A Discussion on Trends in B2B Social Media

I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by review on the topic of social media for B2B brands. Some of the things I was asked to discuss include many timely topics around managing big data, integrated social media into both the business and communications strategy, and why having a voice online is vital. You can read the full interview here: The Social Side of B2B.

You want watch my discussions here:

Bringing social media into B2B

Social media in B2B marketing: know your goals

The review is an interesting publication and some other recent stories I enjoyed reading include mobile media in India, Christina Allen of LinkedIn talks about how university students are using social media, and smart cities.

In the coming week I’ll also be discussing more about B2B social media and financial services at the following events:

Investor Relations and Social Media: How to Utilize Social Media to Build a Community – September 19 (Social Media Leadership Awards)

Social Media as Market-maker: Does it Improve Corporate Communications or Confuse the Markets – September 20 (CIPR)

Social Media and the Markets: Information Worth Sharing? – September 23 (Social Media Week)

If you have questions or topics for any of these panels you can write them in the comments or reach out to me on LinkedIn and let me know.




Can B2B Brands Inspire?

When you think of five brands that inspire you which names come to mind? Think of a few right now. I’ll wait.

My kids provide lots of visual inspiration to me for these posts.

Now, how many of you thought of a least two companies that are B2B brands? When we think of brands that inspire us we may opt to only think of personal or B2C brands because they are the most popular or because we see/use them every day. That’s not to say that B2B brands can’t and don’t inspire people.

Let’s rephrase the question. When you think of B2B brands that inspire you — the ones we look to for ideas or want to partner with for business — which names come to mind?

One of the action items we should be doing as communicators is to make our brands more inspirational. At the end of the day, we want our stakeholders to really want to do business with us; to recommend our products or services; to help us tell our story. If we are just selling or focusing on our story we can’t expect others to be inspired?

When we think of brands and business that inspire us as customers, partners or vendors we should instill qualities such as trustworthiness, authenticity and reliability. Even if B2B brands won’t consistently make the annual lists of “brand rankings”, the stakeholders in our companies actually do want to be passionate about us, and we should try to make this happen.

There are dozens of ideas where B2B brands can focus their resources to inspire audiences, but here are my thoughts on three areas where you can focus your efforts around brand inspiration:

Visual Inspiration: With the growth of digital and online campaigns marketers are now challenged more than ever to focus on visual elements. Having good, consistent images can be a powerful component for a brand. As HubSpot points out in this post, “B2B products don’t tend to be inherently visual“, but this shouldn’t be the case. What I like about the focus on visual content is that photos, graphics and even charts can provide a key way to differentiate your company, but images can be a powerful way to connect you with an audience. What I think becomes daunting for B2B companies is knowing where to start. I like to think when it comes to visuals your website can be a hub, generating lots of visuals that can be shared across numerous platforms, such as Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. With so many options don’t get trapped into thinking you need to develop an enormous datamine of visuals. If you have an established set of guidelines and rules for your brand you will help bring your visuals into focus. If you’re looking for B2B visual ideas read the HubSpot post. You can also check out these 20 B2B Instagram feeds.

Thought Leadership: When it comes to thought leadership I like using the cliche, “Birds of a feather flock together” — people that want to build awareness around an idea should be sharing and talking with and about people who are already considered leaders on the topic. For instance, if you want to be known for your smart thinking about urban planning you should associate your company — management, ideas, blog posts, social media and research — with thought leaders and concepts already in that space. If you already are a thought leader in your own space you should be thinking of ways to expand into other segments or become a beacon for new ideas from new thought leaders (e.g., partnership with think tanks or university programs). But thought leadership requires more than just being associated with others. You need to be different and consistently telling your story. If your B2B brand isn’t taking advantage of platforms such as LinkedIn for your thought leaders, a blog or Twitter you should take some time this week to think about what you need to do to change that. That’s a good segue to my last topic. I’m also a fan of research. Research can provide not only interesting insights for the business and sales teams, but also gives marketers and opportunity to further differentiate  our companies from the competition. Given the number of channels to now promote original research, the opportunities to build interest and create sales demand from research should be a regular part of your program to raise awareness. And don’t forget to incorporate images into your thought leadership campaign; there’s a reason infographics have become popular — they tell a story, they’re shareable and they convey thought leadership around an idea (check out ideas over at Visual.ly). If you can own an idea, a concept or have something truly special to say about an initiative you will inspire stakeholders to follow you.

