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Hey, B2B: Grow Up and Get a Social Media Strategy, Will You?

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Many B2B marketers are still avoiding social media, wondering, "When business customers do participate in social media, how can we tell whether it works?" OK, let's put that excuse to rest once and for all.

Social media is for socializing—just as when you go to a tradeshow and strike up a conversation with a prospect or attend a seminar or interact with any professional group in-person.

So how do you know those channels produce business? Just because you didn't instantly chalk up a sale, or you merely distributed some company literature or got a business card, doesn't mean you didn't make an impression that will pay off at some point. Yet you do it. Why? Because dialogue with peers and potential buyers is important.

LinkedIn, Twitter, Google Plus, blogs... they're dialogues—just like the conversations you have at industry events. They're an opportunity for you to influence thinking and perspective and bring new ideas and new solutions to the table.

Which is why social media has just as much a place in a B2B marketing plan and budget as tradeshows. Maybe more, since—unlike tradeshows—social media is an ongoing opportunity that continually attracts "e-attendees."


Some Facts

The numbers back up that contention, according to a recent Thomas Industrial Purchasing Barometer (IPB) study:

  • Exactly one-fourth (25%) of industrial buyers turn to the professional networking site LinkedIn when sourcing industrial products and services.
  • In addition, 11.8% find market-specific forums to be useful resources.
  • Nearly half (46%) of buyers would advise potential suppliers looking to gain new business to use LinkedIn, while 39% would recommend using forums.

"Social media has made it easier to see more about the services and tools available and helps us make our purchases," one buyer participating in the study said.

Matt Eggemeyer, VP and COO for Keats Manufacturing—which produces precision metal parts—put it this way, "This is where new generations are going; if you're not there, you won't be seen."

In short, social media is nothing more than another marketing tool that, when used efficiently and thoughtfully, has the power to build brand awareness and reputations.

Just as with that tradeshow or panel discussion, social media's effectiveness depends on having a strategy—one that (oddly enough) looks and sounds much like a strategy for any other marketing channel in that it has to answer three basic questions:

  1. What's the business challenge or opportunity I need to solve?
  2. Who are the primary audiences I want to reach?
  3. What is the messaging platform/value proposition/positioning statement I want to reinforce?

A Mini Case Study

Consider, for example, an environmental management company that makes huge dehydration systems. Its products use evaporative cooling to control the temperature and amount of moisture in the air throughout large environments—from giant chicken farms to semiconductor manufacturing facilities.

One whiz kid in the sales department realized that big financial corporations with vast information storage depots could save significant amounts of money by using evaporative cooling to maintain proper temperature and humidity levels. Here was a huge, new market, but most financial firms weren't aware of evaporative cooling, much less of its efficiency and financial benefits as an alternative technology to conventional cooling systems.

Getting some traction within this new market was the whiz kid's business challenge. To prove the potential of the new market and to start building a case internally for a more formal marketing effort, he drafted a social media strategy.

  • First he identified whom he wanted to engage: IT managers at financial institutions.
  • He then wrote down his product's benefit statement targeting this market: Maintain your system's performance and availability while significantly lowering your operational costs by switching to less expensive, more efficient evaporative cooling technology.
  • Then he created a divisional LinkedIn company page, started visiting social groups, searching out financial IT managers and joining in the conversations.
  • At the same time, he started a blog and dangled it off the company website, posted a case story to it every month, and began building his street cred within financial IT circles as the thought leader on evaporative cooling.

Strategic? Yes. Smart? Very. Rocket science. Well, not exactly.

What It Takes

What an effective social media program does take, however, is commitment—especially in the manufacturing space, where you'll face some unique challenges. Namely, you're engaging intelligent engineers and technologists who respect only those who deliver useful expertise.

That's why whoever creates your content and becomes your social media representative has to be someone who is deep into your industry and products and can contribute to the conversation with specific, knowledgeable information.

In addition to qualified content, the other must-have is frequency. You must have a social media calendar—just as you would develop a media calendar for paid media or an editorial calendar for public relations.

Companies that may not have the in-house expert prepared to commit the time necessary to actively participate in social media conversations can tap outside resources to get the job done professionally and effectively.

In fact, manufacturers that don't have the internal bandwidth and expertise to give their social media the care and feeding it needs are turning to marketing partners to develop their social media strategy, set up the appropriate social media accounts and company pages, and provide expert commentators to participate in conversations and regularly create blog posts.

The investment is worth it, and the expense is relatively affordable—especially compared with big-ticket marketing initiatives such as tradeshows.


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Philip (Phil) Paranicas is director of new product development at ThomasNet.com. He is responsible for creating new products and services that support ThomasNet's mission of helping bring buyers together with sellers. Reach him via pparanicas@thomasnet.com.

Twitter: @Flip2Market

LinkedIn: Phil Paranicas

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Comments

  • by David Ball Tue Mar 12, 2013 via web

    Great article, Philip. Also, unlike tradeshows or traditional media, combined with engaging content, social media enables you to massively amplify your reach through shares, likes, follows and retweets. Imagine handing your business card to a prospect at a tradeshow, who instantly prints and distributes it to 100 of her colleagues.

  • by Beth Browning Tue Mar 12, 2013 via web

    Enjoyed this article a lot, you really hit the nail on the head. The mini case study your shared is a brilliant example of what companies are missing out on.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • by Sterling Green Tue Mar 12, 2013 via web

    Nicely Stated! This is definitely a topic that I have seen businesses struggle. For companies that have moved forward with a social strategy, they are seeing great results and are continually pleased with the consumer response. Search engine marketing seemed to be scary thing even up until a few years ago for many businesses. But eventually its proved itself, I feel that same thing will be said of Social Media Marketing. The time to jump on board is now. Thanks for the great article.

