns during weekly meetings and make sure game-specific information gets posted as quickly as possible so fans can be updated. "Our employees grew up with social media; it's already ingrained," MacEwen said. "We want to have a presence on new platforms as they pop up."
While many companies have a social media policy -- mainly focusing on best practices with personal and business accounts -- consultant Peledie said that it's important to espouse employee education and appreciation in terms of how social media can help a business.
"It should be inclusive," Peledie said. "It's important that everybody has that awareness of the social [media impact], even if they're not going to be using it for the business. I think it's important that, throughout the business, there's some training, some awareness, of what is acceptable to that company in terms of social media."
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