Today’s B2B marketers are setting new ground rules on how to use social media to grow their businesses. Forget about product-driven, casual Facebook campaigns. B2B marketers have to be more strategic in their use of social media, creating relationship- driven programs that speak to multiple stakeholders rather than to consumers, and focus on corporate pain points, not product features. The result is a growing crop of impressive B2B social marketing programs that are generating awareness, building thought leadership, strengthening a company’s brand, and establishing a new path for social media marketing.
B2B marketers are hardly strangers to social media. In fact, according to the Social Media Examiner’s April 2012 Social Media Marketing Industry Report, some B2B marketers have been using social media longer (18.3% reported 3 years or more) than their B2C counterparts (14% indicated 3 years or longer). And 68% of B2B companies are significantly more likely than B2C (59%) to use social media for intelligence-gathering. Those spending at least six to 10 hours per week are more likely to gain benefit, with 72% of those spending 11 hours a week noting gains.
However, unlike B2C social marketing campaigns, B2B social marketing is a strategic part of the sales funnel. For instance, 93% of B2B buyers start their search for a product or service on a search engine, not a company’s website, according to “The CMO Guide to Inbound Marketing” by marketing automation software provider Marketo.
But despite the need for a more strategic approach than their B2C counterparts, B2B marketers still often suffer from what Natascha Thomson, founder of B2B social media marketing consultancy MarketingXLerator, describes as “shiny object syndrome.”
“They somehow seem to forget the rules that require them to really do their homework: Who are you selling to and where are these people?” she explains. “Social media is a lot more complex in B2B and a lot more serious. It comes down to targeting your audience and understanding who you’re selling to in a completely different buyer cycle.”
Creating relevant content that focuses on customers’ business obstacles; timing campaigns in accordance with lengthier B2B sales cycles; testing and validating campaign results using metrics such as lead generation—they’re only a handful of the new rules B2B marketers must heed to achieve success.
And then there are glaring differences between running B2C and B2B social media marketing programs. While both types of campaigns target people, B2B campaigns must home in on particular job roles—smaller groups of individuals with unique pain points, sales cycles, and responsibilities. For example, a B2B marketer of software must first determine its precise target audience (e.g., the chief information officer or IT manager), what specific feature sets are most likely to appeal to that particular audience, and any related concerns, such as IT training costs.
It’s a tall order, but if executed properly, the rewards of a B2B social media campaign are plentiful. First, a social media lead typically costs significantly less than leads generated by traditional outbound channels. Everything from Twitter feeds to Facebook pages can help add a face to a B2B company, thereby humanizing its brand—and this is particularly important for B2B companies that need to generate more brand awareness than their B2C counterparts. Moreover, a strong social media presence also improves search engine rankings, crucial for companies that aren’t household names.
The following are three B2B companies whose social media marketing campaigns—and the results gained by using them—are clear signs of how B2B audiences are evolving in the social media landscape.
PGAV Destinations is a research firm and consultancy that helps destination locations like SeaWorld or the Grand Canyon drive attendance and improve the visitor experience. However, when Ben Cober joined the company as business development director last August, he found that its branded LinkedIn page was nothing more than “a logo and a two-sentence company description.” In other words, not exactly a destination that customers would flock to.
Cober first began informally canvassing frontline employees and senior-level managers on what they thought PGAV Destinations’ clients, which include zoos, museums, aquariums, and theme parks, would want to find on a LinkedIn profile.
But it wasn’t until Cober started populating PGAV Destination’s LinkedIn profile with information about the company’s various services that his social media marketing efforts began to pay off. In fact, since the revamp, PGAV Destinations’ LinkedIn page views have increased 127% and its services pages on LinkedIn have experienced a 400% spike in click-throughs from January to July 2012.
PGAV Destinations’ LinkedIn page was designed to drive engagement and provide value. Today, the page features in-depth service descriptions, videos detailing recent projects, and links to the company’s corporate website. But social media also allows PGAV Destinations to cultivate a community—notably by functioning as an inspiration board for prospective and current clients. For example, a client looking to redesign a metropolitan zoo who visits PGAV Destinations’ LinkedIn profile may find fresh ideas in the layout of an award-winning aquarium or the reimagining of a theme or amusement park.
