Becoming a Smarter Customer

—by Brent Leary, CRM Essentials, in partnership with SMB Group

In conjunction with IBM’s Smarter Commerce initiative, the SMB Group and CRM Essentials are working on a series of posts discussing how technology is empowering today’s customer, and why companies have to change their approach in order to build strong relationships with them.  This is the first in the series, and was based on a couple recent experiences of Brent Leary of CRM Essentials. The last example is really Brent’s dad’s experience using his iPad – which is the one that really brings it all home…so to speak.

I recently bought a new video camera—a Panasonic AG-HMC150. This was a pretty significant purchase for me because it represents a step up into the semi-pro leagues, as I’m planning to do some documentary style programs. I kicked off my buying process with two things: a question and a search.

I posed a question to my friends first. A few people I know do this professionally, so they were my first stop. And because I posed my question to them on Facebook and Twitter using a couple of hash tags, I received their valuable feedback along with great information from people I’m connected to but didn’t know were knowledgeable about video production. On top of that, I received even more valuable information from people I wasn’t connected to, but who saw my question due to the hash tags I used. So within a matter of minutes, I had a great deal of information to sift through to help me with my big buying decision.

While the feedback was pouring in from my social network, I also took to Google to find product information on video cameras. I found links to review sites, informative blog posts and videos comparing the various aspects of cameras to help me with my decision. I went to manufacturer sites to get specs, and followed that up with trips to CNET for in-depth reviews. All this was topped off by finding a few great online communities created by enthusiasts who are passionate about video production, and in some cases about specific cameras—like the Panasonic AG-HMC150 community on Vimeo.

Within a few days, I went from not knowing what to get, to feeling very confident in selecting the right camera for my needs. I also found a community of knowledgeable, experienced people who I could learn from and collaborate with to help me not only with my buying decision, but also with my video production activities. Once I decided which camera to buy, I used the web to find the right place to buy it. My newfound community recommended a company based on their previous interactions with it.

While this is just my personal experience, individual examples like mine are being replicated all over the web as social, cloud and mobile technologies help connect us to the people and information we need in order to find solutions when we need them. It’s what is driving hundreds of millions of people to spend a growing amount of time on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. With these social networks becoming collaborative platforms, and with smart mobile devices providing access from anywhere, we can build and extend relationships to people and information in ways that truly improve how we experience life.

One thing I love to experience every year is watching college basketball’s national tournament, also known as March Madness. I’m not alone, as this is annually one of the highest rated television events of the year. But this year I was even more into the tournament than ever before.

For the first time, every game was shown on one of four television networks. But the big reason I had a much better tournament experience had to do with the free apps for both the iPad and iPhone that streamed all games live—giving me a choice of seeing any game from wherever I happened to be.

Not only did the mobile apps make it possible to stream any game, they also made it possible to keep track of brackets, share information with my Facebook and Twitter friends, and participate in ongoing tournament conversations. The Social Arena, available through mobile apps and multiple websites, provided me with a non-stop flow of tournament information, including insights from on-air personalities like Charles Barkley. The Social Bracket allowed me to vote on who I thought would win each game, but it also tallied up all the votes to see how the overall viewing community picked the games. Finally, the NCAA and Turner Broadcasting hired people to use social media monitoring tools to analyze the chatter taking place around the tournament, in order to provide insights into what was driving conversations.

Now even if I didn’t have the social and mobile apps, I would have been watching the tournament. But because I love all my mobile devices as much as I love watching the games, I experienced March Madness in a way I couldn’t possibly have done in years past. And, as you might have guessed, I’m not the only one who likes both basketball and mobile devices, as you can see from the numbers below:

  • March Madness On Demand (MMOD) was the #1 free app for both the iPhone and iPad in the App Store during the first two days of availability.
  • 36% of all streams were from the iPad and iPhone apps the first weekend of the tournament.
  • The mobile apps averaged 683,000 daily unique users.
  • An average of 67.5 minutes per daily unique visitor was spent streaming MMOD on broadband.
  • The NCAA.com/MMOD broadband site averaged 3.8 million daily unique visitors.

Turner was able to leverage our love of social/mobile tools to provide viewers with a whole new level of engagement with the tournament. And, as Fast Company magazine stated in an article about the project, Turner is fit to deliver “a true revolution in sports. And in return they’ll get audience data, captivity and flexibility like no sports broadcasting has ever seen before.” As a side note, television ratings were the best they’ve been in 15 years.

It is clear today that people depend heavily on social networks and mobile technology. Now, more people have accounts on social networks than they have email accounts, and mobile device sales are poised to surpass combined desktop/laptop sales within the next year in the United States. Google+, a network only a couple of months old, already has more than 25 million users sharing over 1 billion pieces of content daily. The ease of content creation and distribution has led us into the age of the zettabyte (with 21 zeroes after the “1”)—which is the amount of information estimated to be available to us online today.