Social Media: B2B brands looking for ways to inspire should look no further than the abundance of opportunities social media brings to the table. Yes, it can be daunting, but staying focused (and making time) on who you are trying to inspire (e.g. potential employees, targeted customers, thought leaders) can help you narrow your choices. Here’s some B2B Twitter and B2B Facebook inspiration. One place to start would be with a blog. While there are many challenges to a blog the benefits for B2B blogging are numerous. What I like most about a blog is that it can help integrate your visual strategy with your thought leadership strategy, and then allow you to push the content out through various channels — from email to social media. My only warning is don’t try to do too much. It’s very easy to start chasing social media tactics and lose your way. If you have a small team stay focused on a handful of social platforms and do them very well. The key, as many global B2B firms now do well, is to integrate all that you do — from social to traditional media.

One, Two, Three

What I like about focusing on visuals, thought leadership and social media is that you can use these tools around not just a corporate brand, but also for highly targeted campaigns. If you have 100 CFOs you are targeting focus your efforts on what would inspire them. If you have a concept or string of concepts that you want to amplify you can can use the ideas above to build inspiration. All three ideas I’ve mentioned also are very real things to see and measure when it comes to trying to inspire others.

If you’re looking for more B2B inspiration I suggest you check out the examples of B2B companies from Forrester’s B2B Groundswell Awards. And if you want a B2B trend to learn more about then read about gamification from Interbrand. We hope this posts inspires you to at least think a little differently about your B2B brand and what you can do to build passion around what you are doing. If you have any B2B brands that inspire you please tell us who they are and why in the comments.

If you enjoyed this you may also want to read the following:

Craft work — what’s your B2B expertise?

Do B2B companies need social media?

What is social media success in B2B… and some examples

Who are your content superheroes?

Social media management

Do most online communities fail?

Stop Throwing Paint Against the Wall

Social media continues to change the way brands communicate with stakeholders. Its introduction into the our arsenal of tactics has provided many benefits, including the ability to share important information, listen to feedback and connect with others. When I speak at events I continue to be impressed with the growing surge and interest from B2B companies in developing programs leveraging social media.

Last summer I introduced my kids to Jackson Pollack...and then we went and had some fun in the garden.
Last summer I introduced my kids to Jackson Pollock…and then we went and had some fun in the garden.

But the easy path to do go down is building a social media program versus taking advantage of social media to be your brand. There is a difference and the earlier method usually results in the cliche of, “Throwing paint up against the wall and seeing if it sticks.” It’s also very one-way — you throw the paint and it doesn’t come back. The only person I can recall who could do this method well and make it work is Jackson Pollock.

There is nothing wrong with experimenting in social media — it’s cost effective, it can allow you to be more creative, you can learn from your experiences and it should be encouraged at this stage. We’ve experimented many times during the last six years and trust me, not everything works. However, everything we do has a purpose and reason in order to tie into our brand and who we are as a company.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Our latest effort involves Instagram as a recruiting tool and using photographs to tell our history and for people to gain insight into the company. While more brands are using Instagram, we could have easily opened an account and pushed out stock images of graphics and photos we’ve had professionally taken — our paint against the wall approach. But we thought about “why” we wanted an account and “how” it could help promote our company. Our conclusion was that Instagram helps give us a personal touch through visuals, so we wanted to take advantage of that by leveraging our employees to share photos from inside the company as well as people around the world who visit us. Images tell stories and we wanted ours to help humanize and capture the heritage of our brand. We have also integrated our Instagram account with our Facebook page.

No offense to Pollock. He was brilliant and one of my favorite artists, but moving from experimental/one-way “paint throwing” social media into strategic communications is how B2B companies need to think about.

But don’t stop experimenting. Don’t stop thinking about what you can do to leverage social channels and networks. But do think carefully about “why” you want to use them and “how” they can help you. And be patient. B2B communications is not as far-reaching as B2C and it will take time, effort and consistency to be make it work for you.

