Social Media for B2B

Many business-to-business (B2B) companies are struggling with what their social media strategy should be, or if they should even have one. Unfortunately, many executives incorrectly believe that social media isn't applicable for their B2B company. Rather, they think it's something reserved for business-to-consumer (B2C) companies.

This is flawed thinking. Many of the same social media principles we preach for B2C companies also apply to B2B. Some tactics/philosophies, however, need to be adjusted accordingly to address idiosyncrasies particular to the B2B space.

Here are a few social media B2B musings that will hopefully help clear things up.

B2B Customer Relationships Are Often Fewer and Stronger Than B2C Relationships

The key word here is stronger. Social media tools, like LinkedIn, can only strengthen these relationships and complement -- not replace -- the necessary face-to-face, interpersonal communication.

B2C companies can have purely digital relationships with their customers and often have to as a result of the pure volume of customers. However, what social media has allowed for B2C companies (closer engagements and real-time digital conversations with customers) can also be leveraged in the B2B world.

While B2C companies can, and for practical purposes often must, have purely digital interaction with customers, it's still important for B2B companies to use social media tools as a complement and not a replacement for face-to-face interactions.

B2C Company Customers Often Aren't Competitors

I'm usually not in competition with my neighbor when they buy the same iPhone that I purchased (well, maybe a "status symbol" competition). However, the clients of B2B companies are often in competition with each other. Two local ice creams shops may buy their plastic spoons from the same supplier.

Hence, as I have often say, with the advent of social media it's important to live your life as if your mother is watching (or: what happens in Vegas, stays on social media). This maxim is especially true for B2B companies. You can't give differing information to your various clients in B2B social media -- you need to be fully transparent and also particularly careful not to disclose any confidential information.

Social media doesn't have the same impact on every business. If you supply the Stealth Bomber to the U.S. government, then the likelihood of sales dramatically increasing as a result of social media are probably marginal and, due to security reasons, the amount of interesting content that can be disclosed to the public may be slim.

However, opinion groups potentially formed within social media around the government's decisions to purchase more or less Stealth Bombers, tweets on the subject, or flattering/unflattering information on Wikipedia could influence decisions.

Listen First

This is a major maxim for B2C companies in social media, and it's just as important in the B2B realm. Each B2B vertical uses social media differently, so it's important to determine not only where the conversations are taking place, but what the conversations are about. Many tools can help a company collect this conversational data (including Radian6 and Filtrbox).

You will be able to better determine the needs of your most important clients by listening. Good B2B companies have always listened to their clients. Great B2B companies have always taken it one step further and listened to their competitors' clients.

The explosion of social media has made this "downstream" listening much more practical and real-time. If your company provides a component like a rollerball for a Blackberry it's important to listen to end users likes and dislikes -- that way you can stay ahead of the game and you aren't solely dependent on your buyer's secondhand information. You can even help provide some of this information to your buyer and become an even more valued partner.

Once you're close to mastering this type of social media listening skill, the next step is to listen to your competitors' clients. Discerning noticeable customer gaps will ultimately put you in a position to fill these gaps and win new business as a result.

So B2B can learn from B2C and B2C can learn from B2B. What could be better?

Erik Qualman's "Socialnomics" is now on sale and can be ordered here

About the author

Erik Qualman is the Global Vice President of Online Marketing for EF Education, headquartered in Lucerne, Switzerland. With more than 26,000 employees in 53 countries, EF Education is the world's largest private educator.

His book "Socialnomics: How Social Media has changed the way we live and do business" was released from Wiley Publishing in August 2009. Qualman is a frequently requested speaker within the Internet and marketing community and also maintains a social media blog at www.socialnomics.net.

Qualman has been highlighted in numerous publications, including: BusinessWeek, AdvertisingAge, USA Today, Forbes, PR Week, Investor's Business Daily, eWeek, Media Life, Direct Marketing News and Direct Response Magazine. He has also been interviewed on various radio and television outlets. Qualman is also a published fiction author.

Prior to joining EF Education, Qualman helped grow the online marketing and eBusiness functions of Cadillac & Pontiac (1994-97), AT&T (1998-2000), Yahoo (2000-03), EarthLink (2003-05) and Travelzoo (2005-08). Qualman holds a BA from Michigan State University and an MBA from The University of Texas at Austin. He was also first team Academic All-Big Ten in basketball at Michigan State and still finds time to follow his beloved Spartans.