"B2B has always been about the relationship sale. What social media does is help scale those relationships."
That's what Kipp Bodnar told me when I interviewed him for this week's episode of the Marketing Smarts podcast. His comment got me thinking. As "sexy" as social media is (if it still is sexy; it's also possible that social media is dead), is it possible that social media makes more sense as a marketing tool for B2B companies than it does for B2C companies?
What Counts as B2B?
Before just leaping in here, I want to take a second to clarify what I mean by "B2B."
B2B means business to business---but that can cover a lot of different types of companies, such as those that sell enterprise software, those that sell building supplies, and those that sell office supplies. Law and architectural firms that serve corporate clients are B2B as are consultancies that perform feasibility studies, environmental impact studies, or market research. Ad agencies are B2B. So are janitorial companies and property management companies.
In other words, B2B doesn't refer to a particular industry or product category. In fact, many B2C companies have B2B divisions and vice versa. It's also quite possible that a company mainly playing in the B2B space actually looks a lot like a B2C company because it sells its wares via catalogues, e-commerce sites or even a store (or at least a warehouse open solely to contractors or licensed retailers, for example).
That all being said, I will use B2B in this case to refer to companies that sell products and services to people who are acting as representatives of companies or organizations, rather than to individuals acting on their own accord, intent on using the purchased products or services for their own personal, non-business use. (Phew! Glad I got that out of the way!)
The Social Sell
To the degree that B2B companies sell to people who represent companies, the sale is not only relationship-driven, as Kipp said, but inherently social. That starts with the buyer who must think socially because he is not just buying for himself but for a social entity. Accordingly, the buyer often needs to take a diverse collection of needs into account, beginning with those in his immediate department or area of influence, and branching out to include those his department serves, those who hold the purse strings and those who guide the company into the future.
The social aspect of the sale means that the seller needs to sell beyond the immediate buyer. Sometimes this means actually selling to a committee or meeting with all the diverse stakeholders, but it can also mean making it easier for the immediate buyer to convince these stakeholders that the product or service on offer will meet all their needs. To facilitate this process, B2B companies need to provide both their sales force and their buyers with information and lots of it.
The Information Sell
In the context of the social sale, social media can certainly be a great source of information about the individual stakeholders to whom one must sell. As social profiles proliferate, it's remarkable how much information we can accumulate about our buyers. But social media is even more powerful as a channel for the distribution of the information that these buyers need and are looking for.
Three aspects of social media contribute to its power in this regard. First and foremost, social media, particularly blogging, puts the means of publishing information in the hands of the company. Rather than being perpetually beholden to trade publications and analysts, B2B marketers can launch publications of their own.
Secondly, as a publisher, B2B companies have control over the rate at which they publish. B2B companies have always been very "content-minded," Kipp told me, relying on white papers and newsletters to provide their markets with information regularly. With the advent of easy-to-use and easily customized blogging platforms, however, B2B companies can up the tempo of publication, producing and distributing information daily, rather than monthly, quarterly or annually.
Finally, advances in technology mean that B2B companies can not only play the role of publisher but can even act as broadcasters. That is, social media not only allows companies to publish content as frequently as they wish but also in as many different formats as their buyers require. That includes videos, podcasts, decks posted to SlideShare, infographics shared on Facebook or pinned on Pinterest, and more. The only limit to the range of formats is in the B2B marketer's imagination.
Why Aren't More B2B Companies Going Social?
Social media's potential for B2B companies is easily described and successful uses of social by B2B companies are easy to adduce (look no further than Kipp's current employer, HubSpot). And yet, as he and I discussed, only around 30% of B2B companies have or maintain a blog and about half don't really have a social strategy at all. Why such a low percentage?
"It's freaking hard" was Kipp's blunt explanation. Producing content for buyers at all levels of the buying process in a range of formats, after all, isn't exactly a cake walk. You need to have people who are capable of producing quality content in quantity and, frankly, it usually means shifting resources from other tactics. If those tactics have a proven, even though weak, track record, company leaders may not believe it's worth the risk to bet said resources on tactics that, to some, are still unproven.
Nevertheless, I believe it's worth it for B2B companies to give social a second look. I think that the capabilities of social media neatly map to the B2B buying process in many cases. What do you think?
If you'd like to hear my entire conversation with Kipp, you may do so here or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.
Also, Kipp, along with Jeff Cohen, will be leading at workshop on B2B and Social Media at our B2B Marketing Forum in October. Use the code "SMARTB2B" when registering and get $200 off!
(Photo courtesy of Bigstock: Woman Getting an Idea)