As if you weren’t busy enough and resource stretched, now there’s this buzz about using social media as a B2B marketing tool. Many companies are starting to experiment with social media to gain a greater understanding of how it can be integrated into their overall marketing strategy to support marketing goals and objectives.

If you’re having trouble grasping social media and understanding how to incorporate it into your marketing efforts, this two-part article series is for you. This first article offers a high-level explanation of social media—the what, why, how and when of using social media in your marketing efforts. The second article, next month, will take a specific look at the top social media vehicles for business—Blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter—and offer practical advice on how to take advantage of them for your business.

What exactly is social media?

Look around on the Internet; you’ll find plenty of definitions of social media. For our purposes, social media is a group of online technologies that allow users to create, share and discuss information, and to connect with each other.

Social media is different from marketing channels whose purpose and capabilities are limited to broadcasting or simply publishing marketing messages. Rather, social media is about generating conversations around topics important to a specific user group or audience.

For example:

  • A blog about industrial marketing that invites participation and feedback.
  • A product expert at your company creating a LinkedIn group and networking with users of those products.
  • A company Facebook page that informs fans about your company’s involvement in community projects or organizations.
  • An executive at your company that uses Twitter to help followers stay on top of the latest news and opinions of interest in your industry.
  • A YouTube video that explains how to use or repair a product or offers an interview with a top executive.
  • A customer-only online discussion forum where your customers can interact with each other and internal product managers.

All of these are examples of social media. Yet none of these examples are about promoting a specific marketing agenda, or directly converting leads or sales. An executive that expects that type of return will be disappointed and frustrated, and might insist this “social media stuff” doesn’t work. But there are real benefits to social media; you simply need to identify them and understand what they can do for your company.

The benefits of social media

Social media can help provide links and content that improve SEO rankings. Social media can also get your name out there to build brand awareness and visibility. And there are some metrics you can measure with social media: subscribers to your blog or the number of comments on a blog entry, the views of a video, the number of your company’s fans on Facebook, etc.

One of the top business benefits of social media is something called “likeability.” Social media offers your business an opportunity to showcase its personality, rather than just its product or services. And in any business, people prefer to buy from people they like. If you use social media to help foster positive relationships, and your fans and followers begin to like you, they will be more inclined to do business with you.

They will like you because you are helpful to them, providing useful and relevant information. They will like you because you can show them a human personality—a face in a video, an opinion in a blog entry, a commitment to a green cause on your Facebook page—that a standard Web site cannot. These softer, social touches can go a long way when potential customers, who have many choices, are deciding which company they want to do business with.

Another benefit of social media is that you become a part of the “conversation,” and being a good conversationalist means being a good listener, not just a good talker. You will be able to hear what others are saying about your company—both the good and the bad—and use that feedback to improve your company image, products, policies and more.

The timing of your social media adoption

One common question many marketers have is when they should get started with social media. Any new technology or paradigm has an adoption curve: there are early adopters, mainstream adopters and laggards. The answer is different for every business, and often depends on resources, skills and enthusiasm.

It’s likely the use of social media in B2B will continue to grow at a rapid rate. A helpful analogy might be the growth of company Web sites, which began to really take off about fifteen years ago. At the time, some companies needed to be convinced that a Web site made good business sense. It was difficult to measure the ROI of a Web site in the pioneering phase. Now, no company can be in business without a Web site.

Once companies understood the need to have a Web site, they had to understand the value of subsequent phases before adopting them: driving traffic to their Web sites, then focusing on qualified traffic, then converting the traffic to leads and sales.

Carrying the analogy to social media, if you accept the conclusion that social media can help raise your brand visibility, stature within the industry, and your “likeability,” then the time to get started is now.

Find the resources for social media

The good news about social media is that it doesn’t cost anything to have a company Facebook page, or a LinkedIn or YouTube or Twitter account. Free blogging software is also readily available.

The bad news is that social media requires time and effort. And it’s not like you can take people off of other marketing projects and put them on social media projects. Social media is never an “instead of” other marketing; it’s always “in addition to” other marketing efforts. So where do you find the resources?

One place to look is among current employees who are already social media users and enthusiasts. They have a head start on using social media technologies and might be able to spearhead social media efforts on behalf of your company.

Another route to take is to focus on just one or two social media outlets and getting that right, rather than trying to conquer the entire social media world. Perhaps your account managers can use LinkedIn to network. Or if your company engages in community activities, Facebook might be a good way to develop a fan network. Do you have a good writer with expertise and strong opinions? Start a blog.

The point is to carve out what resources you can and start getting acquainted with social media—but not at the expense of your other proven marketing efforts.

Next month . . .

Our second article next month will focus on specific social media outlets and how you can take advantage of them, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and blogging.

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