One of the most common and infuriating questions directed at harassed b2b marketeers from colleagues across the business may be 'shouldn't we be doing more on Facebook?' It is a clear signal of the wider interest that digital has stimulated within all organisations, whatever they are selling and irrespective of audience.
Many of the early social media success stories were joyously celebrated by consumer-facing brands, partly because these companies prioritised digital earlier and largely because the social boom was driven by consumers. But b2b marketing isn't far behind, and in many ways b2b offers even more opportunity.
Decision-making in b2b is high-touch, due to complexity and cost. Compare buying enterprise software with buying a bottle of flavoured water, and the one requiring more research, and time online, is clear.
Mark Zuckerberg suggested 'there's going to be an opportunity over the next five years to pick any industry and rethink it in a social way'. That was five years ago; now it's happening.
Brands are starting to see value in online communities, and are keen to use them. This requires a big shift in the way they approach audience engagement and a willingness to enter into a two-way dialogue. The way to connect with audiences and to make them care is through participation.
The benefits are compelling. Conversation and participation builds relationships; good relationships make people happy; happy people attract others into a community, and community creates advocacy. And advocacy helps sell stuff faster, while building loyalty and helping reduce customer acquisition costs.
But this doesn't happen by itself. To build a community is to invest in it, with the appropriate approaches and tactics. It requires rethinking the traditional linear sales funnel and considering how loyalty can be driven throughout, particularly once purchases have been made.
But hurdles need to be overcome. Many companies are excited by the opportunity to embrace social but many lack a plan based on deep customer understanding. Digital also shouldn't be seen as the enterprise panacea: with more channels and more conversations, business is going to get a lot more complex. Customers are also unpredictable and don't care what department you're in; they just want problems fixed. That occasional customer service call 'dropped' to the comms team could become a flood.
Defining clear ownership is critical. For digital to deliver, it can't just sit on PR teams' shoulders. It should involve HR, customer service and product development, as all have a stake and could benefit. It's an important channel for comms, but PR shouldn't be singularly tasked with controlling it. The chance is there to act as the facilitator across the company, ensuring effective and responsible use and that best practice is shared. This lets forward-thinking marketeers achieve more impactful campaigns and claim a bigger seat in the boardroom.
So next time someone asks the question at the top of this piece, turn it round. Ask what they think you could be doing. The point at which all stakeholder relationship-owners across departments identify and act on the potential of social media is when business will get closer to building a loyal community. Social media isn't simply another channel, but the catalyst for revolutionising the axis upon which business operates, helping build the b2b dream of a loyal community which is bestowing the ongoing advocacy and feedback that for the first time is achievable.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
Do you see a distinction between your personal and professional use of social media?
Facebook is personal, LinkedIn is for work and Twitter is somewhere in between. But the lines have blurred.
How would you deal with a Twitter account spoofing one of your clients?
If satire is good-natured, there may be an opportunity to earn goodwill by engaging with it and learn how people view your brand.
Which film title best sums up the spirit of your agency?
Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium.
From PRWeek's Digital thought leader supplement November 2011