It’s not just the younger generations that are heavily dependent on these technologies. Baby Boomers, and people from earlier generations, are also adopting these tools. I know this from firsthand experience, watching my soon-to-be 80-year-old father using his iPad to do things he had never done before on his desktop computer. He reads books, listens to NPR, watches videos and shares information with his siblings on Facebook—and even Twitter. He uses Bank of America’s app to do his banking. He shops on Amazon.com and Apple’s App Store. He even mentioned reading a few of my blog posts, something I can’t remember him doing before.

Quite honestly, my father loves his iPad because it allows him to easily do so much more. And these tools enable today’s customer to do and experience more than imagined just a few short years ago. But, the fact that customers are smarter today has more to do with having better technology at their disposal than being brainier. Customers have always wanted more information and access to the right people. They have always wanted to be listened to, and have their ideas incorporated into developing better products and services. They’ve also wanted to be valued beyond the financial transaction that they bring to a company’s bottom line.

And now, because technology has empowered them to get together, share experiences and amplify their collective voice, customers expect companies to engage them with these new tools and communication channels. As customers leverage social and mobile technologies to improve their knowledge and life experiences, they will look to build relationships with businesses that will do the same. Well, at least my father and I will.

This is the first of a six-part blog series by SMB Group and CRM Essentials that examines the evolution of the smarter customer and smarter commerce, and IBM’s Smarter Commerce solutions. In our next post, we’ll look at key points businesses need to consider to best serve the smarter customer. In the meantime, we’d love to hear how you’re using the web, mobile and social technologies to become a smarter customer.

What is Social Media Management, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published on March 4, 2010, in Small Business Computing)

What is Social Media Management?

As described in the column “What is Social Networking, and Why Should You Care?” Internet-based social media make it easier for people to listen, interact, engage and collaborate with each other. But, as the volume of social media venues and conversations rises, it quickly becomes a time and labor intensive process to effectively track, converse, monitor and manage them.

Social media management solutions can help you manage outbound and incoming online interactions—along with other marketing activities–in a more efficient manner. They streamline and consolidate how you listen to and participate in relevant conversations in the different places they’re taking place—blogs, social networks like Twitter or Facebook, and other public and private web communities and sites. They help you to more easily monitor what people are saying about your business, and by automating the process of delivering your outgoing messages through multiple social media outlets simultaneously, help you to amplify your social media presence across several social media sites.

Social media management tools can also help you to integrate social media activities with other marketing programs. These can include both other online activities, such as web site, search engine marketing campaigns, contact management systems, and email marketing, as well as offline marketing, such as events or white papers.

Why Should You Care?

We all know how important word of mouth is, and social media is like word of mouth on steroids. As a business, it’s vital to tap into and join online conversations not only about your brand, but also those about your competitors, your industry and your areas of expertise.

Even if you haven’t launched an outbound social media strategy, you to keep a pulse on what people are saying—good or bad—about your company, competitors and major trends. And, by representing your company in a positive, authentic way, you can build credibility for your expertise and business, and link to customers and prospects quickly. You can also help mitigate damage should negative conversations about your company emerge by proactively responding to complaints. Social media can also steer people to your other marketing programs, where it’s easier to individually track and manage individual customer and prospect interactions.

Done right, social media can help you better understand prospect and customer needs, and increase visibility and generate leads. But it takes a lot of time and energy to stay on top of all of this in a manual, piecemeal fashion. Think about the time it takes to just to cover some of the basics, such as:

  • Creating content in multiple places, such as a blog, Twitter, a Facebook page, etc., and monitor and scan the views, decide what comments to approve, and respond to replies on these sites.
  • Scanning Twitter followers for conversations you may want to join, or checking your RSS reader subscriptions for relevant articles and new ideas.
  • Checking Google Alerts to see when and where your business is mentioned on the Web.
  • Creating and monitoring a community and topics on a site such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

Now think about the fact the social media to do list is only going to grow. And while you are building goodwill, relationships and awareness, it’s difficult to measure short-term payback on social media efforts. And you can’t abandon other marketing activities—web site, search engine marketing, email marketing, etc. and contact and sales management. Social media management tools give you a way to get your arms around the many-headed social media Hydra by streamlining and integrating customer interactions across multiple marketing venues.

