Why B2B’s MUST adopt social media strategies

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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  • New Media Strategies

    B2B must companies must not shy away from social media marketing. I think it's just a matter of balance, applying still the traditional marketing and also getting involve in social media marketing to better reach a larger community available in the net.

  • Katherine Ventres Canipelli

    Although I wholeheartedly agree with your B2B social prescription and am working with industrial clients to integrate "social experience" into their marketing plans, I caution that it's a long, long road. I find that several fundamental gaps inhibit adoption of "new" methods:

    1) non-existent market strategies — management by whim or technical/channel advantage — sacrificing consistency

    2) sales/BD operations where each rep in effect runs their own artisanal job shop — with no centralized strategic support, inadequate CRM, poor process definition

    3) antiquated SG&A budget ratios and that habitually suboptimize marketing investment

    4) absence of marketing infrastructure working to target, attract and nurture relationships at the top of the funnel or to measure the customer experience

    Disruptive technologies require us to think forward, which is mighty difficult without a framework. When executives fail to invest in basic market strategy, they tend to fall back on past personal experience. As a gross generalization, the greater the operating/tech expertise a SMB CEO has, the more likely [he] is to express that [he] knows how to market because he's been a target of marketers/sellers. Confounding, really. Moreover, social marketing strategies also take time to show results that link to business growth.

    For these B2B entities to take advantage of social marketing–to make it successful as a platform and not mere window dressing–they must rethink how business development and market relationships are managed. This is a tall order; I suspect that the likely entree will be integration of social tools and collaborative process into enterprise systems (ERP, MRP, CRM).

    In the meantime, we need to get specific, take down the barriers, find the network cells that are large enough for beta social marketing, prove the case, and just go do it.

    – Katherine

    My April09 post on B2B social media trends may also be of interest: http://tr.im/p51b


    Thanks to both of you for taking the time to read my post an respond.

    Katherine, your detailed insights are too good to leave on a comment section. May I use your attributed comments in a future blog post?

  • Katherine Ventres Canipelli

    Yes, of course, Mark. Also, we're actively doing research on B2B trends in the areas I touched on: business development strategies, positioning and marketing messages, sales & buying processes, and, of course, social networking. I'm a proponent of open dialogue and idea sharing on all of these issues. How else will beat down these monsters?

    – Katherine Ventres Canipelli
    "The Industrious Marketer"

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