B2B or not B2B: That Is No Longer a Social Media Question

Is there a place for social media in business-to-business (B2B) marketing? Up to a year or so ago, it might have been worthwhile pondering that question. Today the question is no longer whether or not. Rather it is how to best utilize social media in B2B marketing. A survey by White Horse finds 86 percent of B2B firms are using or having a presence on social media, compared to 82 percent for business-to-consumer (B2C) firms. They are not as actively engaging in social media activities, however — 45 percent of B2B firms have a basic presence (e.g., a Twitter or Facebook account,and/or a company blog) but no significant marketing activities (day-to-day engagement) on social media, compared to 26 percent of B2C firms. There is still a lack of executive buy-in among B2B firms (one in three B2B firms reports low executive interests, compared to one in eleven B2C firms). While both types of firms cite insufficient personnel to maintain social media activities as the most serious obstacle, B2B firms are several times more likely than B2C firms to prefer traditional marketing methods and to perceive social media as not relevant to their business. Being newcomers to social media, one in three B2B firms is not measuring how successful its social media efforts are, compared to one in ten B2C firms. In brief, B2B marketers are interested and have tiptoed into social media but they are not quite there yet.

The need to utilize social media is just as great for B2B firms as they are for B2C firms.

  1. In the B2B world, professional networking is everything — who you know and who they know form a web of relationships. Online social networks (OSNs) can be excellent tools for connecting with others. They are no longer heavens just for teens and college students. A majority of users on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter comprises of people 35 years of age or older.
    OSN users by age
    Source: “Who use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and MySpace”, Paul Kiser’s Blog
  2. B2B marketing is not about lifestyle and personal interests as much as it is about helping customers to get their jobs done better. That means extending to them the B2B firm’s knowledge and expertise in the form of relevant, credible and useful content (e.g., white papers, case studies, product demo videos and webinars). Social media offer B2B marketers new opportunities to aggregate, share and co-create content with customers. Content provides the substance that attracts and engages prospective customers at various touch points. It turns simple network connections into rich social interactions that help build business relationships.
  3. B2B customers are also real people. They increasingly use social media at work and in their daily life, be that reading blogs, watching YouTube videos, staying in touch with friends on Facebook, or uploading presentations  to Slideshare.net. In that regard, the demarcation line between doing business and being a consumer, or that between B2B and B2C, is becoming harder to detect.
  4. Whether in B2B or B2C, listening to what is being talked about the firm and its brands is a must. Marketers are no longer the only one with a megaphone and in a commanding position to control their brand messages. Anyone else can blog, share with their 100+ Facebook friends or create YouTube video about their experience with the firm’s products and services. Letting negative blog posts, comments or videos spreading around without addressing their inaccuracies or customer grievances can be a costly mistake and failing to listen to customer suggestions can mean lost opportunities.

 

Once B2B marketers buy into the idea of utilizing social media, the next and more challenging question is what can B2B marketers do with specific social media tools? There are many tools and covering them all in this blog post would be impractical. Fortunately, Base One offers a relatively comprehensive drawing that depicts the B2B social media landscape. Click on it will lead you to a larger image where the details can be zoomed in and explored.

B2B Social Media Landscape

Just take a quick look at some tools.

