For many years CRM has been a “direct” channel delivering one way communications to customers. Now, with the advent and maturity of social media networks brands have the opportunity to engage in more balanced and cohesive discussion with customers and consumers. Social media with its wide accessibility and easy to use functionality offers brands a platform on which to engage with consumers on their terms. This in turn offers brands a sea change opportunity in the way they manage customer relationships.

CRM has never been perfect. Traditionally, the term CRM has meant email, direct mail, SMS and phone. These are ‘push’ communication channels. Brands push their message out to their customer base. Push communications have always had a problem; they are by nature interruptive, as such they risk being seen as intrusive or irrelevant at time of receipt. This is just one of the reasons why many forms of DM based CRM are still referred to as ‘junk mail’ by consumers. Other reasons for ‘junk’ status are that these communications are often not requested, they’re irrelevant, they’re not green, and they leave your customer with the feeling that you are trying to persuade them to do something they may not want to do. In short, people like being in control. By pushing your message into your customers’ lives you threaten that control and risk being ‘junked’.

The advent of social media offers us the opportunity to overcome these issues and move towards a more perfect world in CRM. With its ability to aggregate, assemble and cluster groups of like minded individuals social media allows us to address and overcome the junk issues listed above. Social media gives brands an opportunity for a radical re-think of what CRM is, how it works and how we deliver it. Let’s look more closely at the sources of “junk mail” categorisation and examine how social media may make CRM a more involving experience:

1) Lack of control: Junk mail is called junk mail because it’s not requested. In the social media world consumers control the dialogue; they do the requesting and they are in control. As a brand you are not imposing yourself on the customer. You are simply there for them when they want to engage with you. This is a different dynamic to traditional CRM. It puts the customer in control of the conversation and that’s where they want to be.

2) Irrelevance: Junk mail is called junk because it risks being irrelevant at the time of receipt. Here’s where social media really scores. If you allow the consumer to control the conversation then they are likely to contact you only when they have something important to say. Consumers will either like product, dislike a product or need more help with it. If you are dealing with these issues for customers at a time of their choosing then you are more likely to maximise the relevance of your communication.

3) Environmental issues: Junk mail is called junk because prospects and customers think it’s not green. The statistics around DM paper wastage are staggering and the DM industry should move forward from denial to recognition. It has been estimated that the UK is subject to more than 500,000 tonnes of waste paper through DM every year. Even if it’s recycled we should be thinking about the energy costs of this mammoth recycling task. Whilst all social media has some costs, they are minuscule compared to the environmental costs of paper manufacture, printing and recycling of millions of tonnes of DM. In 2011 brands must be seen to be environmentally aware and social media allows this to happen by reducing your dependence on less environmentally friendly paper-based forms of communication.

Social media gives us the opportunity to reverse the drive train in CRM. It’s time we used the internet to move from putting things into peoples’ homes to inviting people into our brands. It’s time we stopped trying to control the customer. It’s time we put the customer in control of us. It’s time we moved from push to pull. There nothing new here, marketing theory dictates that companies should be responsive to customer and consumer needs. The problem has been that until the advent of easy to use social media networks being open and responsive was easier to say than do.

By moving into social media CRM we open up our relationship with consumers. This sends positive signs. Companies that are prepared to openly discuss issues between themselves and their customer base will be perceived as accessible, caring and confident in the way they provide products and services. These are all valuable brand attributes.

Of course running CRM in social media where all comment can be seen by others requires marketers to have a high level of confidence in the brands and services they are delivering. But rather than being seen as a hurdle to be overcome, this should be seen as a useful litmus test of a company’s relationship with its markets. If as a brand you don’t feel confident enough to open up your CRM in the social media environment then that tells you something about the prevailing relationship you have with your customers. If thinking about social media raises negative issues then you should use this as an opportunity to clarify and address those issues.

And if you are confident that you can press the social media button now, then your openness can only serve to increase the confidence customers and consumers place in your brand.