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How Social Media is Changing the Way B2B Companies Communicate

Nowadays, the question seems to be not who is on Twitter, but rather, who is not on Twitter. The world seems to be aflutter with the Twitter phenomenon. Even Bill Gates is tweeting.

The proliferation of Twitter and other Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook, YouTube and blogs have drastically changed the way society socialises and communicates. And businesses are taking note.

Some of the world's largest corporations are themselves changing the way they communicate and collaborate with their customers, stakeholders and employees. Conventional marketing such as advertisements and sending out mass e-mail are no longer enough. These days, companies are more inclined to engage directly with customers via online discussion forums or through blogs. Marketing personnel are also equally at HOME typing out pitches using less than 140 characters on Twitter as they are writing out lengthy advertising copies.

Jumping on the social media bandwagon

According to an August 2009 survey by Mzinga and Babson Executive Education, 86% of companies from various industries said social media now forms part of their businesses. 61% have integrated social applications within their websites or other sites, while 40% have set up standardone online communities. 39% chose to embed third-party widgets into their sites.

Marketing was cited as the top reason for adopting social media tools (57%), followed by internal collaboration (39%).

In another survey done by McKinsey in 2009, 53% of business respondents said they plan to increase their investment in social media tools and technologies in the next three years.

Why the interest in social media among companies? It is considered a word-of-mouth marketing phenomenon that commands a higher level of consumer engagement, and in some cases, better return on investment (ROI), than conventional advertising.

Power of social media

If there are any doubts as to the power of social media as a marketing tool, look no further than Dell. The computer maker made headlines last year when it reported that it had generated USD6.5 million in revenue from sales alerts on its DellOutlet Twitter account. Granted, that is a tiny percentage compared to Dell's total revenue of USD60 billion in 2008. However, considering that it cost the company next to nothing to set up the Twitter account, the ROI is pretty significant.

Another good example of the power of social media is Intuit's use of online discussion forums. The financial and accounting software company's "Live Community" forum allows customers to ask other customers questions, including those the company is not allowed to answer because of regulatory restrictions. Through word-of-mouth and consumer feedback, Intuit has seen sales increase by more than 30% each year.

Technologically-savvy

Dell and Intuit are two examples of technology companies that are socially savvy in an industry that is by far the most comfortable when it comes to embracing Web 2.0

Tech companies already use podcasts, webcasts and video to market their products and service offerings, while online discussion forums and the blogosphere are used to solicit free feedback and suggestions for their products.

They have also started to engage bloggers to create awareness of new products by inviting them to do trial runs and pre-launch product reviews. This can work both ways though. A bad review may hurt a brand, but an endorsements from an established blogger can be powerful marketing.

Financial institutions – still on the sidelines

On the other hand, financial institutions in general, are still contented to be wallflowers in the realm of social media. They do not engage much at all. This is not surprising as strict industry regulations and compliance issues prevent many banks from embracing the 'open transparency' that social media requires.

The only platform most of them seem to be in is LinkedIn. Although some banks have a Facebook page, most of the accounts seem to be opened by fans, rather than the lenders themselves.

Still, there are signs that some financial institutions are beginning to experiment with social media. Banks like Citibank and HSBC have discussion forums on their websites to get feedback from customers. While Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong has its own Standard Chartered TV on YouTube.

Management consultancies – some are greater converters than others

Management consultants probably have the most to gain from engaging in social media, especially in promoting their thought leaders. Many partners from these firms already have their articles posted on the company's website. These thought leadership pieces could potentially reach out to a wider base if they also have their own blogs or twitter accounts, or if they are linked to bookmarking and news sharing sites like Delicious, Digg and Reddit.

Deloitte Consulting and McKinsey are two of the best examples of management consultancies that are fully exploiting social media to promote their thought leaders. They use platforms such as Delicious and Digg to draw more people to their websites. By starting a discussion forum on their articles, they are able to provide links back to their corporate website showcasing more of their services. This, in turn, generates more traffic hits and eyesballs, and potentially, new clients.

Unfortunately, as well as Deloitte, McKinsey and Accenture, most management consultancies have yet to jump on the social media bandwagon.

LinkedIn

The only social media channel that all companies across the three industries seem to be on is LinkedIn. This is to be expected. Unlike other social networking sites, the approximate 50 million registered users on LinkedIn are professionals looking to connect with like-minded peers, or to create their own business connections.

The site's large treasure trove of professional contacts has become a popular "go-to" place for human resources personnel. Because it also has different groups for any number of organizations or special interest groups, companies also find LinkedIn especially useful when looking for candidates with a specific set of skills.

Bookmark it and share and share alike

While blogs, Twitter and Facebook are the more popular social media channels being utilized by businesses, B2B companies should also look into exploring bookmarking services like Delicious and news sharing sites such as Digg and Reddit to generate greater awareness.

Adobe Systems maintains a list of interesting company related news and conversations on Delicious. For instance, the software company used Delicious to store and share a link that gives a tutorial on how to apply the Bokeh, or hazy effect, in web design. By bookmarking this link, Adobe ensures it gets more eyeballs, and potential customers, than it would have had had it only featured the link on its website. It also uses Delicious to advertise its eSeminars.

Meanwhile, Intel's blog network allows readers to 'digg' or recommend the blogs that they have read on Digg. For example, a blog written by an employee on the power of Intel's 3D streaming technology was recommended by almost one thousand registered users and generated over 100 comments. As a result of this employee's blog entry, the company was able to review independent feedback, gauge the popularity of the subject and generate some buzz through a third-party site.

So, what's next?

While some companies, such as Intuit, Intel, Accenture and Deloitte, are taking full advantage of, and reaping the benefits, from Web 2.0 technologies, most business-to-business companies are not very socially engaged.

It would not be long before social technologies become a norm within the B2B space. After all, it aligns with what B2B marketing is all about – and that is to build ongoing relationships with one's stakeholder communities.

So go ahead and:
1. Identify your corporate B2B brand and social personality
2. Identify key goals that the business can engage in conversations with within the social media world (bloggers, online customers, etc.)
3. Set your goals and goals, and then find a means to measure it, even if it has to be done by proxy
4. Appoint someone in your organization which full time occupation is to be your social media champion and get him / her to nurture the company's online brand ambassadors
5. Begin with the basics and build an online community; do not be afraid to ask for suggestions
6. Regularly monitor what is being said about your company or brand online
7. Develop a response mechanism to address negative online feedback
8. Review and keep improving your conversations – do not be afraid to experiment and find the right mix of tools for your company
9. Lastly, the social media landscape is constantly evolving so keep your eyes and ears open online

Like it or not, social media is here to stay. It is no longer a one-to-many business environment, but rather a many-to-many world. B2B companies can no longer afford to stay on the sidelines if they want to get ahead of the competition. So, is your company socially engaged?