Interview: B2B Social Media Insights from Forrester's Laura Ramos

Business.com / Marketing Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

In this interview with Business.com, Forrester's B2B Marketing guru Laura Ramos discusses the social media opportunity for B2B.

 

My Company is Blogging and Tweeting: So Now What Do We Do?

Recently, I had the great pleasure of talking with Forrester's B2B marketing guru, Laura Ramos, about the emerging social media landscape and opportunities for B2B companies to build better relationships with their customers and target prospects.

The idea for the interview came from our own ambivalence at Business.com about social media - we started experimenting with blogging and using Twitter for business in late Q4, 2008 but I, like so many other B2B marketers I meet, wanted to get the "big picture" perspective on the B2B social media opportunity from one of the leading researchers in this area. Laura's groundbreaking study, with G. Oliver Young, of how business technology buyers use social media was a wake-up call for B2B marketers, and I think her insights below provide much needed perspective for any marketer looking to better understand B2B social media:

Q: I've had this experience, and I'm sure you have it all the time - an experienced B2B marketer comes up to you and asks "I keep hearing about social media, Facebook, Twitter and all that. Is any of this relevant for B2B marketing today?" How do you respond?

Laura Ramos: Social media is clearly relevant for B2B marketing today for two reasons. First, at Forrester we've studied how B2B buyers participate socially and found that participation is much higher than U.S. adults in general. Second, business buyers are always looking for new sources of information and are actively turning to social media channels these days for information to support their purchasing decisions.  Using social media to engage your target business buyer audience may seem daunting, but it's possible to be successful if you focus first on your audience and what you want to accomplish by engaging with that audience socially.

Q: How is B2B social media marketing different than B2C?

Laura Ramos: Today, most of the B2B social media is buzzing around the front of the sales funnel - about driving awareness. However, I expect that B2B social media will ultimately have a much bigger impact on the end of the funnel - on things like customer loyalty and advocacy.  For example, take the idea of customer references which are so integral to much of business buying. With social media, you can give customers a way to engage with other customers and like-minded individuals and talk about how to best use your products and services. Seeing a community like this is a much more compelling experience for prospective buyers than a written case study or a brief call to a pre-selected happy customer.

In addition, because trust is so important in business buying, I think we'll see the user side of B2B social media gravitate to gated, private experiences. Rather than throwing out your question to the world as folks do today on so many social media networking sites, you'll direct your question to people in specific industries, specific roles, etc. or be able to filter responses to your question by these characteristics. In B2B, it's about connecting with 'people like me who have experience I trust' - not strangers.

Q: How has Web 2.0 changed the B2B marketing landscape and sales process?

Laura Ramos: The landscape has changed a lot and will change more. I see B2B activity shifting from using social media in 'broadcast mode' to get the word out like you might do with a press release, to actively looking for prospects on social media sites.  There's tremendous activity right now because social media is a novelty to the B2B world. However, novelty does not last over the long haul.  For B2B companies, social success will be about creating community - offering your customer base different levels of access for different levels of participation and advocacy. The relationship is what's important, not the channel.

Q: It's a challenge for B2B marketers to look at a new communication channel and not immediately focus on how we can use that channel to broadcast our message. You're saying we need to make that shift in mindset from pushing information out to thinking about how to use social media technologies to foster interaction among our community of customers and prospects. Is that right?

Laura Ramos: That's correct. Business buyers get hundreds of emails a day and then there's Twitter, Facebook and everything else that contributes to information overload. You can keep layering on more messages from more channels, but then folks start to tune out. People are going to want to listen to people they know they can trust, and not just people they know directly, but people that have similar backgrounds, experiences or who faced similar challenges in the past.

We advise our clients to start with objectives and think about how social media will change your relationship with customers. In B2B, the first objective is listening. A lot of people want to jump right into talking but they that when they do, no one listens or talks back.  For example, look at many corporate blogs. Who's the audience? Everyone online? That doesn't work, so blog authors find it hard to get people to listen and comment. B2B marketers who get blogging right succeed because they have a very clear understanding of their target audience.

To listen the right way, marketers need social monitoring tools to help them figure out what's being said about their company and brands online and in traditional channels. It's important for B2B marketers researching social listening tools to understand that there's both a technology and service component to these solutions right now. While it can seem straightforward to just search for brand mentions, you can easily miss much something important since people use jargon, abbreviations, etc. and the tool and service should help you sort all of that out.

Q: Are many B2B companies using social monitoring tools today?

Laura Ramos: Not many but the number is growing. Nielsen BuzzMetrics, TNS Cymfony, Visible Technologies, and Radian6 are ones I hear mentioned most frequently.

Q: I'm seeing two different perspectives on B2B social media during the current recession - on the one hand there's great interest, but we also know that companies are cutting back on marketing programs without proven ROI. Do you expect the vision of social media as an efficient communications channel to drive rapid adoption in B2B, or do you expect companies to hold back?

