Paul Furiga can get the attention of a business-to-business company’s CEO with a pretty alluring deal.
“I can get you to your 100 customers more often, more efficiently and with more fresh dialogue using social media than using any tool you can possibly imagine,” says the president and CEO of WordWrite Communications LLC, a Pittsburgh public relations agency. “How could they say no?”
Surprisingly, they do; the B2B market seems slow to embrace social media. Sure, business is moving online, acquainting corporate America with platforms from Facebook and Twitter to Yelp! and Foursquare. But when the best social media strategies and case studies seem to come from big consumer companies (ahem, Zappos), where do smaller B2B companies look for their social media guideposts?
Of course, some strategies are successful despite your structure, so mimicking some proven approaches from the big boys is a start. But the inherent differences between B2B and business-to-consumer companies necessitate that you tailor your strategy for your customers and goals.
“A $10 million B2C company, the average transaction size might be $100, so they are going to have 10,000 customers,” Furiga says. “The average $10 million B2B company might have 10 to 50 customers who are spending a heck of a lot more money on their average sale. For a B2C company, it’s all about how many followers you have and how much activity you get. For a B2B company, it’s not about quantity; it’s about quality — does your social media directly drive business results?”
Social media equips you with practically free tools to connect with each customer — and when you have 50 customers to their 10,000 consumers, that’s a definite advantage.
“B2B companies should be — and actually are, although you don’t see the trend yet — having much more success in social media,” Furiga says.
And here’s how.
Start with a hypothesis
Your first concern is probably something like, “Are business customers even using social media?”
It’s a valid question, and it’s the launch pad to creating your social media strategy.
“The first step is understanding: Are your customers there? Are they participating in those channels?” says Jennifer Horton, best practice consultant in the customer success and strategy group at Eloqua.
Eloqua, based in Vienna, Va., develops marketing automation and demand generation software to help companies “measure the digital body language of their buyer,” Horton says. The first step in that process is the same as any campaign.
“If you’re just getting started and you’re trying to understand, then let’s pick a hypothesis, i.e., ‘I think our customers are on Facebook,’” Horton says. “Then let’s prove that out or disprove it. We’ll get our Facebook page created, start to develop our fan base and use it to promote thought leadership content or upcoming events.”
To build that hypothesis, some of Eloqua’s clients use website analytics to identify which sources drive traffic to them. If they see significant volume through Facebook — which Eloqua found to be the top-referring social source of website traffic in a study of their entire client base — they dig deeper.
To prove a hypothesis, just like in a science experiment, you need research. Here, that comes from tracking what’s happening. Start with baby steps: Look at quantity before delving into quality.
“One of the places that a lot of people start is just understanding the total number of fans that they have or the total number of followers on a Twitter handle or the number of members that have signed up to receive e-mail updates,” Horton says. “Understanding your reach is definitely first and foremost. It gives you a good understanding of your potential to drive opportunities out of this group of people.”
Maybe people are already buzzing about your company, giving you a head start in building a fan base. But don’t forget about current customers on other platforms. Bring them with you, from newsletter subscriptions, e-mail opt-in lists and direct mail databases to the social space.
Then find ways to inject yourself into conversations, positioning your product or service as the answer to a question.
“Listening would be the first part of that, listening and understanding the topics that are being discussed, who’s participating in those conversations, and then identifying the appropriate response,” Horton says.
If they’re not talking about your specific company yet, back up and see what they’re saying about your industry or service. For example, Horton was on a Salesforce.com user group one morning when someone asked for a recommendation of an e-mail tool. Knowing Eloqua’s software would be a good fit, Horton alerted a sales rep for follow up.
“The companies that are doing (social media) well are … looking at ways of identifying where in the conversation in those social channels it makes sense for them to insert themselves and … providing a relevant and compelling offer to get them to continue the conversation that maybe started in a social community,” she says.
Continuing the conversation
When it comes to executing your social media strategy, forget what you know about marketing.
“For a lot of marketing conversations, there’s only one appropriate answer to the communication — and that is, ‘Buy,’” Furiga says. “The difference with social media is that it’s more about the conversations and the community. That’s why it’s cool for social media managers of consumer companies to just create an environment for people to hang out in. They are trying to keep people in the conversation, knowing that if they stay in the conversation, sooner or later they’ll buy.”
B2B companies, especially, have to strike a balance of building a community and directing it toward a sale. These goals go hand in hand, but different types of content point toward different ends.
Horton can’t jump in trying to sell Eloqua if people aren’t familiar with it. First, she must make Eloqua relevant to the conversation.
