The case for social media marketing to consumers is relatively easy to make, but B2B marketers still grapple with the problem of how to justify investing resources in these channels. In this article I’ll outline why and how B2B brands should be using social media for marketing, and I promise I’ll avoid techno-babble and agency guff as much as possible to get right to the important points.
That said, this is still quite a lengthy article, because there’s a lot to cover. You can download an easy to print PDF version of this article from here, and if you’d prefer to jump straight to the practical stuff, you should skip to section five using the contents menu below.
Why use social media for B2B marketing?
If you search on Google for “B2B social media stats” you’ll find an endless sea of research and surveys on this topic, but of all those stats I think this chart is one of the most important. The data is based on robust research from Global Web Index, and shows clearly that senior business decision makers are more likely than average internet users to participate in social media.
More importantly, the research shows that junior decision makers are even more likely to participate in social media. So, we know with a high degree of certainty that business decision makers are increasingly turning to the web and social media to inform their decisions.
If you need more convincing, I highly recommend watching this recent presentation from Global Web Index which offers a lot of insightful data on how senior business decision makers are using social media all over the world.
We also know that it’s extremely likely that anybody who’s about to make a significant purchasing decision will research that purchase online before they do anything else, to gather a selection of information and viewpoints. Google calls this the Zero Moment of Truth, and claims that 71% of professionals use the internet every day to research business purchasing decision.
So this gives us two very strong reasons for B2B brands to use social media:
1) Business decision makers are increasingly likely to use social media to help inform their purchasing decisions, so if your company is able to engage with them on those channels, you are better able to influence them
2) Social media allows you to exercise some control over what people will find when they research your company and products online – it’s not just about what’s on your website, but all the other places they will look for information and opinion
Social media, content marketing and SEO – the golden triangle
This brings us onto a very important point – social media, content marketing and SEO are all joined at the hip. We like to think of them as separate components of a B2B marketing strategy, but they are all very tightly intertwined and need to be thought of as part of the same process. Here’s why:
- Social media isn’t much use in isolation. You can’t simply create a Twitter profile or LinkedIn page for your brand and expect to attract a huge audience – you need to give people a reason to connect with your brand in social media
- Your social media channels need to be consistently fed with a stream of high quality content that your target audience will find useful and interesting – this is what content marketing is all about, creating and sharing great material
- By happy coincidence, the most important tactic in SEO right now is regularly publishing good quality content on your website, often by creating a blog section on the site
So, social media, content marketing and SEO are essentially interdependent on one another. You can’t do social media without content marketing, and if you’re doing social media and content marketing right, then by default you’re already doing the biggest and most important part of SEO.
Owned vs Earned social media
Social media often gets painted as one homogenous entity but, just like traditional media it can be split into owned and earned. Social media is earned when independent third parties recommend or discuss your brand, and share your content on their own channels – it’s “earned” because you’ve not paid them to promote your brand, they’re doing it because they’re impressed with what you’ve done.
Winning earned social media is simple to explain, but not always simple to achieve: create great content, do interesting stuff, give people a reason to want to talk about your brand. When you create a piece of content so good that it gets shared and talked about by a lot of people, that’s when it becomes viral marketing.
Owned social media channels are the ones you set up for your brand, and even though you have a much higher degree of control over what happens in owned social media, it’s not always easy to get right. There are two main things you can use your owned social channels for in B2B marketing.
First of all, they can be used to promote your content marketing activities. Whenever you publish a new white paper, blog post, video, or anything else, you should always flag it up on your social media channels so that your followers (who, let’s not forget, have expressed a clear interest in what your brand has to say for itself by choosing to follow you) are made aware of the content.
But social media should never simply be about “broadcasting” messages to your followers – the whole point of the medium is that it enables your followers to engage you in conversation, directing comments and questions at your company. If you want to get any real value from social media, you should embrace this aspect. Respond to comments promptly, promote discussion amongst your followers, and demonstrate that you welcome dialogue with your audience.
An interesting factor in all of this is that research shows that people tend to put more trust in earned and owned social media channels than conventional advertising. Typically in marketing communications there’s a payoff between how much control you have over the message in a channel and how much people trust it. Traditional advertising has high control but low audience trust, whereas media coverage has much lower control (because you can’t tell a journalist what to write) but, consequently, the audience trusts those messages more.
Social media (particularly the owned variety) provides you with a channel where you have a lot of control over the content, and yet it’s still possible to win a high degree of trust from the audience.
The main challenge with owned social channels is how you go about attracting an audience that is actually relevant to your business. This is especially problematic in B2B, because you can’t simply use a meerkat with a funny accent to get people flocking to your channels – you have to do it the hard way, by consistently creating and sharing great content, and putting in the long term effort to engage and nurture your audience.
