CRM from Customer to Community

CEMOrkut, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, the list seems endless. Online social networking - a networking model that has seen viral growth - has been gaining unprecedented prominence in the last few years. And along with it comes the opportunity to leverage a customer’s network to influence behavior.

As we transition from manual to self-service, and to the promise of unified experience from there, the focus widens from just the customer to the community that surrounds the customer.

CRM as it Stands Today
Today’s CRM systems are focused on the initial ‘C’, the customer. All business functions are geared towards improving the customer’s experience with the business. 

Any system which manages a company’s interactions with clients can be called a CRM system. CRMs come in a variety of organizations, from healthcare institutions to logistics companies. As far as CRM Solution is concerned, an ecommerce CRM software must be designed specifically to sales. Ecommerce CRM software must provide a business with as much customer-related information as possible: shopping habits, interests, shipping preferences, and more. An efficient CRM software solution for online stores must give a clear customer journey map so that you can come up with better marketing strategies and increase sales.

However, as they stand today, CRM mostly relies on ‘after the fact’ kind of systems, i.e. they focus more on analytics of past or historical data. Be it an airline or a retailer, all analysis is typically done ‘after’ the passenger has flown or the purchase has been made. And typically this is done once a month or at best once a week. And by that time, your opportunity to serve the customer better has already gone. As is evident, very little is done to influence customer behavior during or before a purchase.

Where does Social Networking Figure in this?
Social networking lends a ‘near real time’ opportunity to manage customer relationships. It provides the ability to leverage the influencing power of a customer’s network on his or her buying decision. 

Imagine this. You’re at a retail joint contemplating the purchase of a high value utility item. And as usual, you are stuck between multiple choices. Wouldn’t it be great if you could poll your social network (using your mobile) instantaneously, get feedback on the various options from a trusted group, and make your choice with confidence? Or better still, see a relative ranking of these products and make an informed decision?

As a service provider, it would be to your advantage to create communities around your products or offerings, invite and encourage members to join them, and then convert them into loyal customers.

Bridging the Chasm – from Customer to Community
Inducing a customer to make the leap from being just a customer to be a community member is easier than you think. Here are three easy steps to accomplish this:

Identify the social media where your customers or prospects are most active
This is where you put on your research caps and do the online hunting of your customers and prospects. What kinds of communities exist? What do people in these communities talk about? Whose voices are heard the most? Not all social networks are relevant to your business. You need to separate the wheat from the chaff and target only those 2-3 sites that have the maximum traction.

A drawback here is that the communities that have the most action are also the ones that are targeted by your competition. So you need to be cognizant of this fact and be prepared to take some negative publicity. A rule of the thumb is to talk about the industry in general and your product offering without downplaying a competitor. The last thing you’d want is a mud-slinging competition.

Create appropriate content
This is the tricky part. How do you keep the balance between generic talk and product-specific marketing?

Once again, the golden rule here is to do the generic talk as much as it presents you as an industry thought leader. The product-specific marketing pitch is definitely the one that would attract prospective customers.

The other thing that you need to do is to keep the community engaged and buzzing about you and your offerings. Starting a discussion or commenting on recent events in your business domain, having some online polls, contests, webinars, and so on are some of the ways to achieve that. You could also have targeted messages – one for your customers, one for your industry movers and shakers, and one for the media. The more your voice is heard the more you are visible, and the more brand recall you get. 

Measure success and continuously improve
All this requires time and effort, which translate to cost. And there comes a time when every marketing professional is asked to justify the costs vs benefits. That is when the metrics help. 

A number of measures can be defined to gauge the success of your online CRM initiatives. Some of them are:

* Quantitative metrics that affect the bottom line
- Number of leads generated 
- Number of sales made

* Quantitative metrics that provide qualitative information on your image
- Number of members attracted to your groups
- Number of page views
- Number of polls conducted in a year and the participation in it
- Ranking in the most popular search engines 
- Number of interactions made or comments received in any discussion you started

These metrics should be monitored at regular intervals and should be the drivers of future online strategies.

Clearly, 'community' is a powerful and influencing medium. It is the propagator of the Internet’s ‘word of mouth’. The social acceptance of such communities is forcing organizations worldwide to use these networks. A strategic approach as described in this article is required to leverage the social networks and lead them towards an enterprise. A proactive enterprise that embraces such new models of marketing is the one that is sure to survive regardless of the economic ups and downs.

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