You've likely heard the following: "We need more followers on Twitter," or, possibly, "Our CEO wants more Likes on Facebook."

What's a marketer to do? Our challenge is to educate not only ourselves but also those around us.

The fact is... social media success is not just about gaining followers or "Likes." Instead, you need to track how many followers buy your products or subscribe to your services. As management consultant Peter Drucker wrote, "There is only one valid purpose for a business and that is to create a customer... The customer is the foundation of a business and keeps it in existence."

Social media is a channel, not a strategy. Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms should not be used simply because they exist. Rather, their use should be dictated by business sense. Does using the channel solve a problem or provide some other value?

A CRM Channel?

If you're developing a social customer relationship management (CRM) strategy, however, social media might be a channel to pursue.

Despite all the hype and the recklessness of slapping "social" on current business models, many industry pundits nevertheless acknowledge the emergence of a new social customer.

The social customer is redefining how people interact with brands and corporations. The social customer readily shares opinions and experiences (good and bad), and increasingly makes buying decisions based on trusted networks—spanning public and private social networking platforms and peer communities. The social customer is involved, and evolved.

No doubt, the explosion of social CRM has elevated it to the level of business necessity. In fact, Gartner projects that the social CRM market will reach $1 billion in revenues by the close of 2012, up from $625 million in 2010.

Businesses can no longer operate in a "business as usual" fashion. Alistair Rennie, general manager for IBM's collaboration solutions unit echoed that sentiment in his Social Business 2012 Predictions, in which he wrote, "Just like the Internet opened up a world of new opportunities, the rise of social business is creating new jobs. With the adoption of these new internal and external social business tools comes the increasing need for staff to manage the new processes and communities, to measure their effectiveness, and to educate and enable the workforce to participate."

The acknowledgment of the customer evolution (from traditional customer to social customer) is paving the road for the emergence and acceptance of social CRM. With social CRM, organizations can listen to conversations in real time to develop a clearer sense of customer preferences, sentiment, and opinions; engage customers on their terms for a more personalized experience; and use a customer's trusted peer network to develop new business opportunities.

Though many organizations are using social media, very few are following any best-practices for social CRM.

Five Steps Toward Social CRM

Here are five ways to move beyond merely using social media to building a successful social CRM practice.

1. Think strategy

Social CRM goes to the heart of how organizations work—how they use social media to solve problems and identify, serve, and retain customers. Social CRM allows organizations to connect with the social customer on the customer's terms, with more relevant and contextual interactions across the customer's preferred channels of communication. The strategy is based on customer engagement and interactions.

Tip for getting started: Ask yourself what ongoing challenges the organization needs to solve, and make a list of those challenges. Now, ask yourself whether social CRM can help solve any of those problems.

2. Get technology support

Without the technology to help companies work differently, the philosophy and business strategy of social CRM are impossible to apply. Technology platforms will either help or hinder organizations as they work toward adopting social CRM strategies.

Tip for getting started: Capture your customers' social data. Update your online forms and website pages to request customers' LinkedIn profile URLs, Twitter usernames, and Facebook usernames.

3. Put on your customer hat

What does your customer really want? Rather than pushing out marketing messages to customers, listen and collaborate with customers. That approach helps customers shape their own experiences while solving business problems.

Tip for getting started: Use your social media management system to identify customers (or members, or subscribers) among the people who interact with you and your content on Twitter and Facebook. Be sure to acknowledge and respond to their questions and concerns, and encourage ideas.

4. Take action

Monitoring the social Web for brand mentions is the most elementary of social media activities. Listening to social conversations must have a strategic purpose. What if your customers are asking for specific improvements? You should be able to collect qualitative data, track sentiment (positive, negative, and neutral), recognize any changes over time, and take action based on your findings.

Tip for getting started: Track how customers are using social tools to connect with your company. For every customer who joins your company's official LinkedIn group, follows your Twitter account, or "Likes" your Facebook page, record the status in your CRM. Your CRM needs the flexibility to capture and report on the wealth of new data so you can take appropriate future action.

5. Change your culture

Unless your company makes the cultural and operational shifts to become a truly social organization, you'll have lots of new data but won't achieve a lasting return on your investment.

Tip for getting started: Recognize and reward the people who embrace this shift in culture. Your organization owes employees the appropriate guidelines and ongoing training necessary to excel in today's social world and drive successful social CRM initiatives.

* * *

The real promise of social CRM is its ability to change how your company does business. Social CRM also allows you to improve your customers' experience with your brand while building advocacy. Simply responding to as many comments or tweets as possible isn't effective. However, if you actually fix the problems that customers are identifying and you collaborate with your customers, you're on to something bigger than any social media tool.

Social CRM is less about the tools and more about the philosophies, culture, and business processes driving the people using the tools. Above all, social CRM is a new way of thinking and a new way of doing business that responds to the emergence of the social customer.

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Patrick Dorsey is vice-president of marketing at Avectra, a developer of Web-based social CRM solutions.