It happens every time. Executives in regulated and specialized B2B industries see disruptive technologies rise above the horizon, and they discard them out of hand because “that doesn’t apply to our business.” This attitude temporarily serves as a self-fulfilling prophesy, but it subsequently falls by the wayside.
Having been in the vanguard of e-business transformation during the late 1990s and early 2000s as both management consultant and marketing executive, I believe that 2012 will see serious adoption of social business by pioneering B2Bs. In November 2012, I laid out the rationale in “2012 Will See B2B Early Adopters Move on Social Business,” so here I’ll describe specific opportunities for B2B marketers.
B2B Marketers: It’s 8:00 Monday- Do You Know Where Your Customers Are?
B2B marketers will increasingly find themselves in an unusual situation in 2012. As with Web 1.0’s ecommerce and ebusiness, executives as consumers have been getting more comfortable with social business (media) tools and behaviors,even if their firms haven’t been active.
They are all consumers after five o’clock, and they experiment on their own time. A growing portion of most B2B marketers’ clients/customers and prospects has been getting accustomed to social business habits during the past six years or so. Here are some symptoms:
- Whether via googling or emails from friends or colleagues, your prospects have increasing awareness of the explosion of “long tail” content on the web. This means solder compound engineering, right ventricle heart value performance, and temperature tolerances of resins, not just Britney’s beau of the week. Over time, this changes their behavior: rather than emailing or calling your salespeople or struggling to find a white paper you gave them at a trade show six months ago, they google it or pop the question on LinkedIn Answers or an industry specific forum.
- Although inconsistent, online conversations are often illuminating and exceptional for their relevance and specificity; prospects used to have to go to expensive conferences to get in the room with peers and vendors like you. Now those conversations are available on demand in industry forums, LinkedIn, and other venues. Experts post their slides on Slideshare. High quality, “non-salesy” videos are available on Vimeo.
- Keep in mind that this trend is probably invisible to you and your competitors because few people are looking for it. Neither does it probably apply to a majority of your prospects. In 2012-2013, it will likely apply to 20 to 30% of your prospects. Like all disruptive trends, it starts slowly and accelerates. Smart B2B marketers will recognize it, prepare, and profit while their sleepier competitors are dozing.
B2B Marketers: How Social Business Is Changing Your Customers
Your customer/client/prospect is transforming because s/he is becoming a much more informed buyer. S/He self-educates and depends less on your salespeople and engineering people who typically call on prospects to hear their concerns and educate them. S/He wants a more collaborative relationship with salespeople. Most people consider this development a threat since their ability to influence the prospect is compromised. Sellers used to derive significant advantage because they had better information than buyers.
However, this is also an opportunity for you: consider the prospect who posts a question on solder tolerance for a certain manufacturing scenario in an industry forum during his/her self-education process.
Your salesperson and/or engineer can offer insight and expertise to the prospect in full view of all other prospects in the room– on that day and on every day that follows. Not only that, having a self-educated prospect can serve to shorten the sales cycle.
B2B Marketers: How Social Business Is Changing Sales and Marketing
The average cost of the “sales call” for one B2B salesperson (assuming complex sale) is typically several hundred dollars, which more than doubles when a presales engineer is involved.
The same team can advise more people in an immortal conversation for a fraction of the cost online.
By the way, they can share that conversation with other prospects who have similar questions at any time in the future. Anyone on your team can share it. Because it takes place in a transparent social venue in which dozens or hundreds of like-minded people can question it, it carries high credibility, much higher than if you visit the prospect in the isolated confines of his/her office. Let’s be pessimistic and assume that this scenario will apply to 20% of your prospects within the next two years.
B2B Marketers: How Marketing Can Boost Impact
Although the general trend is unmistakeable, the timing of how it applies to your company and industry is uncertain, so you need to assess that and measure adoption over time. Reflect a moment. When was the first time you downloaded Netscape and “surfed the web”? When did you buy something online? When did you build/manage your first website?
Most people learn disruptions as individuals; then they apply them to business some time afterward. The question is when, not if this will happen, and you will create a significant advantage if you prepare and move ahead of competitors.
- Audit the ecosystem of social business venues to discover who’s talking where.
- Analyze conversations and participants relevant to your business.
- Develop a process for analyzing the ecosystem because you need to do it several times a year.
- Now look in the mirror; based on the conversations you see, what kind of information or value can your firm add? How easily could you organize the sharing of that information?
- B2B, since it usually entails large deals, requires high levels of confidence and trust, so you need to build your social business effort for a marathon, not a sprint. When you understand the value you can add the most efficiently, you’ll be ready to go the distance. This is the foundation of your social business and content strategies.
- Define roles, workstreams, and goals aligned with sales, marketing, and (engineering) core competencies. You need to organize sharing and interaction in roles that demand little time of your salespeople and engineering (or other firm experts). Then orchestrate the roles, so they play well together. You will never get anywhere if you announce to sales or engineering that they need to blog. They will be overwhelmed and not act. Marketing can take the mystery out of it and organize a small team to pilot social business.
- Develop goals and metrics to assess your progress and adjust your approach in real time.
B2B Marketers: Unprecedented Leverage
Once you have a toolset and process for discovering highly specific conversations that pertain to your customers’ use cases, Marketing can organize a small team to respond to them and develop reputation and relationships. Most B2B marketers have five- or six-figure trade show budgets, and sales spends multiple times that on one-to-one sales calls. These in-the-room conversations are horrifically expensive, and most of them never survive. No one remembers them. Look at how online conversations work:
- Online conversations initiated by prospects set the table for your salespeople and engineers to offer high value advice.
- Online conversations are subsequently discovered by others who have the same issues. When your team is helping people get perspective on relevant situations, your reputation becomes cumulative. These conversations are like annuities.
- Marketing can bookmark the most relevant conversations and organize the links in a database. Sales can share them with other prospects. Using Pinboard, you can create an RSS feed of conversations and syndicate them anywhere.
- Your prospects assign very high credibility to relevant conversations that occur in groups of people like them.
- According to senior marketers I know, one of the most prevalent organizational failures is the sales-marketing disconnect. Too often, sales and marketing operate in isolation from each other.
- Social business will disrupt sales and marketing because it naturally makes processes more transparent and immediate. This will be an evolution, but it will happen faster than you probably expect. However, many sales and marketing core competencies will carry through to social business:
- Marketing’s data gathering/analysis/management will be even more important with social business data.
- Events can be much more valuable when Marketing combines them with social business: the event’s relevance increases dramatically when marketers shift their focus to arranging conversations with prospects and sharing them appropriately.
- Marketing’s communications and production skills are very relevant to social business, when the focus is less on selling messages and more on facilitating content with customer and prospect voices.
- Assuming your B2B firm is characterized by a “complex sale,” salespeople can leverage their competencies in diagnosing situations and needs by serving people online.
- Social business will serve to strengthen legacy processes in most cases; it enables astute marketers to change the rules and performance of lead qualification and conversion.