What to Consider

There are dozens, if not hundreds of solutions out there that let you manage/integrate different slices of the social media pie, but we are still searching for the Holy Grail in this relatively new area. However, I’ve spotted a few vendors that have put together some more comprehensive solutions designed and priced specifically for small business budgets, including:

  • BatchBlue’s BatchBook, a “social CRM” offering that integrates contact, sales and social media feeds, with mobile versions for iPhone and Blackberry. The social media integration is cool—after you enter social media feeds from Twitter, blogs, LinkedIn, etc. on a contact record, you automatically see a contact’s social networking profile, and the last three posts, tweets and/or other entries when you open the record so that you  can keep a pulse on  customers and prospects. With lists and reports, you can build lists, or create customized reports. BatchBook integrates with Mailchimp so you can send email newsletters to your lists. BatchBlue gives all new users a minimum of 2 hours of 1-1 consulting time to help them get productive as quickly as possible. Pricing ranges from $9.95 to $99.95 a month, based on the number of users, storage, and 1-1 consultation time you need. My take is that BatchBlue is a great solution for tech-savvy small businesses, especially services businesses where every relationship counts.
  • CloudProfile gives SMBs a unified content publishing and social media hub and web presence, which businesses can use standalone in place of web site, or with their existing web site. You create an online profile, which enables your business to get found in search engines like Google, business directories, and on social networks. It helps you find and connect with customers on Twitter and Facebook, and offers tools such as click-to-call, text messaging and e-mail marketing to help you stay connected with customers. CloudProfile provides built-In reports and connect to Google Analytics. The company plans to add PayPal and Amazon checkout and appointment scheduling soon. Pricing starts at $14.95 a month.  A very good choice for the approximately 40% of small businesses that don’t yet have a web site—gives you an online presence plus social capabilities.
  • HubSpot helps companies create, optimize and promote their content. HubSpot features a blogging platform and a content management system, and tools to help analyze your marketing reach via blogs, leads, Facebook and Twitter accounts. It provides links to conversations across the Internet related to your business’ keywords in one tidy dashboard. The Web Voter feature enables you to create a social news page on your site, where users can submit links and vote on them–creating an activity hub for discussion of hot issues. HubSpot also provides Keyword, Page and Link Graders, to help optimize search result rankings. Optional integration with Salesforce.com CRM is available. HubSpot charges an initial $500 start up fee, and ongoing pricing starts at $250 per month. It also offers a number of free tools, including Graders for web sites, press releases, blogs, etc. HubSpot, who we interviewed for a video a couple of weeks ago, provides a very comprehensive solution for both small and medium businesses.
  • ZooLoo provides a one-stop shop to get an online presence and manage social media interactions—including domain name registration, web site creation, a blogging platform, SEO tools, privacy controls, storage, and tools to connect across social networking sites–along with a personal dashboard to manage all of it. Some tools, such as the Graffiti blogging platform that lets you share posts across your social networks, are free. ZooLoo charges for other things, such as domain registration, web sites and privacy controls. ZooLoo’s fee-based services range in price from $1.99 to $9.99 per month. Although most of it’s current users are consumers, ZooLoo is a great fit for entrepreneurs—and the Facebook-like interface makes it easy for anyone to get the hang of.

As you can see, these companies come at the social media management conundrum from different angles. So as you evaluate these and other offerings, think about what is most critical to your business. What are your key objectives for your social media investments? Where do you spend the most time manually scanning, managing, updating and integrating across social media streams and more structured marketing activities? Where are the gaps? There is no one-size fits all, so start with your own requirements and objectives to help start taming the social media Hydra.

What Will Social Networking Displace?

Just a couple of years ago, many people were still debating whether digital social networking was just a flash in the pan. With social media growth surging, that that debate is over. People have moved on to try and figure out where social networking is headed—as evidenced when I Googled the “future of social networking” and got 542,000 results.

Now of course I didn’t read all of them, but a couple of very high-level themes surfaced across the ones I did read. First, a combination of factors, including the generational shift, rise of cloud computing, and the increasingly mobile and decentralized nature of both our personal and professional lives will make social networking ubiquitous. Second, several major issues need to be solved for social networking to live up to it’s full potential.

Some are technology-centric, such the need for open standards to make it easier for us to manage and share our contacts, profile information, permissions, etc. across and between multiple different social networks, or better integration of contextual information, or better options for protecting privacy. But, as important, on the business side, there appears to be almost universal agreement that social network operators will need  to figure out how to create sustainable, profitable business models.

Which led me to start thinking and talking to people about how social networking could replace stuff that we already pay for. After all, social networking platforms are much more user-friendly than most traditional software applications out there.

Here are some of the ideas that cropped up about things businesses and consumers spend money on today, that social networking could replace and monetize:

  • Media distribution, management and monitoring, ala Businesswire or Marketwire.
  • Email, instead of using Outlook, Gmail, etc.
  • Corporate collaboration platforms, such as Microsoft SharePoint and Exchange.
  • Marketplaces—from online dating sites to job boards to eBay. LinkedIn has had a job postings site for quite some time.
  • Email marketing.
  • Local newspapers (check out Yelp).

Not everyone will buy into social media right away, and it may take a while for it to become truly “ubiquitous”. But, social networking will continue reshape how we communicate, interact and transact business, and social networking vendors will find ways to monetize their work. The question isn’t if, but when and what social networking will displace. I’m sure there are many other possibilities, and would love to know what you think.

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