Are B2B companies that refuse to engage in social media facing extinction?


That’s the short answer to a question that was posed to me in Focus (which seems quieter and more manageable than Quora).  It got my attention because it is a question I often hear in my classes too.  Instead of preaching fear and pontificating about social media as the Second Coming of B2B Marketing, let’s look at this another way.

Social media is growing fast, but it’s no longer new. If social media were such a dominating competitive force that non-users would be threatened with extinction, wouldn’t we be seeing some signs of that by now?

In fact, I am struggling to recall one case study where a B2B company used social media to dominate a market and extinguish a competitor … and I watch for these things.

I really like Eric Qualman’s inventive Social Media Revolution videos — I even show them in my classes some times. But there is one phrase in there that makes me cringe: “The ROI of social media is that you will be in business five years from now.”

Oh puhleeeze.  Let’s see.  Eric’s first edition of this video came out in 2009 which means we are less than two years aways from the Social Media Armageddon.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to change my vacation plans just yet.

Social media marketing can undoubtedly be used in very meaningful and powerful ways but I don’t think it is necessarily a “let’s bet the ranch” investment that is going to transform very many B2B marketplaces.  And let’s not forget the powerful applications for HR, PR, and many other parts of the company. I’m an advocate and think every company should make an informed decision about how these tools integrate with current efforts and can create some new ones.

Yes, it’s big, it’s bad, it ain’t going away.  And I’m all over the value selling perspective. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that a ton of business in this world is still won and lost at the end of a negotiation by the company who is prepared to knock off another penny per unit, especially in these economic times. That can kill a business faster than an inactive Twitter account.

I also think it’s difficult to maintain a sustainable competitive advantage based on a social media strategy. The entry barriers are low and it would be pretty easy for competitors to mimic efforts.

If you’re selling ball bearings to Ford you’re probably not going to tweet your way to long-term success, right?

What do you think?  Are you seeing any non-tech B2B businesses storming the fort with social media marketing successes?

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  • Anonymous

    Interesting. Come to think of it, the most successful business owners I know personally don’t really do social media very effectively. As social becomes more and more a part of every application on the web, it is more of a function than it is a destination. I happened to love Twitter but as you expand your usage to more and more “networks” you being to go deaf from all the noise.

  • So, I’m guessing you’re a not a fan of a certain former wine vlogger’s “What’s the ROI of your mother” statements either, right? 😉

  • I agree with you, they’re NOT facing extinction.  Local businesses are in social media every day whether they choose to participate or not.  Should they choose to, they can shape their brand better than if they don’t and they’ll likely earn a few more customers but the local “butcher” will still do fine with good ole’ local word of mouth.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    I have a very close group of friends who gather together once or twice a year. They are truly industrial leaders. Business presidents, VPs, directors. These folks are immersed in global competitive issues that will have an enormous impact on their companies. I guarantee you that blog comments and Twitter are not even on their radar screens. It’s not even in their universe. And it shouldn’t be. The conversations we have in our social media silos look silly and over-blown in the context of the real business world. It doesn’t help that most SM pundits have never had a leadership position in the real business world!

  • Mark W Schaefer

    Oh that just makes my skin crawl. Those types of statements are so pompous and disconnected from the mainstream business world.

  • The B2B aspect of social is a tricky one, I it’s main strengths in lead generation and building relationships that ultimately push a sale further down the funnel. The ‘quick wins’ that social can offer in a consumer sense don’t tend to apply to B2B. The fact is that without the right planning and guidance a business in the B2B sector could waste serious time playing in areas that hold no value.

    I also cringe at the ‘5 years’ comment in the videos!

  • Mark W Schaefer

    I think this is an appropriate type of focus Jason. Businesses are built in many different ways, with many different value propositions. I can think of some businesses built on tradition or exclusivity that probably should avoid common social media channels. Like so many questions in marketing, the answer to this is, “it depends.”

  • Rhondahurwitz1

     OOOH … I’m gonna have to disagree.  In my experience, business is built on relationships, including B2B. Who knows whether the opportunity to sell ball bearings to the supply chain at Ford started with developing a relationship on Twitter, Linked in or elsewhere.  By being more top of mind and presenting yourself as a thought leader, you will have more opportunity … and I include B2B in that.

    Do I think that the CEO has to worry about tweeting?  No, but hopefully other parts of the organization are leading the way with content marketing, and social media plays a role in that.

    As always, great piece, Mark!

  • Hi folks,
    We are currently dealing with this topic in our research project:
    (sorry, its mainly in Finnish, but the link at the bottom of the page should tell you what’s it all about)

  • Very valid point. But in a commodity-like business like ball bearings, coal or lumber, I’m even skeptical about the value of relationships, especially when so much business is conducted through portals and reverse auctions.