  • Among content-centric tools, Slideshare.net is a good place for sharing presentations with information-hungry prospects whose decisions can be influenced by informative content; and do not overlook YouTube for product demo videos. Quite often, the firm may have already produced these presentations and videos; so, all it takes is to sign up with these sites and upload the content. Blogs are well-recognized as a marketing tool but not yet widely used in B2B (only 50 percent of B2B marketers have used blogs, compared to 75 percent having used LinkedIn, according to eMarketer). They are a great way to put a human voice on a cold corporate website. They can be enormously effective — 71 percent of B2B users rate blogs as “very influential” in identifying and defining needs, 74 percent in identifying potential suppliers and 75 percent in final selection of a supplier.
  • Most often overlooked is Wikipedia, which is among the five most visited websites and a main source of knowledge for many prospects. B2B marketers should create, maintain and/or contribute to entries on their firms, products or the underlying technology and business processes.
  • Among the connection-centric tools, LinkedIn — the OSN for professionals — is the most obvious and widely popular with B2B marketers (3 out of 4 having used it). Do not overlook Facebook and Twitter. “[I]f LinkedIn is your business suit and Facebook is business casual, then Twitter is your business social networking cocktail hour, the place where you go to casually and informally interact with potentially thousands of others. Whereas LinkedIn tends to be a more latent form of engagement, Twitter is (or can be) very much in real-time” (Paul Chaney, 2009). Surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), B2B buyers rate Twitter and Facebook more than LinkedIn as “very influential” in identifying and defining needs (67, 60 and 51 percent, respectively), identifying potential suppliers (81, 69 and 46 percent) and finally selecting a supplier (77, 87 and 54 percent).
  • There is a bonus for using social media: they help boost search engine rankings. Such rankings are largely driven by the volume of high-quality inbound links a website receives. A key element in optimizing websites for search engines is to get more links. Engaging with users on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter can drive in lots of links from these sites, hence can boost search engine rankings. Nearly half of B2B marketers indicate their social media activities as having positive effects on their  search engine performance (eMarketer, 09/17/2010).

Looking forward, it is anticipated that “B2B spending on social media [is] to explode” (eMarketer). Besides increased spending on paid advertising (e.g., banners) on OSNs, a sizable portion of spending will go to  toward other social media initiatives such as creating and maintaining a branded profile page, managing promotions or public relations outreach within a social network, and measuring the effect of a social network presence on brand health and sales. Quite interestingly, there is a marked difference in social media usage between B2B marketers under 30 years or so of age and those older (Base One, “Buyersphere”). As those 30s and under move up the corporate ladder in the years ahead, expect even more changes in social media usage in B2B marketing.

Resources

  1. B2B Marketing Goes Social: a White Horse Survey Report (2010).
  2. Base One, “B2B Social Media Landscape” and “Buyersphere: Survey of B2B Buyers’ Use of Social Media” (2010).
  3. Who use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and MySpace“, Paul Kiser’s Blog, (April 1, 2010).
  4. eMarketer, “Is B2B on Board with Social?” (March 13, 2010), “B2Bs Tap Social to Boost Search” (September 17 , 2010), “B2B Spending on Social Media to Explode” (June 1, 2010).
  5. Paul Chaney (2009), The Digital Handshake: Seven Proven Strategies to Grow Your Business Using Social Media, John Wiley & Sons.

Using Social Media Is Not the Same as Using Social Media

Yes, you read it right. No typo here. Just because some marketers employ social media tools such as blogs or online social networks (OSNs) does not mean they capitalize on the potential power of social media.

In general, social media are earned media where marketers participate in ongoing, many-to-many conversations (dialogues), engage consumers for their insights, and earn their interest and trust with which to build relationships and brand loyalty. These conversations can be initiated by either marketers or consumers. They cannot be treated as another marketing channel owned and controlled by marketers (an earlier post “Markets are conversations“). By contrast, traditional media are usually paid media (e.g., TV and radio commercials, magazine ads, and paid key word search) or owned media (e.g., corporate websites) with which marketers can broadcast (in a one-to-many fashion) their well crafted monologues (a.k.a. advertisements). Consumers have very few, if any, opportunities to interact or contribute their own messages.

Putting an advertisement on a popular blog or Facebook does not amount to using social media. It simply treats these social media as “media” – a channel of marketing communication paid for by marketers; there is nothing “social” about it. Likewise, maintaining a corporate blog or creating a product page on Facebook does not by itself amount to capitalizing on the power of social media if the company simply uses these media to continue publishing its product information, brochures or press releases. In such case, it treats these media simply as owned media (it does not own Facebook of course, only its Facebook product page). It only use these media as social media when a corporate blog or Facebook product page is designed to support social interactions – engaging consumers in a meaningful conversation and letting them bring more friends into it, allowing them to share their consumption experience and contribute content, and/or crowdsourcing product design ideas.

Here is my key takeaway. What distinguishes between social media and traditional media is not the technology or means of communication (e.g., analog vs. digital, or Web 1.0 vs. Web 2.0 era software applications, or whatsoever). Rather, it is the marketing mindset that shapes the information flows (many-to-many vs. one-to-many), underlies the relationship between the senders and receivers of the messages (dialogues vs. monologues) and defines the nature of the media used (e.g., paid and owned media vs. earned media). In other words, it is not which media they are but how they are used that determines whether a marketer is using social media.

