Beyond the comfy confines of your corporate Web site, people are talking -- and complaining.
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Have you heard that the Internet will radically transform CRM? It's an overworked trope -- but even tropes have some merit. The on-demand model, for example, is attractive to chief information officers looking to cut capital-expenditure costs and to mitigate risks. But the Internet is not just changing CRM's technology infrastructure; in fundamental ways it's transforming the underlying relationships between customers and companies.
At last summer's destinationCRM 2007 conference in New York, one presenter detailed 10 strategies to create thriving support communities using Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and forums. This presentation included numerous tips for how enterprises could make the new technologies work -- but the suggestions only really applied to forums and blogs planted inside an enterprise's walled garden. That's helpful for firms looking to set up, manage, and moderate communications among the customers they can see. But what about the thousands (millions?) of Web-based conversations that reside beyond an enterprise's control? In the vast expanse of the Internet, the www in Web addresses may as well stand for Wild, Wild West. It's in that uncontrolled -- and, from a company's point of view, uncontrollable -- environment that the Internet has begun to radically transform CRM. (See "Power to the People," December 2007, for more on the conversations your customers are having without you.)
I regularly check out blogs on design. These cover an astonishing array of topics, from product design to architecture to user experience to ubiquitous computing. I'm dead certain that readers of these blogs are the ideal target market for numerous high-end companies out there. The typical reader is highly educated, upper-middle class, and tech savvy; has significant discretionary income; and tends to be interested in well-designed products -- truly a great fit for design-heavy brands, design tools, publications about design, schools that focus on design, and so on. But how does a company reach out to this potential customer?
If the blog accepts advertising, ad-placement technologies such as Google AdSense can help with marketing. But most of these blogs are not ad-supported. Some companies have tried to participate in the forums to "enlighten" the users about a new product or service or to post messages in response to postings that seemed appropriate -- big mistake! Most forums have highly specialized cultures; suddenly encountering a corporate voice, especially in a marketing or sales context, is clearly taboo. Except when it's not, of course: Some sites, such as frequent-flier community FlyerTalk, welcome direct input from relevant companies that are cognizant of the community's culture and respectful of its needs. Another community I've long been a member of discusses food and restaurants. The moderators on that site may be a bit heavy-handed in banning participants who come off as shills for food producers and restaurant owners -- but that's the culture of that specific site.
In addition to sales and marketing concerns, customers often bring up important service issues on consumer-focused Web sites or on relevant forums and blogs. The problem is clear: Companies do not control these venues. But for the most part, companies just need to accept that there are some areas where cultures -- even virtual cultures -- will force them to leave money on the table. Since each of these sites has its own culture, companies would be hard-pressed to hire enough employees to become true community members so that they understand and respect the culture's rules and norms. In other words, the resource cost of "doing this right" should make most companies think twice.
Worse, without specialized and customized tools, most CRM systems would have a hard time tracking all these efforts, especially in forums that allow for anonymous postings. Just think: How would you provide and track sales, marketing, or service with a customer who insists on posting under the name "User27"?
Ian Jacobs is a senior analyst in Frost & Sullivan's contact center practice. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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