Social media & B2B: Interactions are opportunities

Guest writer Rich Harris explores the tightrope walk of social media and B2B
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

Guest editorial by Rich Harris

While there is a lot of talk about difficulty, social media and business to business (B2B) are indeed compatible. Social media in general is compatible with any type of business, and a successful social media strategy is based on the enhancement of interactions. An interaction doesn't have to be complicated; it can be something as simple as a phone call, an auto-response email, and IM, a retweet, or a comment on a blog. Interactions do not only exist in the business to consumer (B2C) world. They happen in EVERY part of the business world and in every industry.

Consider also that interactions happen between people and processes. Obviously, there has to be a human in the equation for it to be "social" but in the B2B world there are lots of interactions that people have with systems that were engineered by the people for the people. So far, several recent blog posts/discussions that I've seen on the topic are showing me that many experienced, well-intentioned B2B marketers and sales people are thinking that social media *is* Twitter or a fan page on Facebook.

This is a crucial time in the paradigm shift of marketing trends and a struggling economy where executives and director-level contributors are scratching their heads trying to figure out what to do next with their marketing budgets.

There's a lot to cover with regards to Social Media/B2B -- too much for one post -- so in this article I will cover the following:

  1. What you already know
  2. B2C vs. B2B: The Fork In The Road
  3. Feedback from real people (your B2B customers) and ways to get it
  4. A tactical approach to a sample project.

Aside from how long we've all bringing up the topic on blogs and Twitter, this is still fairly uncharted territory. If you are tasked with bringing social media into your client's B2B landscape, getting started with your marketing kick off meetings, remember that this process in the B2B is a little slower, requires more time investment and analysis

Next: What You Already Know -->

What You Already Know

My history with web marketing and social media is mostly consumer focused. I've worked at companies like Diamond Multimedia back in the late 90's, Palm, Shopping.com (an eBay company), Skateboards.com (high volume, online action sports retail), and now my current full time gig at Seagate Technology.

The good news about social mediaB2B is that the initial approach is actually the same so it's easier than most think to get started. You actually go into the drawing board asking the same initial questions in both B2C and B2B environments:

  1. What's the objective?
  2. Who is your audience?
  3. Where, how, and what, is the nature of your positive key interactions with them? What pulls their heart strings?
  4. Where are the pain points and how can you turn those around by creating a better customer experience with help from social media?
  5. How can you connect and interact with your customers in a way that your competitors are not?

At a high level, your business objectives are the same for both -- influence brand awareness, generate direct or indirect sales over the short and long term, etc. You are still going to analyze key interactions, build a strategy around it and execute. Then it's off to the post-mortem wonderland where you comb over the resulting data and fine tune your efforts for the next round of projects. In the beginning stages, the philosophy behind my approach to B2C would be the same for what I'm doing on the B2B front.

Next: The Fork In The Road -->

B2C vs. B2B: The Fork In The Road

While B2C and B2B social marketing efforts spend some of the early phases of their process on the same path, at a certain point, there is a fork in the road that appears where they do part ways. While they both take a decent time/resource investment due to the shear nature of building effective relationships, in the direct consumer world, life is much more nimble. Put something on sale or do a contest using all the popular tools whose logo/name everyone recognizes. You can get your result data quickly, and in some cases instantaneously, thanks to mediums like Twitter and other real-time analytics tools.

Where I've seen the biggest differences in B2B is that things can just take longer when it comes to the timeline of a SOCIAL MEDIA project from beginning to the point where you see measurable ROI. While there is almost always low-hanging fruit that you can you plug in quickly, seeing a real tangible return can take awhile because your implementation may need time to have its inherent effects through more than one layer of customers. For example, say you start importing a couple relevant twitter feeds into a portal that exists for your partners. Over time, they then start changing their purchasing strategy based on what they've seen on those Twitter feeds since you brought the pulse closer to them, resulting in possibly more effective sales with their direct customers, and then eventually (and hopefully) they start purchasing more from your company. All of that can take some time as your B2B customers fine- tune their side of the business with the improvements you've made for them.

