Book Review 73: Social Marketing to the Business Customer

The new world of B2B marketing is fraught with chaos, peril, uncertainty, and unprecedented opportunity. How lucky you are to be part of it!

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I picked up this book at SXSW in 2011, and didn’t read it until 2012. And now it’s 2013.

One problem with trends in the world of the Internet is that books can sometimes become outdated before
you can even crack the cover. “Social Marketing to the Business Customer: Listen to you B2B Market, Generate Major Account Leads, and Build Client Relationships” by Paul Gillin and Eric Schwartzman mostly holds up despite the tens of months that have passed since publication. The references to Google Buzz and Ping seem quaint, but the core material of the book is still worth reading. And what’s almost as interesting as the number of tools that are now irrelevant, is the discussion of tools that still remain relevant.

These days, you can use a free tool like Twitterfeed to automatically convert your blog headlines into tweets. You can also use applications like Seesmic, Ping.fm, Posterous, TweetDeck, TubeMogul, blip.tv, FriendFeed, and Google Buzz to move messages from one social media network to another.

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Authors, consultants and more have explored the relationship between businesses and consumers (B2C) in social media for several years now. At this point, it seems the industry has established best practices, and most of the growth in the space is about nuance and execution. We’ve come a long way in the past 5-7 years in that space.

The role of social media in the B2B (Business-to-Business) space is still fresh territory. Or at least it seems to be. Many of the tools Gillin and Schwartzman describe actually predate our modern understanding of social media as a Facebook/Twitter centric tool. The tools they describe are more basic.

One of the things I came to understand better from reading this book is that while B2C social media is most about post-sales support and error resolution, B2B social media is all about prospecting, presales support and trust building. Companies can use the tools to find new customers and customers can use the tools to research potential vendors.

While they discuss using Facebook and Twitter for recruiting and understanding trends, the tools the authors focus on most are LinkedIn, Company Blogs/Websites, and Company Forums.

Platforms that perform best in business-to-consumer (B2C) environments are not necessarily the ones favored by business-to-business (B2B) marketers. In addition, we believe that companies should make it a goal to drive visitors to their own websites, where they can engage in richer conversations, showcase their products and content and own a record of interactions. These days, though, most conversations start in public spaces.

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Before we dive deeper into that, there are a couple of other things to keep in mind. There may be perception in the market that social media doesn’t have much of a role in B2B marketing. It can be hard to measure. Many people prefer to keep their social media life separate from their professional life. Others may think that it’s irrelevant because “Business” customers don’t do social media.

Ultimately what many people forget is that whether you’re selling to enterprise, government, education or SMB customers, you are still talking to individuals who are making purchasing decisions. A company doesn't buy a product. A person at that company buys products on behalf of that company. It’s important to talk to those people whether you are selling in a traditional environment or the newer social environment. It’s always ultimately about people.

I think what stops a lot of companies from embracing online communities is the CEO saying, 'What's the ROI?' To that I say, 'What's the ROI of bringing your wife flowers on your anniversary?' Even if there's no positive ROI, there can be a negative one for not taking action.

People buy stuff from people. They gravitate to business relationships that mirror personal relationships. If the CEO responds to me in 10 minutes, I want to do business with a company like that.

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Customers expect their vendors to be part of the social media world. When dealing with a new vendor, how many people are reluctant to do business with an entity without a presence in this space? What does it say about a company that lacks a robust website or Twitter feed?

Buyers want their suppliers to use these channels. Cone Inc.'s 2009 Social Media in Business study found that 93 percent of business buyers believe all companies should have a presence in social media and 85 percent believe social media should be used to interact and become more engaged with them.

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By now, the scale of social media should surprise no one. A couple years ago, the explosive growth was still news.

Facebook gets more weekly visits in the United States than Google and has a population larger than all but two countries.

The Internet took four years to reach 50 million users; In contrast, Facebook added 200 million users in less than a year. Eighty percent of companies use social media for recruitment.

Seventy-eight percent of consumers trust peer recommendations online; only 14 percent trust advertisements.

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The authors do site some specific ways to take advantage of this resource. Some of their most practical advice is about how to monitor Twitter. The recommend carefully crafted and always running searches of the Tweet stream to find new customers and monitor the industry.

Your overarching goal is to come up with a list of the popular words or phrases that your customers use to find and discuss your business. These may not be the same words you would use. Businesses tend to speak in terms of solutions while customers speak in terms of problems. The onus is on marketers to identify the search behaviors that lead people to a web site. Your keywords must be accurate, but accuracy doesn't always yield the best results. For example, if you're blogging about "solar cells" but your customers are searching for "solar power," you're speaking two different languages. There are dozens of data points to consider, and just as many online tools to apply. We can't cover them all, but we will provide an overview of how to create an effective business-to-business (B2B) keyword strategy.

