While Social Media have made strong inroads in all consumer-oriented marketing plans, it is far from clear what their role might be in the more complex B2B environment.
Business-to-business does not forge direct relationships between “seller” and “buyer” (we use these terms in a rather wide sense, e.g. to include a politician appealing to voters) and tends to fall into two related but distinct categories.
In the first we have all the component vendors: the company manufacturing the seat of a car will never be known by the the person purchasing the car – moreover, in most cases the car manufacturer will not wish for another brand to obfuscate its own and will actively prevent this from happening; exceptions do exist of course, and the car enthusiast will know everything about Brembo brakes or Recaro seats, but in most cases s/he will not.
In the second category, end consumers are more often aware of the company’s brand, but the sales process requires the contribution of one (or more) influencers or prescriptors; a good example might be the vendor of a technically advanced kitchentop material which is “sold” by architects and interior designers in the context of a quality renovation project requiring the technical specs justify the premium pricing.
The first category is a very uncomfortable one for companies, inasmuch technical USPs and low prices are the one levers they can use to establish a market positioning; history has proven these companies vulnerable to competition from low-wage countries especially when the technical gaps are easily filled e.g. through the poaching of key employees. In return, this business model requires very low marketing investments, delegated instead to the manufacturer of the end product.
Time will tell; but unfortunately the one thing we may not have, is time. The publishing industry is unraveling at an amazing speed, and many vertical publications are suffering from the double whammy of a slow economy (savaging ad budgets) and a perceived lack of relevance: very shortly there might not be a choice whether to go online or stay offline, simply because the majority of offline media will be out of business.
To be honest, some of the more mature B2B market, such as Information Technology, have seen the corresponding vertical publishing industry in a downward spiral for quite some time – where ten years ago getting a good review for a new middleware software in a computer weekly was the right thing to do to drive sales, today we either don’t have any such magazine left or the positive review is perceived as having minimal effect on the sales pipeline.
In 2007, David Klatell from Columbia University explained in a seminar that journalism is made up of two components: reporting the news and explaining the news. It is perhaps a truism to say that today the “reporting” part for the computer magazine in our example has been replaced by the Internet, but when we looked for evidence of the “explaining” part in a couple of cases, we found none.
In other words, while consumers undoubtedly already influence each other’s buying decisions with powerful peer-to-peer mechanisms such as performance reviews1 or discussion fora, it is not equally demonstrable that B2B influencers or prescriptors are today doing the same. There is some anecdotal evidence showing that when their number is large enough, spontaneous prescriptor communities do emerge: in 2008 we studied the case of pediatricians and found a number of dedicated spontaneous communities.
Empirical experience seems also to indicate that another indicator of the likelyhood of the existence of an online community is whether professional associations thrive or even exist in the particular prescriptor community we are considering: if that is the case, then online communities are probably already in place or will be in the near future.
Even when that is NOT the case, however, it does not mean a (pseudo-)community cannot be created and nurtured – it should be clear that these pseudocomms will be on permanent life support by the companies or brand that sponsor them, in a relationship not dissimilar to the one linking vertical magazines and their advertisers.
We think it makes the most sense to integrate a pseudocomm with the other components of the marketing mix the company has already in place towards the same target (direct mail, events, trade shows, etc.), both for reasons of uniformity of message but also to draw upon more established components for content, names, relationships, etc.
The most important reason for this integration however is the very high complementarity between Social Media and all the other activities in the marketing mix; these represent “episodes of contact” that help the target to remember that the company organizing the activity sells a certain product, and indeed statistically some of the target audience will be exactly making that sort of decision exactly at that time. Such a perfect strike is however extremely rare, and in most case we know that the positive effect of our campaign, seminar, letter or visit will fade away.
Social Media engagement is, by its own nature, a low intensity, continuous activity and is an excellent candidate to “connect the dots” of the various episodes and to extend their echo. In an ideal situation Social Media can bridge the awareness chasm, ensuring that the company or brand is top of mind when the client is ready to make the decision.
Note: there are two additional chapters in this paper, headed INCEPTION and INVESTMENT, but these are specific to each Client project and of little general value
For some interesting stats on B2B Social Media marketing, click picture.