Social marketing gaining prominence in companies' plans

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As social media takes firmer hold of marketers' attention and budgets, favored social channels, their primary uses and their individual strengths are becoming more evident, according to a new study by BtoB.

Emerging Trends in B-to-B Social Marketing: Insights From the Field,” released today, found that 93% of all b-to-b marketers are engaged to some extent in social media marketing, with the most-used channel, LinkedIn, employed by 72% of survey respondents. Facebook (71%) and Twitter (67%) are nearly as popular, and together these three form the core of most b-to-b marketers' social media programs.

The online survey was conducted in January and February, and attracted 577 respondents.

“We are using both LinkedIn and Twitter as our two main social channels, mostly to provide another way for us to communicate with our partners and customers,” said Sue Watkins, director-marketing at project and operations software company Meridian Systems.

“LinkedIn lets us reach our social media-savvy customers who want to network with other customers, so they are more active in our community and are more likely to be champions for our cause,” Watkins said. “We post announcements and also start discussions around topics.”

Watkins said Twitter lets her distribute company and product news in a real-time push model, and is used to support Meridian's press release activities and customer newsletter.

Facebook's inclusion in the top tier of b-to-b social channels is somewhat of a surprise, considering it's sometimes viewed by marketers as oriented toward family and friends. But Facebook's marketing value to b-to-b companies is clear, according to BtoB's survey.

“We've discovered that there is better attention paid on Facebook as opposed to Twitter,” said Dan Rickershauser, marketing researcher with customer relationship management company Landslide Technologies. “People seem to spend more time on Facebook because it's a little more clean and controllable. I think the real winners are the companies that are using Facebook marketing because they are still relatively ahead of the pack.”

Other popular channels are video-sharing site, used by 48% of survey respondents, blogging (44%) and customer communities ( 22%).

While most marketers engaged in social media are using a combination of channels, there are clear preferences. When marketers were asked to name the single most important method used for b-to-b outreach, LinkedIn again was the clear leader, chosen by 26% of respondents.

Facebook was chosen as the single most important channel by 20% of respondents, with blogging (19%), customer communities (14%) and YouTube (7%) also cited.

Despite being widely used overall, Twitter was selected by only 13% of marketers as their single favorite.

“A lot of the things I see on Twitter lack strategy, and as a result you have Twitter somewhat flooded with "spammy' communications,” Rickershauser said.

Those marketers that tightly integrate their social media marketing channels acknowledge the individual strengths of each—strengths not necessarily shared by all channels—according to the survey.

Branding is considered the primary strength of Facebook, blogging and YouTube, while customer feedback and researching competitive intelligence are seen as the major strengths of customer communities.

The main virtue of professional networking site LinkedIn is its lead-generation power.

Customer communities, by contrast, are seen as prime listening posts for marketers and natural ways to solve customer issues.

“In addition to Facebook, most of our customers use targeted message boards, such as Amazon's Sellers Center and eBay's Community Board,” said Eric Nash, director-online marketing at online postage company “They look to the message boards to find our other customers with similar operations.”

Nash said that since his company began participating in customer communities, along with other social channels, negative feedback has dropped from 32% of all comments in 2009 to 18% in 2010, while positive comments have increased to 51% from 28% in the same period.

Twitter, often featuring shortened URLs that publicize landing pages, product launches and white papers, is seen primarily as supporting website traffic and product/event promotion, according to BtoB's survey.

Companies of various sizes were represented in BtoB's survey, although small businesses predominated; 56% of respondents represented companies with an annual revenue of $24 million or less; 23% came from companies with annual revenue of $25 million to $499 million; and 21% represented companies with annual revenue of $500 million or more.

Technology companies comprised 22% of the respondents, followed by manufacturing (15%) and consulting (11%), with financial services (6%), Internet/online services (5%), advertising (5%), publishing/media (5%) and whole-sale trade/distribution (4%) also represented.

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