I did buy the Tate’s “Art in a Box” kit so our next weekend art project may involve Lichtenstein. Stay tuned.

If you enjoyed reading this post you may also want to read the following:

Craft work — what’s your B2B expertise?

Do B2B companies need social media?

Three areas to focus in 2013

What is social media success in B2B… and some examples

Who are your content superheroes?

Social media management

Do most online communities fail?

Other Voices: Ann Handley, MarketingProfs

This post marks a milestone for the group at B2B Voices as it is our 200th since we launched four years ago. And to help us celebrate, I was able to convince Ann Handley, chief content officer of MarketingProfs, and co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules, to spend some time with us.Handley

You are clearly very busy. Tell me about how you process information and content.

I try to touch things once (email, social updates) when I can. I’m pretty controlling when it comes to my work, so I don’t outsource well or shortcut much. In other words, this is actually me answering these questions, and not a robot. Surprisingly, huh? (I’m kidding.)

I wish I could say that I have a secret weapon or cool tool that makes me incredibly efficient. But the truth is straightforward: I’m pretty disciplined in my approach, is all. The key is simply staying on top of things, and not getting too distracted while you’re doing so: For example, when I’m writing I shut off email so that the constant alert of incoming mail doesn’t divert me. Otherwise, I’m like the dog Dug in the movie Up. (“Squirrel!”)

There are so many comparisons of B2C vs B2B communications and how B2B seems to lag, particularly in social media. Do you think B2B communications is misunderstood? Or is it just that we are more focused on our work and approach?

I’m not sure whether business-to-business communications is misunderstood, or whether social media is simply misunderstood by B2B companies. I wish more B2B brands used social platforms not just as a way to amplify their content (to repost blog headlines, for example), but as true storytelling platforms. I wished they used them more thoughtfully: As a way to tell a larger story, and express their value and mission.

Here’s what I mean: MarketingProfs is a B2B training and education company, and we’ve found great success in using Pinterest and Slideshare as platforms to showcase our lighter side – through our Marketing Humor board or our presentation about how to ruin your presentation. Those efforts tell a small part of a broader story: We are approachable. We are human beings. We love what we do. We are serious about marketing, but we also think that marketing doesn’t have to be boring. (It shouldn’t be, in fact.)

What’s your biggest pet peeve when it comes to marketing?

How much time do we have…? Here are two:

1. People who don’t walk the walk.

2. Brands (and people) who speak Frankenspeak instead of using the language of actual human beings.

If you were advising a client and they could only use one social media platform what would you recommend and why?

I get this question a lot from people. But often the unasked question there — the question inside that question, if you will – is: How little can I get away with doing? Here’s the thing: Social media represents a rich opportunity to market in a whole new way. It’s not a task or channel, it’s a mindset.

I’d advise them to forget about social networks, and to focus instead on content. It’s more useful to focus more on creating great content for your prospects and customers (published regularly through a blog or similarly flexible content management system) and focus less on specific platforms. That can come later. Focus on your message and story first.

Data. More data. And more data. What do marketers need to think about when it comes to metrics and evaluation?

There’s no magic data elixir that applies to all businesses. If there were, I’d bottle it in beautiful packaging, set it in a velvet-lined box, and drive around the country, trading it out of the back of my car for ounces of gold.

It’s more important to figure out what marketing metric matters to you: It might be sales, but it might be something else, too: Customer engagement or sharing metrics, or the length of time between a lead generated and a sale. In other words, it depends.

But at a high level, look at your lead generation, sales, and sharing metrics. Those are ones that will give you a pretty solid sense of how well your marketing is driving business.

We’ve seen a real evolution of how people interact, communicate and share information in the past five years. What strikes you as the most relevant change for B2B companies during this time?

I’ll share the change I like best: I love the way that some B2B companies are embracing social media and content for what it is: An opportunity to connect in unprecedented ways with people who they are selling to.

I especially love it when I see B2B companies take that opportunity to lighten up a bit. I wrote about a few of those companies on American Express’s OPEN Forum recently. (The OPEN Forum platform itself is also a great example of a B2B company embracing the opportunities inherent in social media and content, by the way.)

What’s the biggest challenge ahead for communicators?

