For those who still believe b-to-b companies don't get social media or don't care, last year should have been a wake-up call.
In 2011, Intel recorded the 7 millionth “like” on its Facebook page. Early this year, LinkedIn passed 150 million members. A viral video created by Corning Glass for its business customers recorded 17 million views on YouTube. Two-thirds of the 126 b-to-b companies that responded to an online survey by Sagefrog Marketing Group last August reported use of social networks as part of their marketing mix.
Also, three-fourths of respondents to a December survey by MarketingProfs and the Content Marketing Institute said they use social media as part of their content marketing strategies. And nine in 10 b-to-b marketers surveyed the same month by marketing automation software provider Pardot said their companies are on Twitter, although LinkedIn and blogs are more successful at lead generation.
But while the social media eagle has clearly landed in b-to-b, the celebration is muted. Marketers are under more pressure than ever to develop and qualify leads; and social channels fare no better than any others in that regard.
A MarketingSherpa survey found that just 6% of b-to-b marketers rated social media as effective, well behind such meat-and-potatoes tactics as Web and search optimization, email marketing and trade shows. In fact, social media tied with print advertising as the least effective marketing tactic.
The disconnect likely lies with the speed that social channels generate leads. Blogs may be great at explaining complex topics and inviting deep discussion, but the time it takes to build thought leadership leading to conversions frustrates many impatient executives.
Lead-gen experts point out, though, that fixating on the quantity of leads generated by any channel obscures the more important issue of quality, and that organizations generally spend too much time chasing bad leads.
“Fewer than 7% of leads passed to sales by marketing should be [leads],” said Dan McDade, CEO of PointClear, in his book The Truth About Leads (Onsei, 2011).
The value of social media lies in its ability to develop awareness and buying intentions before the sales contact is ever made. At a time when the traditional sales funnel is being blown up by third-party influence, businesses need to be where their customers already are.
Customers are more informed than ever about buying decisions because of the availability of peer recommendations, endorsements and independent research reports that new-age analyst firms like Altimeter Group now give away for free. Steve Goldbach, partner at Monitor Group, has defined the new funnel as consisting of “channel pathways,” where buyers bounce between multiple external information sources before finally entering a seller's orbit.
On Spiceworks, a community of nearly 2 million IT professionals, members have posted thousands of reviews of vendors and consultancies of every size. “When I'm looking at a vendor, I don't "Google' it, I "Spiceworks' it,” wrote one forum member.
Millions of forum messages on Alibaba.com recommend, advise and warn business buyers about everything from procuring computer chips in China to buying sugar in São Paulo. Visitors to Glassdoor.com can look up employee ratings of their own workplaces and compare salary data.
This kind of empowerment is changing the dynamics of b-to-b relationships and tipping the scales toward customer education. Inbound marketing that attracts interested buyers rather than intercepting them with messages is said to deliver higher-quality leads and a shorter sales cycle. For the third consecutive year, HubSpot's “State of Inbound Marketing” study found that leads via search or third-party links cost 60% less than those driven by traditional means.
The trick is to create content that attracts those links. That's why content marketing is the hottest new buzzword in the business. It uses search-optimized articles and blog entries, along with social media promotion, to create awareness and leads. Businesses are discovering they can parlay the near-collapse of some trade media outlets by assuming the role of thought leaders, through what has been termed “brand journalism.”
Cisco Systems last year overhauled its press room into an information site called The Network. It hired former writers from BusinessWeek, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business titles to pen thought pieces on such topics as “healthcare reform” and the “city of the future.”
Intel's Free Press, like Cisco, vigorously encourages visitors to copy and post its content elsewhere.
Electronics distributor Premier Farnell turned heads with element14, a community for design and engineering professionals that overlays entertainment, competition and collaborative creation on an online e-commerce store. Half of the buyers who reach the element14 store from the community have never done business with Premier Farnell before.
Not many companies have the social media resources of Cisco, Intel and Premier Farnell; but a combination of blogs, LinkedIn and Twitter is proving popular. Nearly 45% of b-to-b marketers surveyed online by Webmarketing123 late last year said LinkedIn generated leads for them, compared with 12% of b-to-c marketers. That's further evidence b-to-b is tiptoeing into social media at its own pace and by its own rules.