    And of course I agree about the possibilities. I just don;t know about the extinction thing! : ) Excellent contribution to the discussion, Rhonda!

  • Very good points, Mike and I agree. Thanks!

  • I am a big believer is social media but I doubt any business will extinct due to social media at all. At the end of the day, its drills down to the 4P’s in business.

    The relationship that we have developed on social networking sites might get us ahead but it won’t get us the deal. 

  • Be sure to let us know how this research turns out. This post might be helpful to you Henri: Connecting Social Media Marketing with Buyer Behavior

  • I love that quote.  And from the young guy too!  : )   Well done my friend!!!

  • We believe social is an important channel but not the only channel businesses should be using to engage with their customers. And if a client is selling ball bearings, then their particular strategy will be very unique and challenging and, gasp, they might not even need to use twitter or Facebook.  A business that understands the needs of their customers and where they express those needs is in the best position regardless of the channel.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Good way to present the idea. It all starts with strategy!

  • Social media have been and still is a tool for businesses to be more relational whether it is B2B or B2C. It’s a great bridging tool but not necessarily THE tool to make the deal happen. Maybe that day will come but it won’t be anytime soon.

  • I often describe the components of a social media footprint as being part of your digital galaxy. If someone is thinking that social media is the end all be all to marketing then they are forgetting that it takes a lot of galaxies to make up a universe. 

  • LoL! thanks Mark, its from yours article. Just putted it in a.. erm tweetable tweet! thanks for sharing mate! 

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment Jan!

  • My impression is that many people in this silo don’t see the big world. As you and I have discuszsed, the operative word in social media marketing is “marketing.”  That’s where the emphasis should be, not playing with Facebook. : ) Thanks Brian.

  • Am I seeing non-tech B2B businesses storming the fort with social media marketing successes? No … and I keep looking, because these are the types of clients I work with.  In fact, when clients ask if they should be in the space, my first answer is always, “It depends.”  One thing I am looking at more closely for B2B is how well they consider mobile technologies in the way they deliver content.  After all, the business world lives and breathes in a mobile world.

  • Excellent point Polly!  May leap-frog social for B2B! : ) 

  • I’m in the camp of Social Media being just another form of media that’s available for you to use to stay in front of prospects and customers.

    TV, radio, print, billboards, direct mail, speaking engagements, yellow page ads are all media that allow you to do the same thing… stay in front of prospects and customers.

    At one point in time I can imagine there was some authority saying that businesses would be steam rolled if they didn’t jump on one of these “New” media. More likely than not, the authority saying this was selling it. But lo and behold businesses have lived strong without following the authority’s doomsday advice.

    Social media is a marketing tool just all the others I’ve named above. The key to using any media successfully is to make sure that they directly contribute to closing sales. They carry their own weight by paying for themselves. They are neither a time suck nor a money pit.

    And while the future of online is bright and shiny, with everyone flocking to this media, saturating people’s attention, I believe you don’t neglect social media but you supplement your marketing efforts with offline marketing also because you’ll be far more noticeable in the snail mail now with a solid direct response piece that is far too valuable for the perfect prospect to throw away.

    But that’s just me. I learned from Earl Nightingale to do the opposite of what the herd is doing. 🙂

  • Very valid points Mark and yes I agree for the most part.  I agree on the extinction in 99% of B2B orgs. 

    However, there are some who I truly believe if they don’t get online they will be extinct. These include the local Chamber of Commerce. Their numbers already prove it. Their toughest competition is Meetup groups, Facebook groups and the million other ways people are building networks on and offline that doesn’t require a membership to a Chamber. 

    We have trained many Chambers over the past 1.5 yrs and have been brutally honest with them.  We have showed them the stats. Most of them don’t even have a blog let alone a Facebook page worth engaging. And even if they do most are so self centered it does nothing for their membership or prospective new members. 

