With most of my career with Fortune 100 blue chip companies, I know what it’s like to market in a hyper-competitive, show-me-the-money environment. I’ve been aggressively skeptical about the role of social media in an environment where there is a finite number of customers, an emphasis on long-term contracts, and no patience for fluff.

But after spending a few weeks assessing the state of social media among industrial companies, I’m changing my mind.

To be sure, B2B social media successes have been scarce. According to a 2009 Forrester research study, 86% of B2B companies had NO integrated social media strategy. These are smart folks — if there is a way to market effectively for less, they’ll be doing it. But there are good reasons why there is slow adoption in this segment of business:

  • Social media takes time and new skillsets. The recession will depress any rapid change in marketing capabilities.
  • In a failing economic environment, the emphasis is on near-term cash generation and survival, not “community.”
  • Building a community seems less relevant when you have a small number of known customers tied up in long-term contracts.
  • Understanding the shift in marketing channels, customer dynamics and relevance to B2B will take time … and maybe a few retirements.

When the economy improves, I believe mainstream B2B companies WILL make the shift as they understand how technology is already re-defining their customer relationships. Here’s why:1) Sales and marketing is about building relationships … and that’s what social media is all about. The intense, high-value B2B industrial relationships are like a marriage. B2C is a flirtation — gimme a coupon and I’ll go out with you baby. There are probably lots of ways this important, long-term B2B bond can be enhanced through the constant contact enabled by social media, especially throughout a long sales cycle. Perhaps it will take place behind a firewall — most people don’t want to discuss their marriage in public!

2) It’s where the customers are. In some of my seminars, I challenge attendees to find their truckstop — the place where customers hang out. That place has changed dramatically over the past few years. Even baby boomers are spending enormous amounts of time on the Internet. The lines between professional “truckstops” and social “truckstops” are blurring. In the old days, business networking took place on the golf course or at glitzy trade shows booths. Those days are over. We need to find the new truckstops and they’re online (53% of Facebook users are over 35, up from 46% in 2008).

3) Social media can play a critical role in the information-gathering process. The consequences of a major buy are high and purchasing agents use all available means to gather data on your company and product. They’re going to Google the heck out of you. So why not help them and gain an edge by putting quality content everywhere — blogs, videos and social networking communities that can help your cause.

4) It can help build loyalty. Compared to impulsive B2C behaviors, there are probably fewer opportunities to influence direct sales through SM. However, that’s just one piece of the sales pipeline. What about service? Technical support? Product development? Customer involvement and loyalty? I’ve been guilty of focusing too much on the lead-generating opportunities of social media and have not given enough credit to the other parts of the sales cycle.

5) Social media is a way to engage and inspire far-flung employees. Today, every employee can be your best sales advocate or a corporate terrorist. It has never been more important to enlist your employees and engage them through the power of social media. For example, Ingram Micro, the world’s largest technology distributor, has open Facebook sites available by country so their employees can connect and collaborate. IBM, GE and others are actively engaging employees to tell their company story through this global Town Hall meeting.

6) If you don’t engage, it will be done for you! My previous blog showed an example where Dow’s name has been hijacked for several fake social media sites that pillory the company. Today, every customer can be a critic, every employee a reporter, every activist a broadcaster. Without an active voice in social media, your company will be defined by others.

Props: In the best spirit of social media, my enlightenment on this subject was nurtured by blogs and thought leaders such as Chris Brogan, Jamie Wallace, John Bottom, Nathan Egan, and Jason Falls    . If you’re interested in social media’s impact on marketing, follow their tweets, blogs and insights.

How is your B2B company coping with the transition to this new world of “community?”

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