By Chris Bucholtz
This is the fifth year that I’ve compiled a list of the best CRM blogs, and the trend is clear: more and better blogs on the topic of CRM are out there than ever before. In 2008, it was a struggle to find 20 good blogs on CRM; now, there are so many good ones that picking the 20 best is a difficult chore. But the cream rises to the top – using the criteria of content quality, consistency and influence, our list represents the 20 must-reads for anyone hoping to be on the cutting edge of CRM thinking.
We try to present a mix of theory and practical advice. One clear lesson that can be drawn: if you’re an independent business owner (as many of the non-affiliated analysts on our list happen to be), your blog serves as a combination of calling card, curriculum vitae and cocktail party conversation. It works very well for many of these bloggers, and their sustained success – on the Top 20 list an in their businesses – show how valuable a blog can be.
We also have our share of big-firm analysts, journalists, service specialists, marketing folk and whatever Marshall Lager is. (Kidding, Marshall!)
We disqualified our own blog, of course, and we also kept away from other vendor’s blogs. We also tried to narrow the focus to CRM bloggers, vs. those shifting to collaboration, marketing automation and other CRM-like technologies and practices; that’s a function of the growing number of CRM blogs, not of any diminishing of quality of bloggers covering those spaces.
So without further delay, here’s our list of the 20 bloggers who made the biggest mark on CRM in 2011:
How do you outdo yourself as a perennial top CRM blogger? Take the community you’ve built (virtually as well as through tireless face-to-face networking) and create a remarkable contest designed to expose up-and-coming CRM vendors. Paul Greenberg, the author of both of these blogs, drove “CRM Idol” by enlisting help from all over the CRM spectrum; this effort dominated the middle part of the year in his blogs. That gave many small CRM vendors premium placement for their videos and the reviews done by Paul’s expert team of judges, exposure that outstripped anything these companies could afford to generate on their own. By understanding that innovation comes from the small, hungry companies – and by providing a chance for that innovation to shine through – Paul rendered a great service to the entire CRM world, and he used his dual blogs to do it. The contest also helped move the ball toward the realization of Paul’s vision of a Social CRM world; much of the innovation demonstrated in the contest is pushing hard in that direction. So, now that Paul’s effectively described the Social CRM future, now he’s working to make it a reality. Thank heaven he uses his powers for good and not evil.
If you’re confused about acquisitions, feature additions and strategic decisions made by CRM companies, you can bet Denis Pombriant was confused, too – briefly. Then, while the rest of us were still scratching our heads, Denis went over and wrote a blog post that made perfect sense of the day’s news. You may not always agree with him, but if you don’t it isn’t because Denis is provoking you; he can take bold positions without being brash or abrasive about it. He’s also the go-to guy for putting CRM in a macroeconomic context; just as Brent Leary excels at digging down to get to the needs of small business, Denis is great at elevating his analysis to a global scale, often touching on themes of sustainability and energy. Denis also keeps a busy schedule of trade shows, so if there’s an event you wanted to attend but couldn’t, check the Beagle Research Blog – Denis is probably at the show, and he’s also probably explained the major announcements.
With his tongue-in-cheek faux-egomaniac persona front and center, Esteban Kolsky seasons his commentary with both a sense of humor and a brutal honesty, which makes his blog unpredictable in a way no others on this list can be. He’s not really a egomaniac – he actually is as smart as he says, and his knowledge spans the CRM space. He’s not interested in CRM by itself – he’s interested in the entire business software ecosystem, because only by building the complete solution can businesses realize the full potential of the technology available to them. An ex-Gartner analyst, he often offers his takes on the acquisitions and strategic moves made by the big players in CRM, but then he’ll turn around and get much more tactical in his next post. Esteban’s blog is a genuine grab-bag of information, but every time you reach in you’ll pull out something of value delivered with an insider’s insight.
Brent Leary pushes the definition of what Social CRM is by talking about the larger ecosystem, but he doesn’t do that as a big thinker pontificating about his grand ideas. He’s a small business guy at heart, so if he’s talking about CRM or about any other related technologies – ERP, marketing automation, lead management, or whatever – he’s talking from the context of what they can do to solve business problems. Brent also models smart blog behavior for his clients; the blog is chock full of videos, sound files, graphics and other goodies he collects as he hustles and hurries through the Social CRM world, often with some fairly weighty guests. And, like Paul Greenberg, he sees a lot of value in exposing innovators to the greater world; Brent’s CRM-ISH awards honor companies doing things related to CRM, an area where there’s plenty of innovation just waiting for a boost.