This is why B2B brands so often fail in social media: they think that if they can’t capture a huge audience very quickly, it’s not worth doing. But it’s not about audience size, it’s about how relevant the audience is and how interested they are in what you’re sharing with them. You might only have 100 followers on Twitter, but if your company sells software to banks and most of those 100 followers are financial service sector CIOs, that’s a far, far better position to be in than having half a million followers who have no interest in IT or banking.
What does your brand look like on Google?
Let’s think again about this idea of Zero Moment of Truth. How will potential customers encounter your brand online and what impression will they be left with? If they are specifically looking for your brand, there’s a good chance that your corporate website will be the first thing they find in Google. But it’s more likely that they’ll be performing a more generic search based on a topic, product or problem that is relevant to your company’s offering.
If you’re lucky, maybe your website will show up in their search results, but there are any number of other online places where they might encounter your brand, places where you have varying degrees of control over what’s being said, for example:
- Online trade media
- Industry blogs
- LinkedIn groups and other discussion forums
- Your own social media profiles (if you have any)
- Independent social media profiles (e.g. industry commentators/analysts)
With a good social media, content marketing and SEO strategy (not to mention a dash of public relations on top) you can start to manage your brand’s online footprint. Get this right, and when people encounter your brand online (however and wherever this happens) you improve the chances of them being left with a positive impression and moving them one step closer to becoming a customer.
What does B2B social media look like in practice?
1) The content pipeline
A strong pipeline of great quality content is the very first thing you should plan out. When the social media marketing gurus talk about brands acting like publishers, this is what they mean. Create an editorial calendar for at least three months into the future and fill it with a ton of great ideas for blog posts/articles, surveys, white papers, infographics, videos and anything else you can produce.
You can use this template for your editorial calendar (or create something similar that’s tailored to your own processes) – all you need to do is come up with creative ideas to populate it.
To help you do this, think about all of the following:
- What’s happening at your company over the next three months? Events, product launches, planned marketing campaigns or promotions, etc.
- Are there any events happening in the wider industry that will impact your business and customers?
- What expertise does your organise have that people in your market will find truly valuable?
- What do your customers want to know about? What can you create that would create such a “Wow!” moment in your audience’s mind that they’d simply have to share it with their colleagues?
Remember, not every piece of content you create has to be grade A thought leadership material – if you get into that kind of mentality then you’ll hamstring yourself and end up producing almost nothing.
Focus on ideas that are realistically achievable, so that you’re producing a minimum of one item of fresh content per week, every week, forever. A blog post is the simplest and quickest piece of content to create, and should therefore be your fall-back when you don’t have the time or resources to create something like video or an infographic.
Find out who the great writers are in your team, make them responsible for creating blog posts. The people in your business who have the most interesting things to say (i.e. your subject matter experts) might not have the time, inclination or ability to write an interesting 500 word article, so get one of the good writers to interview them about a topic and write it up into a post.
If you happen to be a good writer, do not underestimate the reluctance of your colleagues to write blog posts. Encouraging others to contribute to a corporate blog can be extremely difficult, so be prepared to coax the required information out of them and do the writing yourself a lot of the time.
Try not to rely on written copy for all of your content, if resources will allow you to do more creative material. It’s easier than ever to produce professional quality video for your website, which can be much more engaging (for example, I created this short film in a few hours with less than £1,000 worth of equipment). Equally, infographics can be inexpensive to produce and can generate a lot of interest (this infographic took me a couple of hours and cost around £50 – it got picked up by the global marketing industry press and shared hundreds of times).
2) Your content hub – the corporate blog
All of the content you create will need a place to live and in most cases a blog built into your company’s website will be the best solution. This is often easier said than done. Creating a blog is, technically speaking, trivial, thanks to tools like WordPress, but in any organisation with more than around 50 employees, there can be significant political barriers to making it happen.
Quite often these stem from siloed departments protecting their own interests. The web team usually doesn’t want to give anybody else free reign to publish content on the website, the SEO manager wants control over the content, the sales director wants to turn every post into a sales pitch, and on it goes. There are no easy answers to this problem, each organisation is unique and has its own political nuances. The most important thing to do is get buy-in for the idea at the most senior level possible, and also to make sure everybody involved has a very clear understanding of the purpose of the blog.
Many B2B business websites have an online press room, which often consists of a page with links to PDF press releases, bland corporate photography and PR contact details. This is horrible and has to stop. A dynamic blog filled with interesting news and content is a much better idea, and press announcements can form part of the blog content, if they’re written as interesting informative articles rather than dry, turgid PR waffle.
Ultimately, it’s going to be very difficult for you to execute a winning content marketing and social media strategy without a blog, so whatever barriers and internal resistance you face, you’ll need to find a way to overcome them.
One of the beneficial effects of having a corporate blog on your company website is that the stream of regular content will help improve the site’s SEO considerably, since Google’s search algorithm tends to reward sites which consistently publish higher quality content. You can read more about this on the Google Webmaster Blog, if you want to get into the detail.
