Is there a place for b-to-b brands in social media?

We've all heard the canned response: "Social media is important, because regardless of whether we're there or not, our customers are talking about us." But that does not even begin to scratch the surface.

“We're not Pepsi; we don't belong on Facebook.” “We sell networking infrastructure. Who cares what we have to say on Twitter?”

As a b-to-b social media marketer, I've been asked these very questions from clients, internal stakeholders and company executives, sometimes daily. Many assume the social media landscape is solely the playground of large consumer brands looking to leverage platforms like Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram to increase their brand exposure and sell more candy bars, running shorts, or pet food. Conferences and forums are overrun with case studies from consumer brands - is there room for b-to-b brands to be successful on social? The Vivaldi Partners Group thinks so, as do I.

We've all heard the canned response: “Social media is important, because regardless of whether we're there or not, our customers are talking about us.” But that does not even begin to scratch the surface of the power of social media for b-to-b brands. If leveraged properly, it can have a huge impact on a brand's bottom line. It all comes down to tailoring your social media strategy to fit your business objectives and the behaviors or your customer.

Typically, this is where many b-to-b brands first err. The difference between brands that do well in social and those that are simply present is the former have clear goals and objectives in mind before they craft their strategy. This seems pretty obvious, but too many brands see social as yet another channel through which to push content. For them, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook are just the latest one-way marketing mouthpieces to share a shorter-form press release or marketing asset. This may work for consumer brands – you can litter the social space with coupons for free Snicker bars and probably sell more candy – but it's not going to cut it for b-to-b companies.

I'd suggest the most important objective for b-to-b is advocacy. The sales cycle for many b-to-b brands can be months or even years, not seconds or minutes. Building long-term advocacy and passion for the brand should be a critical part of any b-to-b social media marketing strategy. A recent Nielson study shows that 92% of buyers trust recommendations from their friends or peers. Before you can even think about connecting your social activities to awareness or sales, you need to have third-party advocates vouching for your brand to help influence your prospect's buying decisions. A study by Twitter suggests that a 30% increase in positive Twitter conversations can lead to a 4-time increase in the likelihood of someone selecting your product. Cultivating an online community, be it on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, is a sure-fire way to ensure you're nurturing your prospects by connecting them with your advocates. Who better to speak about your brand than the customers and partners who love and work with your brand on a daily basis?

In order to cultivate a strong community of advocates you have to:

1. Identify your top community members and analyze their online personalities;
2. Track the behaviors of your customers, and
3. Create content and programs tailored to these individuals.

It's essential to also be aware of where your community is – you should deliver the content they need, through the channels where they want to consume it. By doing this, smart b-to-b brands can use their social channels to provide their communities with what they want and need (information, tips, demos, etc.), listen and respond to them, and provide recognition and rewards for loyal brand advocates.

At Juniper Networks, after doing extensive research into our customer behaviors, we found that many of our IT decisionmakers and end-users are quite active on Facebook and in our forums. Many of our top CXO customers and prospects are active on LinkedIn and all our top influencers are active on Twitter and third-party blogs. This intelligence allowed us to construct a multi-channel strategy by tailoring our content and engagement to the specific behaviors of our community on each platform. It may be hard to believe, given that we are a networking company, but Facebook is one of our most successful social media channels. We've developed a “community first” approach where our Facebook community is all about them – the customer, the user, and the advocate. Though we lack millions of fans, we have passionate community members who have been willing to advocate and speak on our behalf many times.

It's not really a case of who is more suited to social media, b-to-b or b-to-c – I believe there are opportunities for any size and any type of company to leverage social. It all comes down to constructing your strategy and building your social media programs based on the buying behaviors and needs of your community.

Shelly Milam oversees social media programs and digital strategy at Juniper Networks.  Prior to Juniper, she worked with leading b-to-b brands, such as Cisco, Citrix Online, Google, McAfee, Polycom, SAP, Symantec, and VMware to build their social media programs.

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