Ginger Conlan and her team provide readers with a year’s worth of object lessons and expert insight drawing from the experiences and expertise of writers Tom Hoffman, Mila D’Antonio and Cynthia Clark and from a tremendous array of guest bloggers. They’ve struck a great balance between humanity and expertise – the reporters’ observations set off the experts’ well-crafted ideas to provide a readable balance that also carries plenty of value. The blog and the topics it covers demonstrate how the lines between CRM and marketing are blurring in the age of social media, and how this communications revolution is accelerating the impact of customer experience on the bottom line. Best of all, the blog is updated at an almost daily pace – the crew of writers and special guests are prolific and if what they’re talking about today doesn’t hold an immediate lesson for your business, just wait 24 hours. Chances are good the next day’s content will be immensely helpful.
Perhaps the most effective tutor of prospective CRM buyers (and those looking to upgrade their existing systems), Richard Boardman draws from his practical experience as a consultant to help head off implementation failures long before implementations ever start. A strong proponent of spending time in the planning stages to define requirements, set goals and behave in practical and productive ways during the early stages of CRM decision making, Richard provides thoughtful useful and eye-opening advice in the form of multi-part guides to these preliminary steps. The sad thing is that he comes to this information from seeing so many businesses fall into the same precise traps; by becoming a expert on what causes failure, he’s also made himself a skilled tour guide for those seeking a path to success. Managing costs, working with consultants, convincing the CEO – Richard provides advice for these very common components of implementing and managing CRM, and then some. If you’re engaged with a vendor or a consultant, you need to be engaged with Richard’s blog, too.
Weighing in from the west coast is Brian Vellmure, whose blog reminds me of a versatile camera lens: it zooms in on small, pertinent social CRM details, and can zoom back out to capture the big picture of how the innovations applied to business are changing the world in broader, bolder ways. He’s not limited to talking about the nuts and bolts of CRM – in fact, that’s not his territory at all. Brian is more likely to talk about the environment, the attitude, the strategy and the psychology of how businesses relate to customers than his is about the technology they bring to bear. This year was a busy one for Brian – including a switch of blogging locations – so he had fewer posts than in the past, but his inclusion of the slide decks he uses for speaking gigs should provide food for thought (and should also help you see what a good slide deck for a speaking gig looks like!).
Although he holds a significant position at Sword Ciboodle, Mitch Lieberman also maintains this blog for his own independent musings. Mitch isn’t afraid to ask a big question and then let it hang without an answer – some things we don’t know the answer to yet, after all, and Mitch is sanguine enough to avoid acting like he knows the answers all the time. However, he does bring a wealth of wisdom to the blog in the form of well-considered thinking and the voices of other experts when they can help shed light on a topic. Mitch did a great job of talking about the value and the strategies around social media and customer service – as well he ought to, working for Sword Ciboodle – and he did it in great depth and detail. Regardless of the technology you end up using, if you plan on delivering state-of-the-art service, you owe it to yourself to check Mitch’s blog to figure out the best ways to do it.
9. Michael Maoz
Analyst blogs face some challenges – when you’re paid to give expertise to your customers, how much of that expertise should you give away via your blog? Michael shows how it should be done: there’s some great nuggets of data, but the blog deals primarily with Michael’s informed opinions and attitudes about what’s going on in CRM, customer service and social business. No, wait – the blog delivers Michael’s attitude-informed opinions. When it comes to social media and social business, he’s refreshingly free of the euphoric optimism of other observers and appreciates the social revolution for what it is: a hard, long and potentially costly slog to a new way of doing things which shares some difficult similarities with other business revolutions from years past. The nice thing about a mature voice like Michael’s is that it has some context to compare what’s new now with what was new then – and can inform you on past lessons that can you can draw from without making the mistakes that defined those lessons yourself.
