Social media has become one of the success stories of the 21st century. Facebook has grown its users from one million in 2004 to 1.15 billion last year, while Twitter has jumped from 6 million to more than 500 million users during the same period. Google+, which started with 500 million registered users in 2011 has already reached the one billion mark.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 42% of online adults now use multiple social networking sites. This paints a clear picture-the average number of social channels an individual uses is increasing. And this proliferation means that organizations have an ever-expanding array of sources to comb for information about their customers and prospects.
While organizations see this expanded digital world as a treasure trove of customer data, they also view it as a very complex puzzle-one that requires the ability to tightly integrate a customer's activities across these channels into a single customer profile..
Here's how organizations that have access to single customer profiles could operate: A customer complains about his cable provider on Twitter and uses Facebook to ask his friends to recommend an alternate service provider. While the customer's current provider is likely to be alerted to a mention of the company on Twitter, knowing that the client is so irate that he is looking for a change in providers can be instrumental in devising a plan of action. And if the client's LinkedIn profile shows that he owns a small business, the cable provider needs to tread even more carefully.
Such an example is pie in the sky, as more often than not, organizations are unable to connect the different channels to create a detailed profile of their individual customers. In fact, some experts, including Jacob McNulty, director of social enterprise at TeleTech, have described the creation of a single social profile as the "Holy Grail" which, unfortunately, is still far from reality for many business leaders. As Bob Dunfee, Infor's director of CRM solutions, notes, very few organizations are pulling social data into a single profile, with one of the challenges being that social information is unstructured.
Benefits of a 360-degree social profile
Creating a single customer profile has obvious advantages for organizations-it allows brands to have a 360-degree view of their customers, especially if this information integrates with CRM data. There are also associated benefits for the customers since a single profile allows for continuous interactions. "It doesn't matter where customers are submitting their feedback, they want a continuous conversation," McNulty stresses.
This continuous conversation means that companies can address one of customers' biggest peeves-having to repeat themselves. By bringing together information from different channels and creating a 360-degree customer profile, companies will be able to know what customers are saying across their interactions rather than ask them to start from scratch at every interaction.
Further, insights from social profiles will help organizations better understand when a customer made a one-time purchase, for example as a gift, explains Tom Wentworth, Acquia's chief marketing officer. For example, a customer who purchased a gift for a newborn might not want to be bombarded with recommendations about children's items. "Organizations need to understand the multiple perspectives of customers," he says.
Bringing data together
While creating a single social profile might be challenging, this is not impossible and business leaders shouldn't get discouraged. "Customers leave digital footprints and it's possible for companies to try to access their opinions from multiple touchpoints," notes Venkat Viswanathan, CEO and founder of LatentView Analytics.
There have been some early forays in the field, with leading organizations testing the waters to create the desired single social profile. McNulty uses the example of a large telecom provider that is using SalesForce's service cloud to bridge the different social channels. McNulty explains that a dedicated social team interacts with customers over social channels, and then inputs information about their interactions into the CRM system to continue building more in-depth profiles. "They're using the CRM system as a single knowledge base," he notes.
Viswanathan believes that the best way for organizations to collect information about customers' different social profiles without appearing intrusive is to incentivize the customers themselves to share the information. One company that took this route is KLM. Through its "Meet & Seat" initiative, the airline is allowing passengers flying solo on KLM-operated flights to and from Amsterdam to connect their Facebook, Google+, or LinkedIn accounts to their check-in profiles. This enables them to see other passengers' profile details, allowing them to select a seat next to someone with similar interests. "It's a great way to get external data and match it to internal profiles," he says.
Similarly, in 2013 American Airlines incentivized passengers to share their Klout login information by providing social influencers with a Klout score over 55 free passes to the airline's Admirals Clubs in 22 different cities. "Because they're giving something back, customers don't feel like the organization is infringing on their privacy," Viswanathan notes.
Darren Garnaccia, executive vice president of strategy and corporate development at Sitecore, notes that another way for companies to collect customers' social information is to allow them to create an account through a social login, for example Facebook or Twitter. Unfortunately this tactic often means that a company is only able to collect one social profile. But one company, Interscope Records, has found a solution. Lee Hammond, the brand's vice president for digital, explains that while fans are able to use a social sign-in, they're required to identify themselves twice, for example through a Facebook and Twitter login.
Some retailers, including Amazon, are also enticing customers to disclose their social information by giving them the option to share a purchase with their friends on Facebook or Twitter.
However, collecting the information is only a small part of the exercise. Organizations need to have the systems in place to aggregate the data and cross-tabulate if they want to create a robust customer profile. Otherwise it will simply be a case of having disparate data that can't work together. For example, if an Amazon customer uses Facebook to share a purchase, this information needs to be inputted into the customer's profile. This way, if the same customer decides to Tweet about his next purchase, the organization can connect the two social profiles.
Therefore, one of the first steps that organizations need to make is invest in systems that bring their disparate data sources together and start filling the blanks to create a holistic customer profile. Since many organizations already have a CRM system, they can continue building on this, inputting customers' social data as they get it. Therefore, if a customer shared his Facebook profile and later on shared his Twitter handle, the organization will have a way to link the two and really understand that customer's social interactions.
As new social networks continue to emerge and customers shift their interests to newer systems, organizations that create a centralized database will have the advantage of being able to continue collecting information and linking different networks, allowing them to see the full picture of what customers are saying. This is how the example we mentioned earlier in the article will stop being pie in the sky but instead become a reality for organizations.
Further, profile information from a single network, for example Facebook, can be broken down into different datasets and matched against customer records to try and find a fit within the company's existent CRM database. Some companies, like Boca Raton-based Take 5 Solutions, are working on systems to crack the code and provide more in-depth CRM profiles that leverage social data. However, unless an organization is certain that they're matching social profiles to the right customers, they run the risk of creating inaccurate profiles which might hinder rather than help their marketing campaigns.
A more accurate strategy would be to encourage users to link their social profiles to their loyalty accounts, for example by rewarding them for sharing or liking information. Apart from steering away from the danger of making guesses, organizations would not be alienating customers by appearing intrusive. While the benefits of a single social profile might entice organizations to create these without customers' consent, experts warn that such an approach could do more harm than good. "If you personalize too much without consent, it might appear too intrusive," Viswanathan explains.