B2B success is built on relationships with customers, just like B2C. While you may not see them in the mall (actually, you do…), professionals engaged in B2B ventures gather together based on common lifestyles, passions, and causes just like anyone else on the social web. That means that social networks, communities, blogs, and forums and friends and followers are useful in B2B from a brand building and marketing perspective.
The natural gathering around social objects – note here that this means lifestyles, passions, and causes rather than logos and taglines – is a powerful social force that can drive sales and foster brand advocacy. In fact, business professionals focused on specific needs and with specific information to seek or share in response are highly likely to respond favorably to a purpose-built social experience. Consider the following examples, all solid B2B implementations of social technology, and each an example of a simple, well-executed social business program.
Commerce Community: Element14
First up is Element14 (silicon, in case you were wondering…). Part of Premier Farnell, the world’s largest largest catalog distributor of electronic, electrical, and industrial products, Element14 offers an online community and store: simply, designers collaborate and learn from each other and from Element14’s online experts. As a result, they create better solutions and evolve into better customers for Element14.
How are they better? First, because they work and learn collaboratively they tend to build better solutions. And this drives success in the customers’ own firms. If you’ve ever done the team-building exercise with the plane crash in the mountains, you know that the team almost invariably survives while even the brightest and strongest tend to perish when they operate as individuals. So, Element14 created an online space for discussion and supplemented that with its own experts, who also participate in the community.
But there is another beneficial aspect to Element14’s social business strategy as well. After a designer or engineer has experienced the online community and successfully developed a solution through it, that same member is very likely to continue participating in the community, supporting other (new) members as they work through the same development cycle. Success breeds success.
Step back and look at the dynamics at work here. The same underlying motive for social association is present in B2B communities as is present anywhere else: where there is a passion – and engineers most certainly have passion – there is the potential for social interaction.
Ad-Supported Social Community: Spiceworks
The Austin, TX-based Spiceworks offers its customers – typically IT professionals – free, high-quality (yes, it offers both in a single package!) network monitoring and related infrastructure support tools coupled with a social network where users can share information with each other and their favorite vendors. The Spiceworks business model takes a page right out of Facebook: provide people with a place to gather, and then earn your money through advertising. And unlike the majority of “ad-driven” social media sites, Spiceworks does just that: earns money.
The key to the Spiceworks success has to do with the combination of my earlier point (free, high-quality) and its deep understanding of the “social objects” that sit at the center of its “Spiceheads” community. Take “high-quality” first. This is the essential, non-violable core requirement: IT professionals simply will not trust their network monitoring to flaky software. So, Spiceworks delivers a solid, reliable product, and thereby passes the first test of successful social media-based marketing. Its products do what they are advertised to do, and so the conversations between its customers are generally positive. Check the box that says, “Social media message under control.”
Next up is “free/ad-supported.” How does this work in a B2B context? Just like it does in any other well-designed community. Spiceworks offers communities built around workplace discussions, around ideas and innovative uses of its tools, around support issues and expertise enrichment. If you’re a systems engineer, the Spiceworks community, like Mountain Dew and Cheetos, sustains you, and helps you do your job better. As a result, engineers and systems professionals spend time in the Spiceworks community.
Now imagine that you’re a hardware platform vendor, or network infrastructure provider. The Spiceworks communities are exactly where you want your message delivered. If you’re thinking “Sounds great, but engineers hate marketers, and they’ll find ways to skip or block those ads…” think again. Some community members have actually raised this issue in the past inside the Spiceworks community. Posts like, “The software is great…but what ad blocking does everyone use?” are met with immediate and passionate posts from seasoned Spiceheads. “We don’t block ads here. We support the Spiceworks model and its ad partners because they are bringing us the best networking software, for free. If you don’t understand this, go somewhere else,” read one post. Wow! Spiceworks’s customers, standing up and vigorously defending the ad-supported business model.
There is an obvious value to advertising in these communities, and it’s built on Spiceworks’s core delivery of an excellent product and advertising that serves the needs of its IT customers and the advertising partners who sell to them. All in all, it’s a great example of an ad-supported, B2B social business.
Executive Thought Leadership: Indium
Finally, consider Indium, a global materials supplier – think solder and a whole lot more. Indium is a pioneer in the B2B “executive thought-leadership” applications of social media. Created by Rick Short, marketing director at Indium, the firm has a social outreach program that involves executives and engineers across Indium. Be sure to check out Rick’s blog, too, at B2B Marcom Blog.
The Indium blog serves a specific purpose: convey to current and potential customers that Indium has the knowledge and capabilities to perform as a valued partner. That’s an ideal way to position a B2B firm, and the executive thought leadership blog at Indium does it perfectly.
What about ROI? The social media-based thought leadership program at Indium is held to the same standards as any other marketing effort, too. Rick has documented a drop in expenses – for example, given the reach and efficacy of the blog, Indium is able to spend less on tradeshows and still grow its business. At the same time, Rick has documented new sales attributed to outreach efforts that originated when potential customers noticed the blog. Reduced expenses and incremental sales, by the way, are also the right way to prove ROI.
Like Element14, there is an added employee benefit. When your employer features your work and your thoughts on its website, that company – as an organization – fosters development of pride among colleagues within that firm. The result is that the best employees stay longer, and additional competitive strength accrues as a result.
Consider these examples of solid B2B social strategy: a commerce community, an ad-supported social community, and executive thought leadership. All are proven business builders for the firms I’ve referenced above. Each of these firms has deeply integrated social technology and social behavior into its marketing and larger business strategy and then measured and proved out the results. If you’re a B2B professional, how can your firm do the same thing?