Picture, for just a moment, that you've been unexpectedly asked along to a party thrown by a friend of a friend. You hardly know anyone there, but you're happy to mingle with the other guests to pass the time, especially since you consider yourself sociable enough to handle the challenge.

As the event wears on, though, you find yourself having to force conversations where none might arise otherwise—you're interrupting, you're interjecting, you're stepping on toes in a way that few (yourself included) appreciate.

In fact, you can't help but wonder whether this quickly worsening debacle could have been avoided if you'd been the slightest bit prepared—if you'd had some forewarning of the people there and of their personality types.

Wouldn't it all be easier if you knew whom to approach in advance and what to say?

In some ways, that pain is what social selling helps to alleviate—allowing for a greater degree of service and personalization, and opening up more productive lines of communication.

Most businesses now look to social media as a tool mainly for brand awareness. To do so, though, is to ignore the real power of social media—its impact as a driver of leads and revenue.

Businesses today need a plan for social selling if they're looking to build lasting relationships with buyers online. Here's how to get started.

1. Make an effort to listen twice as much as you speak

It should go without saying (but it bears repeating) that buyers don't much care for brands or salespeople that speak over them. With this in mind, try as much as possible to reach out to customers personally if they ask questions, make complaints, or raise issues.

In addition, tag them in your posts, keep an eye out for the hashtags they use, and be vigilant about the topics and solutions that trend. When you do, and when the time comes to approach buyers directly, you'll know how to speak their language.

Also keep in mind that all members in your social networks won't be in the same buying cycle, so vary the content you share (a whitepaper here, a webinar there) to maximize the number of customers you reach.

2. Make personas a priority

As a general rule, it's well worth your time to tailor your communications to buyers to ensure the right pieces of content make it to the right people.

It's important, then, that you study up your followers. Look up individual users who reach out to your company or put your competitors on blast, and come to them armed with information about their companies, pain points, and status as buyers.

Also consider your own persona as a salesperson and user of social media. What are your interests and specialties? Where do you see your skills best utilized? Prospects won't trust someone who's only looking to sell, sell, sell, so build out your "curbside appeal" as SAP's Gerry Moran would say; share educational materials with a top- to mid-funnel focus (articles, studies, webinars, whitepapers, etc.) where and when possible.

3. Put relationships before product

When contributing to your brand's presence on social media, you're equal parts educator and brand ambassador. Don't just hawk your wares; really work to show why they could be useful and how your prospects could benefit.

Also be smart about whom you follow and whom you reach on social media. Follow key influencers (those with large and loyal followings and an active presence), place them on lists you keep, share and favorite their content, and be willing to pass along pieces of third-party content you believe they'd find valuable.

4. Harness your own social network for your buyers' benefit

Finally, it's imperative that you not discount your own connections on social too soon. Try to put a program in place for warm referrals, to encourage one-to-one connections among past, present, and future customers.

Also make an effort to call on customers to resolve potential support issues; for example, if you identify a prospect in the education sector who could benefit from your product, look for customers of your own who are in education and who might suggest your solution and get you in front of buyers in that sector.

* * *

These four ways can get you started with social selling. Now it's up to you to get connected, strengthen your (social) relationships, and, ultimately, improve your sales strategy.

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image of Atri Chatterjee

Atri Chatterjee is chief marketing officer of Act-On Software, a SaaS solution for marketing automation and revenue optimization.

LinkedIn: Atri Chatterjee

Twitter: @atrichatt