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How can businesses use social media to shorten the sales cycle? And how can marketers measure the ROI of their social media investments? These are questions that every business needs to ask and answer.

Large companies are already asking them—and some are actively trying to figure it out. This area is fast-evolving, and definitive answers aren't available yet. Nevertheless, it's clear to me that marketers can deploy social media to shorten the sales cycle—and that measuring success will be no harder than it is for comparable conventional marketing programs.

Shortening the sales cycle—and accelerating revenue—begins with shrinking the buying process.

Nine Steps to a Buying Decision

This diagram depicts the nine steps prospects typically traverse before they make a buying decision:

1. Have need

Step 1 is finding out who needs your capabilities most—because those with the greatest need tend to buy more quickly and pay top dollar. Today, marketers use conventional marketing-research tactics to accomplish this task. Examples include mining internal sales and service data, buying reports from industry analysts, and interviewing prospects and customers.

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Barbara Bix is managing principal of BB Marketing Plus, where she helps companies enhance their brands by capturing and enhancing the customer experience.