  • by Sarah Strydom Tue Mar 12, 2013 via web

    I'm working on a position statement that reflects exactly what you are saying Phillip; thank you for making it so succinct. I'm afraid the B2B channel is so concerned with maintaining current relationships they may be too overwhelmed to tackle the necessary routine social media needs to thrive for an organization so they're dismissing it all together. Great work. Thanks!

  • by Kate Edgar Wed Mar 13, 2013 via web

    We'll all catch on; sooner would be better than later of course!

  • by Nick Stamoulis Wed Mar 13, 2013 via web

    "In short, social media is nothing more than another marketing tool that, when used efficiently and thoughtfully, has the power to build brand awareness and reputations."

    I think B2Bs have to remember that just like it takes a long time to build rapport offline with customers the same rule applies to online. Social media does make connecting with customers easier, but that doesn't mean you develop real relationships faster!

  • by Amber Thu Mar 14, 2013 via web

    Social media is not only for B2C companies. B2B firms should invest on social media too. Firms have to remember that social media is growing each day and more and more consumers are online. If you do not have an online presence, it can be your loss.

  • by Philip Paranicas Thu Mar 14, 2013 via web

    Thank you everyone for the great feedback/comments and additional insight!

  • by Dave Fiola Thu Mar 14, 2013 via web

    Yes....and no...
    I deal primarily with small businesses. Many see social media as they are being told they should see it and typically they're being told by people selling social media packages.
    *
    The example you used, trade shows, involves one thing that many small business owners owe their success to and something that social media cannot provide: face to face interaction. It's a big reason why their businesses succeed. They know their customers and vice versa. It is an inherently wrong premise to assert conversations you have face to face with someone is exactly like conversing via the web. It's not.
    *
    Thats the no part. The yes part is it certainly can help with brand recognition, increase general perception of your expertise in your industry and increase "touches" with clients or potential clients. I've been recognized walking in the door by someone I've never met face to face. She knew of me and what my business was, had researched my business and liked the concept.
    *
    2 things: You mention committment in the "What it takes" section. I believe it's true in ANY marketing endeavor. Problem with committing to social media is that it changes nearly daily. What we "know" today is different than what we "knew" last week, month, year. It's like me practicing golf like crazy and being totally committed to it. Problem is if I'm training WRONG, won't matter how committed I am because I've just cemented bad habits into my game. Second thing you mentioned is the person handling the social media for you must be "deep into your business". I couldn't agree more. Again, with small businesses, the ones that do see benefits typically try to run the program themselves and find out quickly they can't/don't want to. They then hire the next company that walks in the door to do it for them and they have NO idea about the business.
    *
    Overall, it can be a productive compliment to the other marketing a business does, but regardless of what you do, you cannot escape the importance of running a fundamentally sound marketing program.

  • by Philip Paranicas Fri Mar 15, 2013 via web

    Hi Dan! Thanks for your great feedback. I completely agree - nothing beats face to face. The point I was making is that social is a way to start/continue conversations with people similar to the way you would at a trade show. I am not claiming that social REPLACES tradeshows (or face to face). It seems like we also both agree on this: social should be part of a "well balanced marketing mix" consisting of both traditional and digital methods.

  • by Dave Fiola Wed Apr 3, 2013 via web

    The other concern is the time involvement. Conversation whether in person or via social media comes with an expectation of immediate response (unlike email where expectations are usually different). GM realized this and pulled (temporarily) their FB ads because they found most of their "fans" were visiting them on Sundays and they didn't have anyone manning the page on the weekends. And "fans" that posted expected a response within 4 hours. When that didn't happen, they felt ignored and unimportant therefore damaging GM's rep vs. enhancing it.
    *
    When you add it all up, you're asking for a lot from the person/company you're engaging to run your social media program.

  • by Philip Paranicas Wed Apr 3, 2013 via web

    Hi Dave - sounds like an epic miscalculation on GM's behalf! Interesting that they are a victim of their own social success, (and the rise of social in general). In the B2C space, I admire companies such as American Airlines that totally gets the value and importance of social, as evidenced by their full time (24/7) Twitter response team. Their goal is to be there whenever their customers need them. What a concept! I agree that it can be time consuming for large B2C organizations. Based on my experience though, the time required for small businesses, especially B2B companies, is significantly less. Thankfully most social channels allow for email alerts to make tasks more manageable, while automation tools help with scheduled posts.

  • by Dave Fiola Tue Aug 20, 2013 via web

    And Philip, I certainly understand the value to a social media provider of alerts, scheduled posts etc. But you're getting away from the point of social media by mixing in the automation: being social. I can plan my conversations at a party effectively as much as I can plan ahead my SM posts AND still be relevant. Not possible. Easy for the provider but is it just as effective for the business?

  • by Philip Paranicas Wed Aug 21, 2013 via web

    Hi Dave - I am not advocating full scale automation. Nobody wants to interact with a robot. Scheduled posts are used as conversation starters, and help companies organize their thought leadership posts and stay on schedule. Obviously, the whole premise of social is "being human" - two-way interaction just as we are doing here. You might enjoy my segment from BMA Blaze where I elaborate on this perspective - http://bit.ly/16WPyLz.

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