A big challenge for forward-thinking communicators in 2013 is how to produce the kind of messages and content that truly engage. While most companies understand the notion that they need to be producing content, many are still producing drivel. Producing enough content, and producing the kind of content that engages, are still major challenges for B2B marketers.

Think of your marketing through this lens: Is this marketing truly useful? Will my customer thank me for it?  I believe that last question is the Holy Grail for marketing. It’s what I hope all companies aspire to, and it’s a fundamental theme that I focus a lot of my work around.

Finally, it was good seeing you, so when are you coming back to London?

It was so great to see you, too. I love London! Soon, I hope!

If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy some OtherVoices:

R “Ray” Wang on customer engagement

Michael Pranikoff, PR Newswire on B2B digital communications

A Q&A With Jeannie Walters, Founder, 360Connext

A discussion with Mark Ragan, Ragan Communications

A brief interview with Kipp Bodnar, publisher at SocialMediaB2B.com

Craft Work: What’s Your B2B Expertise?

It seems we continue to reap the rewards as marketers of the latest digital improvements — from dashboards to metrics — but that doesn’t mean we can instantly do our jobs better. There remains a deep level of expertise and skill that needs to be honed and improved in order to do any part of marketing communications well. Whether you are in web design, media relations, sales, advertising, app development or any other function in the marketing mix, we admire and look up to the people who seem to continuously create winning campaigns.

Like all good skills, developing a real craft or expertise is difficult and takes time. A craftsman knows that you learn from mistakes, you need to take risks, and you need to continuously practice and develop your knowledge.

It takes a lot of time, patience and perseverance to make your craft succeed.
It takes a lot of time, patience and perseverance to make your craft succeed.

So even though we watch and apply new forms of technology to help us advance our brands, there are areas where some stand out from others. Some of you may call this differentiation, but others call it expertise or skills or leadership. Here are some areas where true craftsmanship can come into play for B2B communications:

Content Management: More and more we are being asked to use content to differentiate our brands and stand out through the massive amounts of information online. Mastering the art of craftsmanship around content can make a big impact for B2B companies. Where the expertise lies is bringing it all together to find the right opportunities to develop content around news, issues or trends and then deciding how to present that content via blog post, infographic or some other distribution method. Tools like Visual.ly can help but sometimes it comes down to more than just choosing the right resource; it’s about having the right vision and integrating the message, visual and distribution. Content can be an exceptional way to make your brand and company stand apart from the competition  but the true skill is making this happen consistently and over time. Doing this takes a lot of focus and someone who is connected to many parts of your organization, from customers to management to the people in sales and beyond.

Real-Time Monitoring. The world online is moving in real-time and this is no different for B2B brands than it is for consumer brands. Having the skills to know who to monitor and keeping on top of news and information is critical to various aspects of an organization. While is may seem obvious that this is something that needs to be done, the act of actually doing it can be an art and a skill in running down various content across multiple platforms. This also means you need to develop alerts, set aside monitoring time and learn to constantly adjust and refocus your attention. It becomes even more challenging to make all of this information relevant, which is where the next skill comes into play.

Metrics. More and more data is coming our way and it’s up to someone to not only find the critical connection points, but also wade through a lot of useless information. Knowing what activities or events trigger engagement and understanding qualitative and quantitative data results are increasingly becoming vital marketing and communications skills. For decades we’ve been able to rely on a few forms of metrics and measurement, but that has all changed as social media and digital content have turned information to “always on”. And knowing how to separate the “eyeball” metrics from the “influential” metrics that matter to your campaigns and brand is not easy. In addition, more and more solutions are being introduced, which may or may not help. The key skill here is knowing what to look for, where to find it and then interpreting it to both management and marketing.

Voice. How do you speak as your brand? Do you inject humor? Do you use social media for customers service? Does your social media align with your other branding and marketing efforts? Deciding how and what you post reflects on your brand and this is no easy task as you have to explain images, limit the use of characters and decide what audience you are speaking to online. Having a common voice in a global organization can be extremely difficult as you manage cultures, languages and offerings among a variety of stakeholders. But knowing what your brand represents and its key attributes can help guide the tone and focus.