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Search and monitoring is a valuable tool with social media, but to make a sale, you still have to engage the customer. Here, social media continues to help. It gives businesses the opportunity to research and understand their customers better than ever before.

If you were able to capture any more information, perhaps during the webinar pressentation, you could research this prospect even for ther. For example, a personal or company name might unearth a web site or Twitter account with valuable background information. It may also point to the prospect's profile on Linkedln. If you use Linkedln's premium services, you can generate leads by sending messages directly to other users. Following that reasoning a little further, you may discover that the person heads the Denver chapter of a professional association. This makes the prospect a particularly valuable lead, because a group leaders is in a position to influence others.

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Some might say this is creepy. The advantage is that the sales cycle can be more efficient. A lot of new business relationships are about getting to know the people you’ll be working with. Social media resources can help speed that process along. These tools also speed up the process of finding out just who the right person to talk to is.

As a culture, we’re still refining our social norms around the use of this material. When I’m dealing with a new vendor, should I feel flattered that they’ve already looked me on on LinkedIn and that they are familiar with my last 5-10 Tweets? If it’s publicly available information, it should be fine, but using such information does require some nuance.

Whoever is sent in to close the sale should be made aware of this information. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the rep should disclose that knowledge to the prospect. The creepiness factor is an important consideration in sales contacts these days because it's possible to scare a prospect away if you reveal having too much background knowledge. People-finder services like Zoomlnfo, Spokeo, Wink, and Jigsaw, which assemble background and contact information through a variety of both public and private means, enable sales professionals to compile an unprecedented amount of information about prospects.

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However, be judicious in how much of this information you reveal. There can be a fine line between prospecting and stalking, and most customers don't want to be isolated in making a decision. "One to-one marketing was supposed to be the holy grail of customer relationship management. The problem is that we are hyper-social beings who prefer to operate within our tribes," write Francois Gossieaux and Ed Moran in their 2010 book The Hyper-Social Organization. 'We do not want to be isolated from our group so that salespeople who know more about us than we feel comfortable with can give us the hard sell."

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With all power and flexibility of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, the authors continue to come back to the blog as one of the most important elements of Social Media marketing. A blog can establish expertise and credibility. It can help bring in new prospects via Search Engine Optimization. It allows voluntary interaction with the community through comments and other interactions.

Perhaps most importantly, though, a blog on a company’s website is its own. The company can own the platform and ensure the content remains there for a long time. Content on Twitter is entirely transitory. Content on Facebook is always subject to the whims of Facebook. It’s the same with Google+. But a company blog can exist at the primary source for information that then gets fed into the other networks. An organization that trust a third party with maintaining its content puts that content at long term risk due to sometimes fickle nature of social media users.

The authors also like them for their depth.

Blogs are the Swiss Army knife of social media. Simple to create and easy to update, they deftly accommodate multiple media types such as audio, video, and widgets, and they have excellent search engine performance. As truly social media they fall short because discussions are limited to a simple post-and-respond metaphor. Think of them as the online equivalent of a business presentation. The blogger is the speaker and the person who controls the microphone. The audience mostly listens and has a chance to challenge and respond at the end.

B2B marketers cited blogs as the most effective social platform in research conducted by BtoB magazine and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in early 2010. The principal advantage of blogs for B2B purposes is their depth. Entries can be of any length, and graphics and multimedia can be incorporated to illustrate a point. In the technical realm in which many B2B professionals dwell biogs a the best way to explain complex concepts and engage in audience discussions of equal depth. It's not surprising that technology companies have swarmed to blogging platforms as a way to connect developers with information-hungry constituents.

Their search engine performance shouldn't be underestimated, Search engines are hardwired to favor websites that they, in their algorithmic wisdom, considered to be useful. For example, type "buy a PC" into Google and note that the search results are much heavier on hlog content than marketing come-ons. That's because Google's finely tuned engine favors how-to advice over salesmanship.

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It all comes back to people wanting to do business with people they trust. Blogs help establish the expertise and credibility that trust can be built on.

Podcasts are another interesting tool the authors cite. I’m a big fan of them, too. To create a podcast, you create and audio file and publish it through some mechanism, usually on a regular basis. People can subscribe and automatically get the latest update.

