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CRM and social networking...

I was quoted in Computing the other week making somewhat unsupportive remarks about the CRM vendor’s attempts to harness social networking. In essence my feelings are that companies need to understand the impact of social networking rather than concern themselves about taming it.

If we go on a brief historical tour, then once upon a time it was relatively easy to control the image of a brand, and that image could be many steps removed from reality. A company could take a fairly ordinary product and with some clever television advertising enjoy huge success.

Then the technology tide turned. The arrival of the TV remote control meant that people could change channel when the ads came up, or use a video player to fast forward. The arrival of Sky meant that viewers were no longer limited to four channels. And then there were a plethora of new forms of entertainment, such as computer games and the world-wide web, which meant that advertiser’s no longer controlled our attention.

If that wasn’t bad enough, then along came what became known as web 2.0., where people were generating their own content through the likes of blogs and social networking sites. The problem with user generated content was that companies had no control as to what was said, and, perhaps more importantly, people took notice. Decades of exposure to advertising meant consumers were highly resilient to marketing messages, but people were happy to listen to their peers.

So when I do my Christmas shopping and I’m looking for the best indoor aerial booster on Amazon, how do I decide between the hundred options I’m presented with? Simple; I read the customer reviews. What did other people who previously bought the products I’m looking at think of them? Rather than take any notice of the carefully crafted marketing literature the manufacturer has kindly supplied, my purchase decision is made purely on the basis of something the manufacturer can’t directly control - the opinions of their customers.

The reaction to the impact of web 2.0 by many companies though has been ‘how do we tame this to support our own objectives’. Hence we see the sort of initiatives outlined by Salesforce.com and Oracle in Martin Courtney’s article. It strikes me however that it’s rather more useful to know there’s a large shark lurking where you’re about to go swimming, than to try and teach it to become your friend.

As the internet becomes closer and closer to providing people with perfect information about the products and services they are about to buy, then the appropriate response should be to focus on managing the reality rather than the image. If I claim to be the finest widget manufacturer in the world, then I need to ensure that the quality of all my interactions with customers, prospective customers, and all those who may influence customers and prospective customers, is consistent with that claim.

If my widgets are indeed fine, but my customer support department leaves a lot to be desired, then this reality is likely to be recorded in blog posts, forums, and social networking sites, and my ‘finest’ image is shattered no matter how hard I work on the marketing side.

Therefore if CRM has a role to play in the context of social networking, it should be to help organizations manage their reality, and ensure that people experience consistently high standards across all touch points. This is not something I feel companies generally do terribly well, and I suspect many would benefit from switching resources into this area. After all, the problem with negative comment on the internet is that not only can’t you control it, but it doesn’t have an expiry date; it can be losing you business years after the search engines first picked it up.

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