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Social CRM software ranges from cheap to free

There are myriad free or low-cost software options out there for social CRM initiatives; but beware -- you may get what you pay for.

Implementing a social CRM campaign can be a time-consuming and expensive project. But it can also be extremely cheap, if the business is willing to go with open source and freeware versions of commercial products.

Aside from the fact that nearly all of the social channels like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others are free or have basic memberships that are free, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cheap tools for creating, managing, monitoring and promoting a social CRM effort.

For example, it's possible to create a user community for virtually nothing on Google Groups. But if the business wants a sleeker look and the ability to tie in with other social CRM channels or reporting functions, then it’s time to opt for commercial software. Even with commercial software, it’s possible to pay very little.

There are dozens of community platform vendors, ranging from fairly simple, open source to high-end commercial packages loaded with features -- Jive Software’s Social Business Software, for example. That starts at $3 per user per month for the “Express” version and has areas for discussions, blogs, polls and projects, with user features for profiles, connections and status. It also includes search and dashboard functions. It's hosted on Amazon's EC2 cloud service. The higher-priced, unrestricted versions come as SaaS or self-hosted versions and also have mobile access, analytics packages, video capabilities and a SharePoint Connector.

Alternatively, Lithium Technologies makes a Social CRM Suite that has a range of features designed to create community and encourage participation: support forums; blogs; chat; knowledge bases; idea exchanges where customers can post, discuss and vote on new product ideas; analysis tools to make sense of the information members are providing; and a central dashboard for monitoring participation from one central console. It costs $10,000 in setup fees, and $5,000 to $15,000 per month.

Todd Shimizu, director of online communities at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Juniper Networks, relies on Lithium to keep participation active in Juniper's J-Net forum as well as for managing and monitoring other social channels. One feature that helps attract participants is Active Cast, which can take forum discussions and cross-place them on pages in the Jupiter site that are related to the discussion. Another key feature, the Reputation Engine, tracks user participation and rewards users with increased seniority and titles. The fact that it can track the user across all Lithium-managed social channels means that it is easier to reward users for participation in multiple events.

"One of the big features is Reputation Management for the community users, because one of the most important indicators of community health is how many super users you have, and how active they are. They are the leaders of the community,” Shimizu said.

In J-Net, participants who post frequently move up the ranks and earn higher titles as they go. Their reputations are earned not just by posting on the forums but by contributing to other activities as well, something that wouldn’t be possible, Shimizu noted, if the various social components were part of an integrated platform.

“So the value of a Lithium platform for us is that people can be active in multiple forum boards, participate in the blogs, answer questions, provide solutions and get kudos from other users," he said. "They get to move up the ranking, and that ranking stays with them no matter where they are in the community.”

RightNow Technologies, which makes the RightNow CX CRM suite, has added several social aspects to its software, including the Cloud Monitor, which tracks words or phrases across different social channels. It also has a Social Experience Designer for creating a community area on your website, and other features that make use of the social monitoring and analytics capabilities.

Claudia Lowman, the general manager for customer support at RealNetworks, which uses RightNow CRM, says that having the social monitoring tool and CRM platform integrated with it enables the company to have "a 360-degree view of the customer, with Twitter feeds and contacts all in one place."

Jacob Morgan at Chess Media notes that "platforms are very relevant because, instead of getting information from multiple destinations, you want to be able to get everything from one dashboard.”

The social CRM toolbox

Even the best social CRM platform isn't likely to have every feature a company might need, and RealNetworks uses other monitoring tools in addition to RightNow. These include Seesmic Desktop, a free application that monitors, searches and organizes Twitter messages; Co-Tweet, which allows service reps to forward customer tweets; and Radian6, which provides metrics, data filtering and segmentation, and influencer analysis. It’s priced starting at $500 per month, for up to 10,000 search results per month.

There are plenty of commercial and open source or freeware options to choose from as well, Morgan said.

“It's not hard to do social CRM on a small budget," he said. "There are many free tools. Have Google Alerts, where you can set up free alerts for detecting conversations you might want [to monitor]. There are things like Twitter Search, to search the Twitter stream for keywords, and there are free versions of some products, like ZoHo, which is free for up to three users. There’s SocialMention. There are hundreds of tools out there.”

SocialMention, a free advertising-driven service, allows users to set up alerts when topics or keywords show up in selected media -- and the list to choose from is long (e.g., Ask, Bleeper, Bloggy, Boardtracker, Delicous, Faves, Google Blog, Iterend, Metacafe, Ning, Pixsy, Slideshare, Technorati and so on, to more than 100 social channels, according to the website). Twilert is another free Web app that tracks Twitter. ViralHeat tracks what is being said about a company and the company's "share of voice" in social channels compared with its competitors. It starts at $9 per month for basic, up to $89 per month for a business subscription.

And there are lots of miscellaneous tools and gadgets for making social media more useful or just more fun. One, Rapportive, is a plug-in for Gmail that collects data from social channels such as LinkedIn and Twitter and adds it as a short "biography" of the sender in the Gmail.

Many freeware and open source versions of social CRM are available, but Denis Pombriant, analyst with Beagle Research, cautions against going for the lowest-cost option. "The old saw ‘You get what you pay for’ applies," he said.

He suggests social CRM project leaders and executives sit down and figure out what they need to do before they start looking at what they can do, because products are so varied, both in features and in price. The risk of paying too much attention to price, he says, is that a business will put together a social strategy that could actually be worse than useless.

"You may recall the Harvard B-school research that showed 90% of all Tweets are submitted by 10% of the members -- and those members vote multiple times, thus stuffing the ballot box," Pombriant said.  "Twitter is free, but would you make a costly business decision on the input? It comes down to selecting the right tools for the right jobs, and until you do that, the cost issue is moot."

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