Bad dancer? Me too. Very bad, actually. Two left feet, no sense of rhythm and a total lack of coordination between the movement of arms, legs and hips. But when the party’s hopping, who wants to be the only pooping wallflower in the place? So I do my awful best on the dance floor, hoping I blend into the background and nobody notices me. It usually works.
It’s a bit like that with B2B companies and social media. Most of them are really not sure what they are doing, but feel they ought to be out there blogging, tweeting and Facebooking like everyone else. Being seen to be doing something – anything – with social media is what matters. It’s a sign of corporate coolness, a mark of being in touch with the digital world, a statement. Or so they think.
But some B2Bs are really, really bad at using social media. You can get away with being a useless dancer, but there’s no hiding place for boring bloggers or terrible tweeters. Everyone can see what you are doing. Worse still, everyone can tell that you are only doing it because you feel you ought to be. Lack of conviction in social media is painfully transparent.
So why do so many companies, some of them otherwise perfectly adept at conventional marketing and communications, get it so hopelessly wrong with social media? One possible explanation is that senior management, generally riper in years than many of their juniors, don’t really understand it. More importantly, they cannot see the business benefits of social media – the return on investment in terms of sales and marketing. And when you start talking about user engagement, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and the importance of keywords and messages across all communications channels, they suddenly discover a pile of paperwork that needs their urgent attention.
However, in every B2B organisation there are social media enthusiasts, people who can see the benefits very clearly indeed. They know the value of LinkedIn. They understand how to run a Twitter account, how to increase the number of quality followers and the best way to engage with them in 140 characters. They blog because they can see how it drives visitors to the company website, puts a more human face on the company and can be a great thought leadership tool.
‘OK’, the senior management say to the young bucks, ‘we’ll let you do a bit of this social media thingy stuff if it’s really going to keep you happy but you absolutely must not write anything remotely controversial or indeed interesting. Keep it bland, keep it safe. Meanwhile we’ll just pretend it’s not happening and carry on with our proper marketing’.
Another reason for the B2B sector’s lack of engagement is that a lot of marketing people have got it into their heads that social media is a consumer communications channel. It simply doesn’t work when business people are trying to connect with other business people, they say.
Right. So, when you are looking for, say, a new PR company, what do you do? Call the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and ask them to send you a list of suitable agencies? Pop out to the shops, buy a copy of PR Week and start leafing through it? Or do you simply run a few Google searches, cut and paste the web addresses of some of the agencies that appear in the top ten and draw up a short list, probably in less than half an hour?
No prizes for the right answer. But, without a serious commitment to social media and a clear strategy for achieving very specific search outcomes, none of those agencies you picked off of the first page of your Google search results would make it onto your short list.
And nearly all PR agencies are B2B in that they are businesses whose clients are also businesses.
The same process is applied all day every day by companies wanting to buy products and services, whether it’s office furniture or a multi-million pound IT upgrade, from – yes, you’ve guessed it – other businesses. They use Google to help draw up a Request for Information (RFI) or Request for Tender list. They do it because it’s simply the best way for them to track down suppliers who seem to offer what they want.
So let’s just pause for a moment and pull all this together. B2B companies use search engines as their primary research tool to find suppliers. They also use the web to find people, partners and sales opportunities. In fact, you could go as far as to say that B2B organisations conduct most of their business based on results of web searches.
That is a startling fact.
Startling because none of these suppliers, people or partners that you find via web searches would appear anywhere near the first couple of pages on your screen unless they were making a serious commitment to their SEO. And it is very difficult indeed to get anywhere with SEO without proper engagement with social media. Nearly all of the people or organisations that come high on web searches will be on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube and many other sites besides. They will all be using their websites as publishing engines, linking to and from their activity on these alternative communications channels to improve their site traffic as well as their search presence.
It’s also startling because, to go back to where we started, so many B2B companies still don’t ‘get’ social media; they still believe it is something that ‘other people’ do and that it really doesn’t apply to them. Yes, they might play with Twitter a bit and host a very, very occasional blog on their website, just so they don’t seem completely unengaged with the modern world.
But they are not serious. You tell from their awful, clunky, occasional tweets. You can see it in their tiresome, self-promoting blogs and posts on other people’s sites. And you can see it through their LinkedIn presence.
How can this be? How can you have a situation where B2B companies use web searches all day long in all areas of their business to find other B2Bs and yet still think that social media is not something to be taken seriously?
Odd. And it’s getting even odder because social media activity is becoming a focal point for Google search results.
The bottom line is that any B2B organisation that does not wake up immediately to the importance of full engagement in social media, based on a clear strategy, appropriately resourced and managed, is going to find marketing and communications a very steep uphill struggle from now on. Spend what you like on conventional B2B marketing, you cannot succeed without social media.
And it’s no good pretending, like a bad dancer blending in with the party crowd hoping not to be noticed. If you don’t do social media properly, you will be spotted and you will stand out for all the wrong reasons.