Social media is the big buzz right now. Too many executives want to get their business on Twitter or Facebook without really thinking about why. Often, they read an article in The Wall Street Journal about who is using Twitter/Facebook/fill-in-the-blank, think that their brand is falling behind, and then chide their marketing and PR team to “get on social media.”
Indeed, there are myriad reasons to use social media to market a business. I believe one of the most powerful is to build and strengthen customer relationships. For this very reason, social media is a great tool to use for interacting with B2B customers.
Be Part of the Customer Experience
How customers perceive your company online is part of their experience with your organization. Many B2B customers are regularly spending time on social media sites to keep up with contacts, make business connections, or learn new information. Per the book Groundswell, companies can use social media to listen to customers, talk with (not at) customers, energize customers (especially evangelists), support customers, and embrace customers (e.g., cocreate with them). These uses can all be applied to improving customer relationships. But what is best in a B2B setting?
Start by Listening
Organizations must begin by listening to what is being said about them online. Unless you first listen to the discussion, you could make a bad impression by jumping in to the conversation with your own agenda. It’s similar to going to a party and interjecting yourself into groups that are already talking amongst themselves. Your words will be out of context, and you may be seen as rude. However, if you listen first, you will be able to add value to the discussion by being relevant—and you will probably be a lot more interesting. A great place to start listening is by using Twitter search.
Once some listening has taken place, the stage is set for planned interaction. You can do this by having your own “party” and inviting your customers to come and join you, or you can find out where your customers are already “hanging out” and go meet them there. In other words, you can invite your customers to come to your website or social media property (e.g., online community, blog) to interact with you or you can go and engage with them wherever they are already interacting around your brand. Either way can work depending on your business and your customer relationships.
How will you know where to find your customers? You should have a pretty good idea of where they’re interacting online as a result of some of the listening you did earlier. If you still aren’t sure, the best way to find out which social media sites your customers are using is to directly ask them.
Be Professional, Be Personal
Interacting with B2B customers via social media really isn’t that different from how you would interact with them in person, via email, or over the phone. When you have a business relationship with someone at your customer’s organization, you usually engage in regular conversation with them. Most of these conversations start with small talk, usually about subjects that are friendly but not too personal, and then move into a discussion of the business matter at hand. If you jump right into your business topic, you might come across as being too pushy.
Social media conversations take place in much the same way. Whether you are using Twitter to create discussions around a topic of interest to your customers, interacting with customers on Facebook, or writing a blog post to share your field of expertise, it is common to start out with a bit of personal information. This helps build trust as well as make your company feel a bit more approachable. Remember, people don’t have relationships with organizations; they have relationships with people. Social media can help make your company feel a bit more human when executed in this fashion.
Decide What You Want to Do
Getting started with social media in a B2B (or in a B2C for that matter) organization can be as simple as starting a company Facebook fan page or Twitter account.
Decide on your objectives for social media. Do you want to create ongoing conversations with customers, or deliver customer service? Would social media work best as a way to empower your “raving fans” to spread the word about your company, or is it better used to create a collaborative environment to help take your company to the next level? Once you focus on the right objectives, you can then decide on the strategies that will get you there, along with the tools (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogging) that will enable your success.
Next, seek out the right resources in your organization to interact with your customers and clients via social media. These resources may be salespeople interacting directly with their customers, customer service personnel creating a community among your loyal followers, or marketing and PR people who are passionate about social media. Most likely, in a B2B environment several people will participate in the conversation at different levels. Create some rules and guidelines to help them achieve your company’s social media goals, as well as to help uphold your brand experience.
Companies that have well-established relationships with their customers will discover that social media is a great tool that complements their existing interactions. Companies that have been using only one-way communication with customers will have to work harder to get those customers to engage, not just once in a social media campaign, but on an ongoing basis. In either case, companies will find that many of their customers are eager and ready as long as the conversation is relevant to their needs.