“If you think of ‘top of the funnel’ or brand awareness, we create content like infographics that are quick and interesting,” she says. “An infographic on the history of social media is enough to bring you into that Eloqua conversation.
“Now, for us to actually convince you why marketing automation software is a really powerful part of that story, it requires a different set of content: Why marketing automation? Why Eloqua versus our competition? A different type of content is used when the buyer is closer to purchase.”
Furiga goes even further to break down an effective content strategy encompassing industry generalities and company specifics alike. He calls it the rule of thirds.
“There’s a general guideline in social media, and that is: To have success in just about any channel, one-third — and no more than one-third — of your content is promotional,” he says. “One-third is news information (from your industry). Then the last third is the conversation — having a real dialogue with prospects and clients who have chosen to participate in your community.”
Generally, the overall social conversation leans toward sales and marketing. But you can’t just push yourself in front of prospects like an advertisement. Most B2B prospects are looking to social media for a demonstration of your expertise.
“B2B companies most often use social media to give potential customers a peek into what it’s like to work with them,” he says. “What do you know? What do you have to teach me? How can you help me? That’s where the whitepapers and the blogs and the free tools come from. More often than not, B2B companies are selling solutions, and the way you demonstrate your problem-solving capabilities is by having great supporting social media content.”
Educational tools like whitepapers, blogs, webinars and LinkedIn subject matter groups are effective for B2B prospecting. But those can be just as fun and engaging as consumer campaigns focused on games and viral videos.
Just look at Isilon Systems, an enterprise data storage company in Seattle. It brought in a magician to prank the IT department and created a video of him cutting a live Ethernet cord in the data center. Then, the company drove traffic back to their website by revealing there how the magician performed the trick.
“For both B2C and B2B companies, the ultimate goal is to have a continuing conversation,” Furiga says. “The difference is B2C social media can be all about hanging out online playing games, and that would be an OK ROI. For a B2B company, the fun is much more often directly connected to the business purpose. So a B2B social media strategy is going to focus on sharing intellectual capital, engaging prospects and pulling them deeper into a conversation that most often results in big dollar sales.”
Isilon’s videos engaged audiences with a magician’s secrets, but they also pointed to the business by urging viewers to safeguard their IT departments with the company’s solutions.
Content should be fun and creative if you want to grab attention in the fast-paced, sound bite based social environment. But for an offer to have any staying power, the content should also be relevant. You achieve this by taking the position of the problem solver.
“Social magnifies the basic rules of Marketing 101,” Horton says. “The No. 1 ‘do’ is to be helpful. So if someone’s asking a question, provide a relevant answer. Connect them with another person that might be able to answer their question. Social is online, but it’s definitely a human-to-human sort of relationship experience. Building relationships and developing conversations is what really, I think, drives the highest level of engagement in different social channels.”
[See more social media tips from Furiga's presentation, "Beyond Your Zappos Case Study: B2B Social Media for the Rest of Us," featured at the 2011 Public Relations Society of America Digital Impact Conference.]
Focus on conversions
To pinpoint what separates top social performers from the pack, Eloqua recently benchmarked its entire client base.
“Clients that are in the top-performing category are doing a very good job of tracking those things they put out in their social communities so they can understand which social sources are driving interested buyers back to their website,” Horton says.
Still, people have trouble uttering “social media” and “metrics” in the same sentence. How can you turn conversations into measurable conversions? It gets a little “squishy,” to use Furiga’s words.
“ROI in social media is like Jell-O for some people,” he says. “They can pick it up but they can’t really hold it. If that’s happening, then you’re not measuring the right things in your social media.
“It’s not just the number of followers or likes that you have; it’s the quality of the relationships that you create. Each company needs to determine its own metrics to define quality. It’s almost never how many followers you have; it’s almost always about driving toward something that you can count that affects the success of your business — it could be number of sales, number of whitepaper downloads, how many people comment on your Facebook page.”
Sure, you start with basics like number of followers. But now that you’ve given them content as bait, it’s time to find out who’s biting and why.
Start by identifying correlations. As your overall number of social followers increases, look for other trends on the upswing: How many visitors came to your website? How many of them opted in to your e-mail database or registered for your webinar?
“It may not necessarily be cause and effect — if we get 100,000 fans, we’re going to have X amount of leads,” Horton says. “But a lot of companies are starting to see that positive correlation: When we see an increase in the volume and the reach of our social channels, we have a correlating increase in how many Web form submissions we’re getting or how many qualified leads we’re passing over to sales.”
Once you understand general trends and how they’re related, take a closer look at conversions or who took the next step in your sales cycle — whether that’s downloading a whitepaper or contacting a sales rep.
