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ROI for Social CRM

Businesses, you may be surprised to learn, exist to earn money. So it’s really not hard to understand why many of them are reluctant to embark on any new project—especially one that costs money to implement—before they have a solid idea of how it will affect their earnings. Beyond the company’s products/services, this has been the case with every new technology, every new management principle, and every business process. It’s one of the things that puts money in the pockets of analysts and consultants like me.

Social CRM, and social media awareness in general, is passing from the wowgottahaveit buzzword phase of its existence and entering the cost-benefit analysis phase. There are lots of discussions (or one big discussion, in a way) being had about how one measures the return on investment—ROI—of social CRM. You can see the WordPress blogs that have touched on it here; I can’t say I’ve read them all yet, and likely never will. A guy’s gotta get out of the home office from time to time.

Forrester analyst Natalie Petouhoff (Dr. Nat to her friends and pretty much anybody else) has a report on The ROI of online customer service communities. Sometime in the near future, Ryan Zuk will be publishing an article on social media monitoring for the PRSA newsletter. I may or may not be quoted in it, depending on how the piece shapes up and what his word count ends up at. (I’m not trying to add pressure for my inclusion, Ryan, just using you as a lead-in to my point.)

If I’m in there, I may come off seeming like I don’t think ROI should be a consideration for businesses implementing social CRM. That’s not the case. It’s the foolish (and often failed) business that doesn’t consider the consequences of potential actions. What I do think is that sometimes “hard” ROI, expressed in dollars and cents, is tricky to estimate and sometimes utterly beside the point.

You can see a few cases where social CRM has made a big difference for small businesses in this New York Times article. Beautiful examples of clear, identifiable ROI—even though most of the social tools mentioned don’t cost anything. These business are reaching out directly to customers, using simple applications as a marketing engine first and a means of receiving feedback or participating in a conversation second.

I’ve developed a habit, when discussing ROI on social CRM for larger companies, of putting things in terms of fear. Next to greed, fear is the prime motivator in business. “Your customers are having conversations about you that you’re not party to,” I’ll say. “They’re also having conversations about your competitors, but some of your competitors are participating. If somebody starts a rumor about your products or your practices, your customers might perpetuate it, and your competitors aren’t going to do anything to stop it, if it’s bad. Can you afford not to listen?”

Of course it’s not all about fear. One of the best anecdotes of social CRM in action is owned by blogger, consultant, and CRM Rock Star Brent Leary. Ask him about biscuits (the American kind), and how a single tweet got him to eat at Popeye’s after a multi-year absence. More than just the $6 revenue Popeye’s got, though, is the tremendous positive word-of-mouth the restaurant chain got by making one response to one person—the right person—at the right time. Brent will be able to tell this story about how Popeye’s “gets it” for years to come—and if he doesn’t, then I will.

My advice to businesses, in brief: Study social CRM as much as you can, see what others are doing and what works best for your particular business. If you can figure out a way to make it pay, then by all means do that. But get in the game regardless. It may cost you nothing, but the rewards—monetary or otherwise—only come when you get involved.