In a recent MDM survey, just half of respondents said they were using LinkedIn. Even fewer used online tools such as Twitter and Facebook. This article will examine why B2B companies have resisted using social media to further business goals and presents expert analysis and examples on how distributors can benefit from these tools. The author also analyzes results from a recent survey on how MDM readers use social media.
Even as business-to-consumer companies are finding ways to capitalize upon the growing social media trend, many business-to-business companies are struggling with how they can use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
In a recent MDM survey, about 42 percent of respondents – distributors and manufacturers – said their companies were not using social media. The reasons ranged from \”not up-to-date on its uses and benefits\” to \”no interest\” or even: \”It’s the biggest time-waster I know of.\”
Even respondents who are using social media acknowledged it was difficult to measure the return on their investment. Comments such as \”inability to track specific outcomes\” or \”don’t know how effective it will be\” were common.
Despite the challenges, more and more distributors and manufacturers have started to use social media tools to advance their marketing goals.
Return on Investment
\”How can we measure return on investment? It’s a great question and one that is very important,\” says online marketing strategist Bob DeStefano, president of SVM E-Business Solutions, Somerset, NJ. \”You have to look at social media differently than how you look at other programs.\”
The return on investment can’t necessarily be measured by tracking click-throughs. Rather the return comes over time as traffic builds to your website or as people start looking to you as the expert on a given topic.
\”Don’t get too hung up on the numbers,\” says John Sonnhalter, founder of marketing communications firm Sonnhalter, Berea, OH.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be measurable results. Jim Sobeck, president and CEO of New South Construction Supply, West Columbia, SC, took on a new supplier that connected with him via his business’ Twitter account. Last month, that product line brought in $30,000 worth of sales. \”That’s $30,000 we wouldn’t have had otherwise,\” Sobeck says.
Measuring a return on investment requires understanding the investment. Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook and other websites are free; the only investment required is time. \”Simply put, you get out of it what you put into it,\” Sonnhalter says. \”The key is you have to have a plan.\”
To maximize your ROI, it’s important to update the content regularly, regardless of the platform. Sonnhalter advises his clients they need to commit 30 minutes to one hour each day to their social media plans. Existing online tools, such as the Google reader, can streamline the process.
For specialty building materials distributor C.H. Briggs, Reading, PA, that means updating its Facebook page at least twice a week. \”The process is centered in our marketing group,\” says Luis Arias, chief marketing officer at C.H. Briggs. \”We’ve built an editorial calendar around it and maintaining it is an integrated part of our marketing plan.\”
C.H. Briggs also is launching a Twitter account to announce updates, and a YouTube channel that will feature product demonstrations.
Sobeck says he spends about 15 minutes each day updating his Twitter feed. "I simply post things I find interesting as I come across it, and even if I have to cut and paste the information in [as opposed to using share tools], it only takes a few seconds," he says.
Sobeck also maintains a "Business 101" blog that he aims to update three times a week. "I have voice dictation software that I use to write the blogs," he says. "All I have to do is say what I want my blog to say and then spend 10 minutes or so checking the accuracy. Even updating my blog only takes me about a half hour a day."
Resistance to Social Media
Social media was created to connect people and to facilitate the exchange of ideas. But users have to accept they do not have complete control over content, even about their company.
"The biggest hang up that B2B companies have is they're so used to being in control," Sonnhalter says. "They want to control the message, they want to control when it goes out; they just want that control."
But to take advantage of the strength of social media – the networks that are created – you have to be willing to give up some of that control. "Negative feedback and comments are actually a great opportunity for discussion," DeStefano says. "The most interesting conversations are the ones that have a point-counterpoint. You aren't differentiating yourself if you're taking the exact same position as everyone else."
Instead of fighting, engage dissenters in valuable conversations where you can build on expertise in that area. Respond to negative comments in a way that shows your company takes customer satisfaction seriously. After all, negative comments about your company can exist on social networks even if you don't.
"You can't control what other people say," Sonnhalter says. "You can only take advantage of the opportunity to be a part of the conversation rather than on the sideline."
Another hesitation identified by respondents to the MDM survey: Not enough customers and peers are participating in social media right now to make it worthwhile.
"While it's true that your entire customer base may not be on social media, the next generation of your customer base is already there," DeStefano says. On top of that, social media can help you easily expand your presence and increase your brand awareness to people and companies that may not already be on your radar.
New South's Sobeck joined Twitter because his son, New South's controller and IT manager, was there and convinced him to check it out. Sobeck learned quickly how much information was available online. And companies he'd never thought of as potential customers began following him on Twitter.
"I recently went to speak at a young executives conference, and I asked how many of them followed me on Twitter," Sobeck says. "I'm guessing 80 percent of my audience raised their hands. People are using it to connect."
When Sonnhalter's marketing business began using social media a little over a year ago, he did not expect to do much more than build awareness of his company. "I didn't think I'd get any new clients directly," he says. "But I've already got a new client out of Australia, and I'm working on another one in Japan. I have several more leads in the pipeline."
Even if existing clients aren't already on social media, chances are your competitors aren't effectively leveraging the opportunity either. Nearly half of MDM survey respondents have a presence on LinkedIn, the highest participation rate in the MDM survey for any of the social media platforms. Only 25 percent use Twitter.
"It's a great opportunity to get in there and establish yourself as the leader," Sonnhalter says. "If you've already shown on LinkedIn that you are the expert on a given topic, it's a lot harder for your competitor to jump on board in a year and push you out of that position."
What's more, in social media, size doesn't matter. The $1 million company has the same opportunities online as the $100 million company. In some ways, smaller companies actually have an advantage over the bigger public companies because they often can be more responsive, DeStefano says.
New Medium, Same Approach
But companies first need to acknowledge that social media – when used strategically – can be a legitimate marketing medium, Sonnhalter says.
Instead of looking at it as a new medium that requires a new approach, approach social media as a new outlet for your existing messages. When creating marketing materials, design them to be distributed via all available marketing channels, from traditional direct mail to email and LinkedIn.
Social media platforms can also help you better optimize your existing database of contacts. Sonnhalter offers this example:
"Say you go to a business networking luncheon where you are seated with seven other people you don't know. You all exchange business cards and maybe three of them are potential targets. You take these cards back to your office and plug them into your Outlook database. Then those contacts sit there unless something specific reminds you that Joe Schmo is in that database; otherwise, you may never talk to him again.
"However, if you had taken that card to LinkedIn and connected with Joe Schmo right away, everything you post on LinkedIn automatically goes into his feed. Even if you're only posting one thing a week, that translates to touching Joe 52 times a year, compared with never in the old method. And if you're posting quality information, Joe's going to share that with his network, and the exposure grows exponentially."