07/11/11 Am I Wasting My Time On Social Media?

Whenever I bring up using social media to business people I always hear the same three questions:

1.  Who has the time to do this?

2.  How do I know if this is even worthwhile?

3.  Oh God…did my kid really write that?

Social media must be big business.  Why else would Google jump into it?

A new report says that 46 million Americans check social media sites at least twice a day!  46 million! And everywhere I turn I seem to hear how businesses are embracing social media.  Example:  a recent Webs.com survey says that 69% of small businesses “use” social media tools.  Wow!  And another survey says that 22% of small businesses use Facebook ads.  Geez.

Sorry, but I’m skeptical.  I hear the anecdotes.  I read the surveys.  And I’m sure that the people collecting this information are doing their very best to make it as accurate as possible.  But to me, the data is still pretty unreliable.

That’s because I speak to thousands of business people about social media every year.  And the topic hasn’t lost its appeal.  Most of us are interested in these tools.  We think they’re cool.  And our gut tells us that there must be some way to benefit from them.  And yes, many of us have tried “using” social media in our businesses.  But, in my very unscientific methodology, I’ve found only a very small percentage of business people who have figured out how to make money from their social media activities.

And that’s the big thing missing from social media.  Given the resources required, does spending time on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, YouTube, Google+ and any of the thousands of communities out there make business sense compared to any other marketing or service program?   Who can answer that question?

One day soon, Jon Ferrara will.

Jon is one of the guys who introduced customer relationship management (CRM) to the world back in the 1990’s when he helped to create GoldMine software.  He has since sold that company and is off on a new CRM venture.  It’s called “social CRM.”  But he likes to call it “social business.”

“In the marketplace today people are confused about what social media is.“ Jon told me recently (with his trademark enthusiasm).  “They think Facebook is a place to hookup with a high school sweetheart and LinkedIn is a place to get a job.  But social media is breaking down the walls of the old school ways of doing business.”

Jon’s new product is called Nimble.  It’s a cloud based CRM application.  It has (or will soon have) all of the typical features that you’d expect from a good CRM service:  contact management, e-mail, calendaring for multiple people, forecasting, opportunity management, etc.

But Nimble, and a growing number of CRM applications like it, is embracing social media.  And, according to Jon, this will have a huge impact on the way we do business with each other.

“Life is social.” Jon says.    “Business is social.  People buy from people they like and they like people who know them.  When we meet someone in their office we look at pictures on their wall so we can share something in common.  We want to build intimacy and trust.  Social media is just an electronic way to listen and engage…extending the old school way of going to someone’s office.”

Today’s CRM applications show a history of communications:  calls, appointments, tasks, sales  and emails.  Add to that a stream of social media activities and you’ve got a more rounded view of your customer.  Now you can get to know their hobbies, their interests, their friends and their business associates.  You get a better idea of what’s going on in their lives.  You see communications going back and forth with this customer and others in your company that were previously not being captured.  You’re learning more about this person.  You’re getting information that will help you build a better relationship with him.  How can this not be of value?

One client I spoke to hated the idea. “Who needs to see all that?” he said to me. “I can barely keep up with emails.” And, I have to admit, there does need to be a limit. Just like I now have a rule in my house NOT to video chat after 9PM (this rule came about after a cameo appearance by me in boxer shorts in front of my daughters’ online friends when I went down to the kitchen for a glass of water), social CRM applications will also have to have limits on what data is displayed and who can see that data.

We can debate the value of this new breed of CRM application for a long time.  But the fact is that the integration of social media activities with our business systems is inevitable.  Thought leaders like Jon Ferrara will be evangelizing the benefits of knowing our customers better by seeing their tweets, posts, chat conversations and video blogs alongside of their invoice and payment histories.

That’s all very nice.  But I think social CRM technology will do something greater for business.  It will finally answer two of the three questions that I initially posed above.

Don’t get your hopes up:  there’s no way I can stop my own kids from posting inappropriate comments on their Facebook page.  But am I wasting my time on social media?  This technology will justify the time and resources our companies devote to this activity.  And it will prove, once and for all, whether it’s all worthwhile.

Because at some point, as all this data is being collected, some smart guy will create…a report.

That report will look at a customer’s activities.  Not just the calls and appointments and emails with the customer.  It will also look at all of that customer’s social media activities, with our company.  And also with his friends and business associates and any other contacts we’re allowed to see.  We’ll understand not only what he’s saying and who he’s saying it to, but also where he’s spending his time.  Maybe he’s a Facebook guy.  Or maybe he just likes Twitter.  And that report will not only measure that customer’s activities, but (hopefully) all of our customers’ social media activities.

Or not.

Maybe (gasp!) there AREN’T many social media activities.  Maybe we purchase Nimble for our company in the hopes of creating close relationships with our customers by seeing what they’re saying in the social media world and we find out that they’re not saying anything at all! Could it be possible that we discover that most of our customers aren’t using social media?  Or the ones that are, aren’t using it very much?

To me, that’s the true contribution that Nimble, and all the other social CRM services like it, will make.

Jon Ferrara will help me figure out where to spend my money.  Because if I learn that a customer isn’t spending much time on social media sites…than neither will I.  I can invest my marketing and service dollars in other vehicles, like e-mail or print or advertising or something else.  I don’t need to feel bad because my company doesn’t have a Facebook page.  I don’t need to pay a marketing assistant to tweet out that we recently released safety specs for the new RJ45XXX product line to an audience of people that could care less.  That is assuming there’s even an audience to begin with.

The clients that I know who succeed with customer relationship management applications succeed because they realize that these systems are no more than glorified databases.  They collect data about their customers and prospects and then have relevant reports tracking sales people’s activities, opportunity pipelines, service ticket history and where new leads come from.  That way they figure out where to spend their time and money and make the most profits.

These same smart managers will embrace this new generation of CRM not because it’s cool and neat and has pithy tweets and links to a FunnyOrDie video.  Of course they’ll be interested in using these tools to create better relationships with the people that do business with their companies.  But the real benefit of these systems is finding out where their customers are (or are not) so they can allocate resources in that direction.  And get the most bang for their buck.

Jon Ferrara says business is social.  But I prefer Don Emilio Barzini’s advice, once offered in The Godfather:  “Sorry Johnny… but it’s only business.”

Forbes – Gene Marks