Four social tech tips for b-to-b professionals

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Since I co-wrote “Groundswell” in 2008 (Forrester Research), I've connected with thousands of people engaged in social applications for corporate goals. Many of them work for b-to-b companies. Their main question is simple, “How is this different in b-to-b?”

The key insight for social applications in b-to-b is to remember that corporate buyers are people, too. Your customers want to connect with one another. After all, they probably have the same job descriptions and many of the same problems.

Here are the top four pieces of advice I give to b-to-b marketers:

1. Get off your butt. Corporate technology buyers are more likely than average consumers to participate in social applications such as creating content for others, connecting in social networks, reading social content. So are small-business executives. Most of them are using it for work. Don't let company politics stop you. For example, Parametric Technology Corp., a company that makes product development software, found in a survey that more than 80% of its customers were consuming social content. This helped persuade the corporate executives that its customers were ready for a community.

2. Customer service is marketing. If you're selling to businesses, what your customers say to each other about your products or services is crucial. So find ways to serve those customers online and get them talking. At Constant Contact, a company that sells e-mail marketing services to small businesses, the online customer community helps educate new customers about the best uses for the service; small-business people love to listen to and help each other. Give customers a place to connect, respond to them on Twitter and immerse yourself in their conversations.

3. Connect your employees. Internal information sharing is crirical for b-to-b companies, and there are great social tools to speed that sharing up. At Deloitte Australia, people working on topics from Web development to accounting collaborate on Yammer, an internal tool that works like Twitter. At IBM Corp., VP Gina Poole successfully evangelized a tag-based system that salespeople use to share best practices. At Black & Decker, which sells to retailers, salespeople help train each other by making videos and posting them on an internal system that works like YouTube.

4. Don't be dull. It seems like every b-to-b company has a corporate blog. And even customer communities are becoming commonplace. Stand out by innovating. Webcasting vendor Sonic Foundry boosted attendance at its user conference with webcasts of content and interviews with customers on-site. Marketing services vendor Eloqua created an intriguing quiz that prospects could share. Consider new tools like video and iPhone apps. Just because you sell to businesses is no reason to be boring.

Josh Bernoff is senior VP-idea development at Forrester Research and co-author of “Groundswell” and the newly released “Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, Transform Your Company” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010). He can be reached at [email protected]

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