Τετάρτη, 4 Ιουλίου 2012

Social Networking Meets B2B Marketing

Ed Buchholz found venture funding for his startup on Twitter.

After releasing the first version of its forecasting and management tool for small businesses, 60mo, a 10-person startup in Cleveland, Ohio, needed to raise capital. Buchholz's first choice was Lightbank, a new fund in Chicago. Buchholz tried all the usual channels -- phone calls, emails, submitting through Lightbank's website -- but received no response.

So he Tweeted, "Hey @Lightbank, we should chat sometime. Mid-westerners gotta stick together, yo."

Someone from Lightbank responded immediately, setting up a meeting for two days later. Buchholz left that meeting with an offer.

"With email and phone, [a company] can ignore you, whereas with social media, when you publicly mention them, you're calling them out to some degree," says Buchholz. "They want to appear as though they're plugged in, transparent, and communicating with the world."

Some people might think of social media as a B2C (business-to-consumer) play, but it's really a better fit for business-to-business sales, according to Jeffrey Cohen, social media marketing manager for Howard, Merrell & Partners, a strategic branding and advertising agency based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

According to Social Media Examiner's 2011 Social Media Marketing Industry Report, 52.6 percent of B2B companies said they've been using social media for one year or longer, compared to 46.2 percent of consumer-facing companies. It also found that the smallest businesses often reap the most benefits, and that 61 percent of B2B companies had formed a new partnership as the result, compared to 51 percent of companies selling to consumers.

"In the B2B environment, there tend to be long sales cycles, often sales are based on existing relationships, and there's a committee of people making the decision," Cohen points out. Profiles on social networking sites allow pros to showcase their expertise -- and check each other out. "If you're hiring an accountant or lawyer, they may have passed a number of standardized tests, but at the end of the day, you have to trust they know what they're talking about," says Cohen, who is also managing editor of SocialMediaB2B.com.

Where To Go

When you think of B2B networks, LinkedIn probably comes to mind first. Launched in 2003, it's the big gorilla of professional networking sites, with more than 100 million members in over 200 countries and territories, and some 7 million small businesses on board. Many see it as a recruiting and job-hunting tool, but the percentage of users actively seeking jobs is only 15 percent, according to Ryan Roslansky, director of product management for LinkedIn Marketing Solutions.

"People come in to build and manage a professional identity, create and strengthen business relationships, share knowledge and opportunities related to their careers, and make smarter and faster decisions," Roslansky says.

Late last year, LinkedIn launched free Company Pages to give businesses an opportunity to create a presence. Businesses can showcase products or services, ask for recommendations, and let people follow them. In addition, they can push polls to people in their network or pay for wider, targeted distribution.

There's also four-year-old Referral Key, which lets businesses offer rewards for referrals that lead to sales. The company claims to be the world’s largest referral network, and according to Christopher Ott, director of social media and technology, the network works best for service professionals and consultants in verticals such as real estate, legal, design, and financial services.

On Spiceworks, 1.5 million IT professionals ask questions, hold discussions, recommend products, and connect with vendors on Vendor Pages. The company says it reaches 25 percent of the world's small and medium-size businesses.

And finally, two European networks are evidence that the concept is global. The U.K.'s Bitsy, a business-to-business marketplace, features a blog with advice, hints, and tips; it also hosts a directory where businesses can buy or list services. And Weebiz is a Portugal-based startup that provides businesses with tools to connect with others around the world. It reports some 7,850 companies actively using its B2B network, with approximately 550 companies in the U.S., most of which are SMBs.

Test the Waters

"Companies certainly need to start exploring social networking, seeing if their customers and prospects are there, to see if it makes sense for them," Cohen says. The best way? Just ask customers or prospects whether they participate. You can do this via survey or in the course of a phone call.

Be aware, however, that social networking can take a lot of time, especially when you're just starting out, and the ROI is often hazy. Robert Bilotti, managing director of Novita, an employee training consulting firm with eight staffers, manages two LinkedIn groups and is a member of some 50 others. He founded the groups after he noticed gaps. "Everything was so sales-focused. I felt there had to be other people out there like me who wanted to discuss training," he says.

But even though one of his groups has 300 members, Bilotti says it's been a challenge getting them to talk. "As much as social media is touted, people don't use it as much as we think they do. A lot of my time is spent trying to start discussions," he says.

And while Bilotti has found that social networking provides some lubricant, in the end it doesn't replace good, old-fashioned selling. His success rate improved when, after new members joined his LinkedIn groups, he not only sent them a welcome note but also invited them to get on the phone to talk about their businesses. "Sometimes you think it will happen more organically," he says, "but you need to go back to a straight-ahead sales approach."


By Susan Kuchinskas
http://www.allbusiness.com/

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