Ask a technology vendor, a marketing thought leader and a company CEO to define social CRM and the fact that you'll get three decidedly different answers says much about where the market is right now.
Best, perhaps, to stick with the simple. Nick Gill, planning director at integrated agency DCH, describes it as, "appending the knowledge of customers and prospects on your existing customer databases (or CRM) with the knowledge you can glean about them from the social space."
He adds, "The effect of this is that you have a better understanding beyond, let's say, a simple transactional history and can be more personalised and relevant in your choice of communication, content, promotion and channel."
Felix Velarde, managing director of digital agency Underwired Amaze, suggests social CRM can be approached in various ways. Having a service desk responding to the prompts of a particular channel - such as Twitter - would rightly fall under the social CRM banner. But so, says Velarde, would broader eCRM programmes whereby numerous social channels were identified and fed into a brand's CRM solution.
The role of technology
This is where things get interesting. The market for CRM technology has been changing rapidly of late. In some cases, major vendors have sought to incorporate social functionality into existing CRM technology. Mergers and acquisitions between CRM and social media vendors have become commonplace. The market has also seen the entry of new names specialising solely in social CRM. These brands will no doubt be looking to capitalise on the perceived growth opportunity of what some believe will be a $1b market by this time next year.
But what of the solutions on offer? Many vendors believe true social CRM is already with us. "Social CRM is now a reality," argues Matt Hall, managing director of Profunnel. "The technology has developed to allow users to maximise the potential of social media and integrate with their CRM activity. The results allow sales and marketing to deliver a more co-ordinated communication programme to generate sales."
In the case of Profunnel, Hall cites the technology's ability to - among other things - enable clients to create coded and trackable social pages for tracking inbound traffic from all social media sites. "This provides a real-time insight into leads generated from social media postings," says Hall. "Another aspect of our technology is social media campaigning, which allows clients to create long-term campaigns and track inbound traffic from multiple sites in a single dashboard. Leads generated from social media can then be tracked through the sales cycle in CRM to identify the financial impact social media activity is having."
When asked about social CRM, David Beard, Sage UK's CRM evangelist, describes it as "another part of the marketing mix." However, he adds it is too early to make any definitive comments about a rapidly changing market.
But what of Sage's efforts to embed social media into its own CRM solutions? Beard says, "Sage is adding, or has already added, functionality to all three of its CRM products so as to be able to monitor social network conversations. This monitoring allows for the searching of key terms and returning results to within the CRM application for saving. Details of a prospect or customer's Twitter handle can also be retained, allowing a persistent connection to their tweets, enabling tight communication and better customer relationship building.
"Further developments include links to communities like LinkedIn, giving access to a large community of business information and then leverage the tools of Sage CRM to search, engage and better manage and develop the online presence, all within the CRM application," concludes Beard.
Limitations and opportunities
Many are far from convinced when it comes to social CRM, with sceptics often pointing to the difficulty of trying to marry metric-orientated CRM solutions with social media, where the focus is on listening and engaging.
Rob Smith, digital director at leading digital agency Blueleaf, says, "The idea of social CRM is, to a certain extent, to try and automate conversations and interactions with your customer and prospect base; listening and flagging current conversations going on in the social web and appending data found socially to further augment your view of the customer.
"The problem with all of this is that conversation does not scale. The connection between one person and another exchanging thoughts and messages cannot be properly automated and still have the desired effect."
These comments were put to Xabier Ormazabal, senior manager of product marketing at Salesforce, a company whose cloud-based solutions have made a major splash in the CRM field. Ormazabal accepts that, if one thinks of social CRM from a purely automation perspective then, clearly, where social media channels are concerned, CRM technology has its limitations.
But he adds, "What people need to realise with social media networks is that they are an authentic way to interact with people and the power of these models [in terms of CRM] is in lowering barriers to communication."
Of the vendors spoken to, Ormazabal was not alone in putting the emphasis on using technology to improve communication and enhance dialogue between brands and their clients; there was little mention of metrics and automation. Perhaps, then, the industry is accepting that social media has drastically changed the rules of the game where CRM is concerned.
Such sentiment is supported by Richard Burdge, CMO of technology firm Thunderhead, who argues that while traditional CRM has always been about data, social CRM is about dialogue. "Those with a data-centric view of the world will struggle," he says.
He suggests successful brands will be those that can harness CRM solutions to engage with and manage dialogue almost in real-time - a scenario the CRM industry is moving closer towards.
Smith's comments on this issue are typical of many in the industry. "Social CRM is too much of a buzz word right now and often is putting the cart before the horse," he says. "If you don't have your standard CRM data in place, you're in no position to even attempt extending this into social media as well... Most companies are bad at CRM, let alone social CRM."
Burdge is equally frank about the issue. "I touched on social CRM when speaking at a conference and the audience looked bemused," he says. "People are clamouring for knowledge right now."
Speaking generally about social media, Velarde suggests, "Not many B2B brands use social media very well at all." And yet, Velarde has high hopes that B2B brands will ultimately be well placed to exploit social CRM due to the fact there are typically fewer transactions in B2B. "Social media gives B2B brands the chance to really engage on a one-to-one level whereas consumer brands have to do things in a more broad brush way," he says.
Social CRM: What now?
Many experts are unsure about the concept of social CRM. Some say it's a misnomer - after all, we keep being told that in social media, the brand no longer manages the relationship, two-way dialogue being the name of the game.
So there's confusion in the industry. Even key industry players are keeping an open mind about what direction future CRM solutions might take. Dan Ziman, vice president of marketing at Lithium, says, "Facebook and Twitter have grown significantly. CRM systems can handle the collection of information, but they don't support the needs of the real-time digital marketer.
"It's becoming increasingly critical and challenging to develop a comprehensive social customer strategy to ensure success and on-going returns to the business. Hence, the market opportunity is beyond connecting external communities to internal data management systems. The winning brands will be the ones with constantly evolving strategies to find, understand and engage with social customers."
And finally, a word of warning from Gill, "Those of us who were around in the 90s when large and expensive CRM systems were heralded as the great white hope of personalised communications remember the carnage that ensued years later with IT systems that cost millions and delivered next to nothing. Let's hope this doesn't happen again because we've all fallen in love with the social appendage."