I've also noticed that there's the new challenge of engaging customers in a much more process-driven environment, all this while trying to squeak in the value of  social media (actual interaction with other human beings).  Because of this, your social media strategy might feel much more tactical than what you are used to. Personally I think it still qualifies as social media because you are making changes to the interactions that happen with your customers, changes that should have their human nature in mind.

Feedback: You Are The Blind Leading The Blind Without It

Your company is accountable. It's accountable to its customers. In B2B your company is accountable to it's customers and their customers AND their partners in some cases. As a social media practitioner, you have a duty to listen, validate and serve. If you can do this effectively your efforts will be more successful. When you try something that doesn't yield the results you expected, your customers will be more patient and apt to stick with you because they know you are working closely with them to meet their needs. Here's a short list of things to experiment with when searching for the sweet spots from your customers:

Surveys - The old age, marketing/sales defacto for gathering information from a hand-picked audience. Tailor a short questionnaire for your B2B customers about what hasn't been working, what has been working and what types of things they'd like to see moving forward.

Advisory Board or Council - Pluck out a small percentage of your B2B customers, preferably the ones that are the most actively engaged with you, and invite them to become part of a B2B advisory board or council. Try to pick the widest variety of business types, sizes, and personalities as possible to maximize the variable responses. This will make it easier to close as many of the pain points and gaps as possible with your social media strategy. It creates a checks and balances between your company and those that pay money to do business with you.

Random Key In-Depth Interviews - This would be something that you would do instead of OR in addition to the advisory council I mentioned above. Basically, run your own lottery every month picking one to five customers. Once picked, call them up and ask their permission for an interview regarding how well your company is doing with growing your partnership and enabling them. Plan out these questions ahead of time with a focus on a list of key interactions, which ones you can ignore (where SOCIAL MEDIA wouldn't apply), which ones need some TLC, and what new ideas/interactions that you could bring to the table that don't currently exist, exploring some possibly uncharted marketing territory with your customers.

Instigate and Observe - In an older blog post I wrote on 47project.com, I discussed how "join the conversation", at least directly, might not be the right strategy. If you currently have or plan on creating some sort of environment where peers and colleagues can communicate quickly with each other, about their needs and the relationship they have with your company, then a very valuable approach would be to be a fly on the wall, chiming in only when absolutely necessary. For example, if there's a "Facebook-like" environment for them to talk about their pain points with your company's ordering system, your Salesforce.com implementation, etc....this is a likely place that you will witness known issues, new issues and more candid conversations. In that environment, they know it's all about them getting support from your company and in some cases, even support from their own competitors since they're all dealing with the same issues as one of your customers. If you have 10, 100, or 1000 customers, socially, people often find safety in numbers when expressing their opinions, which aids in them revealing more in an online public forum environment. Give your B2B customers the comfort food of voicing their opinions with your other partners in an environment where they know they'll be heard and aren't alone. You will be enlightened. You want this. This is a good thing.

Elevate and Listen - Another way to get feedback is creating an environment where your customers can post a story/blog post about working with your company, some of their successes, etc. plugging their own company/sites, etc.

Next: A Sample Project -->

The Tactical Approach: A Sample Social Media/B2B Project

Next I'm going to provide an example of a small analysis that I would use to approach a B2B process and look for opportunities. Notice here that you most likely already take this or a similar approach with B2C social media analysis. (hint, hint). Here obviously I'm giving you a very simplified example. I'm very aware that most systems for dealing with customers in the B2B world can be very complex with several steps and sets of interactions. Still, no matter how simple or complex, this basic approach applies when trying to build part of your tactical strategy.

Step 1 - Obtain a list of key interactions to be analyzed. An example might be something like this.....