Markets Are Conversations

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From Conversations to Monologues

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, Doc Searls and David Weinberger remind their readers that, for thousands of years, markets were conversations. These were places for exchange where buyers and sellers looked each other in the eye, met and connected. They spoke directly to each other without the filter of media, advertising and public relations. Customers talked among themselves about products and merchants, giving each other their recommendations. Words of mouth were a powerful tool of advertising.

Then came the Industrial Age and with it mass production, mass consumption and inevitably mass marketing. Ever since, market conversations have been interrupted. In their places are marketing messages that businesses push onto consumers. Marketing becomes a profession, an applied science, the engineering of desirable responses through the application of calibrated stimuli. A new metaphor, “business is war”, has taken hold. “We launch marketing campaigns based on strategies that target markets; we bombard people with messages in order to penetrate markets… Business-as-usual is in a constant state of war with the market, with the marketing department manning the front lines”. There is one big problem with this:  marketers are trying to do all the talking; but people do not ask for all these marketing messages and do their best to tune them out. All the sophisticated marketing research techniques and promotional tools have proven increasingly less effective. Marketers and consumers become disconnected from each other.

The video clip below — “The Break Up” — says it well. It is “a story of love gone wrong” — all she (the consumer) wants is genuine affection; all he (the advertiser) offers is loyalty reduction. A break-up is bound to happen.

Back to the Future

Once again the world is changing. The rise of the Internet and the proliferation of social media enabling users to create and contribute content and to network online have altered the balance of power in favor of consumers. These are not simply new channels for marketers to continue broadcasting their messages more widely and cheaply. Instead, they are new virtual spaces where people can gather around topics of interest to them, learn and talk about products, brands and their consumption experiences, and recommend directly to each other what to buy and what not.

The Cluetrain Manifesto proposes several dozens theses about the impacts of the Internet on markets and organizations. Among those is “markets are conversations”. The book was published in 1999, long before the proliferation of social media tools. Its theses were way ahead of their time. On the 10-year anniversary of the book, a 2009 video clip by Jacobsland Partners highlights some of the key theses.

Market conversations are back, but with one major difference this time: the marketspaces are highly networked. Because people are more widely connected online, their conversations can expand far and wide, spread from one forum to another easily, and get picked up by other media instantaneously. All of these can take place with or without participation from marketers.

Ignore Market Conversations at One’s Own Perils

Good, bad or ugly as these market conversations may be, their reach and impacts can be wide and serious. Ignoring them does not make them go away; and there is no realistic way of crowding them out with advertising blitz. Instead, participation in these conversations is often a smarter choice while keeping a distance and being silent can be a costly mistake. The experience of the leading computer maker Dell with Dell Hell serves as a vivid reminder of this. In June 2005, blogger Jeff Jarvis posted on his blog Buzzmachine (http://www.buzzmachine.com) his complaint, entitled Dell Hell, about the failure of Dell’s customer services to repair his laptop. It quickly attracted thousands of links, comments and emails from other aggrieved Dell customers, and became the third most linked-to post on the blogosphere in the following weeks (Gupta, 2005). At the time Dell had a “look, don’t touch” policy regarding blog commentaries in effect. So, it did not respond to this brewing negative publicity until Dell Hell received wide coverage in the mainstream media (including the New York Times, Slate, CNN, Business Week, etc.). By then, according to an analysis by Market Sentinel (2005), Dell had badly lost out to Buzzmachine and other blogs as the source of information on Dell’s customer services. Coincidentally or not, Dell’s sales growth stalled and profits fell. Eventually, Dell had to take a series of corrective actions, including the creation of a blog, known as Direct2Dell, to engage in candid conversations with its customers.

