Social media has changed the way we discover, read, and share information and is changing the way businesses connect with customers, partners, peers, and even the competition. Blogs, wikis, discussion forums, and social networks allow anyone to broadcast information and ideas quickly and easily.
Much of the early success in social media comes from B2C companies. Searching the phrase "social media case study" online returns several B2C examples, but very few from B2B companies. The dichotomy is striking, but one thing is clear: With the rapid growth and popularity of social media, B2B companies that choose to ignore the opportunity to connect with customers and prospects risk being overtaken by their competitors and losing market share.
Two main factors have contributed to B2B social media adoption being outpaced by B2C. First, most people begin their participation in social media for purposes other than their job function; humor and celebrity gossip drive people to visit their first blog. According to Forrester Research, the number of people who are active in social media is higher for general purpose than job-related. This indicates a stronger market for B2C companies using social media to connect and engage their consumer customers.
Second, consumer interests are easier to identify based on an individual's buyer profile and preferences. After all, typically, B2C companies have many times more customers than B2B companies do. For example, identifying people who are interested in purchasing procurement software for their company is a bit more difficult, as such people typically have varying personal interests and diverse buyer profiles.
Though it is easier for B2C companies to identify targets and use social media to reach customers and prospects, a strong market exists for B2B companies to leverage these channels for their own benefit. According to Google, approximately one third of all commercial searches on its site are B2B in nature. In addition, Forrester's Social Technographics study found that 91 percent of all IT decision makers are social media spectators--someone who reads blogs, listens to podcasts, watches video, reads online forums, and reads customer ratings or reviews.
Adding to the importance of social media as a B2B marketing tool are the changing demographics of the C-suite. A recent survey by Forbes found that the Internet is a primary information gathering tool for C-suite executives. In particular, the study found that executives under 40 were engaged in blogs, wikis, social networks, and Twitter for business. As this group of young executives continues to rise through the C-suite, social media will play an even more prominent role in corporate decision making.
It is true that B2C companies have paved the way in social media and have more case studies and discernable ROI from the medium, but the data strongly suggests that B2B decision makers are swayed by social media tools. Additionally, as discussions of business purchases make their way to the C-suite, those executives are conducting their own research and reading online product reviews and competitive literture to determine whether or not they will approve of new spending.
Analysts from Forrester Research predict that social media spending by B2B and B2C companies will quadruple over the next five years from $716 million to more than $3.1 billion. Forrester also found that 40 percent of B2B firms planned to increase spending on social media this year.
As social media use by marketers increases, its primary purpose is evolving from a focus on brand management to now integrating lead generation goals. Social media can do more than push a brand, as these companies are finding out; it can help establish connections with customers and prospects. For example, engaging customers via social media is more powerful than traditional customer service channels, like the telephone, because it is played out in a public forum. This allows other customers (and prospects) to witness the handling of customer concerns. A second benefit to the company is that social media create databases of institutional knowledge that can be referenced over and over again, not just by customers, but also by employees and executives.
Discussion forums, blogs, microblogs, and social networking sites provide a company with firsthand knowledge of what people think and feel about its business, products, competitors, and industry. Social media is a direct channel for feedback from customers, partners, and other influencers, and can be leveraged by B2B companies to harvest feedback from the people who actually use their products, as well as the ones who purchase them. Social media gives businesses access to real-time opinions from what amounts to a focus group limitless in size and scope.
Social media is too powerful for B2B companies to ignore. B2B spending for social media is on the rise, and companies cannot afford to be left out of the conversation while their competitors jump in. B2B companies must integrate social media into their overall strategic communications program to create demand generation, manage their brand, and improve customer service.
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About the Author: Steve McAbee is president of Wunderkind Public Relations