There has been a lot of noise in many marketing communication quarters about the need for B2B (Business to Business) organisations to engage in the social media arena. At 4CM we regularly come across clients who are either interested in exploring these new channels, putting in place the appropriate strategy, or simply want to know more about the topic. Business to Consumer (B2C) marketers have been active in the social media arena for a while now, but there is still a lot of confusion when it comes to B2B operations.
Focus on your audience
Everyone knows that the operational requirements of B2B differ greatly from those of B2C. The decision making process is much longer in B2B sales and quite often purchasing is determined at group level, rather than by a single individual. Furthermore, B2B products may also require customisation, so cannot be purchased with a few clicks of a mouse.
The belief that simply by entering the B2B social arena your organisation will be flooded with new sales leads is plainly wrong and you should treat anyone who claims that this media is a panacea, especially in the currently stagnant market conditions, with due caution. B2B is merely another tool in today’s vast marketing communications arsenal and should be treated as such.
But what exactly is B2B social media? This is not a question we get asked directly, but one that is still source of some confusion. In truth, the social media arena encompasses a huge number of tools, from basic blogging and the already well known discussion forums, to the micro management of short instant messages that is at the heart of channels such as Twitter or Facebook (and Google + when it will become more widely available). In between, there are more specific B2B tools including LinkedIn, the exchange and discussion of bookmarks, videos and presentation sharing platforms.
The more contemporary and most spoken about elements of social media operations rely on instant presence and herein lies the first hurdle for many B2B operations.
If you have a mobile phone, for example, you’ll know that you may be able to get instant assistance if you join the Twitter feed of your mobile operator. Very often a simple ‘tweet’ to the board would elicit a prompt (often private) reply, which may point you in the right direction, or even escalate action at wider public level. But at the heart of this system is the presence of well trained operators who are able to follow through all feeds, offering appropriate help. Their written communication skills have to be high and they are supported by a carefully managed strategy. Once in the public domain the wrong choice of word, or inappropriate turn of phrase, can be considerably more damaging than a word merely uttered in the course of a phone conversation.
Such requirement for instantaneous communication to support day-to-day promotional activities is still rarely necessary in the average B2B operation, especially if the need for customised solutions makes it difficult for customers to initiate private discussions in an otherwise public arena.
Nevertheless, a Twitter feed can be used effectively when an organisation wishes to become a thought leader in its specific sector. By actively and assiduously engaging with a group of experts a sense of community is fostered, engendering brand loyalty and goodwill. It is fair to say, however, that although the rewards and opportunities associated with these activities may be great, they are often seen in the medium to long term. It’s also much more complex to gather analytics beyond the monitoring of generic activity, making direct correlations with sales difficult, although not impossible, to establish.
Of all the available B2B media, blogs are one of the most widely used tools; far more so than, for example, Twitters. Some of the blogging discourse can also be carried out within a site such as LinkedIn, as part of a special interest group. Although needing to be topical and with a requirement for high frequency of communication, blogging doesn’t always need instant communication, except at times when discussion topics may become hot or contentious.
In ordinary circumstances, a weekly blog update (but always with rapid follow up of comments!) would probably be sufficient for most medium sized B2B operations. There are many points that need to be considered when blogging (content relevance, language style, monitoring, SEO, etc.); this list is too long to discuss these here, but due attention must be paid to these components if one is serious about exploiting this channel.
From personal to business
In the early part of this year BtoB Online published an interesting report highlighting that the majority of B2B marketers are already making good use of B2B social networks for their personal activities. This is no surprise as most professionals may have a LinkedIn profile, a Facebook entry and even a Twitter profile or two. Whether these channels are also actively used beyond the personal social sphere and into business operations is another matter.
But social media is all about building relationships. And we all know how incredibly important relationships are in the B2B arena. Quite often we may engage with our key customers more frequently than with our closest friends in the course of normal day to day activities, and even more so at times of crisis! So, building and enhancing relationship is a key aspect of all B2B sales and marketing operations. Social media can therefore offer new ways of creating and fostering relationships, but these new channels must be managed appropriately, which includes the correct level of investment in terms of time, human resources and, of course, money.
By using social media appropriately your business can reap excellent rewards, but planning is crucial and simply taking a ‘me too’ or half hearted approach to it is not an option. You are either fully committed to social media for the long run, or you are better off waiting until your internal processes are up to scratch. Nothing is more depressing and devalues a brand more than a blog than hasn’t been updated in months, or a Twitter profile with no followers.