B-to-B Social Media in Action

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Let’s look at three examples of companies that are using social media for business-to-business(b-to-b) applications. All us different tools and all are effective in different ways.

Wikibon is the kind of Web 2.0 project that could disrupt a big industry. It was started two years ago by David Vellante, a veteran IT analyst who used to run the largest division of International Data Corp. Wikibon challenges an IT research model that has traditionally had customers paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for access to elite analysts. Traditional IT research is top-down. Wikibon is bottoms-up.

Think of it as open source advice. The more than 3,000 people who have joined Wikibon’s enterprise storage community share their expertise with each other and learn from a core group of about 40 independent consultants and experts who use the wiki to showcase their services. It’s a classic Web 2.0 give-to-get formula. The experts share their knowledge in hopes of getting business from the corporate IT specialists who visit the site. Before Wikibon, these experts had severely limited promotional channels. With Wikibon, they have an established community of prequalified business prospects.

Members have contributed 20,000 articles and edits to the archive, Vellante told me. What’s more, the time people spend browsing this rich information resource is “Facebook-like. We’re getting 20 to 30 page views per visitor.” Wikibon may not put Gartner out of business, but it is a challenging the assumption that good information has to be expensive and it’s giving some small b-to-b firms a way to reach an ideal prospect base.


If you’ve ever done business on eBay, you know that its peer rating system is one of its great innovations. RatePoint is one of an emerging class of companies that is bringing this concept to the open Web, and GoGreenSolar is using customer reviews to its advantage.

GoGreenSolar is a small Los Angeles-based firm that sells green energy products. About 60% of its business is b-to-b. A few months ago, the company contracted with RatePoint to install a customer ratings page on its website at a cost of $18/month. RatePoint acts as a kind of validation service, verifying that customer reviews haven’t been tampered with and providing a means to arbitrate disputes. GoGreenSolar has about 20 reviews on this site, all but one of them five stars. The ratings pages quickly became one of the site’s most popular features, says founder Deep Patel. In an increasingly competitive industry where customer service is a differentiator, the ratings are helping GoGreenSolar stand out.

Patel says one of the hidden values of the ratings program is the opportunity for follow-up engagement with customers. By encouraging buyers to post their comments, “We have an opportunity to have a dialog after the transaction. That’s a sales opportunity,” he says. “People who leave reviews often come back and buy more.”

Though GoGreenSolar hasn’t had many negative reviews to worry about, Patel even sees opportunity in the occasional dissatisfied customer. The rating system is an opportunity to fix the problem and turn the customer into a source of repeat business, he said.

Emerson Process Management

You probably aren’t going to stop by the Emerson Process Experts blog for a casual read. Here’s a clip from a recent entry: “The valve supplier typically supplies the safety valve torque requirements and required leakage rates. The actuator supplier provides the torque-to-supply pressure tables. The good news for those of us a little rusty in our advanced math skills is that the equations are algebraic and the simplifying assumptions err to the side of conservative volume sizing..”

Did your eyes glaze over? This tech talks would baffle the typical visitor, but it’s music to the ears of the plant engineers and process control experts who regularly visit the blog started three years ago by Jim Cahill (left), marketing communications manager for Emerson’s Process Systems and Solutions business. It’s one of my favorite examples of good b-to-b blogging.

Emerson Process Experts is superbly focused; it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a technical resource to a small but very important audience. Cahill is fluent in the language of the industry, but he’s also a good writer who organizes and expresses his thoughts clearly.

What’s the benefit to Emerson? The company has become a trusted source of advice to customers and prospects. Its plentiful links to other sources of information ingratiates the company with publishers. And 190 inbound links haven’t hurt its search performance: Emerson is the number one commercial link on Google for the terms “process management” and “process control.”

New Conversation Monitoring Service is Free During Test Phase

If you’ve been itching to try out one of those conversation monitoring services – the ones that tap into millions of blogs and discussion groups and pick out mentions of your company – you now have a chance to try one for free. BuzzGain is an online service for identifying chatter on blogs, photo-sharing services, video services, Twitter and traditional media. It’s co-founded by Brian Solis, a PR guy who’s very savvy about new media. According to the pitch I received, this test isn’t open to the general public: “They’re launching BuzzGain in the true spirit of public beta…They want to listen to and learn…While it’s in Beta, it will be free for everyone.”

Web 2.0 Goes Corporate

In my 25 years in the information technology field, I’ve learned how to spot trends that are about to go mainstream. One of my most reliable methods is to attend industry conferences dedicated to some new idea or technology and to look at the name badges of the attendees. Once corporate IT managers start showing up in force, you can be certain that the idea has staying power.

This happened in the late 1980s, when corporate IT attendance at the Comdex conference suddenly surged, presaging corporate adoption of desktop computing. The pattern repeated itself in the 90s with the networking-oriented Interop conference, followed by a series of Internet events late in the decade that drew large IT audiences. The trade shows themselves rarely last for more than a few years, but the ideas they introduced become part of the corporate landscape. I hadn’t seen the trend play out for some time. Until this week.

Despite coming off a two-week travel binge, I skipped out on a pile of unanswered e-mail this week to attend TechWeb’s Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston. This event was dedicated to uses of social media technology behind the corporate firewall, and I was curious to see who would show up. I was impressed to see who did.

The more than 400 people who packed the keynote hall on Wednesday represented a blue-chip list of the largest U.S. corporations. There were banks, airlines, consumer packaged goods and pharmaceutical companies. For more than two hours on Wednesday morning a full house listened intently as a series of speakers from Pfizer, Wachovia, Sony and the Central Intelligence Agency talked about what their organizations are doing with internal applications of social media.

