A Guide to Social Media for B2B e-Commerce Marketers
Reams have been written about how best to use social media platforms to market products and services to consumers. But what about using those platforms to market to businesses? There are distinct differences between the buying behaviors and sales cycles that drive B2B vs. B2C.
Before you post, understand the lay of the B2B land
The B2B sales cycle is typically much, much longer than the B2C sales cycle, because the investment is typically quite a bit larger and more consequential. We’re not talking about the choice between fizzy or still water here, or between personal smart phones or date night entertainment options. We’re talking about which manufacturing equipment to invest in, which fertilizers, which technologies. The price tag can run into the millions with a lifecycle expectation of years, and the purchase can have a profound effect on the daily lives and fortunes of thousands of employees, customers and partners.
Since the choice is so consequential and oftentimes complex, there tend to be far more decision-makers and decision-influencers involved to ensure the possibilities are thoroughly vetted by people who know what they’re talking about. Every aspect is looked at by an expert—or experts—in their field, all of whom contribute their insights, concerns and recommendations to the decision-making team for cross-discipline review and consensus-building. And each of those experts has an expectation of dealing with, and gathering information from, people with deep knowledge of their industry, not just the product or service they’re selling. Marketing fluff won’t cut it.
These behaviors and sales cycles have a profound effect on the way social media is used in B2B marketing, and those who are most successful at it play the long game. What do I do today to influence a decision that might not be finalized until the business’ next budget cycle or fiscal year? How do I nurture customers who may not be in the market for a replacement product for a few years? How do I convince people they need to upgrade or replace a product before its natural end of life, especially when replacing it comes with real business risk? How do I help influence a future buying decision when the company’s sales teams are being incentivized to sell something else right now?
That last question also highlights the fact that knowing the client’s current business focus and sales rewards strategy is just as important as knowing their industry and their customers’ habits. Marketers never want to put salespeople in the awkward position of having a customer ask them something they’re not yet prepared to answer about a product they’re not yet able to offer, and ill-timed social media has a way of doing just that.
The most successful B2B marketers also think about purchases, and purchasers, like a chess match. What moves should be made now to influence a win later, even if the game is just beginning? If I do this, what will my influencers do, and how does that affect what the decision-maker does next? How much knowledge does my client have of the game (think sales enablement), and how ready are their customers to change what they’re using or what they’re doing? Have the rules of the game changed mid-stream due to innovations, technology iterations, additions to the linecard, impending obsolescence, legislation, competition, etc.? Is there anything that will end the game earlier than expected, such as a budget flush, or make it take longer than expected, such as a supply chain disruption or a change in leadership on the decision-making team? Situational awareness is crucial for the B2B marketer.
So, what is e-commerce to a B2B company?
Keep in mind that “e-commerce” doesn’t necessarily equate to “online shopping” or “online marketplace” in the B2B space. Sure, some B2B companies have products that lend themselves to online purchases—restaurant supplies, for example, or some office equipment—but when was the last time a company made an organization-wide technology purchase from a shopping cart? The same can be said for large-scale farming operations and combine harvesters, which can cost in excess of a half million dollar apiece. For innovative medical equipment. For an HVAC system. The list goes on and on.
At the very least, once they’ve thoroughly researched product/service candidates online, B2B customers will likely want to have a conversation (or several) with a knowledgeable salesperson—probably not via an AI chatbot—before hitting “buy now.” In fact, you may notice that many B2B companies, like the one shown here, don’t even have that type of call to action on their site, period. Instead, they’re focused on providing the information prospective clients need to make a confident business decision (highlight intended—we’ll come back to that later).
The B2B buyer’s journey is an “always on” endeavor
Before you read further, take a deep, cleansing breath and find your calm center, then take a look at this depiction of the B2B sales cycle from Gartner.
Per its title, a long, hard slog, indeed—but not an insurmountable one. The trick for B2B social media marketers (although “trick” certainly doesn’t do it justice) once they have a solid understanding of their client’s strategy and goals, the buyer’s journey, sales cycles, the industry, customer behavior, etc., is to use a tool like this to identify opportunities to use the various social media platforms to provide the information people are looking for to move them ever closer to a purchase.
Before we get into the social media platforms themselves, take a look at the navy and gold shapes at the center of the illustration. This is the B2B version of the traditional B2C buyer’s journey and supplants what most marketers know as (some version of) the awareness, consideration, decision triad. Now, study the actions the influencers and decision-makers take along the way. While you’ll notice some familiar B2C activities/tactics such as online research, video demos and customer testimonials, the B2B buyer requires a leveling up in terms of expertise and thought leadership in the content provided to them. Finally, note the one-step-forward, two-steps-back flow of the decision-making process itself. This means that the B2B marketer is simultaneously and continually providing content for all stages of the buyer’s journey, because each person involved in the purchase decision is on their own path to knowledge, and disruptions to the flow can come from anywhere.
