B-to-b companies increasingly are using new- and social-media tactics, finding them helpful in communicating with a variety of audiences.In December 2006, Cisco launched its presence in Second Life. That presence has since grown from two to four islands, Cisco has 800 avatars in the virtual community, and its islands boast 27,000 unique visitors since its launch.
Jeannette Gibson, director of new media and operations in Cisco's corporate communications department, says the company uses Second Life for training, product briefings, demonstrations, and to communicate CSR efforts. Cisco also hosts events - both those related to real-world events, such as Interop, and events unique to the Second Life community, such as job fairs.
Indeed, while b-to-b companies may have been slower than b-to-c companies to employ new media and social media, these tactics are proving both necessary and beneficial in the b-to-b space.
"Even if you're b-to-b, the power has shifted to individuals," Gibson says. "New media is two-way conversation with customers, partners, shareholders, and employees. We're looking at how [to] engage new and existing audiences in a new way, which is having these conversations. Incorporat[ing] new media [also helps companies] show that they're listening."
"New media [is] integral to overall communications and PR strategy," adds Terry Anderson, senior director of PR and community affairs at Cisco. "As a network technology company, [it's] a unique advantage to integrate our technology into [internal communications] and to external influencers."
In addition to its presence in Second Life, Cisco's initiatives include podcasts and its cisco.mobi service, which delivers targeted information to mobile devices. The company is also using blogs to communicate about issues that are important to Cisco and its audiences. Blogs also have proved to be a valuable transparency tool. Cisco's legal counsel leveraged a blog earlier this year during the copyright infringement lawsuit over the name "iPhone."
"There were a lot of [unfavorable] comments," Gibson says. "[But] new-media [communication] is important in terms of transparen[cy]. Be open, accept comments, engage, and respond. People may not agree with us, but they appreciate that we have a blog. Bloggers thanked us for blogging."
She adds that blogs are generally viewed as authentic. "Companies don't blog - people do," Gibson notes. "It's viewed and received much different[ly] than a press release. It's a great complement [to] traditional communications."
"In b-to-b, you don't have as many traditional media [opportunities]," says Aaron Uhrmacher, peer media consultant at Text 100, Cisco's AOR for North America. "[A virtual world] provides a great place to [convey messages], get feedback, and make people feel [included]. Cisco is a leader in leveraging it, experimenting with it, and they've really perfected it."
A community effort
SAP, the Germany-based business software provider, supports two large online communities: SAP Developers Network (SDN) and Business Process Community (BPX). SDN provides such tools as a library, expert blogs and wikis, and an eLearning catalog for developers, consultants, integrators, and system administrators to its 750,000 members. BPX, launched less than a year ago to provide information about business processes, methodologies, and best practices, has 100,000 members.
SAP also uses pod/videocasts and internal and external bloggers.
"Every niche of the market is represented in some way, shape, or form," says Mike Prosceno, SAP's VP of marketplace communications. "We engage to ensure that those speaking of [SAP] understand what [we're] doing and why, to listen, and to learn from the market."
SAP has developed very good blogger relationships - in part by creating opportunities that interest them. Prosceno doesn't believe in traditionally pitching non-journalist bloggers. "I meet [bloggers] at events [and] by operating in the ways they operate - reading their blogs and posting comments," he says. "The better your relationship[s], the more your phone will ring."
The company has even set up a "bloggers corner" at SAP events, beginning with SAPPHIRE, a prominent annual customer event, in May 2006.
Last fall, SAP worked with Hubbub to research ways in which more than 40 large companies engage social media. Prosceno says the research is helping to "pave the way" for new programs, including a blogosphere research project (global social-media program) launched in July with blogger and author Shel Israel. Results will be used to refine strategy for connecting with customers, partners, and employees in various territories.
"A lot of social media practiced has not been that thoughtful," says Giovanni Rodriguez, Hubbub principal and cofounder. "SAP has been very thoughtful, wanting to look at number of perspectives. B-to-b is complex - especially in the software world."
Rodriguez cites scale and effectiveness as values of new-media outreach. "Social media is about participation, and participation of more people," he notes. "With scale comes many more business opportunities. Traditional [information] sources are not trusted as much as they [once were]. SAP and others understand [the value of] new sources and the approach to working with those sources. Transparency [is important as] marketing is more conversational."
A launch-off point
New- and social-media outreach is also helping startup Scuderi Group, developer of an air-hybrid engine. Topaz Partners handles Scuderi's PR, and director Bill Wrinn says the focus is currently on manufacturers and investors, but it will include more public elements when the engine is ready to go into vehicles. A corporate blog allows manufacturers and engineers to comment and ask questions. The company has its own channel on YouTube, and one video showing how the engine works has nearly 90,000 views.
"[The goal is] getting word out to the industry, investors, and the public," says Nick Scuderi, VP of marketing and sales for Scuderi Group. "We have to [use new media]. We have no choice."
A primary risk of new-media communication is warp-speed spread of negative information. Of course, expediency and range are also great advantages. Newness presents challenges both in best practices and in education.
"Widespread availability of social-media tools [has made everyone a potential] spokesperson for their company," Prosceno says. "Businesses have an obligation to educate staff [and] an opportunity to engage staff to develop innovative ways to do social media."
Gibson agrees that education and training are primary challenges, along with measuring ROI. "It's relatively inexpensive, [but] much more difficult to measure," she says. "[New media and social media] force companies to think differently and accept change. Anybody can influence corporate reputation now. You have to engage."