B-to-B Social Media: Yes, You Can!

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I’m frequently asked if social media has value in a business-to-business context.  The answer is emphatically yes, although these applications rarely get the publicity of their flashier consumer counterparts.  Over the next couple of issues, I’ll look at where social media tools can deliver the most B@B value and how some companies are putting them to work right now.

The term “social media” is almost a misnomer in this context.  Businesspeople usually aren’t looking to socialize when making buying or career decisions (LinkedIn is a notable exception) but rather want actionable advice as quickly as possible.  That’s why the tools that work best are those that let people easily discover what they’re looking for and extract value quickly. Blogs, podcasts, video and discussion forums can all be effective.

In fact, some of the most ambitious corporate blogging campaigns have been primarily aimed at B2B. uses.  Microsoft and Sun, which between them have about 10,000 corporate bloggers, use this tool to reach developers, business customers and prospective employees.  The blogs are easily searchable and they allow readers to pose questions to the best sources of information.

Among other b-to-b companies that are using blogs effectively are Emerson Process Management, the New York Stock Exchange, Marriott, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Boeing and Accenture, to name just a few.  You won’t find a lot of playful repartee and trivia contests here.  These blogs are intended to communicate useful information and reinforce their authors and their companies as authorities in their fields.

Podcasts are one of the least appreciated tools for business-to-business communications.  EMarketer says regular podcast listeners are twice as likely to have advanced degrees and to earn over $100,000 annually as non-listeners.  Nearly every information technology company now regularly uses podcasts as educational tools. Their busy corporate customers appreciate the fact that podcasts let them consume information while driving, exercising or waiting for the train.  It’s a great way to use otherwise unproductive downtime.

Discussion forums are the oldest form of social media around.  They’re a great way to cut support costs by giving customers a way to solve their own problems.  The new breed of social networking tools has given new life to this meat-and-potatoes application.  Members can now link their activity to personal profiles and earn points for their contributions; the more questions they answer, the higher their status in the community.

In many cases, this status is enough reward in itself.  In their best-selling book Groundswell, Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li tell of one Dell customer who saved the company more than $1 million in support costs by answering customer questions. He received no compensation for his work. Some people on LinkedIn regularly answer more than 200 member questions a week.  For them, the reward is the status that they gain from showcasing their expertise.  This can lead to promotions and consulting contracts.

There are even b-to-b applications of some of the flashier new social media technologies.  Next week we’ll look at some of those.

7 thoughts on “B-to-B Social Media: Yes, You Can!

  1. Paul, I was at an event yesterday about this very topic. B2B companies are scratching their heads a bit on how to use social media. They are starting to ask questions and paying attention to how to integrate social media with how they communicate.

    The ROI question came up and while ROI is a factor it is not the primary lens to look through in my opinion and many others (Chris Brogan, Charlene Li to name two). ROI, too often is about “sales” and “leads” in the B2B world. The question a B2B company needs to ask itself is “would you tell a prospective customer that you are blogging to sell her something? If so, would you tell her that upfront?”. This gets to the core of the issue when it comes to how one uses social media and more importantly behaves in the social media world. Social media is about being authentic, human, sharing and having a conversation. In fact, it can separate the “me toos” and lazy companies from the ones that matter and strive to provide legitimate value to customers.

    If you’re gonna blog to create leads…you’re missing the boat.

    I’m glad you mentioned Groundswell. This is an awesome book! I’m doing a chapter by chapter book report on Groundswell that includes blog posts and a dedicated FriendFeed. It may be of value to your readers. Here’s the link to what I’ve finished so far: http://marketingthatmatters.blogspot.com/search/label/groundswell

  2. ROI is a convenient excuse for inaction. What’s the ROI on a magazine ad? We don’t know for sure, but we’ve been doing it a long time, so we’re confident that there’s a payback there. What’s the ROI on your employee benefits package? Or your R&D organization? Or your T&E budget? Or the company holiday party? Businesses make lots of investments without a clear ROI because experience has taught them that the expense is worthwhile.

    You can measure how many people are visiting your blog or downloading your podcast or watching your video. You can track where they came from, where they went and how long they stayed. This is much richer information than we’ve ever been able to get about print advertising, yet businesses willingly spend $100 billion a year on print advertising and then question the ROI of comparatively modest online investments.

    You don’t blog to sell something. You blog to share wisdom with people who matter to you. You blog to converse, maybe to show off a little. You do it for the same reason you pay to fly executives around the country to speak at trade shows for no compensation. It’s part of building your brand. If you do it right, sales will happen, but that should never be the guiding principle.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

  3. ROI and excuse for inaction and not understanding ;-). I think most BtoB companies (and BtoC) don’t understand what they can do with social media. To their credit, it’s new, it’s still being tested, the technology keeps changing and it’s extremely chaotic. They don’t understand that instead of spending $$$ for once a year survey, they can now get an ongoing stream of opinion/reviews on their brand and products. They don’t understand that, by unleashing the power of their own people (well MSFT, SUN, CSCO, IBM do get it), they can grow their influence and build tight relationship with their communities.
    It’s a big change, it’s a new change, it takes time to understand how to operate when the way you’ve been operating for 20+ years is becoming obsolete

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