Jeff Esposito knows his company has to use Twitter for customer service because, quite simply, that's where customers want to connect.
Esposito is the social media manager for Vistaprint, a Netherlands-based graphic design and printing firm with U.S. headquarters in Lexington, Mass.
Vistaprint tried social media early, joining Twitter in 2008. The company eventually got the hang of how to use social media websites to reach customers, but not without some initial hiccups, Esposito said.
Many other companies still face the same problem. When social media CRM became the latest tech trend a few years ago, companies everywhere rushed to create Facebook pages and Twitter accounts -- all in the name of being where the customers were. But in many cases, they weren't all that sure how to make effective use of social media, according to CRM analysts.
Flash forward five years, and not enough has changed, they said. A recent study shows the most popular sites continue to be the "big three" -- Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn -- and most organizations still have a long way to go in making the most of those and other social media tools.
According to Brent Leary, co-founder of the advisory firm CRM Essentials, many companies joined social media as a reaction to its popularity, but have yet to think strategically about how to use it as a tool to create better business processes.
"It's kind of like the Wild, Wild West still," said Leary, whose Atlanta-based firm caters to small and medium-sized businesses. "But you're starting to see companies be more strategic."
Missing the mark
When two CRM analysts joined forces last year to study social media for businesses, they discovered that many organizations were using social sites only to replace older methods of broadcasting their messages and failing to take advantage of social's more useful tools, such as capturing customer data for analysis.
Companies were flooding social media sites with sales and marketing pitches, but falling short of creating real communities, actually conversing with customers and collecting customer feedback and input -- widely agreed upon as the most useful facets of social media for CRM.
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The survey, Social Media 2012: State of Adoption, was conducted by Esteban Kolsky, founder of ThinkJar, an advisory firm on customer strategies; and fellow researcher Denis Pombriant, founder of CRM analyst firm Beagle Research Group LLC. About 230 companies answered some or all of the survey questions.
One of the biggest indicators that organizations were missing the mark, the researchers said in their final report, was the heavy reliance on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, which are designed primarily for personal use, not business, with a focus mostly on outbound communication.
Kolsky went as far as to say he doesn't believe social media sites are the best places to conduct CRM. He advises clients not to focus too much energy on social media, suggesting their time is better spent other ways, such as improving marketing copy or sales strategies.
"People are on Facebook to connect to friends, to connect to families. They do not want to connect to companies," he said. "Just because they are there, it doesn't mean customers want to hear what you have to say."
As for Twitter, Kolsky challenged the site's usefulness in customer service -- a function that is increasingly popular. About 60 percent of customer complaints via Twitter go unanswered, he said. The rest of the time, companies usually just respond by saying, "'Call us or send us an email,'" Kolsky said, so Twitter serves as nothing but an extra step.
"How much can you explain about a problem in 140 characters?" Kolsky added.
Not everyone dismisses the benefits of popular social media sites for CRM functions, such as customer service and sales, and not all companies are falling short of successful implementation.
"We don't live in 1999 anymore," Esposito, the Vistaprint social media manager, said. "It does add an extra step, but it also makes customer service more convenient because it occurs on the platform more consumers are comfortable with. People want to use social media."
Andrew Nelson, an Atlanta-based reporter, is one of those people. Nelson said he is more likely to reach out via Twitter for customer service than to call a toll-free number. He has used Twitter to log complaints with IKEA, Sears and Hertz, and to send a compliment to Delta Air Lines.
Nelson, 41, said he views Twitter as sort of a backdoor solution to customer service that helps him avoid getting lost in the phone tree. When he complained to Sears that a repairman hadn't shown up, the company responded by assigning a customer service representative directly to his case, rescheduling the visit and reducing the service fee.
"If I reach out through Twitter, there's a lot more flexibility. They can be a lot more creative. They're more empowered to resolve issues than someone on the phone," he said. "At least, it appears that way."
Vistaprint recovered from its initial missteps and eventually learned to use social media to communicate with customers, such as Nelson, by creating conversations, Esposito said. The company had spent the first six months after joining Twitter just listening to what customers were saying. When the first tweets finally went out, Esposito said, the initial feedback was that the message and tone were wrong.
"At first we thought it was a [public relations] function," he said.
Now, the company posts marketing advice for small businesses -- not with the expectation that people who see the posts will buy a product like business cards right away, but in hopes they will remember Vistaprint when it does come time to buy.
According to Leary, the CRM Essentials founder, that kind of long-term approach is the best way companies can go about using social media.
"The smart ones are doing it from perspective of, 'What does the customer need to not be a one-time customer?'" he said.
Even without focusing its social media efforts on sales, Vistaprint can point to an increase in profits directly from Facebook and Twitter. The company keeps track of sales that come via links from social media sites.
"It's not a giant piece of the pie, but it's noticeable," Esposito said.
At Enterasys Networks, a network infrastructure and security systems company based in Salem, N.H., the social CRM success story began differently. Chief Customer Officer Vala Afshar started using Twitter simply to connect to other CRM technology experts.
"I jumped into social media tools, [but] not with the goal of marketing. My primary goal was to learn," he said. "If I tweeted 100 times, maybe one time I would reference Enterasys. I wasn't there just to sell."
Eventually, Afshar's personal approach led to a ton of attention for Enterasys. He got to know other CRM experts and became part of their community. He emerged as a CRM expert in his own right, which led to a book deal and a slew of media interviews. In one two-day period, Enterasys was mentioned in CRM articles on four prominent websites: the Huffington Post, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Business Review and Forbes.
Afshar, who now also serves as chief marketing officer, said he believes most companies are missing the mark with social media because they're not patient enough. They want to bombard potential customers with "me, me, me" sales and marketing pitches, when they should be using social media slowly, over time, to build relationships and have conversations.
"It's not a megaphone; it's a telephone," he said.
Making sense of social media for businesses
There's no consensus among experts and analysts about which social media sites best accomplish the goals of CRM -- largely because what is "best" depends on the company and the situation.
Kolsky, despite his claim that Twitter is terrible for customer service, says tweeting beats other forms of social media when it comes to effective marketing.
Mitch Lieberman, managing partner of DRI, a Portugal-based business consulting firm with U.S. locations in New York and Vermont, said the social media sites that work best for CRM users depend largely on whether the company is selling to other businesses or to consumers.
Perhaps the most important social media site for businesses-to-consumer companies, said Lieberman, isn't a social media site at all: Amazon Review is the largest community in the world, and companies need to know what is being said there about their products.
Popular social sites such as Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram haven't really been integrated into CRM at this point, he said. Doing so would require very advanced communities, said Lieberman, who helps companies use technology to enhance the customer experience
Facebook has its place in building relationships with customers and gaining their trust, Lieberman said, but the site is limited from a CRM perspective. Most people use the site to connect with friends and family, not businesses, he said.
"Facebook is there, but the jury is still out," he said. "For someone in the industry, I very rarely go to companies' brand pages. I don't get the sense that they're really listening. They're sort of listening."
From a business-to-business perspective, nothing beats LinkedIn for connecting with customers or potential customers, Lieberman said. CRM software that integrates data from LinkedIn could, for example, notify a company when a customer's contact person leaves his or her job and notify the company when a replacement is hired.
Google Plus also has potential because it is perceived as more of an open, public network than Facebook -- essentially, it's less personal and more topical.
Business executives and analysts do agree that no matter which social media sites a company uses, the key to social CRM is creating a culture that encourages listening to customers, talking to them and addressing their needs. This can take place within a social media site or through other channels.
"The value is in creating communities," Kolsky said. "Social media is no good unless you've created a community."