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How important will social CRM be for tomorrow's CRM users?

In this column, Denis Pombriant discusses social media and its implications for CRM. He says establishing sales and marketing as thought leaders is key to social CRM success.

Selling thought leadership
This spring and early summer have been fertile times for social media and CRM. The traveling shows -- Sales 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 -- made stops here in the Boston area, and each had some interesting ideas to offer.

For sheer completeness, I tip my hat to Enterprise 2.0. If you are wondering what the Enterprise 2.0 fuss is about, it's considerable and relates directly to social media and ultimately to CRM. Netting it out is difficult, but here's an attempt.

As corporations flatten out, some of their decision-making authority goes down closer to the customer and some of it evaporates, to be reconstituted on the customer side. Rather than a traditional command-and-control or hierarchical organization structure, we end up with something more like a network. Social CRM is the front-office analog as it aims to have more direct conversations with customers rather than attempting to tell them what to do. You could get all of this from a wonderful book, The Cluetrain Manifesto, published in 1999.

As is typical of big concepts, it took about 10 years for the seminal ideas in "Cluetrain" to percolate to the market. But now that the ideas are here, organizations are leveraging things like Twitter and Facebook and other sites to remake the corporate landscape. Beyond that, they have the potential to remake our lives, too.

With all of this as background, I have been thinking about the implications for CRM for a long time. What might seem intuitively obvious may not be, and there are many ideas lurking that have not bubbled up yet. For example, you might think it's a slam dunk that social networking would make for a great conventional marketing tool, but there I think you'd be wrong. Some people are advocating for social media as if it were email on steroids. Sure, you can reach a heck of a lot of people for zilch with social media -- but there's reach, and then there's reach.

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In truth, social media is about intimacy built on trust, which is why spam doesn't work with email and why trying it with social media will be a colossal flop. But social media are good for marketing and sales if you -- the marketer and the seller -- can build trust over time and become what I refer to as thought leaders.

In a revision of Andy Warhol's famous dictum that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, someone (wish I knew who) recently said that with social media, everyone will be famous to 15 people. That's pretty clever, and it goes to the heart of thought leadership. Think of your Facebook friends and your Twitter contacts and there are probably more than 15 people on your list, but the number is small by cosmic proportions -- and that's the point. You are, to one degree or another, already famous to a tight circle of people, some of whom you know well and others you hardly know at all. But they respect you and your opinions to some degree, and that's probably much more than they know or respect some corporation or politician. You can use this in business with social media.

The challenge for sales and marketing is to learn how to tap into these circles of trust without violating anything or anyone. We know this intuitively, and it's why spamming won't happen in social media -- it will not be tolerated. With that in mind, the new model for selling is leveraging social media to disseminate thought leadership.

We already know that people think about and discuss purchases with their friends and acquaintances long before they enter a sales process, and the trick will be for salespeople to be seen as truthful sources of authoritative information in their own territories -- thought leaders, in other words. That's not easy. It can be done, but it can't be done using old methods.

How often do you get links to things on the Internet, and what are those links for? There are many links for articles, but increasingly those links lead to other media like pictures and video. I think that is a big hint. The modern sales glossies, white papers, brochures and PowerPoint slides are all of another time -- the era of hierarchical command and control, the era of broadcast advertising.

My hypothesis is that much more of this material will find its way into low-cost and easily produced video, and ultimately I would not be surprised if it also included music. Your favorite TV shows have theme songs, so I don't think this idea is that far-fetched. (I also have two kids in music school who will need jobs someday.)

Taken as a whole, this gets us to the idea of selling thought leadership. You can't expect to sell anything until you have convinced the customer of the correctness of your line of thought. Today, too many vendors are letting random chance do the educating. That's going to change.

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