The question of which recent b-to-b campaign best integrated traditional and social channels could be answered with another question: What is Watson?
That's the name of the IBM computer that soundly thumped the two greatest “Jeopardy!” champions of all time in a three-day, two-match contest in February. The IBM Jeopardy Challenge was one of the more notable examples of a new style of integrated campaign that leverages multiple forms of social media promotion. IBM Corp. paid handsomely to co-opt the popular game show for three nights, but it spent surprisingly little on conventional advertising, preferring to delegate promotion to social channels.
In the weeks before the televised contest, IBM posted more than 30 YouTube videos of engineers talking about the technology challenges they overcame in developing Watson. The public face of the project was not a corporate executive but the project leader. There was a Watson page on Facebook, a Twitter stream and a site that aggregated buzz from other social channels. Hundreds of IBM blogs and Twitter accounts spread the word. Engineers live-blogged during an episode of PBS' “Nova.” IBM even supported author Stephen Baker in writing a book that was released hours after the final Jeopardy Challenge program aired on Feb. 16.
Results: The Jeopardy Challenge became a mainstream cultural phenomenon, generating more than 1,500 media citations and jamming IBM's pipeline with corporate, academic and government customers who want to know what Watson can do for them.*
CSP Information Group, a trade organization for convenience stores and petroleum products retailers, has learned that the more targeted email content is, the more successful it's likely to be. The association's email newsletters, which include a daily blast to convenience store owners, provide content about legislative issues, fuel prices and new products—in the form of articles, videos, polls and event calendars. Video content is proving to be very effective for CSP, said Craig Fitzgerald, editorial director at IMN, a provider of email marketing newsletters and services that works with CSP on its email program. For example, the newsletter might include a five-minute video interview recorded on a Flip camera at an industry event or conference. “That's content that you wouldn't be able to share if you send a paper newsletter,” he said.
While some skeptics remain on the sidelines, the low cost of platforms like blogs, Twitter and LinkedIn, combined with their growing effectiveness as lead-generation vehicles, is attracting a substantial crowd. Today, the question is no longer whether to go social as much as how to mix and match components to maximize return.
The social landscape has become more complex as the crowd of players has grown, and marketers are learning to use every available tool to spread the message. An independent 2010 research study underwritten by social network provider Awareness found the average number of social platforms used by responding businesses had leapt from one in 2006 to more than eight in 2010.
“We'd be stupid not to use every means at our disposal” to reach the audience, said Richard Binhammer, a communications manager at Dell Inc., which has nine corporate blogs, several customer communities and scores of Twitter accounts aimed at different segments of its mostly business customer base.
B-to-b marketers are more active in social media than is widely understood. Research by Web marketing agency White Horse last year found that b-to-b companies are actually more active in social channels than b-to-c companies, and are also more likely to measure results. Outsell estimates that b-to-b marketers hiked their ad spending on social sites by more than 40% in 2010, and AMR International expects increases of about 20% annually for at least the next two years.
Lead-generation and customer service applications continue to rule the roost. Blogs, which have lost momentum in the consumer sphere as other channels have emerged, are a b-to-b mainstay because of their superior search engine performance and capacity to accommodate the detailed technical discussions that many buyers demand. HubSpot estimates that business websites with blogs generate nearly twice as many search-friendly inbound links as those without.
Indium Corp., a supplier of materials for the electronics manufacturing industry, grew lead volume 600% in six months using a constellation of blogs pegged to strategic keywords. Visitors can provide an email address to get a question answered by one of the company's engineers. That's a lead. “My job is to get engineers talking to customers and then get out of the way,” said Rick Short, Indium's marketing communications director.
Nearly every company with a blog now also has one or more Twitter accounts. At the very least, Twitter has value as a bonus promotional channel for company messages, but its speed and flexibility are proving to have other applications. Wireless service provider Boingo Wireless used it to head off potential customer backlash over a misfired email last year that erroneously notified customers of account cancellations.
Twitter listening posts are effective in providing early warning of customer satisfaction problems and for tracking competitor activities. Keyword monitoring can even alert marketers to sales opportunities.
B-to-b companies are also joining the social networking craze, although their preferences differ from their consumer counterparts'. While every consumer business from diners to Doritos now has a Facebook page, b-to-b companies prefer the more buttoned-down LinkedIn community. A BtoB survey of marketers last spring found 22% rated LinkedIn as their most important social media platform. Facebook finished last among the five choices, with 10%. Blogs were first at 27%.
LinkedIn will cross the 100 million-member threshold this spring, and its origins as a job-seeking network have long been surpassed by the strength of its active groups and its ability to filter members by factors such as title, geography, group membership and even years of experience. There are tens of thousands of members in LinkedIn groups focused on financial management, telecommunications, construction, real estate, human resources and pharmaceuticals. A group for MDs has more than 2,600 members.
Marketers find value in LinkedIn's question-and-answer format, which can surface leads and build professional credibility. Late last year, LinkedIn allowed groups to open up to public view, enhancing their search appeal. The Internet's hottest new Q&A site, Quora, borrows from the metaphor that LinkedIn pioneered; and even Facebook is soon expected to jump in with Questions, a service that can poll its 600 million members.
Facebook can never be counted out as a b-to-b play, of course, and companies like Cisco Systems and Ernst & Young have found it to be a fertile ground for recruitment and outreach to younger constituents. Still, it's doubtful that Facebook would risk its mass franchise to make a play for LinkedIn's professional niche. For now, LinkedIn's future looks secure.
*The author is a paid consultant to IBM on projects unrelated to the Watson promotion.