Laura Ramos: Our data shows that both buyers and marketers believe they need to move to more digital channels. Social media channels definitely attract interest because of the economy, but B2B companies that get started find social  media to be relatively expensive terms of resources and time commitment.

Q: So it sounds like you're seeing companies wrestle with the question "We need to do this but how to do we get started in this challenging environment?"

Laura Ramos: It's actually very easy to get started with social media by starting a blog, creating a Twitter account, participating in discussions on social networking sites or starting a wiki.  The tough part is figuring out what the second step is. Starting a blog is easy, but it's a different story when you realize you need at least 1-2 high quality posts per week, need to engage readers in discussion, build traffic, and keep them coming back.

Q: What advice would you give to a B2B company that wants to develop a social media strategy?

Laura Ramos: Follow Forrester's POST methodology. People, Objectives, Strategy, Tools. I've already mentioned people and objectives, so strategy is about how you're going to measure and execute. Unfortunately, many marketers want to jump to the tools first. Instead, go check out your own Web site - that will become the center of your social media universe. If your Web site is all about broadcasting how great your company and products or services are, rather than inviting engagement and participation by your customers and prospects, then your Web site is not going to be a place community members are going to want to hang out. Forrester has done over 1,000 website reviews - many of these B2B sites. Our scores on B2B Web sites show they lag behind B2C sites because they promote the company and products too much and fail to engage an audience. Consumer sites have had to be more engaging, because they are more transaction-focused. The best Web site experience helps people achieve their goals, it doesn't talk non-stop about your features and capabilities. So fix your Web site - it's not about usability, it's about making hard business choices.

Another thing  is segmentation. Who are you going to talk to in these social channels? Most high tech companies just want to address whomever comes by - they don't want to limit their positioning by providing clear value messages targeted to specific segments. However, you simply can't talk effectively to everyone. What are you going to help them achieve? When you are more precise about segmentation and targeting, your marketing - and social conversation - gets better.

Q: What are some good 'get started now' tips for B2B marketers who want to take the social media plunge?

Laura Ramos: First, pick an audience. Understand who you're going to talk to. Listen, talk with them online and use those experiences to shape your strategy. Don't be afraid to go out and talk to sales and support people in your company as well to get a better understanding of your target audience. You don't always need fancy tools to get started, and you can do a lot with TweetDeck, Google Analytics, and systematic searches on your product names. This will tell you whether you need to invest further in tools that I mentioned earlier.

Second, put together an editorial calendar for any social activity that creates content. Know not only what you want to say now, but what you want to say later and how you'll build upon those later topics or issues. Always know where you'll take it next.

Q: Do you have examples of B2B companies that are doing really well with social  media today?

Laura Ramos: IBM is a great example of a company that started using social media to broadcast but now there's a real interest in how to create community - a logical next step with a tech audience used to online forums and bulletin boards. I see IBM making the transition from 'let's use these tools for tech talk', to 'let's have our customers tell our story.'

Cisco is engaging in social media and communication as well, and is proving to be a real B2B social media  innovator as they launch products only on digital channels. Early on, I would say, Cisco also focused too much on broadcasting their message and not enough on measuring sales results. For example, they launched a product on Second Life but when we asked, 'How many more units did you sell as a result?' they couldn't really give us an answer, because it is hard to trace the impact of this social activity through their channel. Did they sell a lot of product? Sure. Did social media help to do that? Don't know yet.

Q: Great question since there's debate about whether B2B companies should look at social media as simply an awareness driving activity or whether there must be a tangible connection to revenue. What would you say - should B2B  companies let social media off the hook for driving sales?

Laura Ramos: No, I don't think we should let social media off the hook. As engagement and community activity increases, the positive vibe influences sales, becauses there's proof that shared experiences of loyal customers are real and prospects can see that the claims the company makes about its products/services are trustworthy.

That said, I think that it's hard to connect social media to revenue. I don't want to appear critical about Cisco, because understanding social media's impact is a hard thing to figure out. Cisco's launch goals focused on awareness and consideration, but the challenge they faced is one every company eventually faces - you only have so many dollars to spend on marketing, so how do you split these across the marketing mix? To answer this, companies will need to know if a dollar spent on social channels gets you more revenue than a dollar spent on traditional channels. I've only seen IBM demonstrate that they can measure how social activity helps them to increase event attendance and extend event lifespan and value.

In B2B marketing, we always focus on the sales funnel - how do we attract and close deals. What we don't realize is that inside customer organizations, there's another funnel, but it's flipped around. A small group of employees figure out they have business problems they must solve, and they need the products or services they apply to solving those business problems to get wide adoption inside their firms. How do we, as B2B marketers, help not only our direct customers successfully deploy new technology purchases, but also help their organization adopt the new technology more quickly and effectively? Social media holds great promise in B2B for creating this type of internal community and for efficiently sharing those ideas that make it possible to speed up the adoption process and create lasting customer loyalty.

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