Be Authentic

Conversations occur in human voices as being from a person with authentic identity, a point of view and a passion, not a legal entity trying to deliver a message or keep them on message. They are two-way communications involving both listening and talking; they need to be authentic and transparent to gain the public trust. The goal is not to build a walled garden of content that hold consumers hostage to the marketer’s brand messages but rather to create a “public square” — a virtual meeting place where customers come back for the rich and engaging experience (Tapscott and Williams, 2006).  So, lighten up, loosen up and listen for a change. Only by presenting itself as a human face and by engaging its constituents (e.g., customers, suppliers and employees) in meaningful conversations can a company or institution have a fair chance of influencing consumer opinion. When frustrated customers launched a blog recounting the hours Jet Blue left them stranded on the tarmac during a snow storm, the carrier responded quickly, not with a traditional press release, but by posting on YouTube a video of an apology from its CEO. Its response received favorable and supportive comments and e-mails from thousands of customers (Eikelmann et al, 2007).

The price for not being authentic can be high. In September 2006, Working Families for Wal-Mart, an organization founded by the public relations firm Edelman, sponsored a couple for their trip by a recreational vehicle (RV) from Las Vegas to Georgia. The couple maintained a blog named Wal-Marting Across America where they wrote about the lives and stories they encountered on their journey, including the many employees who reportedly expressed their love of working for this giant retailer. The couple was real and they already had, prior to the sponsorship, a favorable view of Wal-Mart particularly for its policy of letting RVers park for free at its parking lots. However, the failure to disclose the sponsorship raised suspicion about the authenticity of this blog and led eventually to its exposure as a “flog” (or a fake blog) and plenty of uproars in the blogosphere (Gogoi, 2006). Subsequently, the president and CEO of Edelman had to apologize publicly for its failure to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers (Siebert, 2006).

Have Thick Skin

Joining a conversation takes much more than simply adding social media to the marketing communication tool set. It also means embracing a new management mindset — ceding control in order to build relationships (Li, 2004). This can be a challenging and risky move for marketers who accustomed to controlling their messages through one-way broadcasting media. The publicity surrounding GM/Apprentice advertising campaign underscores the potential risk of ceding such control. In 2006, GM launched a promotional web site in partnership with NBC’s “The Apprentice” to offer consumers a chance to create their own advertisements for the Chevy Tahoe SUV (sport-utility vehicle). Environmental activists, consumer safety advocates and many anti-SUV consumers quickly seized on the opportunity to create many advertisements that slammed on the Tahoe for its adverse impacts. These videos quickly found their way onto YouTube. GM management was slow to respond to these negative advertisements at first but later decided to face these head-on, trying to clarify the facts (e.g., pointing out that the Tahoe outperformed other competing SUVs on fuel economy, safety ratings and engine emission) and to put a positive spin on the whole campaign. Writing on GM FastLane blog, Chevrolet General Manager claimed GM management had expected this sort of campaign would not come without risks but “adopted a position of openness and transparency, and decided that we would welcome the debate… In our opinion, this has been one of the most creative and successful promotions we have done. And we invite you back to the final ‘Board Room’ as we select the winning entry.” (Peper, 2006).

Loosen up Control or Lose Control

While the risk of ceding control on marketing messages is real, the ability to control such messages has been sharply reduced, if not totally eliminated, by the rise of social media anyway. In the age of user-generated content (UGC), there is little that marketers can do to prevent or stop consumer from posting and spreading messages, negative or otherwise, about their brands. By embracing social media, instead of rejecting or ignoring them, marketers can at least become part of the conversations and be better placed to shape consumer perceptions. Not all was lost for GM in the GM/Apprentice campaign, according to Charlene Li of Forrester Research (2006). “By losing control over the brand experience, Chevy actually brought more people into it — witness the debate over the campaign itself. The environmental and SUV fuel economy debate has always existed outside of the Chevy experience, but by bringing it into chevyapprentice.com, Chevy has harnessed it into a promotional benefit”. The key lesson is “…in the social computing arena, you [marketers] have got to have thick skin and be ready to engage in the messy world of your customer’s opinions. Marketers that have the guts to turn over their brand to the public will in the end win over their customers.”

Social Media: More “Social” than “Media”

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Social media has become an important marketing tool. It is difficult nowadays to discuss about marketing and advertising without discussing about social media. Much has been written about social media in the trade press and more recently also in academic journals. Few efforts have been made to define or clarify what social media is, however. More are needed. Definitions and classifications are an essential step in studying any emerging field.