10. CRM Search Blog
Chuck Schaeffer is one of the smartest CRM people I know. The former CEO of Aplicor, he’s turned his talents to CRM Search, and in the process built quite a cast of fellow bloggers. In addition to Chuck’s insightful posts about what’s going on in the CRM industry, you also get the likes of Marshall Lager, Blake Landau, and Denis Pombriant on a regular basis (although I had to knock points off for allowing my drivel into the blog on occasion). Chuck understands on a fundamental level what vendors do right and what they do wrong, and he has the ability to intuitively spot vendors’ strategy changes and to explain what they mean. Best of all, Chuck has an insider’s knowledge but no longer is beholden to anyone. If you’ve taken a peek at the in-depth and bluntly honest analysis on CRM Search, which is very much in keeping with the tone of this blog, you understand why the CRM Search blog does a service to readers while making CRM vendors a little nervous.
While Ray Wang’s blog is a little less engaging than the author in person, that still makes it better than most blogs. And, from a pure content point of view, it’s hard to beat Ray’s take on things, from social business to developing a business strategy. Frequently peppered with insights from Constellation Research’s work, the blog is a mix of big thinking and in-the-trenches business news analysis. You’re as likely to get an analysis of Lithium’s latest round of funding as your are to get a comparison of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to the needs of developing a high-level business strategy. Ray also includes a series of interviews with disruptive business leaders – that is, disruptive in a good way. There’s also plenty of Constellation news – hey, this is essentially the research firm’s company blog – but you can work around those posts to find lots of little acorns of knowledge. Want to find a data point to convince your boss to go all-in on a social strategy? Visit this blog, read, and pay attention.
Wim has mastered the twist-ending approach to writing a blog. He’ll often start with a premise – “The Customer is Always Wrong,” to cite one popular post – and start delivering on that premise – only to turn it around and demonstrate why “conventional” thinking leads to folly (in the case of the above-mentioned post, the reality is that businesses define “right” and should be working harder to help customers get to that definition of “right”). That makes for an entertaining read; Win’s nearly 15 years of experience in CRM makes for an informative read. He’s also mastered the art of being a “social” blogger, doing more than his share of reading of other’s work and bringing back ideas and links to his readers (while adding his own take). Doing this results in a lively comments section populated by some of the big brains in CRM and Social CRM. Wim’s insight on customer service, social media and value-co-creation make this valuable reading, and Wim’s behavior as a blogger and member of a wider community make it instructive for anyone looking to develop their own social behavior as a professional.
13. Social CRM Ideas
Mark Tamis didn’t get off that many posts this year, but the ones he did pen took swings at enormous ideas – business process management, social messaging, the meaning of Salesforce’s acquisition of Radian6, and so on. He also gave a platform to a few guest posts from Graham Hill, another well-respected voice for customer collaboration, and he devoted a lot of space to CRM Idol. But perhaps the most interesting thing Mark did was to give a reason for Social CRM that could reach business leaders. Back in November, he wrote that Social CRM was exciting, in part, “Because it will generate many new data points that we can use to motivate and pilot our organizations.” Mark sees reluctance to change and a chronic inability to manage change as dangerous and widespread barriers to fully realizing the goal of customer-centric businesses, and his ability to articulate Social CRM’s value not in grandiose marketing-speak but in terms that decision makers can internalize easily is evidence of the incisive thinking that the hallmark of his blog.
Another terrific analyst’s blog, this one is far-ranging and gives Mike Fauscette the opportunity to connect the dots behind his general areas of coverage to provide context for his more precisely-focused customer analysis. But even if you’re not an IDC customer, Mike’s blog gives you great context for the trends that are impacting your decisions. For example, in November he wrote about the concept of innovation management – a topic certainly not limited to CRM but one that has major ramifications in the era of Social CRM, the evolution of the social business and the introduction of myriad new technologies. Same goes for his breakdowns of the what it mean to have a social business, or the underlying tactics needed to create successful collaboration – Mike can connect the dots that explain why you need to do things and the factors that make those things necessary, even if he doesn’t tell you how to do them (but, hey, isn’t that your job anyway?).
A newcomer to the list, Lauren Carlson, the main voice of this blog, scored bigtime with a satirical post back in July sending up the “unreliability” of cloud applications (as opposed to on-premise applications, which NEVER go down. Right?), but her regular posts are on target and as informative as that one was funny. In baseball, she’d be called a “spray hitter” – her posts are all over the place in terms of topic, but she deals adroitly with all of them. She also talks to some of the brightest luminaries in CRM to gain inspiration and information for her posts, so in many cases what you have is a smart writer adding a new angle on ideas from other smart people. In the Social CRM era, that’s really helpful – the way ideas are phrased may resonate differently with different business people, so Lauren’s fresh takes on these ideas have great value. There are also a host of guest posts from people with practical experience, making this a useful grab-bag blog. Stick your hand in there and see what you pull out.