“Of those opportunities where I placed a link back to my website, how many of those people took that next level of action?” she says. “Look at which social sources are driving the highest level of conversion, because that can give you a good indicator of how qualified those audience members are. You can have a very active social group with people that are highly interested but with no intent to purchase. If you can track it down to that point of conversion, you’ll get a better understanding of how close these people are to purchasing.”
For example, Horton helped a client track pay-per-click advertising across several keyword categories by setting up unique landing pages for each. By tracking form submissions, they identified two categories with the highest conversion rates. Then they realized that prospects searching one category converted to qualified sales opportunities within two weeks; the other took two months.
“That helped them inform how they should engage with those buyers,” Horton says. “People that were searching on that term actually had a line item in their budget, so they were a lot closer to purchase. Those were low-hanging fruit.
“The other category was taking a lot longer to convert. That allowed them to say, ‘Maybe we need a nurturing strategy with these individuals. Maybe we need to give them some more content to help them go through that evaluation process.’ Tracking that beyond the point of conversion starts to influence how you can communicate and engage with those buyers, based on where they are in their purchase process.”
Pinpointing buyers’ positions in the sales cycle can tell you when to leverage which social tools to lead them to a decision.
Maybe you’re still wary, convinced that the risks of social media outweigh the benefits. You think your customers aren’t on Twitter or worry that employees will post something inflammatory. Whatever your excuse, Furiga will tell you you’re wrong.
“Companies that don’t participate in the conversation are not stopping the conversation,” he says. “The conversation is out there. All you’re doing by not being part of it is making sure that your viewpoint is not represented. If you’re not part of the conversation, you can’t protect your reputation.
“I’m not going to say that every B2B company needs to be on every social media channel, but you shouldn’t reject it out of hand. You have to know what’s being said about your industry and your company. And if you’re willing to try one social media channel at a time, I believe you’ll be surprised at the success you can have.”
But wait — there's more. Read on for the sidebar section: How B2B customers use social media.
SIDEBAR: How B2B customers use social media
Before you purchase a new cell phone, you probably head online to inform your decision with reviews from fellow consumers. Business buyers are now doing the same; but with purchases of $100,000 instead of $100, the research is more thorough. Everyone involved in committee decisions is digging — many outside the sandbox of traditional information.
“If I work for a B2B industrial company and somebody approaches me about a new way to machine metal, and I try to explain to my boss how cool this is, eh, whatever. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t,” says Paul Furiga, president and CEO of WordWrite Communications LLC. “But if this company has a YouTube channel and they can literally show the difference, and I send my boss and all the other decision-makers the video, wow, is that powerful.”
James Rogers, vice president of marketing at Hoover’s Inc. in Austin, Texas, realized buyers were starting to layer social media with the business data they gathered from Hoover’s Dun & Bradstreet-powered website.
“We had a number of customers that were telling us they go to Hoover’s for the traditional business information like company, industry, people, size of the company, financials, news alerts, all those things,” he says. “Oftentimes, what they would do is alt-tab over to LinkedIn and then … try to identify the contacts and look up some of the information that we traditionally don’t capture within Hoover’s, such as their history and their subject matter expertise and areas of interest.”
After LinkedIn started hearing the same thing from its customers, the two companies entered a partnership in March to integrate their functionalities. Now, below Hoover’s traditional business information, you’ll find social media panes — attributed as such — offering more information on people and companies.
“Whether it’s (preparing for) a sales call, identifying leads, doing industry research, … customers are looking to purpose that information within their daily work streams,” Rogers says. “People want to view the social information in context with the more traditional business information.”
This partnership showcases the trend that, even in strictly business settings, social media is proving to be an important tool in purchasing decisions. In Rogers’ words, it’s gone mainstream.
“A lot of sales professionals are now recognizing that social media is not just about your family community or your personal interests,” he says. “Social media has information that’s relevant to business information, and there is value in correlating the social media content to business information. This social content has different context, so you have to give it the appropriate attribution.”
That context varies by buyer — social content can be more timely and relevant, but it’s also subjective because it’s not validated.
Furiga looks at the broad differences between traditional and social media information:
- Speed: “Thanks to social media, I can get nearly instantaneous information on any person or any company in the world.”
- Scope: “I just said ‘in the world’ — The Internet breaks barriers in terms of geography. In the old days, if I was a B2B company, I could only see as far as my geography would take me — meaning as far as a salesperson was willing to drive or as often as I was willing to go to a trade show. Now, I can literally search the world to make decisions.”
- Transparency: “Most of us use a consumer ratings site to make restaurant or movie decisions. Now, I can get all kinds of great, transparent information about companies I might want to do business with, including testimonials.”