The Changing Rules of B2B Marketing

Here is a draft of the first chapter of Social Marketing to the Business Customer by Paul Gillin and Eric Schwartzman. This chapter focuses on drawing the major distinctions between business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) markets and where social marketing has particular value to B2B companies. Your feedback is welcome. Please ignore the typos and grammar flaws that inevitably appear at this stage.

Friends know Scott Hanson as an affable native Texan with a penchant for computers, cars and poker. But to thousands of technology professionals around the world, Hanson is a celebrity. By day, he and three other technologists at Dell Computer manage the Dell TechCenter, an online community that helps enterprise IT professionals unravel the thorniest problems that occur when trying to integrate technology from multiple vendors.

Dell conceived of the community in 2007 as a way to enhance loyalty among its largest customers. Members share advice and ask questions of Hanson and the other engineers, who dispense it for free. The community is open and fully searchable, although only registered members can submit articles and comments. In 2008, about 100 people visited the site every day. By early 2010, that number was over 5,000.

Hansen and colleagues Jeff Sullivan, Kong Yang and Dennis Smith are celebrities of sorts in the community of enterprise customers, who frequently seek them out for meetings at trade shows and during visits to the company’s executive briefing center. Their celebrity is paid off handsomely for Dell: Hanson won’t provide specifics, but Dell has estimated that the Tech Center is indirectly responsible for many millions of dollars in sales each year.

That’s despite the fact that Dell Tech Center isn’t charged with selling anything. The site is free of advertising and the member list may never be used for promotions. “The last thing IT people want when they come to a technical resource is an ad asking them to buy a laptop,” Hanson says.

Those sales are generated by the affinity that the staff has developed with these key corporate customers. It’s a camaraderie that is nurtured by personal contact. In the early days of Twitter, the Dell TechCenter staff had set up a common Twitter account as a secondary channel of communication. But it turned out that customers wanted to speak to people, not brands. The Twitter initiative really gained traction when Hanson became @DellServerGeek and Sullivan became @SANPenguin. Suddenly the discussion became more personal and the people behind Dell TechCenter more real to their constituents.

Welcome to the new world of B2B communications. Dell TechCenter and other initiatives like it are microcosms of the changes that are sweeping across corporate America as a consequence of the rapid growth of social media tools like blogs, communities and user-generated multimedia.

Companies like Dell, which does 80% of its sales volume with corporate customers, are ideally positioned to take advantage of these new channels. In fact, B2B companies were among the earliest adopters of social media. Technology leaders like Microsoft, IBM and Cisco had hundreds or thousands of employees blogging as early as 2005 and those same companies are now expanding their footprint into social networks like Facebook, YouTube and, overwhelmingly, Twitter.

Microsoft used a video program called Channel 9 to show its human side to a market that saw it as a closed and secretive company. B2B technology companies have also been among the most creative users of social channels to reach the highly skilled people they need to hire in competitive labor markets. Recruiters have found that social channels are far more effective in identifying prospective employees than recruitment advertising sources and that prospects came into the hiring cycle with a better understanding and more enthusiasm about the company they were hoping to work for.

Yet B2B applications of social media get remarkably little attention. Perhaps that’s because their focused communities of buyers pale in size to the millions who flock to Facebook Official Pages for Coca-Cola and Nike is. Perhaps it’s because glitzy video contests and games don’t resonate with the time-challenged professional audience. It doesn’t really matter. Few B2B companies seek the consumer spotlight and their audiences, which may spend millions of dollars with them, are more interested in substance than in style. Fortunately, B2B social media is all about substance. Continue reading

Gain Control By Giving It Up

Open Leadership by Charlene LiCharlene Li’s new book will be out in a few weeks, and if you’re interested in how social media is transforming the way business gets done, you’ll want to pick up a copy.

The book is called Open Leadership, and I would classify it as the first of the post-social media books. By that I mean that it looks at the consequences of democratized communications rather than at the media itself. Expect to see a wave of similar books in the coming years. This is a very good first entry.

Open Leadership will make a lot of people uncomfortable because it proposes that the only way to govern effectively in a transparent business world is to give up control and trust people to do the right thing. Li makes a persuasive case by citing numerous examples of companies that have successfully done exactly that.

Li is a former Forrester Research analyst, founder of Altimeter Group and co-author of Groundswell, the breakthrough 2008 book that provided the first demographic profiles of social media users as well as a rigorous methodology for evaluating the ROI of social programs. In this book, she builds on some of the economic models first presented in Groundswell, but Open Leadership is more of a call to action than a financial exercise.

The premise is encapsulated in the title of Chapter 1: “Why Giving up Control Is Inevitable.” Li asserts that today’s business world is too complex and competitive to permit organizations to continue to manage the way they have since the Industrial Revolution. That top-down philosophy assumes that people are idiots who can’t accomplish tasks without instructions, rigid rules and constant oversight. That worked okay when companies had some control over their environment, but today too many factors are out of their hands. So one man’s story of how an airline broke his guitar and refused to fix it becomes a cultural sensation while the airline stands by helplessly and fumes.

Charlene LiLi (left) asserts that the only way to gain any level of control over today’s turbo-charged business environment is to give up as much control as possible. New business leaders set examples, demonstrate confidence and create cultures that tolerate intelligent, well-intentioned failure. And guess what? It turns out that when smart people are given the latitude to make decisions, they tend to make better ones than if someone else makes decisions for them.

Open Leadership provides some refreshing new examples of how this new management philosophy is working:

  • Meetup.com replaced a top-down approach to project management with one that requires stakeholders to persuade engineers to spend time on their projects. Productivity exploded;
  • BestBuy outlasted competitors in the brutal electronics retailing business in part by developing a culture that lets its employees guide customers toward the best decision, even if that means buying from a competitor;
  • Electronics distributor Premier Farnell distributed low-cost digital video cameras to every employee in the company so that they could document their best practices and share them on an internal network. Employees are more empowered and the quality of information is better.

Li is particularly inspired by John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, which has undertaken a massive program to drive decision-making down to local levels. Chambers says the idea unnerved him at first but that Cisco is now a faster, more responsive and more innovative company as a result. And he’s working fewer hours. Chambers provides critical support for the concepts outlined in Open Leadership: He has the unwavering support of Cisco’s board of directors, which enables him to talk honestly about his own reservations and the mistakes he has made.

It is on the issue of mistakes that the author is most emphatic. Li stresses that businesses can only be innovative if they learn to accept the fact that failure is a necessary by-product of risk-taking. Companies that successfully practice open leadership evaluate decisions based upon the thought that goes into them rather than the results. Failure is an opportunity to learn and try again and the only unpardonable sin is making the same mistake twice.

Most businesses do a lousy job of this. They publicly declare a commitment to innovation, but privately punish employees whose ideas don’t succeed. Tolerance for failure is sometimes cited as the most important reason that Silicon Valley has outclassed every other region of the US in technology innovation. Reading Open Leadership, I get the impression that such tolerance is the only option for businesses that hope to lead in uncertain markets.