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When interests coincide: Social CRM and vertical communities

In his first column for on trends in social CRM, Paul Greenberg examines the emergence of vertical communities, including Lane Bryant and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

Social CRM is a hot topic, and for that reason, I'm starting a regular column for that will, in your opinions, range from cool to lame, I'm sure. Even with my loins girded for criticism and discussion, I think that before I get into the meat of this particular piece, I need to make something about social CRM clear.

It doesn't replace traditional CRM. It extends it. And, just to settle things, here's a definition of social CRM that should suit your personal tastes one way or the other if you become a regular reader of this column.

"CRM is a philosophy and a business strategy, supported by a technology platform, business rules, workflow, processes and social characteristics, designed to engage the customer in a collaborative conversation in order to provide mutually beneficial value in a trusted and transparent business environment. It's the company's response to the customer's ownership of the conversation."

OK, that's my baseline. If you can get into this as it is meant -- a clumsy, but well-meaning definition of social CRM -- I won't carry it any further. If not, let me know what you think and we'll see what, if anything, can be done about it.

Now, time to get on with it.

Social CRM and communities for the vertical in you

Unless you live under a rock -- and that rock isn't connected to the Internet, either -- you've probably noticed that there has been a massive proliferation of communities and social networks and participation in those networks in the last year. We've all seen the stat that says that 74% of Internet users are, one way or the other, connected to a social network. However, that's somewhat misleading since the vast majority of them are for Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter (when it counted as a social network) and, of course, MySpace (remember them?).

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What you don't see much of are white-labeled social networks -- those communities that might be built on a platform like Lithium or Neighborhood America but are homegrown when it comes to content and controls. For example, the Lithium-built ACT! community Sage Software runs, which has had over 3 million interactions on the site, or the Neighborhood America Rate My Space community for Scripps' HGTV. These are successful communities associated with immensely successful brands. For example, Rate My Space has generated thousands of uploaded pictures and videos of rooms in people's homes that have been ranked and commented on, sometimes pretty cruelly, by millions of visitors and members.

But even those get more publicity than what I would call vertical communities -- communities organized around an industry. They have many a raison d'âtre. Sometimes they are industry specific but branded, such as the newly launched, quickly successful retail apparel community sponsored by Lane Bryant -- perhaps the first full-fledged retail clothing social network. In this case, the community is aimed at the plus-size woman.

What makes the Lane Bryant community, Inside Curve, so compelling is that it's geared around the vertical it represents. Its purpose is to strengthen a sense of self among plus-size women by emphasizing how sexy and fashionable they can be -- the idea of clothing beyond its basic necessity. Fashion matters and a community for a vertical industry, apparel, is built around that.

There are so many more communities that take on the characteristics of their industry. Some of the most visible communities are a substantial number associated with the pharmaceutical industry. These are often facilitated networks that are communities of interest -- in this case, organized around a particular disease or drug treatment. They are a place where people who are afflicted with the disease or taking the medication can share stories, garner support and reach out to experts.

For example, Communispace runs a community for first-time cancer patients at all stages called the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), which ties together 21 cancer care centers. The idea was to provide a mutually beneficial environment where cancer patients could express their worries, concerns and ideas without fear and without being judged and where the care centers could learn how to improve their care of the patients. There were 350 patients chosen for this private network, based on studies that identified what it would take to optimize the discussion and provide the strongest mutual support. It was open 24/7, and experts and trained medical staff were always available to help -- no one felt alone. This was so successful that two more for patients with other kinds of cancer are in the process of being opened.

But there is a dark side of the pharma vertical community. I'm not sure what you all think, but there are communities built around a drug treatment or disease that are facilitated by third parties that are being watched by the pharmas without the knowledge of the community participants. If you've watched "Law and Order" much, chances are you've seen them observing suspects through one-way glass. Same thing.

To me, that's an ethical issue. Transparency is one of the hallmarks of community management and contemporary customer relationships. This is the opposite. As a member of this community, your information is being harvested, not only without your consent but without your knowledge.

That said, even with an active Darth Vader presence, we're seeing more and more vertical communities show up in multiple places -- typically in high-touch, emotional verticals. That means you should expect to see more in healthcare, including pharmaceutical, along with financial services, telecom, sports, gaming and retail in the immediate future.

The value? A place for customers to go where they can interact with experts, brand-holders and other customers to converse on and learn about something they love. This benefits the customer with knowledge and a place to belong, and the company with brand recognition in a highly competitive industry-specific environment.



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