Over the past 5 years social networking has gone from minor curiosity to dominant force. Facebook now claims over 500 million users, and a private secondary market valuation of $50 billion, or roughly the same as the Ford Motor Company. Social networking has also started to change the world of commerce. Groupon, a group buying site, reportedly sells $50 million per month of its social coupons, and even well-established retailers have rushed to set up Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.

But despite all the attention being devoted to social commerce in the business-to-consumer (B2C) space, there is a curious vacuum when it comes to the equivalent changes in the B2B space. The problem is that one simply can't apply consumer techniques to complex B2B decision-making processes. The two markets are radically different, and may require far different approaches.

The fundamental philosophy of social commerce in the B2C world can be summed up quickly as following Willie Sutton's Law. Sutton, a famous bank robber, was said to have been asked, "Why do you rob banks?" His reply: "Because that's where the money is." B2C businesses get social with their customers by joining them in the social stream. B2C businesses join their customers on Facebook and Twitter because that's where their marketers can find the volume they need to change consumer attitudes or generate significant transaction volume.

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But for B2B marketers, especially one-to-one marketers, this approach doesn't translate. There is certainly value in engaging with customers within their existing social streams.

Indeed, Altimeter Group and others advise businesses on Social CRM; Altimeter recommends starting by monitoring social conversations for brand mentions and other interactions. If someone mentions your company or products on Twitter, you ought to know, and you ought to respond where appropriate.

The same holds true for consumer communities such as GetSatisfaction, which aggregate buyer sentiment (especially negative sentiment). Organizations can't afford not to respond, as companies such as Dell and United Airlines have learned to their chagrin.

Yet engaging your buyers on Facebook and Twitter isn't enough. For one thing, it's unclear that buyers want to be engaged by businesses on these social networks. Most B2B purchasers skew older, and are less likely to live their lives with the extreme transparency of youthful early adopters. It's all well and good for individual consumers to decide to publicize their stream of credit card purchases via something like Blippy. I doubt that a procurement director for a Fortune 500 company will ever do the same. You might not even be able to find your customers in the public social stream.

For another thing, the B2B purchasing process is much more complex and collaborative than the B2C purchasing process. B2C marketers have the advantage of a unitary audience--the person they reach is usually the decision maker, end user, and financial buyer. Convince one person, and you have a deal. In contrast, B2B marketers deal with much more complicated decision-making units, with coaches, buyers, influencers, gatekeepers, and more. A series of Facebook messages are unlikely to help much when it comes to shepherding a purchase through a three to six month buying process.

A better approach is for businesses to use these new social technologies to provide a collaborative environment for their prospects and customers. The concept of providing an environment for customers is nothing new. For decades companies have held user conferences to gather customers together in person. Many companies, especially in the high-tech sector, also support user groups which meet regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest. The advent of the Internet led many businesses to provide online communities with forums and mailing lists to virtualize these user groups.

But many of these "walled gardens" took the community approach. They weren't true one-to-one marketing. Certain tools for one-to-one marketing existed, but thanks to cost, were largely restricted to big-dollar projects such as mergers and acquisitions, or highly sensitive matters such as lawsuits. These "virtual deal rooms" provided an online environment, but were largely uncollaborative, and with a five-figure cost per room, too expensive for the vast majority of prospect and customer interactions.

Today social technology lets us create the next "2.0" generation of these walled gardens for customers. The basic principles are the same: Provide your sales team and the buyer's decision-making unit with a shared online environment. But by adding in key social features such as easy content creation and editing, social networking, comments and tags, activity streams, and Twitter-style microsharing, these 2.0 walled gardens offer a much richer and more effective environment for collaborating with prospects and customers.

We do need to get social with our customers, but the answer isn't to chase them onto Facebook and Twitter; it's to put social principles and features to work in an environment that your team controls.

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About the Author: Chris Yeh is the vice president of marketing for PBworks

 

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