A few years ago, sales and marketing teams had to rely on more formal, multi-step processes to understand and evaluate customer needs and hot buttons. Companies conducted focus groups or surveys, developed messaging based on the results, and tested the impact of the messaging through advertising. The advent of online advertising, organic search and more sophisticated email marketing tools helped shorten the time from concept to response, but the process of evaluating prospect response still took a long time.
Now, conversations among customer and prospective customers are happening on Twitter, Facebook, forums, and comments on company and influencer blogs. There’s a wealth of information and opinions being shared via social media that can directly impact your business and enable you to identify prospective customers and their concerns. Nurturing customer interactions is critical and leads to higher customer satisfaction levels and ultimately more deals.
And, of course, while there are plenty of positive opportunities that come out of social media, there’s also the occasional need for damage control, as the well known Domino’s “situation” illustrates.
Yet, in the B2B world the impact of social media is less understood and organizations are just now learning how to take advantage. How can organizations use social channels such as Twitter to listen to customers and leverage what they learn? And what is the most effective way to leverage these conversations to better listen and respond to customers?
Jump in and participate
Like just about anything, the social media party is “what you make it.” The first thing you need to do is get to the party. The second thing you need to is to put your best foot forward.
Transparency and authenticity are the main requirements I hear in discussions with customers about the challenges they face when dealing with social selling and marketing. Just as you wouldn’t walk into a friend’s cocktail party and immediately start pitching your wares to one unsuspecting guest, B2B customers expect a more mutual and agenda-free interaction online.
If you are insincere or approach them in “sales mode,” you’ll send your followers running in the opposite direction. What can you bring to the conversation? What can you learn from the experience? And, most importantly, what value can you provide to the person you’re talking to?
Another important consideration is to look at who’s participating. Using our party analogy, if your musical tastes center on classical music and bluegrass, you’re unlikely to strike up any meaningful conversations at a gathering of hip-hop fans. Similarly, when a marketing person responds to a tweet about technical issues, it’s unlikely to have the same credibility as when an engineer responds. The engineer is much more likely to elicit a continued dialog about technical issues.
Where are the conversations happening?
With so many participatory communication channels on the Web, customers have a staggering array of options to interact with companies: seeking out recommendations on Twitter, using a LinkedIn connection to find people in similar positions with similar challenges, or discussing a product with other users on Facebook. If someone is truly interested in your product, they may respond to one of your seeding efforts, like an email or a PPC ad, and carry the conversation over to your blog and begin a deeper conversation.
Given the volume and frequency of these Web-based conversations, it is clear that the old model of marketing that controlled the bulk of corporate communications simply doesn’t scale to the current opportunity. Many companies understand that they have to delegate social media participation across the organization so that, for example, engineers can respond in an authentic way to other engineers, but, understandably, many marketing departments try to control the flow in a centralized way to ensure “messaging consistency”.
Unfortunately, trying to have too many checks and balances will undermine your organization’s efforts to enable people across the organization to act as a collective social listener across a wide variety of conversation. Not surprisingly, marketing departments look to scale by automating bulk communications across these social channels. Yet this often delivers a “bot” response that clearly hasn’t “heard” the customer and exposes the communication for what it is: a disingenuous response in an attempt to win business. So what is the alternative?
Engage, empower, and execute
Marketers need a way to deputize people across the organization to listen to and participate in social media conversations on behalf of the company. Obviously, a first step is to distribute guidelines about how to respond to the competition, always identifying oneself as an employee when posting about a company-related issue, etc. But, how can marketers stay on top of the conversations?
While many of these tools are in their infancy, we are starting to see some organizations implement hooks from the social Web into their transactional systems so they focus their efforts. With these solutions in place they can then better understand and respond to active requests and to sales opportunities. One example is a trackable link such as a URL shortener that can integrate with the CRM system, delivering the information about an interaction from “the cloud” into an actionable format that can be used by marketing or anyone else in the organization.
This is just the beginning; in the next few years we will see more ways to integrate social Web solutions into their business processes, so that marketers can measure the effect of these conversations more precisely and make informed, actionable and appropriate business decisions. The result will be a win for both B2B corporations and the customers they serve.
David Thompson is CEO and co-founder of Genius.com.