Can social media be successful in B2B?

Most of the professional marketing forums are clogged with endless debate over questions like “Is Twitter for real?” and “Getting sales leads from Facebook.”
Usually I sit back and let people knock themselves out, but occasionally I join the fray, especially when people make outlandish claims about how social media platforms should be at the heart of every marketing campaign. Poppycock. (Did I actually just use that word? Gentle readers I am turning into a curmudgeon before your eyes).
Here’s a post I made in a heated debate on the viability of social media in B2B (business-to-business, as opposed to B2C — business to consumer) …
Demonstrable B2B results are scant unless you define success as “number of mentions” or “number of hits.” How is it driving top line growth?
Social media has vast opportunities to increase visibility, which hopefully will contribute to brand awareness and growth in the long-term. It also has amazing potential for consumer research. However, I am working on a class presentation and have been stymied coming up with any significant, measurable B2B growth success stories.
Why it’s not catching on
One contributor to this vacuum is the fact that many mainstream B2B companies have been slow to get into it. And why should they? Their customers aren’t pulling them into it, marketing budgets and resources have been slashed to the bone, and the focus is delivering near-term sales results. Let’s face it, a company selling wheels to Chrysler is not going to Twitter its way to success.
Another reason is that the apps to measure and quantify social media contributions are really just emerging. The technology is literally weeks or months old. The channel is not going to get attention until it can be quantified.
Finally, social media depends on the power of community. There are significant hurdles in the B2B world that do not encourage a community of all information, everywhere, all the time. One hurdle is called the SEC. Another is the risk of competitors monitoring the buzz. A third is an entrenched and tightly-controlled communication hierarchy at most major companies. For these reasons, B2B will lag significantly behind B2C in this emerging marketing channel.
Show me the money!
One of the forum participants referenced a site that claimed to have examples of mainstream businesses using social media to increase sales. I explored the link but did not see one viable case study of B2B social media success.
One article claiming “proof” that social media is relevant to B2B cites a niche restaurant site “with more than 1,000 videos posted, 10,000 images, and an average of 300 blog posts per month.” Activity does not necessarily equal economic success.
I’m not a naysayer — I DO SEE POTENTIAL and amazing progress, especially in B2C! It is only a matter of time before we start seeing B2B successes. I only hope professional marketers evangelize based on data, business fundamentals and economic realities, not simply unbridled enthusiasm and hope.
Don’t forget the lessons of the Internet bust. You cannot sustain an economic model based on site hits and video posts.
NOTE: Since I wrote this article, I’ve softened my position in this area after studying what some B2B companies are beginning to accomplish through social media. I wrote a series of articles on this topic, which include the best and worst B2B companies for social media and a post on why companies eventually MUST get into this arena:

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  • John Bottom

    Mark – excellent insight as always. I have also tried to find hard examples of B2B social media implementation, but without success. Another reason for this is that purchase cycles are much longer; I’d guess that the majority of B2B sales happen only after months of research and relationship-building, and the recent and fairly sudden popularisation of social media has maybe not yet caught up with it. It will come – and if I see it first, I’ll be sure to tell you!

  • Mac McIntosh


    Great post!

    I also blogged about the role of social media in B2B lead generation and sales:

    Please tell me what you think of it.

    Mac McIntosh

  • Michael Torano

    Enjoyed your post! It's clear that we share the same opinion regarding the measure of success in SM. Clearly defined objectives are the beginning of every successful marketing plan followed by strategy and media outlet or technology.

    It's my belief that success in B2B twitter strategies are likely to be defined by "mentions", "RTs" and "clicks". Top-Line growth? Wouldn't this be a by-product of the above? Perhaps the objective is expanded distribution or gathering of data rather than selling more widgets.

    Social media provides an opportunity to narrowly target a specific or even micro-niche target such as IT professionals, convenience store managers, office furniture manufacturers, female high-school soccer coaches or people who believe they are reincarnated unicorns.

    Other than direct selling of product/service within social media (particularly Twitter), how else could you measure "success"?

    E x p o s u r e…after all, isn't that what media is supposed to do?

    I look forward to reading more of your posts. ;>

    Michael Torano

  • Steve Dodd

    Mark, I agree that measurement is the key. Measurement of valid business impact is the only way key executives are going to adopt Social Media. The industry has not stepped up to this fundamental. I’m trying to find a solution that addresses this primary market driver.

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