Media hype elevated podcasts to prominence before they were ready. Once seen as a replacement for terrestrial radio, podcasts never lived up to their potential in consumer markets. What is often overlooked is their remarkable B2B success.

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Podcasts are one of the hidden success stories of B2B marketing. The audio format is extremely time efficient; it allows busy professionals to consume information when they are occupied with routine tasks like commuting, exercising or mowing the lawn. They're an excellent way to capture presentations, speeches, and even meetings for playback to people who couldn't be there. When combined with PowerPoint in a package called a "slidecast," they can also be self-contained presentations.

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With all the advantages of social media, why isn’t it a broader part of B2B marketing? There are lots of reasons. Change is one of those. Change in processes take longer in the B2B space. Selling prices and sales cycles are both much higher and longer than in B2C marketing. To cost of making a mistake is higher. When organizations have done things the same way for years, they need a good reason to change. And the tools of social media can mean big changes for the sales cycle. Different organizations end up with more responsibility, and that can potentially mean internal turf battles take place.

But this change of direction requires a change in mind-set, one that is far more dependent on listening than talking. Traditional marketing presented a clear cause-and-effect scenario: a campaign delivered a measurable number of prospects within a defined period, which made performance reasonably easy to measure. Social marketing, though, builds on relationships and dialogs that may not generate results for months or even years. Search engines care less about time than they do about relevance, so the blog entry you posted back in 2007 may draw a qualified lead today if the content is still on the mark. This archival quality is one reason social marketing is difficult to measure. The impact is cumulative and effectiveness improves with time and persistence.

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Social marketing requires a complete inversion of conventional tactics. The focus must be on the buying process rather than the sales cycle. Traditional marketing is push; social marketing is pull. Traditional marketing is message; social marketing is conversation. Leads may come quickly, particularly when a buyer is toward the end of the buying process and a solution is matched to the right keywords, but they may also require lengthy cultivation and a lot of giving on the seller's part as he leads an early-stage buyer carefully toward a decision.

Social marketing also shifts more responsibility for managing up the funnel. "A lot of the sales cycle has moved back into marketing," observes Jeff Ogden, a technology marketing veteran who now runs Find New Customers, a lead-generation consultancy. He notes that the sales organization has traditionally played an important educational role in customer engagements, but "now prospects look up information online and avoid contact with sales people." Marketing is usually the department that curates that information. If you buy Ogden's premise, marketers should be growing their budgets at the expense of sales departments.

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There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in the book and some great stories about Dell’s social media efforts, the IEEE’s efforts, and Cree, Inc.s efforts to name just a few. But if the book has a flaw it’s that it spends too much time talking about B2C social media efforts. One channel for success the authors cite is the success of social media in recruiting new employees.

B2B companies have found Facebook to be an effective vehicle for recruiting. Ernst & Young, Deloitte, and Sodexo are among the firms that have had success there. In a novel twist, copper producer TVI has also adopted Facebook as a way to communicate with investors.

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The IEEE was recruiting members, rather than employees, but that still seems to be more of a B2C success story.
"The more niche the audience, the better Linkedln works," says Danielle Leitch, an executive vice president at Peter Nasca Associates, the marketing communications firm that coordinated the campaign. Results more than justified the higher cost per lead. Two months into the campaign, the conversion rate for visitors from Linkedln was three times that of other venues, and bounce rates were 10 percent lowers. Bounce rates are an important factor in pay-per-dick campaigns because advertisers pay for the dick and not the conversion. Visitors who click through to the landing page and then leave are wasted money. Bottom line: "The quality of the lead was orders of magnitude better on Linkedln," Leitch said.

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In the early part of the book, the authors focus a lot on the B2C aspects of social media. In fact much of the early part of the book involves explaining just what those tools are and what they do. It’s written for the novice social media user, rather than the more experienced social media guru. And much of that discussion is about individuals and B2C efforts.

That points to the broader issue I touched on earlier. Ultimately all of sales is about communicating with people. It’s about the trust between them. It’s about understanding what they want. It’s about understanding what they need. It’s about helping the customer solve their problem. Whether it’s cash coming from the customer’s wallet, or a multi-million dollar purchase order, at the most basically level the goals are the same.

Trying to clearly define the role and best practices of social media in the B2B, without making it a B2C discussion is an inherently messy process.

As for the book, it’s definitely worth reading. There are some great insights in there, and suggestions that focus on recruiting, monitoring, researching, and supporting customers. Perhaps it’s best role, however, is to prompt a company specific look at how to improve the sales and marketing processes within an organization, rather than providing a text-book style step-by-step procedure for success.