Promoted by zealous fanatics as the replacement for all other forms of marketing, Social Media has also been characterized by Luddite skeptics as nothing more than a narcissistic waste of time. For Business to Business marketers, truth falls somewhere between these two extremes.
The stark reality is that business, society and technology are all experiencing rapid transformation. As a result, marketing management objectives, business processes and enabling technologies must evolve to keep pace with a changing economic, competitive and cultural environment.
Before diving into social media, let’s take an important step back for some perspective. First, let’s take a look at the frequently overlooked differences between social computing, social networks, social networking and social media.
Social Computing: The technological ecosystem that helps users communicate, maintain relationships and make collaborative decisions.
Social Networks: Technology platforms that facilitate the identification, connection and continuity of affiliations between individuals, organizations, brands, places and even abstract concepts.
Social Networking: Methods employed by individuals to create and manage networked relationships with others. These relationships form the subject’s social graph.
Social Media: Tools utilized to create, curate or communicate online content through social networks.
It is also critically important to recognize that Social Networking is not a new concept. Business associations, volunteer causes, Moose Lodges and garden clubs are all forms of social networking – allowing individuals with common sensibilities to exchange ideas of mutual interest.
Fundamentally, business strategy has not changed much either, aside from requiring new inputs and incorporating new channels. Most successful businesses still follow the time-tested recipe of:
- Identifying a Target Market
- Creating a Unique Value Proposition
- Attracting Attention
- Interacting Through Channels Deemed Most Convenient by Customers
- Staying Engaged to Retain Customers
- Capturing Metrics to Measure Performance
Success in social media is predicated on applying exactly these same concepts.
What has changed is the technology – in a big way. And it is still changing – even more rapidly. Take a look at the following table – most hospitality companies are currently struggling to adapt to a Web 2.0 world.
Companies on the leading edge are embracing Web 3.0 technologies, without absolute certainty what Web 3.0 will ultimately look like. Regardless, the characteristics of Web 3.0 are clear.
As a result, business relationships are becoming more individualized, personal and portable. Highly engaged customers are seeking real-time responses from organizations that have invested in earning that individual’s loyalty. This new environment creates a necessity for social media engagement.
Despite the growing need for greater customer engagement, one must realize social media is a completely worthless pursuit if:
- You aren’t listening
- Customers can’t find you (Search Engine Optimization)
- You don’t have anything relevant to say (Content)
Therefore, before taking the dive into social media, it is critically important to make certain that product operations and service delivery systems are performing in line with customer expectations. If not, a good portion of your social media resources intended for deepening customer relationships and inspiring advocacy will need to be re-allocated to damage control stemming from product/service shortfalls.
Another potential pitfall is falling prey to PCS (pretty, cool, shiny) syndrome where the organization urgently deploys the hottest new technology without the slightest credence to objectives, processes or measurement – the key elements required to understanding if something is functioning properly.
The secret to social media success is tight alignment with company business objectives, including key performance metrics to benchmark performance against pre-defined goals. Social strategy comes down to a basic five-step process:
- Define Objectives
- Pick one – Create Dialog, Encourage Advocacy, Enhance Support, Capture Prospects; if there is not an underlying purpose, don’t do it.
- Create Great Content
- Keyword rich, search engine optimized web pages are terrific, unless they are difficult to navigate and don’t make sense to consumers.
- Identify Customers on Social Networks
- Use Flowtown to Map Current Customers and Prospects across Social Networks
- Determine Best Methods to Engage Customers
- Set up metrics to measure key performance indicators – Conversion Reach, Advocacy Impact, Sentiment Ratio, Issue Resolution Rate, etc. for each objective.
- Select Appropriate Technologies
- Use the right tool for the right job. Twitter is a real-time medium; blog posts may be referred to years after publication. Use complimentary technologies designed to integrate with other deployed platforms & tools
Altimeter Group, a consulting group specializing in disruptive technologies recommends eight best practices for businesses seeking social media success:
- Set Community Expectations
- Provide Cohesive Branding
- Be Current
- Be Authentic
- Engage in Dialog
- Allow Customers to Interact as Peers
- Promote Advocacy
- Provide a Call to
It All Starts (and Ends) with Listening
If you are not listening to your customers, you will ultimately fail as a business. Even if you are wildly successful at the present time, a new competitor will rise up that will not only listen to your customers, but treat them better and take them away from you. That is no prediction – that is a promise.
Active listening skills are essential for social media success:
- Listen & Learn
- Identify problems
- Solve the problems
- Test potential solutions
- Engage greatest influencers
- Nurture fans to become advocates
Not All Followers are Created Equal
Simply put, your largest client or most outspoken advocate at major events may be completely absent from the online social networking landscape.
