Social Media & the B2B CEO

To sell more textbooks, Wiley Publishing horns its way into social-media conversations among delegates to upcoming professional conferences. Transplace provides eye-popping graphics about industry issues that customers can lift out of the logistics consultant’s blog and plop right into their own PowerPoint presentations. IBM has created one of the world’s most-admired B2B, social-media programs by encouraging all of its employees to participate individually.

Kraft operates an Internet “talent community” to help it acquire the best employees. And Adobe, the maker of graphics software, set up a social-media “war room” during the last Super Bowl for B2B communications—much like Oreo, Coca-Cola and other brands did to talk with consumers—as it launched an online-video ad to remind the marketing community of the importance of “screens” other than the TV. “We wanted to encour- age marketers to accelerate their digital-marketing strategies,” said Ann Lewnes, Adobe’s CMO. “And we wanted to be the company that helps them do it.”

Social media has moved robustly beyond the consumer marketplace into the business-to-business realm. Consumer brands still invest far more in communicating with their customer base via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and their own websites and blogs. But arguably B2B companies have been getting more bang for their bucks by leveraging the business-building capabilities of real-time, personal digital networking through social media.

“What’s unique about social media is that it allows you to have continuous engagement with a customer that’s bidirectional,” says Clay Stobaugh, senior vice president and CMO of Wiley. “It’s not like e-mail once was, where you’re just blasting something once, or [like] traditional media. You’re actually having a conversation. “However, there’s no silver bullet,” he warns. “It’s fairly heavy lifting. It’s still the old challenge of getting engaged with customers and knowing what their needs are. Social media just helps youdo it in a whole new way.”

One reason this works is the ubiquity of social media in the lives of practically every global citizen these days. They rely on dozens or hundreds of blogs for an endless variety of information and entertainment. And they’re familiar with the power of Facebook and other platforms for networking their personal lives. Many also share and commingle their private and occupational lives in those venues. Especially for younger generations, that ability creates a certain comfort with the use of social media for business purposes.

Another enabler is that, while brands sponsor Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, their social-media efforts still break down to individual human beings’ sitting or standing somewhere and communicating with one another electronically, in real time. So, effective harnessing of social media by B2B brands involves using outlets to exploit this one-to-one aspect. “Within a certain area, who is the decision-maker?” as Stobaugh puts it. “The end game is pretty much the same: to find that individual and have a conversation with them.”

There are skeptics. “I don’t know how much value there really is in B2B social media,” says Peter Heffring, CEO of Expion, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based digital-marketing agency. “For them, it’s sort of like checking the box. You need to be on social with whatever brand you’ve got, but the return on investment in social media is much higher in B2C than B2B.”

IBM execs would argue vociferously with that point, as the company systematically and culturally encourages its more than 400,000 employees in more than 200 countries to talk about the company, as well as its products and services, on as many social-media platforms as they can. It has more than 300,000 employees on LinkedIn alone, for instance, and about 1.5 million individuals at its customers and elsewhere follow the companyon Facebook.

For example, IBM encourages its salespeople “to use social media as a way to understand customers better, to anticipate their needs, to create more provocative proposals,” says Ethan McCarty, director of marketing and communications labs for IBM. “It’s been very successful, particularly as IBMers have used Twitter and LinkedIn to connect with their clients and get value out of that.”

The company also maintains what it calls an IBM Select, social-media platform around its “Smarter Planet” positioning in which more than 400 experts of various sorts open themselves to interaction with customers as “guests hosts” for a day on Facebook and other social-media platforms, sharing their expertise—and, again, building connections of interaction and understanding with customers.

IBM understands that, for customers, the explosion of potential modes of communication with company representatives via social media is “uncomfortable at times, if they’re used to getting all of their information about our company through something narrow and controlled,” McCarty says. “But we think there’s real richness in that. It’s good business for IBM. There’s a good rationale for using social media’s complexity and trying to tease value out of that for IBM and our customers.”

IBM executives count on safeguards to mitigate the risk of false or downright embarrassing information or opinions leaching from millions of interactions between its employees and customer employees into public information, as often happens to brands that partake in social media. It stresses company values and heritage that it expects social-media practitioners to respect. The company also has a strict social-computing policy with key tenets, including a ban on IBMers’ misrepresenting themselves or obfuscating their identities. And each social-media participant must complete company cybersecurity training.