September 1, 2014

Social media strategy for B2B: what’s required and what’s optional

Despite all the breathless hype about social media these days, what I hear most from B2B marketers is frustration. Most of the marketers I talk to are trying to reach a few top executives in big organizations who make buying decisions about big, complex products and services. For these marketers, the pool of customers and prospects is small and many of them do not want to engage publicly in social media or are simply ignoring it altogether.

ITSMA research shows that there are other ways to reach these people that are much more effective than social media, such as small, thought leadership-based events, content-rich websites that are optimized for search, and robust reference programs, to name a few. For these target executives, peer relationships are everything, but for now anyway, most of those relationships are happening offline.

For many companies, this translates into a wait-and-see approach to social media.

I think that’s the right decision—up to a point.

For these companies, there is little reason to twitter into the wind. If you’re strapped for resources (who isn’t?) and you can invest in other things that are more effective for reaching your target audience.

But the mistake I think many companies make is assuming that if there is no reason for actively marketing the company through social media then there is no reason to invest in a social media strategy.

I think that’s short sighted.

Here’s why: In marketing, we have a traditional bias towards being active. After all, that’s how we’ve always done it. We push messages out and try to stir up attention. We could control the public conversation because our audience had few public outlets for giving or receiving information. But social media is a vast public platform where eventually the conversation is going to get around to our companies—if it hasn’t already.

So even if there is no reason to have an active social media strategy, there is every reason to have a passive one. By that, I mean monitoring the cacophony of public conversation on the web to determine whether any of it is applicable to your company—and if it is, what you should do about it. This is why every B2B marketing leader needs a social media participation strategy even if he or she does not intend to actively market through social media.

I divide participation strategy into three pieces (I go into each in more detail in this post):

  1. Monitor. Listen for conversation about your company or about relevant issues for you and your customers.
  2. Engage. Develop a strategy for responding to customers and influencers who talk about your company or relevant business issues.
  3. Manage. Decide whether to take an active role in creating conversations and fostering a community.

Though I will probably get some arguments about this, I think the participation strategy is a linear process—i.e., you need to know how to monitor well before you can engage well, and you certainly need to know how to engage well before you can start building community.

We have reached the point where monitoring is an absolute requirement in any B2B marketing strategy. Even if it doesn’t seem that your customers and prospects are actively conversing on the social web, you need to confirm that fact. And even they aren’t talking, there’s no doubt that someone is having a relevant conversation about business issues that are important to your customers—and that you should be monitoring.

This week, Jeremiah Owyang published a great framework of things that marketers have to do to listen well—including a list of vendors who help marketers listen. The only disagreement I have with his framework is that it is about more than listening. Stages 1-3 of his framework are true passive listening and every B2B marketing group should be doing them—regardless of whether they decide to actively market through social media.

But moving from stage 3 to 4 is moving from passive to active participation. There’s a chasm there that many B2B marketers are unwilling to cross. It seems companies are comfortable (in theory if not yet always in practice) up to Stage 3 but beyond that they are terrified. They see the resource commitment ramping up and the potential for mistakes (risk) amplified because now they have to actively engage with people in social rather than just track and listen.

And there’s good reason to be terrified. As effort increases, resource allocation and ROI become issues. Larger companies can shift budget from dying categories like advertising and trade shows into social media without affecting other programs, but many smaller companies never had much budget in those areas to begin with. So social media becomes a larger strategic decision that some would just rather not make right now—so they don’t do anything.

I think we need to parse that decision more. Listening is a requirement, but active participation remains optional.

What do you think?

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  • http://soloportfolio.wordpress.com/ Clare McDermott

    Wow. Great summary, Chris. Too often I see social media strategies that are haphazard… as if the “messy” nature of online engagement means that there need not be a plan or a disciplined approach to adoption. I agree that monitoring as a first step is imperative, as is studying the activities (and mistakes) of your peers.

    I would also add: quality quality quality. Yes, social media content is often conversational, but that’s not an excuse for mediocrity. For example, not all CEOs should blog because not all CEOs have the intelligence + wit to pull it off.

  • http://soloportfolio.wordpress.com Clare McDermott

    Wow. Great summary, Chris. Too often I see social media strategies that are haphazard… as if the “messy” nature of online engagement means that there need not be a plan or a disciplined approach to adoption. I agree that monitoring as a first step is imperative, as is studying the activities (and mistakes) of your peers.

    I would also add: quality quality quality. Yes, social media content is often conversational, but that’s not an excuse for mediocrity. For example, not all CEOs should blog because not all CEOs have the intelligence + wit to pull it off.

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Hi Clare,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree that quality doesn’t always get enough attention. We often focus on the frequency of social media (need to blog at least 1-2 times per week to remain relevant, for example). But I’d rather read one really thoughtful post than three inconsequential ones.

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com Chris Koch

    Hi Clare,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree that quality doesn’t always get enough attention. We often focus on the frequency of social media (need to blog at least 1-2 times per week to remain relevant, for example). But I’d rather read one really thoughtful post than three inconsequential ones.

  • http://www.inbound-marketing-automation.ca/ Eric Goldman

    Chris;
    Great post – thanks! I design our client’s SMM campaigns around using a process, too. Although it would at first blush seem different from yours, the basic concept is the same – readers may find it’s formulaic approach useful: http://bit.ly/SMMProcess

  • http://www.inbound-marketing-automation.ca Eric Goldman

    Chris;
    Great post – thanks! I design our client’s SMM campaigns around using a process, too. Although it would at first blush seem different from yours, the basic concept is the same – readers may find it’s formulaic approach useful: http://bit.ly/SMMProcess

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