Connector. While many crafts focus on content, one key skill is the ability to network. With B2B sales cycles longer and generally more complex than B2C, relationships really do matter. Social media allows so many people to gain access to others in your organization and beyond that you can become very good at playing the ultimate connector of people. There can be a clear advantage for you and your organization to bring people together — buyers and sellers — via social media and beyond, and people who network well know how to connect the online and offline worlds.

If there was one B2B skill you could add to this list what would it be and why? Let us know in the comments.

If you like this post you may also want to read the following:

Do B2B companies need social media?

What drives your B2B strategy?

What is social media success in B2B… and some examples

Who are your content superheroes?

Social media management

Do most online communities fail?

Are you ready for a real-time B2B world?


Do B2B Companies Need Social Media?

This question was posed to me by Paul Gillin for a Q&A I did with him for BtoB Magazine. There are a number of ways to define the word “need” but it is a good question for companies to begin when they think about starting or expanding social media.

The mistake and trap B2B companies get into is the idea that social media should equate to sales. While the ultimate goal of communications should be to help drive revenue, there are many ways that social media can be used that are just as critical to a brand. Without getting into the tactics of how to do social, here are three ways to think about how social media can build on a company’s efforts.

Don't get so focused on social media to help sell that you can't see the forest for the trees.
Don’t get so focused on social media to help sell that you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Recruiting. Recruiters and job seekers more and more are turning to social media to look for a job. Because of this, they are trying to follow and discover more about your company. Whether you use social media to directly recruit employees or not job candidates are researching you online to learn more about you and to decide if they want to be associated with your firm. In addition, tomorrow’s leaders of your organization have grown up with social media. They too are looking online and deciding if they should work for you or your competition.

Crisis communication. When something goes wrong with your organization people more and more are turning to social media for the news or to see what people are saying. In addition, if you are focused on media relations remember that news stories about a crisis will quickly spread online. If you are there to respond as quickly as possible you can learn to leverage social media to your advantage.

Education.Think of your social channels as an extension of your website and event activities. Using social media for brand awareness to celebrate your wins, promote your news and talk about what you are doing can make a difference as you work to build on your brand.

Don’t get into thinking that social media is just about sales. There is more to using these channels than just a sales tool and you need to help your management and sales team understand that your group of stakeholders is much broader than just customers. We continue to see ways that social media is changing the way we consume and communicate information, as B2B brands we need to be listening and a part of these streams and discussions.

If you enjoyed this post you may also want to read the following:

What drives your social media strategy?

Blogging isn’t supposed to be easy

How Well Do You Know Your Social Network? Probably Poorly

Five lessons learned after five years of B2B social media

Do most online communities fail?

Still pitching to use social media?

What drives your B2B strategy?

Tuning into your industry

SXSW: We Still Need to Get Together in the Real World?

How ironic that 25,000 digitally connected interactive pros have to fly to Austin each year to network with each other and find out what’s new, right?

Actually, it’s not ironic at all that SXSW Interactive should be so valuable to them, and it’s worth understanding why as we consider the continuing value of customer events and trade shows in the B2B marketing mix.

SXSW Interactive Opening Party 2012 - Credit: JoJo Marion
SXSW Interactive Opening Party 2012 – Credit: JoJo Marion

Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman point out in their excellent book, Networked, that research shows we are actually seeing more friends offline at least once a week. Moreover, heavier Internet users appear to be the ones most significantly increasing the number of friends they see in person. The Internet and social technologies do not replace in-person meetings. Rather, they reinforce relationships and create new relationships that must be strengthened by at least the occasional in-person meeting. Otherwise, those ties remain weak.

Meanwhile, virtually every study I’ve ever seen shows the most influential source of information in B2B purchases comes in the form of word-of-mouth from people the buyer knows and trusts.  The more we can strengthen and reinforce the relationships within our customer communities and from our best customer advocates to other people, the better off we’re going to be! (Assuming, of course, we have an awesome product or service that’s generating said advocates.) It’s the power of our audiences talking to each other, not just brands talking to audiences.

Bottom line:  Creating and activating a strong customer community means using periodic live events – organized for networking and engagement – to grow strong relationships, and then sustaining them with smart social media engagement strategies the rest of the year.