There are so many excellent comments and questions following my last post, Consumers are social, Customers are personal, that I decided it would make more sense to address them in a new post than in comments under that one. So here goes.

Joshua Marsh, the CEO of Conversocial, writes,

I’m interested in your comment that social media is only semi-personal – could you expand on that point?

I think what you could be getting at is the current lack of tie up between social identity and customer records, which is a challenge (but one that can be overcome), and one we are working on. Or do you mean something else?

There can be additional benefits to customers for taking their customer service issues into social media over other channels. Once companies wake up to the fact that there are public complaints and issues on their Facebook pages, in tweets when people search for their company names etc, they will often start delivering better customer service over social than they do through other channels. The fully public nature of the issues and resolutions forces them to deliver the best service they can. I believe this will drive a virtuous circle – as companies deliver better service through social, more and more customers will begin to use it as a service channel.

First, I want to make clear that when we talk about “social media” today we mostly mean Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and other commercial services. Not telephony, email, texting, instant messaging and other social activities that have been around for a long time but tend not to get included in the “social media” category.

Three things make social media less than fully personal:

  1. As CRM Software said in another commment, “your conversations are personal yet public.”
  2. We don’t own social media. Yes, we use them, but they are not ours. They belong to Twitter, Facebook, Google or whomever. For what it’s worth (and it’s a lot), we can own domains on the Web and elsewhere. We can own email systems. We can own IM systems. We can be our own publishers, syndicate our own postings. Standards and protocols such as TCP/IP, HTTP, IMAP, POP3, SMTP, RSS and XMPP make that possible. Those standards and protocols give us independence, which is a founding virtue of the Net, of the Web, of blogging, of instant messaging. Those standards and protocols are used by social media, but we remain dependent rather than independent within social media environments. So it is critically important to remember and preserve the distinction between independence and dependence on the Net.
  3. Social media are designed to be personal, but in a social context. Facebook is for sharing with friends. Twitter is for following others and being followed. Linkedin is for sharing personal profiles. Google+ is for “real life sharing,” they say. Sure, we can get personal benefits out of social media, but as a collateral benefit more than as a core purpose.

The thing is, when all you’ve got are social hammers, even personal problems look like social nails. And this is what we are doing when we use social media to fix the problems of CRM and customer service, on either the vendor’s side or the customer’s. Yes, lots of progress has been made on the sCRM front, Conversocial is a leader in that movement, is clearly doing a good job, and should continue doing that. Yet, as individual customers we still lack a box of tools that are ours alone, and that help us relate personally with the companies whose goods and services we buy and use.

This is why a community of developers has been working on building out the tools called VRM, for Vendor Relationship Management, to work as customer-side counterparts of vendors CRM — Customer Relationship Management — systems.

About identity: yes, it’s critical. The quesitons around it are huge. For example, are we — as sovereign, independent and self-actualized human beings — who we say we are? Or are we reducible to our @-handles and “social identities” on the likes of Facebook? When Mark Zuckerberg introduced Facebook Connect in 2008, he said it would make it easy “for you to take your online identity with you all over the Web.” Note the presumption: that your handle with Facebook is “your online identity.” Sorry, but it isn’t. It’s handy as a shortcut, but it’s not who you are.

But in fact I was talking about something other than identity in that last post. I was talking about working on what’s personal in more than just social ways.

Louis Columbus writes,

1. The depth and breadth of personal information being shared on social media is creating advertised-based business models that will surpass Google AdWords’ revenue within five years or less. That’s coming thanks to the torrent of data that streams into social networks daily.

2. Improving customer service systems is indeed not enough because it still doesn’t strike to the center of what really needs to happen. Companies need to translate process efficiencies into more relevant, timely and focused customer experiences. The dividend of process efficiency needs to be spent on greater empathy for the customer. Profits will follow if a company can get its head around the concept of delivering an exceptional experience.

3. VRM shows potential to make each interaction more relevant, focused and over time, trusted.

Bottom line: the companies who will emerge stronger for all this turbulent change will stay focused on customer experience, empathy and intimacy as their compass and not waiver from that course.

Louis’ predictions about the future of advertising may be true. But remember: even highly personalized advertising is still guesswork. And no amount of personal data can empower any company, no matter how smart, to guess what I want or need next. Nor do I want that. First, most of the time I’m not buying anything. Second, when I am ready to buy something, I need instruments that help me express my intentions more than I need ones that are guessing what I might want and pushing something at me through a medium that’s paid to do the pushing.

This is why I believe what will emerge over the next five years is not a more personal attention economy (led by social media) but an intention economybased on what customers actually want. This is why I wrote The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, for Harvard Business Review Press, which is due to hit the shelves on May 1.

I agree with Louis’ second point about what companies need to do; and will add that the customer experience should be one for which the customer is at least partly responsible. Also that the experience of relationship should extend across many vendors in the same way, rather than working in isolation with each vendor. For example, I would like as a customer to experience changing my address with many vendors at once. No vendor working alone with one CRM system can deliver this experience. VRM is required for that, along with CRM systems that welcome simple and standard address-changing methods that work the same way across many different vendors.

I also agree with Louis’ bottom line: that vendors will have to be “focused on customer experience, empathy and intimacy.” And I believe this will require that customers welcome VRM tools when customers carry their own weight on their own sides of relationships.

Don Peppers writes,

One additional thought about the future of social media: Today, social media is funded by advertisers (the real “customers”), and provides a mechanism for giving them access to consumers. But this will almost certainly change as more and more social media services and platforms become open source. An open-source, community-developed platform for social interaction will unify consumers and customers, no?

When Twitter first appeared on the scene, for example, it took many months before the first commercial money began funding it. The consumers it served all worried that without some kind of external funding, the service might disappear. Sooner or later, we’ll find that IT and communications costs have become so low that very little, if any, commercial sponsorship will be required to sustain a genuinely consumer-oriented social media platform.

I believe we won’t get fully-developed one-to-one relationships (that link goes to the seminal work on the topic, buy Don Peppers and Martha Rogers) without significant contributions of code and standards from free and open source developers. You’ll find many in the roster of VRM developers and developments, but we need many more.

I also think we need to free ourselves from the knee-jerk belief that commercial sponsorship is the first-option business model for popular services on the Net. The successes of the Net, the Web, email, RSS and much else have long since disproven that belief.

In the long run far more economic activity will be supported by free and open standards, protocols and other building materials, than by commercial services paid for by advertising.

As for the promise of both social media “big data” for better customer relations, I like what Alan Mitchell said in his comment:

…there is a vast difference between the sharing of unstructured information on a one-to-many basis (social media), and the sharing of structured information on a one-to-one basis (VRM). As you point out, only the latter allows for real personalisation.

Alan has been a leading figure in VRM development, by the way.

Hanan Cohen writes,

Many people say that “Social media users are not customers of them, they are the product being sold.”

I think that we are the suppliers and try to prove it here;

Can you please get in touch with an economics scholar you trust and ask her to sort out the difference in definitions?

It is quite true that we are upstream suppliers of valuable content to social media, and not just consumers of services, and Hanan makes many good points at that link.

As for distinctions between consumers and customers, I like what Doug Rauch — the former President of Trader Joe’s — told to me when I was working on my book: that consumers are “a statistical category.” “We believe in honesty and directness between human beings,” Doug said. “We do this by engaging with the whole person, rather than just with the part that ‘consumes.'”

Hope that helps.