B2B marketers are rapidly incorporating social media into their marketing mix, and for good reason. Studies show that companies active in social media generate more revenue than their less social counterparts, prospective customers are increasingly comfortable interacting with brands on social media sites, and the downside risks of not engaging are too significant to ignore.
The challenge, especially for smaller companies, is measuring the results from social media activities. Particularly in tough economic times, every marketing activity is expected to show an ROI.
But it's easy to measure the ROI of social media marketing, right? That's certainly what some bloggers would have you believe, at least. The standard formula goes something like this:
- Create a knowledge asset such as an eBook, white paper or helpful online tool.
- Create a landing page to collect lead information before giving access to the asset.
- Share the link to that landing page on social media sites.
- Determine the total revenue from any sales resulting from the leads you collected in the previous step.
- Divide that revenue number by the cost of creating and sharing the asset. Boom! There's your ROI.
Never mind that there can be a significant cost involved in building up a following on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and elsewhere before you can even run such a campaign, and that cost should be allocated across time. Even ignoring that cost, and assuming you can show results using the above formula, at best you have demonstrated an ROI from a social media program, but by no means the ROI.
Demonstrating a hard return on social media investment in the B2B realm is problematic, for at least three reasons:
1. Social media is much more of a PR activity than a direct response marketing vehicle. Like other activities, it increases name recognition, enhances branding and builds credibility. It helps establish relationships with thought leaders and other influential voices in your industry. It can also strengthen customer relationships. It is not, however, generally a good medium for direct promotion, and attempting to use it that way (e.g. by turning your blog into an extended marketing brochure) is likely to backfire.
There is an exception to this, though it applies more in the B2C world than B2B: if you are selling a commoditized product and your primary differentiator is price, then social media can be effective for direct marketing; e.g., you can blog about your specials or Tweet something like "Great deal at the minute - Epson Stylus S21 Printer, Pack of 3 Inks AND a free pack of paper all for only $96.09 + FREE DELIVERY!" But in most B2B situations-differentiation on features, substantial price points, complex sales cycles, multiple decision-makers, significant service component-this doesn't apply.
2. The problem of last-click attribution. Research shows that in more than 90% of b2b sales, buyers were influenced by multiple brand exposures rather than responding to a single ad or other medium. In other words, that customer you attribute to coming to you through AdWords, or Twitter, or a Facebook ad most likely saw your name in numerous places-an online publication, a press release, your blog, someone else's blog, in an analyst report, at a trade show, in a directory, on your website, in an email newsletter, somewhere else or any combination of the preceding-before they made that last click. Marketing automation and demand generation software is great for tracking touch points after a prospective customer is identified as a lead, but no software can magically track all of your brand exposures prior to that point.
3. B2B social media is as much about "influencing the influencers" as it is about reaching buyers directly. A typical B2B Twitter or Friendfeed account, for example, may include as followers consultants, analysts, industry journalists, bloggers and others who will never buy your product or service, but can most certainly influence buying decisions in your market. Rarely will you be able to trace a sale back specifically to your social media outreach efforts to these key influencers (see the last-click attribution issue above), though such efforts unquestionably had an impact.
In short, while social media can certainly play an important role in demand generation (along with advertising, PR and other activities), the complexity of b2b buying processes makes its precise impact difficult to gauge.
About the author: Tom Pick is an online marketing executive with KC Associates (http://www.kc-associates.com), a marketing and PR firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota, focused on b2b technology clients. He also writes the award-winning WebMarketCentral blog (http://webmarketcentral.blogspot.com), a blog about B2B lead generation, social media, interactive PR, SEO and search engine marketing.