Thursday, December 16, 2010

Is there a role for social media in B2B commerce?

Given that hundreds upon millions of consumers are using social media to connect, communicate and consume online, it's no surprise that B2C businesses, including many of the world's top consumer brands, have turned to social media as a means to reach them.

But what about B2B businesses? Are they using social media too? Is social media as important to them?

According to a recent study conducted by digital marketing agency White Horse, social media is being adopted by B2B businesses, but not surprisingly, adoption lags B2C.

For instance:

    * 60% of B2B companies surveyed don't have a staff member who is dedicated to social media marketing. Less than half (46%) of the B2C companies surveyed lacked a full time social media staff member.

    * Only 10% of B2B companies surveyed have retained an outside agency or consultant to assist with social media marketing. 28% of B2C companies, on the other hand, have.

    * Of the B2B companies surveyed, the largest group (45%) said they have a "basic social presence but no significant marketing." The largest group of B2C companies surveyed claimed to be involved with non-paid social media marketing on a daily basis.

Not surprisingly, White Horse, which has a practice dedicated to B2B social media marketing, concludes that "social media plays a significant and ever-growing role in the marketing arsenal" of B2B marketers. But one statistic from its survey is perhaps far most revealing: 46% of the respondents reported that the perception that social media was irrelevant was an internal obstacle in getting social media initiatives approved. Only 12% of B2C respondents cited this as a problem -- the largest gap between B2B and B2C respondents amongst all obstacles listed.

One could look at the data and conclude that B2B businesses are simply slower in 'getting it' when it comes to social media but I actually think the data raises an interesting question: are B2B marketers actually more strategic than their B2C counterparts?

Obviously, it makes sense that B2C companies are trying to embrace social media at a much greater clip than B2B companies. B2C companies have very different relationships with their customers and prospective customers, and social media is a natural fit for reaching them.

Social Media
But that doesn't mean that B2C companies aren't social. To the contrary; the world of B2B is already quite 'social.' In some respects, B2B commerce is arguably far more social than B2C commerce. Existing relationships often drive sales, and companies and their salespeople are always working to build new relationships through various channels which are extremely social, such as trade shows. The importance of relationships in B2B commerce is logical: most B2B companies sell to a much smaller audience, so investing in relationship-building is usually a must for success. After all, chances are you're not going to sell a $100,000/year software license without going through a 'courtship' process that involves extensive one-on-one interaction and engagement.

From this perspective, if B2B companies aren't adopting online social media in the same fashion as B2C companies, it isn't so much an indication that they don't get it, but rather that they understand that the most popular (and hyped) social media platforms don't always offer the best opportunities to build meaningful relationships. Because of this understanding, when they do use social media, they might be more likely to be cautious and skeptical. That, in turn, may support a far more strategic use of the medium. Indeed, White Horse found evidence that B2C companies were embracing areas of social media that "support traditional B2B marketing activities", such as third party forums and podcasts. On the surface, that seems like it's probably more thoughtful than simply adopting the social media soup de jour.

Interestingly, in a day in age when a lot of what's taking place in the social-media-sphere increasingly looks less social and more uninspired, it seems that B2B companies might be able to teach their B2C cousins a lesson. That lesson: just because you have a 200 piece toolset doesn't mean that you have to use every tool in it to get the job done.

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