PGAV Destinations also uses its LinkedIn page as a hub for information that’s relevant to the interests of its clients. For instance, the company links to recently commissioned research projects. Cober sees this facet of its social media profile as a key competitive differentiator because, he says, it’s uncommon for design firms to fund research on topics, such as how families plan their vacations.
PGAV Destinations also uses LinkedIn to drive engagement by making its staff readily available. The company posts the contact information and a photo of a PGAV Destinations team member next to each description of its various services so visitors to the LinkedIn page can easily send a direct message to PGAV Destinations’ various employees, from project managers to vice presidents.
“Posting personal contact information humanizes our company, which is important,” Cober says. “Approaching an architecture firm, especially a large one, can be a daunting task. And sending out an email to a standard PGAV.com account is kind of cold; you don’t really know who you’re talking with. But when you associate a human being with an actual product or service, there’s a lot more comfort, trust, and hope of receiving a response.”
Still, LinkedIn does present limitations for B2B marketers. Many B2C marketers collect detailed data through social media channels on when and why a consumer purchased a particular product. However, because B2B marketers are engaging prospects rather than pushing products, showing demonstrable ROI in social media platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook can be difficult.
“It’s a challenge because you never know a visitor’s intent,” Cober says. “Are they interested in a job, in sales, or [are] they the competition trying to scout your site to see how well you’re doing?”
This is partially why PGAV Destinations has no immediate plans to pay for LinkedIn’s services, such as its pay-per-click ads program.
“The free services are enough,” Cober says. “The base products that come with a B2B Facebook page or a LinkedIn profile are really enough to generate the kind of awareness that you need. There might be a slight percentage increase with some of the paid services, but I haven’t seen enough reports to convince me that they’re definitely worthwhile.”
Hitachi Data Systems
Convincing IT professionals to engage in a storage and data recovery company’s social media campaign seemed like a long shot when Sharon Crost first cottoned on to the increasing popularity of B2B social media marketing. But Crost, social media manager at Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), a provider of storage systems and software, knew it was time to begin leveraging channels such as YouTube, LinkedIn, and Facebook to “generate business, amplify our brand, and expand our lead generation program.” She also knew that developing nurturing relationships with time-strapped and not exactly marketing friendly prospects in the IT space could be difficult.
Without any sort of proven ROI model, HDS launched “Quiz Campaign,” a social media treasure hunt that enticed C-level techies to answer product questions, such as “What does the Hitachi logo stand for?” on the company’s social media pages in exchange for the chance to win a Hitachi LCD HDTV set.
Answers were strategically buried within social media channels, such as Hitachi’s Wikipedia write-up, Facebook page, and YouTube channel.
It’s a decidedly different—and more entertaining—approach than straight-shooting ads other B2B companies use. “IT folks need something that’s exciting and motivating to socially engage,” Crost explains. “We definitely wanted this campaign to be more about fun brand awareness than a product push, so we strategically focused more on awareness and engagement.”
Another clever tactic: HDS didn’t include any product specific information in its campaign. Rather, the date the company announced its Quiz Campaign winners “also happened to be the same time we were announcing a new product launch,” Crost says.
HDS’ Quiz Campaign generated 8,000 visitors, 604 leads, and a 43% uplift in Facebook user engagement. Crost says HDS continues to reap the benefits of social media buzz. “Social channels can snowball so that the folks engaging with us want to share our content and end up becoming amazing spokespeople,” she says.
Most surprising to Crost was how profoundly HDS’s Quiz Campaign resonated with Facebook audiences—a social media network not exactly known for being a hotbed of professional techie activity. “Initially, we believed that of all the major social media channels, LinkedIn would be the best,” Crost says. “In fact, when we allocated out our paid media budget, we initially allocated more for LinkedIn.”
The discovery came when HDS began examining the performance levels of its most recent B2B social media campaigns. For example, Crost says HDS often requires IT professionals to fill out a lead registration form when participating in one of its marketing campaigns. Each of these forms is electronically tagged so that HDS can see which social media channel a participant entered to join the campaign. “LinkedIn had an expensive conversion rate,” Crost says. “However, Facebook was also bringing in some nice leads, but at much less of a conversion cost.”