- Your company sells a product or service to other companies. A current customer or new prospect logs onto a website like Salesforce.com, fills out some sort of request. (Interaction: Human to Process)

- An auto-response (whose template was most likely written by a marketing or sales person) is sent via email to that customer. (Interaction: Process to Human)

- An email is then sent to an actual person in your company. (Interaction: Process to Human)

- The person in your company then reviews the request and may follow up with a phone call to the person/customer lead who had initially filled out the request. (Interaction: Human to Human)

The above example is a very high-level generic version of a set of steps for doing business in a B2B type landscape. In this example above, there are 4 possible interactions to enhance. As a social media professional, you should be taking a look at each interaction and analyzing it to see if there is any opportunity to add a social media component Now remember that not all interactions will need a SM component. Never do it just to do it. You want social media to successfully augment the set of interactions where it makes sense. You do not want to make a process noisier just because SM is cool and 'everyone is doing it.'

Step 2 - Look at that same list and make some recommendations. I'll shorten the step descriptions since you have the idea.

Interaction #1:

Customer/prospect logs onto a website, fills out some sort of request form to order something or request information.

Ideas & Opportunities:

When they logon is there a welcome page where either relevant feeds from Twitter/News can be pulled in?

When they fill out this form, can we add a 'Your Social Media Accounts' section to gather info so we can establish a connection with them and follow them outside of this process?

Can we add links/widgets to our own social media accounts on the request form so that they can follow us or subscribe easily with one-click, not interrupting the process?

Interaction #2:

Auto-response email is sent via email to that customer.

Ideas & Opportunities:

Is this email designed out in a way with a provision for your company's social media information (icons)?

Is the messaging in the email encouraging the user to engage with your company's social media accounts?

Interaction #3:

Email is sent to internal person (your company) for review.

Ideas & Opportunities:

Probably nothing you can do here since your own employee is the audience.

Interaction #4:

Internal person (your company) reviews request, calls person/customer lead to verify. (Interaction: Human to Human)

Ideas & Opportunities:

While on the phone, again inform them at end of call where to find your company's social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, etc. (or wherever applicable, if at all)

Step 3 - Execute and Analyze

After implementing proposed changes, it's time for validation. Like anything on the web, I'd gather at least a month's worth of data. In this particular case, you can look for a few things:

1. Check to see if you've had a statistical increase in followers/subscribers.

2. Check to see if these changes have sparked any public conversations on Twitter or other mediums that may have not been there before.

3. What are they saying if anything?

4. What percentage of your customers are even using social media sites?

You should only move forward with the next phase changes after you've been able to clearly answer questions like these. Obviously a proper post-mortem should be done, analyzing the numbers, dropping stuff that didn't work, and focusing on the stuff that did work. The social media world moves quickly, so should you in your improvements and analysis.

Next: Conclusion -->

At The End Of The Day

If you are an experienced marketer, don't get distracted by the tools. Instead, get distracted by the basics - Research, Strategy, Implementation, Analysis, Repeat.

In this new realm of social media/B2B, prepare for both success and failure. You are generally in uncharted waters right now. While B2B/Marketing is by far not a new landscape, social marketing/B2B is very new. Be prepared for some surprises, and more importantly; be even better prepared to adjust your strategy quickly.

One last thing...expect to be the first to try something. I've crawled many a blog, looking for some answers, feedback, related to specific issues I'm encountering and more often than not, most are asking the same questions and are having similar issues. Most of the time, they aren't far along enough yet to provide solid data/results because they are in the trenches figuring it out. If it's out there, maybe it just hasn't been published yet.

Rich Harris has been a web marketer for over 10 years, with over 14 years experience in high-tech, both in the consumer and enterprise spaces. He has a passion for people and community building and a strong aversion to online marketing's status quo. Uncharted marketing territory excites him. He's a father of three boys, blogger, artist, and a musician. Follow him on Twitter (@47project).

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