Facebook (among others) has been hogging the social networking buzz for a long time. By now, there isn't a human in the known universe who isn't acquainted with the coolness of being (and the need to be) social -- and aggressively online about it.
In November, Google entered the fray with its Open Social API, which has potentially staggering implications for business and for the social institutions that underpin how we communicate these days. First, the thing itself: a common set of standards-based application programming interfaces (APIs) that can be used to build social networking applications. This framework will standardize access to social networks either individually or as interconnected groups via a common set of reusable applications. These applications would access profiles; trigger or record interactions among members or between members and the network; or monitor or allow persistent behaviors on the site. The second factor involves the roughly 75 companies engaged in the first phase of Open Social, including Salesforce.com and Oracle -- CRM powerhouses committed to a common social framework.
The recent shift in how we communicate -- text messaging, instant messaging, blogs, wikis, podcasts, commentary on social networks, and varying permutations and combinations of all of them -- has transformed how customers think.
Actually, that's a bit of a misstatement. It's transformed how people think. The transformation drivers have been social, not commercial: A 2007 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that elite technology users comprise 31 percent of the U.S. population. Middle-of-the-road users represent another 20 percent.
In other words, over half of the country is already conversant in the technologies that are helping to enable what people expect: instantaneous (or nearly instantaneous) response that allows them to make informed decisions, received in their preferred ways. And they expect the information to be true -- not hype, not spin, but true. This expectation is of a peer speaking either actually or virtually to other peers; the customer speaking in the same fashion with the vendor/supplier company; the constituents speaking with their responsive government agencies; potential voters speaking with candidates; and volunteers speaking with their favorite causes. In short, it impacts all societal institutions across the board. But it has particular impact for business. The workplace and customers are now expecting to have this social informality available to them from companies -- and companies that do it well, do well:
Procter & Gamble's Vocalpoint, its once-internal feedback and viral marketing network of 600,000 moms, each with a network of 25 or more of their own (the math equals 15 million), is now a profit center with its own CEO, propagating non-P&G products to the network -- for a price, of course. Wachovia has a framework to introduce a homegrown social network to its 110,000 employees, adding profiles, photos, information sharing, and participation in communities.
Neither of these is a Facebook; they're homegrown networks using social frameworks. The variance is wide: Vocalpoint is a facilitated network that's mostly physical and neighborhood-based, while Wachovia's social network will be more of an online watercooler. But they both meet the social framework criteria:
- communication in peer-to-peer or peer-to-institutional environments, in ways that are organic and personal;
- services, look-and-feel, rewards, and features all organized to facilitate personalized communication;
- focused around sharing -- whether that be ideas, photos, videos, personal information, activities, or opinions;
- an implied contract regarding personal details, with an eye toward the very real privacy concerns involved.
CRM vendors have just begun to understand this. Salesforce.com, Oracle, SAP, and (to some degree) Microsoft are all integrating social frameworks to enhance deeper customer engagement and better customer experiences. Oracle is adding community-based features into its Fusion products; SAP CRM 2007 has a more intuitive look-and-feel, community features, and mobile CRM, incorporating the way that younger generations do business: socially.
We're not done making a reproducible social framework for these communities. There are questions to be answered, but this is big now -- so now is the time to adopt the tools to engage your customers. I know, because my friends told me so -- via email, text, IM, smartphones, Facebook....
Paul Greenberg is president of The 56 Group (the56group.typepad.com), a strategic CRM consulting services firm, and a cofounder of CRM training company BPT Partners. The fourth edition of his best-selling book, CRM at the Speed of Light, will be out in December 2008.