    So what is my point… bottom line I think there are industries that are being killed by social media. I believe the Chambers are one and their are others. However, I agree with you that it is not the majority and that nothing can replace a biz plan with objectives, solid relationships combined with the right product in the right market at the right price. And the truth is if the Chambers can figure out how to leverage and integrate social media as well as evolve their business models around such they still have opportunity to rock it. They were of course some of the first social networks that ever existed. 

    hmmmm…. all of this starts to sound like marketing. Oh yeah, that word we all know but many forget when they hop on social media. Marketing 101 hasn’t went away I simply think too many have traded it in for a magic social train that simply doesn’t exist! Thanks for making me think tonight. Needed that. 

    p.s. sorry for the rant. Wasn’t planned 😉

  • I can think of one category. Social media companies will become extinct if they don’t continue to hustle their social media cure alls, without being honest about why social tools work only for certain organizations. And there are lots of those out there. What I’ve seen over the last few years is the formation of a great divide. On the one side, we have fundamentally customer unfriendly companies, attempting to use social channels be more “social.” If you are a travel company using Facebook and Twitter as channels for customer support, and you are taking on average around 28 hours to resolve issues, then social will hurt you. If you are a multinational bank, and are using Facebook to promote a credit card with 29% APR, then you might be in trouble.  If you sell inferior products, don’t support them, and treat customers like children, then social media will be just another marketing channel for you. On the other side of the divide, we see companies that just bend over backwards to provide great products, offer great support, listen with respect, and actually learn from listening. These are the ones who have and will benefit most with social, and by using social channels will become more successful. And chances are, they were good to do business before they ever considered using social stuff. What pains me most are the folks out there, vendors and consultants, who continue to hustle social as the cure all. On second thought, the ones who pain me most are those who wear the latest colors of the ROI gang. They will say that without it, social is just a flim flam. Flash back a few years and they were the ones selling the snake oil. The ones who really get it are, and always have been, the ones who understand that social effectiveness requires fundamental reswizzling of the underlying processes and policies, how groups of people get stuff done. Social media technologies don’t create great results on their own. Building a company around key social principles, that is another thing altogether. Its like taking a mediocre diner, and turning all the wait staff, cooks, and dishwashers into that one rock star waitress who calls you “hon” and makes the world seem OK for a while, or at least while you are having breakfast. 

  • Haven’t commented for a while Mark but – rest assured – I’m still avidly reading and sharing.

    I wanted to make two small points. One, on your example of ball bearings to Ford, I’d agree if that company were ONLY selling to Ford. However, if they were interested in becoming the pre-eminent leader internationally in motor car ball bearings, then a blog would surely help them. You’ve probably come across Eric Schwartzman’s new B2B social media book, which is full of similar case studies – such as companies selling weird and very specific factory parts to and nailing huge portions of tiny world markets with blogs.

    The other point is that you’re absolutely right to caution against these ridiculous hyperbolic statements about social media. Seems to me they are often designed to grab attention and are often a bit disingenuous. Most of the world’s great marketers (the Seths etc) focus on the entire marketing mix and don’t get caught up in communications channels.

    Another great post Mark.


  • I just want to say that posts like these that got me hooked on {grow} in the first place! Refreshing to see a SM thought leader openly discuss the limitations of social. Social is a tool (an awesome one!) but like all tools is helpful in some situations and not helpful in others.

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  • A client I’m working with right now creates beautiful stained glass art. When setting up her blog, and considering whether she actually needed one, we determined that social media isn’t going to drive her business. Being found online yes, being found via social media not so much.

    Social media is the newest kid on the block but as you say it isn’t “new” anymore. To use if effectively with B2B you have to hyper-target the people you’re going after and be more proactive. But first you have to determine if it’s going to work for your business or not. And it isn’t always a good fit.

  • There’s nothing more frustrating then the constant drumbeat of “If you don’t do XXX, you’re out of business!”  You’ll be out of business if you don’t have a good product and you don’t connect with your audience in whichever is the best way to reach them.

  • But, the local butcher might do even better if she understands her customers and engages with them in the ways in which they choose to engage–perhaps via social media. And, perhaps by using social media to share interesting, relevant, and helpful content she might even gain some new customers who didn’t know about her previously. By the way, social media is kinda like that “good ole’ local word of mouth” on steroids. 🙂

  • Great comment and great wisdom here, Lewis.  It’s funny, I was talking to a client the other day who is spending millions on TV advertising and making money hand over fist. He needs a mass audience and so naturally needs to go to mass media!  Some of the social media hypesters just seem so naive to me!  Thanks!

  • Very, very interesting. I have actually done quite a bit of work with Chambers and economic development so we can learn from each other here Pam!   Love it when this community thing works like that  : )

    I agree with you too.  There are so many extremely progressive and inventive things going on in economic development and connecting through social media is certainly a major opportunity! I actually have a bunch of case studies on that I use in my classes.

  • Geez Marty, this is pretty close to that blog post you’ve been talking about!  : )

    The thing that amazes me is that there are so many other-wise smart people who drank the Kool-aid.  Sometimes I’m amazed at the things that are said on the web.  One quite famous “guru” recently tweeted that if a business isn;t using social media, it isn;t because they don’t know social media, it’s because they don;t their business.  That kind of pompous BS earned him the “unfollow” button.  Can’t stand that.