HDS also tested six different social media messages throughout the duration of Quiz Campaign. Did the call to action “Check out HDS” elicit more Facebook likes than “Test Your IT Smarts”? Although results varied, asking these types of questions helped determine “which messages were resonating and which kind of audience that results in lead generation,” she says.
But taking stock of a campaign’s hits and misses isn’t the final phase of a B2B social media marketing campaign. Rather, Crost says, it’s critical that marketers keep the conversation going with its now-captive audience. “Nurturing these leads is very, very important,” she says, noting that HDS’s tactic of thanking participants for playing along is an excellent way to prolong client contact.
Bloomingdale Signs By Tomorrow
For years Bloomingdale Signs By Tomorrow (BSBT) relied on direct mail, magazine ads, and the Yellow Pages to engage its target demographic of retail direct clients and wholesalers. That is until all signs started pointing to social media. “Starting in 2010 there was a real buzz in our shop about getting serious about social media,” says Gary Schellerer, BSBT’s VP of operations.
So when BSBT, a provider of sign and digital printing technology, from custom trade show displays to indoor banners for local businesses, launched Color Jam 2012, it didn’t waste any time taking advantage of channels such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
Color Jam 2012 began as a massive multimedia public art project, commissioned by the member-based business organization Chicago Loop Alliance, located at a busy intersection in downtown Chicago. BSBT worked two weeks straight, wrapping sidewalks, crosswalks, buildings, lampposts, awnings, and flowerbeds in more than 70,000 square feet of colored vinyl.
Although one of the largest public art installations in the city’s history, Schellerer says, “Color Jam wasn’t really exposed in any way. It wasn’t well amplified.”
To generate buzz and build brand awareness, BSBT created a five-minute video that detailed the city block’s transformation from a bustling city center into a 3D work of art. Intentionally shot in the style of “a reality television show,” and then posted to the company’s YouTube channel, Alan Schellerer Jr., BSBT’s director of operations, says the video captures “the trials and tribulations, such as rainouts, that occurred throughout project. We only had a certain amount of time so it was really interesting for people to watch. With just one video on YouTube, suddenly, our brand was stuck in people’s heads.”
In addition to uploading the YouTube video last June, which has received more than the expected 1,000 views to date, BSBT also posted a link to the video on its corporate website and the company’s Facebook page. “By using some of these social media channels, word about Color Jam spread a lot more,” Schellerer says. “We were able to give people a reason to like our company on Facebook in a way that’s not only informational, but also entertaining. It was basically another way for us to get in front of our clients.”
Schellerer Jr. agrees. “People don’t wake up in the morning and check their Bloomingdale Signs page, but they wake up in the morning and check their Facebook page. It’s just a much broader web to catch viewers.”
So far, BSBT’s Color Jam YouTube video represents the company’s “biggest push into social media and online advertising this year,” Schellerer says. It’s a leap into previously uncharted waters that he believes has played a part in the company’s business being up 40% the same time over last year, reaching the highest point in its 25-year history. Still, he says that although the company plans to continue leveraging social media for marketing gains, determining by what percent B2B social media marketing has contributed to the company’s sales uptick “is a hard number to split out.”
BSBT isn’t the only B2B company struggling to attach a monetary value to its social media marketing strategies. To be sure, the right metrics and a handy analytics tool can help clarify matters. But in the end, there’s one thing B2B marketers share in common with their B2C counterparts: Marketers must continue to listen closely to the changing needs of their audience. “That’s the key piece for B2B marketers,” HDS’s Crost says. “Pay attention and listen to what your audience is saying so that your relationship will continue to improve.”
Cindy Waxer is a Toronto-based freelance writer and content strategist covering small business, technology, finance, and careers for publications including MIT Technology Review, The Economist, TIME, CNNMoney.com, and, of course, Direct Marketing News. Some of her more unforgettable past interviewees include RIM CEO Jim Balsillie, former policy advisor to George W. Bush Dov Zakheim, cofounder and former CEO of AOL Steve Case, and legendary artist Prince. Her first language is Canadian.