Customer experience is a great buzzword and an inconsistent reality. Barry Dalton is both infuriated by this and the benefactor of a lot of fodder for his blog, which focuses on customer service and the object lessons that real-world attempts to help customers provide. Often, those attempts are hamstrung but improper deployment of resources, bad assumptions about customers, and processes that have gone hopelessly out of whack, but few businesses seem committed to attacking these problems head-on until their effects are brutally clear. If you’re developing a customer service component to your CRM efforts, read this blog, and if you run across something that sounds like your business, start ringing the alarm bell. Barry also delves into more strategic ideas, like customer self-service and the effects that increasingly effective service have on customer expectations and behaviors. It’s a fun read, too – that’s part of Barry’s service to his readership.
The most influential voice for CRM in Latin America, Jesus Hoyos’ blog is in Spanish – but it’s readily translated into English thanks to a nifty little button on the page, and the topics Jesus discusses are directly translatable, too, regardless of your geographic location. What’s great about Jesus is that he strikes a precise balance between content creation and content curation – he’ll lay out an idea, and then provide numerous links, lists and other data available on the web to back up his idea and provide additional inspiration. Jesus is another regular on the CRM show circuit, and his many presentations make their appearance on the blog, along with videos and photos – he really understands what a blog can be. An advocate of social CRM, he’s first and foremost an advocate of picking solutions that fit the business needs of the people using them. In Latin America, with a range of different customers of varying degrees of technology sophistication, that’s an essential strategy – and it’s a strategy that Jesus does a good job of exporting to the rest of the world.
18. Forrester Blogs
While they are tossed into the dogpile of analysts that make up Forrester’s somewhat unweildy stream of posts, Bill Band and Kate Leggett make their impact felt through their timely, thorough and readable posts. Bill’s the classic SFA/CRM analyst (with great posts this year about the Forrester Wave results and Forrester’s guide to mobile CRM best practices), while Kate pays attention to customer service primarily, but their coverage areas overlap a little. That makes for some great posts; Bill excerpts his analysis, and Kate creates great lists of rules, strategies and philosophies that are immediately useful for anyone trying to evolve their service organizations. They both understand the value of social media in CRM and service – and they use Twitter effectively to notify the world when their posts appear. Follow them and you’ll be able to read their work as it appears instead of paddling through the larger Forrester blog stream.
Adding some additional voices has only made this blog stronger. Brian Carroll of Marketing Sherpa fame is all over the process of collecting leads and ushering them through the pipeline. That’s not as easy a task as it used to be – nowadays, the technology that enables us to collect more lead data also increases the expectations for sales productivity, and thus sales pros are stuck in an ever-steepening spiral of increased quotas and performance metrics. Brian and his team – which includes J. David Green and Andrea Johnson – provide useful advice for managing this steep expectation curve, and they also are skilled at relating to sales people. Part of the beauty of the site is the way it treats archived webinars – not only does the blog talk about the topic, but it breaks out the specific elements of the conversations and gives times. That allows time-pressed viewers to go right to the point in the webinar that most interests them – a very reader-friendly feature that points out how sales benefits from CRM ideas in more ways than just on the bottom line. Between the video, the webinars and excerpts form Marketing Sherpa’s reports, this should be required reading for CRM users focusing on the sales side of things.
20. Third Idea Blog
Although I wish he’d post more, Marshall Lager covers a lot of ground when he does write, and he covers it very well. Few CRM writers give their readership as much credit as Marshall does. That means he talks about complex concepts and vendor maneuvers with both authority and amusement – and he clearly assumes you’re in on the joke. See his insightful and unsparing disassembly of Oracle Open World 2011 – he has little need to fill you in on the soap operatic details of the show and proceeded right to explaining how those activities actually harmed Oracle’s business. Marshall also uses the blog to promote events like CRM Idol or the SuperNova Awards, and his status assures his inclusion among the judges’ panel. And, if you want to know which CRM events are worth following, keep an eye on Marshall’s blog; his analysis of an event indicates that it’s the place to be (for better or worse). Also, I can safely say that Marshall is the only member of the Top 20 to have referenced the Buggles in the last year.