Among those defining social media, a majority focuses on its user-generated content (UGC) dimension. Below are some examples.

This form of media ‘‘describes a variety of new sources of online information that are created, initiated, circulated and used by consumers intent on educating each other about products, brands, services, personalities, and issues’’ (Blackshaw & Nazzaro, 2004, p. 2).

“Social Media is a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content” (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010) .

“Social media describes online resources that people use to share ‘content’: video, photos, images, text, ideas, insight, humour, opinion, gossip, news — the list goes on” (Drury, 2008).

Some Are More “Media-like” Than Others

While being different, the definitions above all focus on the content element. This focus is apparently rooted in the traditional understanding of the term “media”. Its singular form, “medium”, refers to an “intervening agency, means, or instrument” and was first applied to newspapers to denote a means of communication. Over the years, the term “media” has been used more commonly as a singular noun that refers collectively to the means of mass communication. In that sense, it is closely associated with the delivery of content of one kind or another, be it news, ads, information or entertainment.

There are a few popular tools and applications that are widely considered as social media although for them content generation is only peripheral. One such tool is online social networks (OSNs) such as LinkedIn and Facebook the primary focus of which is on connecting users with “friends”. The scope of social media therefore needs to be broadened beyond the content dimension, which underlies the term media in the traditional sense. Dan Hollings (2008) offers a very interesting definition of social media by stringing together examples of social media tools and sites, in a creative way “like you’ve never seen before!”

“Learning to Digg, Backflip, or Furl might sound less than Delicious, until you Ask for a spoonful of RawSugar and a quick Wink from Mister Wong, the Frappr, who’s taken a StumbleUpon a Flock of Magnolia after a Spurl last night at the LinkaGoGo, and suddenly your site becomes Mashable on the Newsvine, where, as fast as you can say Blinklist, all the world will Digg by iPhone your Facebook on MySpace before you quickly Squidoo over to YouTube for 43 Things you must Flickr with before you’re forced to Reddit again, plus get Linkedin while praying to the Gods of Twitter that one day you’ll “get” what the Technorati all this social media stuff means.”

This is not exactly a definition because it lacks a precise statement of what the term social media means. But its use of a large number of social media, quite diverse in their focus, successfully highlights that social media tools are not necessarily media in the traditional sense. Some are content-centric (e.g., blogs), some are not (e.g., OSNs) although they all produce some forms of user-generated content (UGC).

Take OSNs. Their raison d’être is to enable people to connect with each other. On OSN sites such as Facebook, personal profiles enable users to project an identity and to connect with others. On OSN sites such as 43things.com, users list a number of  goals and hopes (e.g., “lose 12 pounds”, “travel to Greece”, and “be more confident”) that enables them to get connected with other users whose goals are constructed with similar words or ideas. User profiles, goals and hopes are a form of UGC; they are key to users’ ability to connect with each other but they are not the raison d’être for these OSN sites.

Take wikis. Like blogs, their outputs are essentially content. However, whereas blog posts contain the unedited, opinionated voice of one person, wiki pages embody the collective efforts of multiple users and reflect a generally agreed-upon view. It is the ability to facilitate group collaboration and to harness the collective intelligence that distinguishes wiki pages from blog posts.

Or take social search, ratings and evaluation sites. While their focus is on content, their added value is in harnessing the collective intelligence of users for content discovery. StumbleUpon, for example, enables users to “stumble upon” content pages found and recommended by friends or like-minded users. Digg lets users vote up or down on news stories, thus letting most “Dugg” stories rising to the top (appearing on the front page).

Essentially, social media encompasses a wide range of tools. Some tools such as wikis can be characterized as collaboration-centric, others like blogs as content-centric and still others like OSNs as connection-centric. In the traditional sense of media as a means of conveying content, some social media tools are therefore much more “media-like” than others. Regardless, they “help accelerate and improve our ability to connect, communicate, and collaborate” (Morecroft et al, 2009). In such roles, they all are social.