When setting your blog up, remember to include social sharing buttons (Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn as a minimum) at the top of each post to make it easy for people to share your content with their own networks.
3) Engaging your audience through social channels
Having a corporate blog that’s plentifully stocked with top-notch content gives you one very important thing that you’ll need when you set up social media channels for your brand: something interesting to talk about.
When you’re trying to build relationships with your target audience in social media, it really helps a lot if you’ve got some ‘social currency’ (i.e. shareable content) to use as conversation starters.
So, you’ve got the content, you’ve got a place for it to live, the next piece of the puzzle is building a network of social media channels around that core. You start by building branded profiles on the major channels – all of them allow you to build and customise brand pages free of charge.
The main channels worth building a presence in are:
- Twitter: a great channel for promoting content and participating in rapid fire, more informal discussion with stakeholders
- LinkedIn: an important touchpoint for people looking to learn more about your brand – especially current and future employees
- Google+: much derided, Google+ is quietly growing in size and with Google’s weight behind it the platform is unlikely to get less important – it also plays a role in SEO
- YouTube: essentially a tool for hosting video that can be embedded in the blog and shared on other channels, but it also functions as a social network in its own right
Type of Content
Methods of Engagement
While there are plenty of other social media channels available, and new ones appearing all the time, I’d counsel against jumping on every new bandwagon that the gurus get excited about and focus on the channels which are proven and stable.
Create branded profiles in each of these channels and, in the ones where it’s possible to do so (i.e. Twitter and Google+) find relevant people to follow: journalists, analysts and other industry influencers, customers, partners, etc. By following these people you’re indicating a willingness to engage with them – they might not all follow you back, but some of them will and that’s a start.
Next come the hard yards: slowly building up an engaged following in each of these channels.
One of the main reason businesses fail at social media is that they expect a sudden flock of fans to engage with them as soon as they create their profiles, and when that massive audience doesn’t instantly materialise they write the whole project off as a failure.
It takes a long time to build a network of followers who are interested and engaged in what you have to say. The only way to do it is to keep consistently sharing relevant content and participating in conversations through social channels over a long period of time – you should consider six months as an absolute minimum kick off period before you attempt to make any judgement about the progress of your social media channels.
As well as sharing your own content, pay attention to the people you’re following. Respond to their comments, answer their questions, ask them questions, solicit their opinions, share the things they post with your own audience. Be sociable.
If you do this consistently, for long enough, the reward is that you will build up a network of followers who are interested in what you have to say and happy to share your content and your messages with their own audiences on a regular basis.
4) B2B social-media monitoring and measurement
B2C companies can reasonably expect lots of people to be discussing their brands in social media channels and consequently invest in social media monitoring tools like Radian6, Brandwatch or Cision to keep track of consumer sentiment and identify problems/opportunities quickly.
But do you really need to spend thousands of pounds a month on monitoring tools if you’re a B2B brand? Probably not. If you think that there will be a high volume of people chattering about your company in social channels, then it’s worth monitoring those brand discussions. But in truth, that’s not very likely for most B2B companies where most public discussions about the brand happen in a very limited sphere, unless you happen to be a corporate behemoth like IBM.
While it’s probably not necessary for most B2B organisations to set up sophisticated social media monitoring dashboards and have people watching them all day, that doesn’t mean you should completely ignore what’s being said about your brand online. Monitoring the quantity and quality of online conversations about your brand is one of the best and easiest ways to measure the success of your social media and content marketing activity.
An easy way to do this is to use Google Alerts – this tool will let you set up a search for mentions of your brand online, and then sends you an email every time something appears. Alternatively you can set the search up as an RSS feed and pull it straight into Outlook. This will cover most online news sources, blogs, discussion forums, and so forth, but does not cover Twitter, which is a very important channel.
Monitoring brand mentions on Twitter is, fortunately, very easy. If you use TweetDeck to manage your Twitter account (it’s a browser based app that makes Twitter much more streamlined) then you can simply set up a search box that will automatically display any brand mentions. Alternatively, you could use Hootsuite (another browser based tool that allows you to manage all of your social media accounts from a single, simple console) which also allows you to set up keyword searches, making it very easy to track brand mentions.
When you find discussions of your brand online, you then need to make a judgement on how (even if) you should respond to them. Reward and amplify positive discussions, attempt to mitigate the damage of negative discussions – although more often than not the best thing to do with negative online conversations about your brand is to leave them alone until they blow over, unless there’s anything specific you can do to fix a problem.
Google Alerts and a simple Twitter search should provide a good enough monitoring solution for most B2B companies that have a low volume of brand discussions taking place online. Once you find that the volume of discussions about your brand is becoming too unwieldy for you to manage with the resources you have available, then it’s time to consider a full blown monitoring tool.