We have been talking about using social media to improve a company reputation and to spread the word about its products and services. In fact, the conversation has been centered more on building awareness and possibly creating demand on the basis of it. We have not talked much about generating leads through social media. Is it even possible?

Lead generation is the lifeblood of companies in the B2B space. Usually a lead generation campaign will use the following ingredients: a promotional message, a (hopefully) highly targeted and scrubbed list of prospects, and a customized marketing follow up on the call to action.
Part of the solution to the list problem is examining the sources that are being used by lead generation companies to produce the leads they resell to you. This includes search engine campaigns, blogging, informational articles, content management systems, and strategic alliances. How reliable are these sources?
The size of your starting prospects list depends very much on the type of sale you are working on cultivating. Another consideration is that you may want to layer different titles or types of decision makers for a more complex product with a longer sales cycle. How do you achieve that with social media?
While one can definitely use social media tools to nurture leads, the question remains if it is viable for finding leads in the first place. The first question is where to go to have a highly targeted environment to prospect. Will that be the same place where all your competitors are? I believe in integration, so the interest created by a social media tool should be augmented and supported by an invitation that entices people to check you out and buy your product or service (what marketers call pull).
The second question is what do you define a "lead"? My suggestion is to put some thought into defining this as it will come in handy when you are developing the follow up materials. A lead to me is someone who raises their hand and says: "yes, I want to talk to a sales rep."
When using social media tools, you will need to develop an equivalent for people to signal to you that they are raising their hand to talk about business. Embed a call to action button at the end of your blog posts, for example, that provides readers with a choice: link here for further reading on this topic or click here to talk to us about a need you have or a problem we can help you solve.
The shift to online behavior of recent years has made information or what we call thought leadership a dominating factor in the call to action that allows you to capture leads. Half the battle is creating content that will be worth someone's time, but the better half of that same battle is making that content highly pertinent to the problem the prospect is trying to solve. White papers have been used widely (or should I say overused?) in many forms and places and they are increasingly becoming a pretty tired concept.
The social media alternatives to the white paper can be many - eBooks, activities and conversations that help your prospects further self qualify, posts containing opinion on trends and broad market issues, all the way to potential communities and portals with forum boards to help your current customers see the breadth of services and products you offer as well as what other customers are reading and talking about.
The buyer wants to be in control of the vendor/prospect conversation and the more you can put her in the driver seat by providing highly relevant information and the means to self select, the greater the chances she will engage with you. Social media has the potential of bringing many of the best practices for lead generation in alignment with demand creation and awareness building to benefit both the buyer and the seller.
Have you used social media for lead generation? If yes, can you share a success story? If not, what obstacles have you encountered?

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Valeria Maltoni helps businesses understand how customers and communities have changed marketing, public relations, and communications - and how to build value in this new environment. As a communicator she specializes in marketing communications, customer dialogue, and brand management. Valeria has come to define modern business as a long and open conversation. Conversation Agent is recognized among the world's top online marketing blogs. Valeria is a Fast Company expert blogger and a contributor to The Blog Herald. She is a co-author of , a groundbreaking ebook collaboration by 103 of today's top marketing writers. Valeria is a frequent public speaker on brand marketing, customer service, and building successful business teams. She publishes in both English and Italian. Educated at the University of Bologna and Villanova University, Valeria combines New World sensibilities with Italian style. She's an active member of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), the American Marketing Association (AMA), the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia (WACA), and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).