All Are Social

Social media taps into our basic human instincts to converse, connect and co-create. Blogs are maintained mostly by individual users. Through comments from other users and hyperlinks to/from other blogs, they can turn into running conversations or even passionate debates. The blogosphere – the universe of all blogs and their interconnections – has therefore been likened to the world’s biggest coffeehouse (Tapscott, 2006).  Like a coffeehouse, the blogosphere can be full of noise – so many voices expressing many opinions. Thankfully, social ratings and recommendations on such sites as Technorati, and content syndication act as a filtering system that let users easily find the content relevant to their interests. Even bookmarking can be a social act rather than an “isolated” act by individual users. Users can store their bookmarks online at sites such as Delicious.com and Furl.net for convenient access from any computers connected to the Internet. They can make these bookmarks accessible to the public. In so doing they can add to, and benefit from, the collective intelligence of all users even though they bookmark primarily for their personal use rather than for the collective benefit of all (Golder and Huberman, 2006).

Consumer Empowerment

The rise of social media has altered the balance of power between institutions and individual users, and between marketers and consumers. The ease with which consumers can generate and distribute content through such media as blogs, podcasts, and photo and video sharing means that marketers are no longer the only ones doing the talking while consumers doing the listening — passive recipients of carefully managed marketing messages. Consumers now can initiate and maintain conversations among themselves about the brands and their consumption experience with or without marketers’ participation or even awareness. They can also collaborate with one another to create new knowledge, provide customer-to-customer supports, filter information and assist others with search. They can also easily connect with one another and through social networks to share information, spread viral messages, or get organize from the ground up. In brief, social media is all about empowerment through user content generation, mass collaboration and social networking.

Employee Empowerment

Empowerment should not be limited to the consumer side. In an environment where a derogatory YouTube video or an angry tweet can derail a marketing campaign or damage brand reputation, companies must be pro-active, not just reactive to or worse passive about such a possibility. They may want to empower resourceful employees to enter into dialogues with customers, using social media tools, so as to spot problems and help the latter find solutions, but to do so within a safe framework. This means aligning the actions of these highly empowered and resourceful operatives (HEROes) with corporate strategy and in compliance with security, legal and other corporate policies. In return, the HEROes need support from management and the IT department. Management must communicate their openness to innovations by employees and willingness to accept failures. As for the IT department, it is traditionally far removed from customers and typically lacks the budget and staff for “on-the-fly” projects. Supporting seemingly chaotic HERO-type projects often means that the IT department may need to go against its culture of keeping technology locked down and under tight control (Bernoff and Chadler, 2010).

Social Media Defined

New media tools continue to pop up; some will catch on and spread widely (e.g., Twitter). The media landscape is likely to shift continually. Meanwhile empowerment is what differentiates social media from the traditional media. A definition of the term social media should therefore center on the “social” dimension (i.e., user empowerment) rather than the “media” dimension (i.e., content generation and delivery).

“Social media are network-based tools and applications that empower individual users (e.g., consumers and employees) by enabling them to create and distribute content with ease, collaborate and connect with each other in a suitable fashion of their own choosing (as opposed to managerial dictate) so as, in marketing context, to enrich the consumption experience, build relationships and strengthen brand loyalty”.

In a future post, I will offer a classification of social media tools.

Notes

  1. Bernoff, J. and Chadler, T. (2010) “Empowered”, Harvard Business Review, 88(07), 95-101.
  2. Blackshaw, P. and Nazzaro, M. (2004). “Consumer-Generated Media (CGM) 101: Word-of-mouth in the age of the Web fortified consumer”, at http://www.nielsenbuzzmetrics.com/whitepapers (accessed: December 11, 2008).
  3. Drury, G. (2008) “Opinion piece: Social media: Should marketers engage and how can it be done effectively?” Journal of Direct, Data and Digital Marketing Practice, 9(3), 274-277.
  4. Hollings, D. (2008) “Social Media defined –Like You’ve Never seen Before!” (August 11), at: http://danhollings.posterous.com/social-media-defined-like-youv.
  5. Kaplan, A.M. and Haenlein, M. (2010) “Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media”, Business Horizon, 53(1), 59-68.
  6. Morecroft, A.L., Marr, J.A. and Kassotakis, M.E. (2009), Social Media at Work: How Networking Tools Propel Organizational Performance, Jossey-Bass Publication.