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Social networks starting to click

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As b-to-c marketers dash ahead adopting new media platforms—blogs, viral videos and social networks—their b-to-b counterparts struggle with questions about the effectiveness of these same tactics. While some count the downstream benefits social networks are believed to provide, such as brand- and relationship-building, others wonder whether the efforts are worth the cost and warn about unrealistic expectations.

Trade shows and events are two growth areas for social networks. One CEO, who belongs to nearly 30 social networks, thinks they're as essential to events as name tags.

"Social network systems provide a great way for people going to the event to find out who else is coming," said Elliot Masie, CEO of the Masie Center & Learning Consortium, a think tank that explores topics of learning, technology, business and workplace productivity for companies such as American Express Co. and Target Corp. The company has used social networks in connection with events for the last three years to create more connections among attendees before, during and after events.

The company created a social network for its Learning 2007 conference for senior executives in human resources and training for Fortune 1,000 companies in October. About 70% of the 2,040 attendees created profiles, adding video and stories about themselves and their companies. One attendee came with a stack of profile pictures she had printed of all the people she planned to meet.

Elsewhere, b-to-b companies are borrowing social networking ideas from the b-to-c space while creating measurements and tactics to fit their own needs.

New media apprehension

A joint survey by the Association of National Advertisers and BtoB last year showed that marketers were apprehensive about adopting new media, with lack of experience and the challenge to find measurable ROI chief among their concerns.

The survey found that while most b-to-b marketers are using e-mail and their own Web sites to reach customers, only 10% viewed social networking as effective. Among the b-to-c marketers surveyed, 36% viewed social networking as effective. The b-to-b respondents said they used social networks, blogs and virtual spaces such as Second Life for brand-building rather than generating new leads.

"It's hard to put an ROI on it, and that's where there's some hesitancy," said Jonathan Mendez, founder and chief strategy officer of OTTO Digital and a blogger at www.optimizeandprophesize.com. The company tests behavior patterns and responses to online content to increase relevance for companies such as General Electric Co., IBM Corp. and Siemens Corp. Mendez has worked with Walt Disney Co. and T-Mobile USA to better configure their sites to audience behavior online.

"The value is the platform and the ability to listen to your audience, your customers, even to yourself and your own business," Mendez said. "That just requires new ways of measurement more than anything else."

But customers don't always want to be found. Masie gave an example of a social network user who may advertise the need for a learning system—typically a seven-figure product—then get bombarded by offers. The company limits the number of e-mails users can send to reduce spam within the network.

True, brand- and relationship-building play a large part in the professional world, as decision-makers use those relationships to filter product and vendor information when making purchasing decisions. But will people go online for those relationships?

"I have serious questions about whether [those relationships] actually form online," said Myra Norton, CEO of Community Analytics, who has worked with companies such as Microsoft Corp.

Norton pointed to research and interviews that highlight the important differences in the social dynamics that govern sites like Facebook and MySpace, where people find "friends" and create networks based on similar music tastes or other interests, versus those with a corporate focus.

In the business world, relationships that already exist offline may be nurtured online through social networks that encourage, for example, the sharing of best business practices or vendor recommendations.

"There's a lot of value there because those sites are providing a platform that allows a dialogue and the relationships that happen between people to happen faster," Norton said.

Measuring impact

But quantifying that value can prove more difficult. Page views, click-through and conversion rates, and customer retention decorate the measuring stick against which social networking is compared to other online media.

But how much a company values a conversation with its audiences, clients and employees "depends how you define success," Norton said.

A survey of clients of SelectMinds, which builds "white-label," or unbranded, social networks for corporations, showed that 70% of all employees said the social aspects of work are very important to their workplace satisfaction. And nearly half (46%) of workers ages 20 to 29 rated the availability of support/networking programs for employees with common interests as a very important factor in their decision to join or remain with an employer, compared with 36% of their peers.

For younger workers, especially, social networks help maintain connections to family, friends, fellow alumni—and business contacts. That thirst for connectivity speaks to recent increased feelings of isolation in the workplace. In fact, 87% of the employees surveyed said they are most productive in their jobs when surrounded by colleagues with whom they have a good relationship.

White-Label Networks

"Companies require lots of controls around who can see what information and have access to what people," said Diane Pardee, CMO, SelectMinds, which works mainly with b-to-b companies such as Dow Chemical Co. to create internal social networks as a way to connect global sales teams and share new product information. Like other white-label social networking software developers working in the enterprise space, SelectMinds has found data and security concerns to be top priorities.

According to SelectMinds, its clients say corporate social networking helped increased productivity on average 10.33%, new business on average 11.65% and retention on average 5%. Internal social networks provided a way for companies to connect global sales teams and share knowledge of new products.

Pardee said reinforcing online relationships with offline meetings is essential. SelectMinds' own statistics show that more internal solidarity increases employee retention, translating into millions of dollars in benefits for companies.

For some companies, former employees can provide valuable connections to new business prospects via the social network. These "alumni" may mediate connections between their clients and their former employer, generating new business. Other companies have used their social networks to create subnetworks—for instance, tying key developers to executives.

"We actually see social networks getting smaller and more focused," said Shaun Priest, senior VP-sales at Omnifuse, a white-label social network company. "Instead of saying we want to be all things to all people, how can we [reach] a targeted group?" he said.

Employee Intranets Growing

The largest growth of social network use is in the areas of employee intranets, software groups and associations, Priest said.

Take the case of CareSeek Inc.'s social network www.careseek.com, which has 1,000 members. The site allows nurses to review comments about doctors for patients, and will eventually include hospitals and care homes. The site was launched in September during the Health 2.0 conference. CareSeek's member profiles are designed to create a sense of trust among patients, caregivers and care providers. The 600,000 doctors in the U.S. are entered into the site already; whether they choose to join is up to them, as well as social workers, physical therapists, pharmacists and other eligible community members.

"Engaging people in this is a giant outreach for volunteers to contribute content," said Gale Wilson-Steele, an Omnifuse client and CareSeek's CEO and founder. She that the idea of an open dialogue can be uncomfortable in such a heavily regulated industry. "Feeding and care to keep it alive has to happen, and it has a big investment of time and money," she said.

CareSeek invested thousands of dollars in the platform, design, handling focus groups, redesign, branding and messaging. Including staff time and maintenance, Wilson-Steele said the site basically created its own department.

"I wouldn't say it's a get-rich-quick-scheme at all," she said.

Community Analytics' Norton, agreed.

"This is not `Field of Dreams,' where you build it and they will come," she said.

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