Two years ago, most b-to-b marketers were pondering their first tentative steps into the blogosphere and wondering what all the fuss was about a 140-character text message called a “tweet.”
Today, with Twitter and Facebook emblems sprouting up on business Web sites like dandelions in a summer field, the question has become how to maximize the value of multiple social marketing channels.
B-to-b firms led the first wave of social media adoption five years ago with massive blogging initiatives at tech companies such as Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp.
More recently, Twitter, the simple yet powerful micro-blogging service, has lowered the barriers to social media entry almost to zero. The population of the “Twittersphere” is variously estimated at between 40 million and 60 million, mostly adults who appreciate its time-efficient, forced brevity. In contrast to the youth-heavy membership base of most social networks, Twitter has been a hit with business professionals. The Pew Internet & American Life Project pegged the average Twitter user at 31 years of age, while comScore estimated that teens make up just 11% of those who tweet.
Despite its limitations, Twitter is capable of delivering gushers of traffic to Web content. “I keep expecting to see diminishing returns [from Twitter] and it just doesn't happen,” says Bill Robb, social media marketing manager at Cisco Systems, which has more than 30 official Twitter feeds.
Nervous HR and legal executives see another virtue in micro-blogging: It's hard for employees to get into much trouble in 140 characters. Twitter has found its home principally as a tool for pointing followers to safe corporate content and for responding to customer complaints before they get out of hand.
Twitter is far from the only game in town, though. LinkedIn, the social network for grownups, surpassed the 50 million user mark in 2009 and has become a popular destination for b-to-b companies in search of top talent or business professionals with areas of common interest. Not only is this domain mostly free of the idle chatter found on Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn has demonstrated commitment to its business constituency with new features, such as filtered search and enhanced company profiles. LinkedIn claims its member demographics rival those of The Wall Street Journal.
With more than 400 million members, Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla of social networks. While it has been less popular with b-to-b marketers than some of the more buttoned-down alternatives, companies including Ernst & Young, Forrester and IBM have built sizable fan bases there. Facebook is particularly popular with corporate recruiters trying to reach young job-seekers.
As social networks have gone mainstream, newcomers have emerged to court the b-to-b audience with specialized social networks or services. A few examples:
SlideShare parlayed the popularity of PowerPoint presentations as a conversational medium into a membership that is reportedly approaching 10 million. The company recently introduced lead-generation features and branded business pages.
Triplt and Dopplr enable business travelers to find each other and share advice on hotels and restaurants in their destination cities.
Pathable sells tools that event planners can use to offer social networking to conference-goers.
Spiceworks built a novel publishing model around an enterprise software suite that it distributes at no charge to midmarket IT pros. The company makes money by selling technology vendors access to its 800,000 members.
CoTweet is building a suite of enterprise-class tools to manage Twitter conversations, while Yammer delivers Twitter-like functionality behind corporate firewall.
In the coming year, b-to-b marketers will turn their attention to expanding and optimizing the channels they use. Companies such as Awareness Networks are bringing tools to market that enable enterprises to manage large-scale social conversations while publishing simultaneously to multiple destinations.
Finally, governance will be a hot and contentious issue. Social media icons such as Dell have pioneered the approach of giving individual employees broad latitude to address customer issues in public forums. More than 50 of the 60 members in outsourcing services company Sodexo's talent acquisition team have Twitter accounts and are encouraged to use all social networking tools at their disposal to reach potential employees.
Such empowerment makes many HR professionals cringe, however. They might point to the example of Adobe, which got a black eye in January when a staff evangelist demonstrated the importance of its Flash animation program by showcasing, among other things, a pornography site.
Policies and procedures are likely to dominate the agenda at internal meetings for some time. Chris Boudreaux, senior manager at Accenture and creator of SocialMediaGovernance.com, has assembled a list of more than 100 corporate social media policies and is writing a book on governance issues. Among the issues that marketers struggle with are liability for errors communicated as tweets; permission from employees and customers depicted on photo blogs; and how to open up the company without giving away the farm to competitors.
In other words, technology has become a background issue. Now marketers are wrestling with questions of who should speak for the company and what boundaries should be drawn around what they say. M