Eric Schwartzman and I are deep into the research for our forthcoming book on business-to-business social media and lately we’ve been learning what makes communities tick. Online gathering places for business professionals actually predate the commercial Internet by more than a decade, having established themselves as an effective form of peer support back in the days of Compuserve and Usenet. With the addition of profiling, friending and other features of modern social networks, there are more opportunities than ever to use communities to bind customers closer to your company.
Communities have a lot of value outside of support. They can be used to test new product ideas, generate feedback, spread a message and enlist new customers. I’ve recently spoken to people who administer such successful b-to-b social networks as Spiceworks, element 14, AuntMinnie, the SAP Developer Network and others to learn what works with business professionals. In the process, I’ve learned to understand the difference between consumer and business communities. Here are some highlights.
B-to-b customers are motivated by professional, rather than personal interests. This may seem obvious, but when you think about it, there are big implications for the way you approach a community. The essence of many consumer social networks is playfulness, chitchat and commentary on popular topics in the news. Much of this content doesn’t play well in a b-to-b environment. While some community administrators report that political and even sports topics spur conversation, by and large the membership has problems to solve and little time to waste. Keep the navigation simple and the gimmickry to a minimum. I’ve always liked LinkedIn’s look and feel because it reflects its utility so well. LinkedIn’s look is almost aggressively boring, but the message is that it’s a place to get work done, not to mess around.
Engagement is difficult. The term “engagement” has become almost cliché in its role as the Holy Grail of social media marketing. Facebook is an engagement machine. The company claims the average user spends more than 55 minutes per day on the site. That’s great for Facebook, but most businesses would fire an employee who did that.
Business professionals are focused on solving problems, and that makes their social network behavior quite different from consumers’. In its “Social Technographics of Business Buyers” study published about a year ago, Forrester Research observed that “buyers will participate socially when they need to solve problems or evaluate progress; otherwise they are off running their companies.” In other words, a network that has a high “time spent on site” number may be attracting the wrong people (or may just be difficult to navigate). When building a b-to-b community, accept the fact that a lot of people may register once and never come back. Factors such as search engine performance and unique visitor growth may be more important than time spent reading because they indicate that your community is providing content that other people are discovering and finding valuable.
It’s all about the job. Back in my tech publishing days, I used to joke that when a CIO approached us offering to author an article, it almost invariably meant he was looking for a job. That observation was later validated by prominent business magazine (I think it was Fortune) that suggested that the acronym CIO actually stood for “Career Is Over.” I would later learn that CIOs were in almost constant job search mode. They were in visible and pressurized situations and frequently took the fall when things went wrong.
Today, a lot more people are in that boat. Layoffs are everyday occurrences and unforgiving markets have made job security a joke. Forget allegiance to one’s employer. Business professionals today are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to network, showcase their stuff and be ready when the ax falls. Keep this in mind and give people ample opportunity to connect with each other. Which is one of the reasons you should…
Enable people to build personal brands. Nearly every successful professional social network I’ve encountered has some kind of a points system or other tool for elevating the status of individual members. In extreme cases, such as that of TopCoder, the most innovative and productive members of the community can win cash prizes. However, it’s remarkable how much people will contribute to the collective simply for the visibility. As Tabrez Syed, director of products at the 800,000-member Spiceworks community said, “It’s amazing how much people are willing to give back.”
Part of this is human nature, I suppose, but there’s a practical element as well. Visible contributors gain status that leads to jobs and consulting assignments. A few years ago, it was almost impossible to build one’s reputation this way, but social networks have created a way to build status based solely on a person’s contributions. SAP, which has one of the most impressive communities programs I’ve seen, recognizes its most valuable members at annual conferences. These people are rock stars, which has all kinds of benefits to them.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be talking to owners of successful communities aimed at doctors, human resources professionals and food service managers. I’m sure there’ll be more to report.