There was a subtle, but tell tale shift in the wind in Silicon Valley last week. It came via a relatively innocuous promise imbedded in the Service Cloud announcement from Salesforce.com.
First reported by Anthony Ha of VentureBeat, Service Cloud christened “the era of cloud computing” and came with some fanfare – a stable of pre-briefed pundits and even a CrunchBase profile. Their well choreographed launch garnered mention in over 20 articles and blogs by my count (and I stopped counting a while ago).
What I found most interesting wasn’t the headline at all. Several companies including arch rival Oracle have declared movement into the “Social CRM” arena for a while now. It was the mention of SEO in the context of Customer Service that caught my attention. As reported by Jeff Widman of TechCrunch the SEO promise read “SEO–make sure your company’s community shows up high when I reach for Google.”
Whether fully supported or not, the capability sounded reasonably straight forward:
- connect to social networks, forums, blogs and other sites where your company’s products are mentioned,
- funnel that information into your own web-based knowledge repository. Now you have a repository about your products and related information – presumably containing all the latest questions, comments, recommendations, partner offerings, reference requests, etc.
- enable customers to socialize that content by adding comments, voting it up/down, adding follow-up questions, linking other relevant information on the web, etc.
- expose the knowledge base to search engine spiders and let it be indexed.
The result of this is you’d now have a bevy of content filled with clustered keywords, authored by customers themselves, all pointing to your domain. Now, the more customers get conditioned to using a web-based Service community for answers, the more they’d naturally do so in response to real life events (e.g., new product launches, new partnerships, competitive developments, economic pressures, etc.). This means they would continue to actively populate community sites with all sorts of content filled with the exact keywords pertinent to the day – questions, answers, referral requests, etc. And, this is the type of content (void of marketing spin) that customers seem to want the most.
But, it’s not just customers who would find this information when they reach for Google – so could prospects (shoppers), partners, competitors, your competitors’ customers, your partners’ customers, and so-on. The implication: for companies who not only want to participate in social media, but who go the next step to hosting their own community, they’ll be a great deal easier to find on the web. But, if your company and products suddenly become easier to find via natural search, why would you continue to invest additional funds into paid search?
The thing is, until now, being found via search on the web was a matter of tinkering with expert generated web-site content and meta data, and paying to be found via paid ads. Even key word based “inbound marketing” techniques rely on carefully selected anchor text and careful search term selection. Now, with companies deploying community applications there is a truly organic path to seeding natural search, and one that is destined to follow the sentiments and interests of the participants in nearly real time – or at least as real time as the latest web site crawl from Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc. Particularly for companies actively monitoring their community, this would seem to be the ultimate source for drastically improved natural search results.
What’s happening on the paid search side is even more telling. This morning, for example, Andy Beal reports an Efficient Frontier predication that search revenues are dropping, and he asks if Google revenues will reflect the same. Now we are in a severe recessionary down turn, so it’s no surprise that quarterly earnings across the board will reflect tough times; in this case, smaller marketing budgets. But, as with any investment outlook, the long term is often more compelling than the short term.
It’s not just that search revenues are down last quarter, or that ad-based business models (once all the rage) seem to have dropped out of vogue, or that my boss cut my paid search budget six months ago. If you look behind the headlines, we may be seeing a not-so-subtle shift away from traditional SEO and paid search strategies to community strategies. For one, paid search expense is proving ineffective – people are getting tired of broadcast messaging and marketing spin. Two, the promise of SEO via communities might be displacing or at least freezing search spend. And, three, we’re seeing the first evidence of broad interest of Service-focused communities that could bring with it tectonic implications for paid search long term. Here’s why.
Salesforce is a bell weather CRM company, and their customers seem to be very interested in Service communities. In the Service Cloud announcement, we’re seeing a shift in attention around web-based Service communities from a handful of early adopters to the early majority. It remains to be seen whether we’re at the tipping point where web-based Service communities combined with word of mouth marketing tools and clever tactics completely or substantially displaces paid search, but in this harsh economic environment a few things are clear.
In marketing, deep cost cuts are a fact of life. On the service side, it would be hard to imagine a time when retaining customers could be as important as it is today. This combination will certainly motivate many companies to entertain structural changes in the way they market and service their products. Web-based service communities simply represent too much promise to be ignored as a way to substantially improve both marketing and service — cutting hard dollar costs and enabling companies to get closer to customers to better service their needs.
Over the next 12-18 months or however long this recession lasts it’s likely that many of your competitors will explore web-base Service and Marketing communities for their potential. Just as likely, some will have begun to lay the groundwork for their own community initiatives. If you are a marketing or service professional who has not yet evaluated web-based community strategies, you are rapidly approaching the risk of being behind the learning curve by putting it off much further.
But it’s not enough to simply know what’s possible. You will need to discover how to leverage social tools and community strategies appropriate for your company, its stage, your market and your customers. Good advice would be to keep an eye out for first movers in your industry and learn all there is to know about what they are doing with communities and how they’re doing it.
It wouldn’t hurt to also follow news from the likes of companies like Google and Facebook. Whatever transpires to bring about wide spread adoption of web-based communities, one of these two companies will likely be in the middle of it. It’s not that every company needs a Facebook page, but the synergies between natural search, web-based communities, and social networks seem all too promising. So much so, that moving forward I’ll personally look at talk of a Google-Facebook combination a bit differently than I might have just a few short months ago.