However, when it comes to online social engagement, the goal is similar – convert passive customers into active advocates. The key is realizing that not all people will be comfortable evangelizing your cause online.
A new customer dimension – the social computing profile — is born. Forrester Research created their Social Technographics Ladder to categorize the various roles individuals assume online:
- Creators – Publish a blog or web pages, upload original music or video, write articles
- Critics – post ratings & reviews, comment on blogs, contribute to wikis
- Collectors – Tag, vote and subscribe to feeds
- Joiners – Maintain social profiles
- Spectators – Consume social content
- Inactives – Not engaged in social computing
When listening online, understand that you are hearing only the creators and critics, with perhaps a few votes from collectors. Your content and processes will need to appeal to the masses of lurking consumers in the joiner and spectator categories.
Engaging with these individuals may not influence the actions of others online, but that does not mean they are not active in offline social networks. Inactives may be ignored online, but that does not mean they don’t deserve your attention offline.
Below are some of the best places for listening to customers online:
- Twitter Search
- Google Blogsearch
- Google Alerts
- Industry Blogs
- Industry Twitterers
- LinkedIn Groups/Answers
- Facebook Fans
- Website Comments / Forums
There are two simple rules for Content Creation: It must be well written and relevant to the reader. Well written means avoiding overtly promotional messages, while ensuring differentiation points are well supported with proof.
Organizations typically have more content than they realize. Types of content vary wildly and hold varying relevance across target market segments. Some examples of social content include:
Textual Content – Blog Posts, eBooks, Case Studies, Newsletters, Data Sheets & White Papers
Multi-media Content – Images, Streamed Events, Podcasts, Presentations, Videos & Webinars
Interactive Content – Demos, Free trials, Online Courses, Surveys & Widgets
All content should be crafted in a manner to make it as Search Engine friendly as possible. On-page Search Engine Optimization (SEO) includes utilization of keywords and phrases entered into search engines by individuals.
On-page SEO is augmented by link building initiatives that increase the number of quality links to a page from influential and topical web sites. Additional promotional opportunities exist that not only reach customers and prospects on the social networks they frequent, but links from these sites back to the business website help improve search engine rankings. Social promotion opportunities include:
- Corporate Blog
- E-mail (Newsletters, CRM platforms & social media need integrated 360-degree customer views
- Bookmarking (StumbleUpon, Digg – tagging & highlighting valuable web content)
- Twitter (Real-time Micro-blogging / 140 Characters per message)
- Facebook (The largest social network)
- LinkedIn (Business networking)
- YouTube (Videos – 2nd largest global search engine))
- Flickr (photos / images)
- Location Based Services (Foursquare, Gowalla, etc.)
All Social Channels are not Created Equal
Like any tool, certain sites are more suited to particular strategies than others. For most companies, Twitter and Facebook generally drive the most site traffic, but traffic does not equal engagement. The bottom line is getting fans to interact, deepen the connection, become customers and share with others.
Facebook – 500 million users is simply too large a number to ignore. An attractively branded Facebook business page is not a bad idea and not expensive. The ability for individuals to “Like” your brand provides some excellent targeting opportunities. Many companies are experimenting with exclusive benefits for their Facebook fans.
Twitter – Real-time is great for addressing time sensitive challenges, solving traveler issues in destination, and handling crisis scenarios. Twitter is a great tool for promoting blog posts & news items.
LinkedIn – The king of business oriented social networks has recently debuted additional features for Company Pages that improve targeting capabilities through display banners, featured products by audience, product listings and videos. With Groups covering every facet of business and answers pages, opportunities abound for positioning your organization as experts in your selected discipline.
Blogging – Hubspot’s research provides several compelling statistics that illustrate the benefit of blogging and employing multiple channels to support a social media strategy. For example, promoting blog content through social media and including social sharing buttons in content. Specifically, companies that blog see:
- 434% more indexed pages
- 97% more inbound links
- 55% more website visitors
- Twitter reach increased by 113%
Location Based Services (Foursquare/Gowalla/Facebook Places) – With mobile adoption pacing four times faster than Internet adoption in the mid-1990s, B2B marketers need to recognize that different opportunities exist when a customer is located in the immediate area.
So, is social media a panacea or bane for B2B marketers? If you fail to plan appropriately, social media can burn corporate resources faster than a retained earnings bonfire.
However, supported by a solid product and operation, coupled with sound strategy, a well-executed social media strategy can help differentiate a brand from its competition and increase ROI from an engaged customer base, but also muster an army of advocates. The new paradigm is “If you want something done right, ask your best customers.” Doing it yourself is so Web 1.0…
About the Author
Robert Cole is a former member of Cayuga Hospitality Consultants.