Brands turn to in-the-cloud CRM services for better collaboration and timely data

Technology companies, including Microsoft, HP and IBM, have unveiled plans in recent weeks to launch or expand in-the-cloud CRM services, reflecting the growing demand from marketers for more collaborative and timely data about clients and prospects. However, some industry experts have customization concerns.

The Norris Group, a Riverside, CA-based real estate company, switched to Microsoft Dynamics CRM after its in-house system led to salespeople duplicating efforts and a corrupt database nearly cost it a decade’s worth of information. It slimmed its prospect list from 40,000 to 8,000 and also found that events didn’t generate as many leads as its executives thought.

“We’ve done lots of live speaking engagements and we thought they were a big part of our leads. When we looked at the analytics, we saw that wasn’t the case at all,” says Aaron Norris, VP of marketing at The Norris Group. “The year before we started using the Microsoft service, we spoke 26 weekends out of the year. The next year, we cut that in half, and our sales increased.”

Various companies have recently announced new or improved in-the-cloud services, meaning platforms that can be accessed from any computer via the Web. HP said in late January that it will add CRM and database services to its HP Enterprise Cloud Services-Compute platform, and Microsoft launched the latest version of its Dynamics CRM platform with improved integration with other products. IBM said it formed a new partnership with open-source software vendor SugarCRM that will benefit its LotusLive service. InfoStreet also recently announced its largest enhancements to its cloud platform in nearly a decade.

Other companies, such as, Oracle and SAP, are already established players in the increasingly crowded cloud CRM field. Worldwide spending on in-the-cloud services will grow almost threefold to $44.2 billion by 2013, according to IT research company IDC. However, Jonathan Penn, VP at Forrester Research, said last year in a report that “concerns about security are the most prominent reasons that organizations cite for not adopting cloud services.”

“The cloud programs make it easier to capture leads online and trace their source, so marketers know which e-mail campaign a new client is coming from,” says Jason Stewart, director of marketing at Demandbase. “With traditional CRM programs, they might have been able to get some inkling with research and diligence, but this has revolutionized how online marketers are able to measure success.”

Industry experts say that cloud computing can present customization hurdles for marketers. Chris Hubble, VP of brand strategy at market research company DB5, which switched to in-the-cloud service InfoStreet three years ago, says it can be more challenging to make simple changes like switching font styles. “If it’s something other [companies]aren’t asking for, it goes to the bottom of the list, or else we have to pay a fee to get that change made,” he says, adding that these are minor concerns overall.

As more marketers embrace cloud CRM, the industry is also embracing social media for its collaborative format and facility for crowdsourcing. Last summer, launched Chatter, which integrates real-time communication and collaboration tools from Facebook and Twitter to enhance CRM efforts. Last month, the CRM provider made Chatter widely available free to any organization.

“This allows salespeople and marketing people to use a feed or to follow people very similar to Facebook,” says Scott Holden, senior director of product marketing at

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