  • This is a really helpful comment Michael.  I will check out that book for certain!

  • The sad thing is that many “thought leaders” preach fear in the morning (that you will be left behind) and redemption in the afternoon (you can’t possibly survive without THEM helping you). It is in their personal interest to pontifocate with breathless enthusiasm.  I was in marketing fro 27 years before I ever opened a Twitter account so I see thing a little more holistically. I am also working with very smart clients who are making a ton of money without a Facebook page.  That is possible you know : )

    Thanks for the supportive comment Adam.

  • Thanks for passing along that relevant example Demps!

  • Great point David.  Before I do anything with a customer marketing-wise i make sure their house is in order on quality, service, delivery, cost competitiveness, etc. There is a lot more to marketing than starting a blog!

  • Hi Mark, it is good to see you cut through all of the hype around social media. I do believe there is tremendous opportunity for many companies, but ROI being in business in 5 years? If you are not, your problems run deeper than social media.

    For marketing, social media may not be for everyone. But I do believe many companies that are not involved in social media marketing should still be involved in social media because to create new relationships and extend existing ones. For PR relationships and recruiting, these relationships can be invaluable. 

    — @wittlake  

  • Agree. Huge potential on many fronts. No question. Thanks, Eric!

  • Great post Mark!  I love following the B2B space and hearing silly comments like if they are not “social” in 5 years, they’ll be extinct.  That’s just hype mongering. But, when you look at the specific culture of the B2B space, it is very fragmented from a marketing perspecitive.  I think you’ll find those companies needed scale and reach are very social (from an obvious perspective) but those who don’t, because of a captive market, or small market, are likely participating in “Social” from very different perspectives.  It’s not all about “Marketing” and I dare say that anyone who thinks “Social” is all about marketing / advertising will be out of the business in 5 years (or at least extremely diminished in influence).

  • Whoa. Very powerful comment Steve.  Great job with that.  Thanks! 

  • B2B is a whole different animal than trying to sell to individuals. I think social media loses its effect in the B2B realm because it often operates on decade-old relationships. And even with new companies the focus is on price. A round of golf is still effective 🙂

  • I’m a fan of social media, but I agree with you: ” . . . it’s difficult to maintain a sustainable competitive advantage based on a social media strategy.”

  • E. Rice

    Your points about Chambers are right on, Pam. I on the board of my local Chamber and I was shocked when I asked about an event to be ‘Tweeted and Facebooked’ and the response was ‘ Oh, wow. Great idea. I didn’t even think of that.’ WHAT!? I don’t think it will make Chambers extinct (close!), but it means the difference in a Chamber that actually provides membership value.

    As a member of the BOD, I’ve taken on the SM role. It’s far from perfect, but we’re improving. The time is now to rock it!

    Cheers- E. Rice (@riceek & @go2tetonvalley)

  • Lynda St-Arneault

    I’m completely agree with you! In fact, SM is one of multiple
    tactics in marketing B2B.  And it’s not a finality… One of the most important
    think in marketing B2B is the integration of different disciplines, channels and
    services. And of course, the ability to integarte those [email protected]:twitter

  • Rmw26

    I remember that quote from Qualman. I got a hold of it the same time Brian Solis and other were starting to release materials on putting the brakes on the rabid quest to define the ROI… I never took the quote to be apocalyptic for businesses not taking on social media. I’ve met with clients in industries I could never foresee needing social media. 

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  • Wethepeople

    I own a successful interactive web design + illustration agency. I have never used social media, although I make plenty of buttons and links for my clients. You don’t need it. There’s still no substitute for REAL referrals, by real people who really know you. I have read a zillion reasons why social media is essential but I don’t buy it. My business is proof that you’ll be just fine without following, tweeting, liking, and wasting your precious time that could be channeled into better places than trying to make yourself heard while everyone else is yelling at the same time.

    The world is turning into a giant flock of sheep, bumbling around not knowing what or why they’re doing what they are doing, only that they must walk this path like everyone else.

    I am a highly educated, saavy designer. I’m not a grandma who doesn’t get it. I’m 32 and have no interest in sharing every detail of my business or personal life with the internet community. I don’t believe that we have to tell all to win people over, or that we must be constantly on and vocal and making noise to be heard. Talent speaks, as does treating people well. I have let these be my marketing tools thus far, and have every intention of continuing. I have more work than I can handle, and not one single tweet has gotten me here.

    Social media is still an option not an essential, but how many people actually take the time to think about this… I don’t believe you need to jump on the bandwagon unless you want to  and understand why you’re there.

    In the future I think all of you that have shared every last detail of your lives + business will be scrambling for some privacy.

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