Lots of Action

It turns out they’re doing plenty. Pete Fields, senior vice president of the e-commerce division at Wachovia, told how the financial firm is using an integrated social network to capture the knowledge of workers who will be retiring over the next few years. Simon Revell, manager of enterprise 2.0 technology development at Pfizer, showed off a promotion the pharmaceutical company is using to drive internal adoption of an enterprise wiki, podcasts, personal employee spaces and a social bookmarking service.

Ned Lerner, director of tools and technology at Sony Computer Entertainment, spoke of how wikis and open-source project management tools are replacing top-down hierarchy with team solidarity. All the speakers noted that Web 2.0 tools are a necessity to attract the young workers who will make up their future workforce.

The individual empowerment that social media technologies enable is even transforming corporate cultures. In one memorable exchange during a panel discussion, the CIA’s Sean Dennehy remarked that giving up control is the secret to empowering employees to do the right thing. “We need to fight against locked-down spaces,” he said. Moderator Andrew McAfee of the Harvard Business School couldn’t help noting the irony of that statement coming from a representative of the CIA. But in fact, that organization has been a pioneer in using bloggers to keep close to happenings in remote corners of the globe.

The morning concluded with a series of demonstrations from companies that are building corporate versions of popular social media tools. Among them are Veodia, Aegeon and GroupSwim. A year ago, these companies would have been showing off consumer services. Today, they’re demonstrating the same kind of cool technology you see on YouTube, but with enterprise scale and reliability. More coverage of the event is listed on the conference blog, which is accessible from the home page.

For those who remember the Internet conferences of the late 90s, this is nothing like that. Those early events were about putting up company websites and conducting commerce online. This new breed of conference is about of empowering individuals and decentralizing business decisions. It’s a much more exciting concept, because it transforms the relationship between people and institutions. It’s pretty exciting to hear conservative institutions like Wachovia speak of enabling direct discussions between employees and senior management. A few years ago, that idea was almost unthinkable. Hanging around Enterprise 2.0, I got the sense that it will soon be the way we all do business.

When to Let Employees Do the Talking

Two organizations that have a — shall we say — problematic public image have recently launched blogs using a tactic that I think more marketers should consider:They’re letting their employees do the talking for them.

The Transportation Security Administration launched Evolution of Security in January. Its purpose is to explain, in a calm and rational tone, the reasons why the TSA does what it does.The bloggers have methodically taken on the most common complaints about TSA practices and tried to make sense of them for a skeptical traveling public. In addition to explaining their tactics, they’ve highlighted incidents of bizarre passenger behavior that give a sense of how unpredictable their jobs can be.

The branding is subtle: the TSA logo appears only at the bottom of the page. The slogan — “Terrorists Evolve. Threats Evolve. Security Must Stay Ahead. You Play a Part” — is meant to invite the public into a discussion about security. Initial reaction has been mixed. There were more than 700 comments on the welcome post, according to the blog. Only about half of them were published because of obscenities and other inappropriate comments.

Comments continue to trend toward the negative, so much so that the TSA has playfully posted a “Delete-O-Meter” to count the number of contributions that were filtered out. I don’t think any of this sentiment surprised TSA officials. Their early statements indicated that they expected a lot of hostility and their bloggers are remaining relentlessly cheerful in the face of it. I think they deserve a lot of credit for that.

I only recently became aware of Check Out, a Wal-Mart blog about gadgets. It was launched last August but has been seeing a lot more activity in the last couple of months. Wal-Mart, of course, has been a controversial player in the blogosphere.It famously sponsored a 2006 blog about cross-country travel that BusinessWeek outed as being written by paid freelancers. It has also funded an organization called Working Families for Wal-Mart that has been ridiculed for being a PR stunt to counter Wal-Mart’s controversial labor practices. (Note: In an ironic twist, that organization’s web site has been replaced by a placeholder page referencing It turns out that Wal-Mart never registered the domain, and it has been co-opted by a foe).

What interests me is that both the TSA and Wal-Mart have elected to use ordinary employees to tell their stories. The TSA blog is written by five people: four mid-level employees and a PR person. Given the volume of comments, I assume that these people were offered ample relief from the demands of their day jobs, but it’s still important that they represent the front-line TSA forces and not the executives in Washington.

Wal-Mart took the same approach, selecting nine people just like you and me to speak for the company about their passion for consumer electronics.No one is likely to get very worked up about this topic in the first place, so Check Out is a safe move by Wal-Mart. But I’m sure that the decision to let employees speak for the organization wasn’t an easy one.

None of this activity is meant to replace the communications that still emanate from these organizations. It’s important that companies and government agencies have the means to issue statements on behalf of the entire entity. But when it comes to personalizing the interaction –- as blogs do — the decision to use ordinary people is a smart one. Social media is personal, and corporate executives aren’t always able or willing to communicate in that fashion.

The use of individual employee voices is also a subtle reminder that institutions are made up of people and that those people have personalities and interests and motivations that deserve attention.There is no better way to humanize a faceless entity than to expose the people within it. That’s a difficult concept for many marketers to swallow, since marketing communications has historically been built around executive communications.But when you look at examples like these, as well as other successful corporate blogs like those from Southwest Airlines, Kodak and Google, you can see why this trend is gaining momentum.Trust your employees to do the right thing, give them some clear parameters and they will astonish you.