Provide information, anticipate objections and be ready for anything
Different people on the decision-making team will have different preferences for content consumption—blogs, videos, podcasts, webinars, articles, etc. They’ll also gravitate toward preferred content types, from in-depth white papers to articles from subject matter experts to just-the-facts product guides. Because of that, social media in the B2B buyer’s journey requires an omni-channel approach akin to that of B2C, but with the scales weighted toward inform and educate rather than entertain and persuade. Note the words “weighted toward.” It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition—an element of entertainment and persuasion will have their place, because human nature comes into play regardless of what role a person is representing on a decision-making team. “People are people first” is a good rule of thumb to bear in mind while keeping the focus on enabling customers to make a confident business decision (see, told you we’d come back to that).
Whereas B2B decisions can stem from whims, emotions, gut feelings and such, confident business decisions are firmly rooted in data and information. B2B marketers need to create content that is data-rich, content that anticipates objections (as much as that is possible to do) for each stage of the B2B buyer’s journey and from each team members’ point of view, and content featuring trustworthy information from people who know what they’re talking about. And, they’ll need to keep their ear to the ground so they can create content on the fly as circumstances change. Remember, the journey is long and anything can happen.
Social media platforms and the B2B buyer’s journey
Some may surprise you. I know seeing Twitter down there toward the bottom was a revelation for me, probably due to its recent political prominence. Those at the top would likely surprise no one. Let’s take a look at a few ways to tackle that Gartner B2B buyer’s journey using social media platforms to address some of actions represented on their illustration.
B2B buyer’s journey: independent online research
As the B2B influencers and decision-makers begin casting about the internet for ways to solve the challenge they’ve identified, the B2B marketer’s job is to ensure that their clients’ websites are informative and easy to find (SEO optimized), and that there are ample resources on them in terms of white papers, customer testimonials, demos/tutorials, product data sheets, etc. From a social media perspective, this means posting content that is in line with the industry, market and competitive challenges organizations are facing to create awareness of their clients’ solutions to them, and driving traffic back to clients’ websites or landing pages. Social media efforts can be spread across a variety of platforms depending on where customers are most likely to consume information. Here are some tips for improving social media SEO.
Although it can be tempting, don’t let content type lead the marketing approach—a video overview posted on YouTube does no one any good if the target audience doesn’t use YouTube or see it as a reliable source of information. Customer preference should lead the approach. For example, during this time the decision-making team is also reaching out to peers in their industry or in the area of expertise they’re looking for (e.g., an HRIS system) to get recommendations and understand the pros and cons of various solutions. In addition to the above, B2B marketers should also ensure that their client’s thought leaders are well represented on LinkedIn with blogs that speak to the problem at hand.
B2B buyer’s journey: white paper download
In general, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are musts for white papers and most other B2B assets. Facebook is important if only because it is the paterfamilias of the popular social media platforms. Its primary demographic is those 25-34 years old, but a significant number of its 2.7 billion active users—34%, according to Statista—are more established in their careers use it regularly, too. Twitter, while appearing way down the list in terms of active users, is top of mind in today’s conversations, and 353 million active users is nothing to sneeze at. Of course, as with all things Twitter, tweets have to be well-timed and there has to be a steady flow of them to capture the attention of someone on the platform at any given moment. Check out “Scheduling Content on Social Media: Theory, Evidence and Application” from the American Marketing Association for the science behind scheduling content on several platforms.
For B2C marketers, white papers may not play a big role in the marketing mix, but it is of the utmost importance for B2B companies, especially those with complex products or services. These 8-10 page, in-depth looks at solutions address customer challenges from their point of view and lean heavily on professional research and verifiable facts, with ample tables, illustrations and references. While the client is the “author,” they are not the star of the show and content is, to the extent it can be, client-agnostic with the exception of a paragraph or two at the end. All that said, they are still marketed by the client, and that is where social media comes into play. Again, the goal is to get it in front of customers on the platforms they regularly use for business research.
We addressed LinkedIn in the prior section, and a white paper can (and should) be linked to from a thought leader blog. A white paper may also be a candidate for Reddit, but tread carefully. It seems like it would be a good idea because of the sheer mass of active users deeply interested in topics they care about, but it’s still primarily a place people go to have substantive conversations and get away from the marketing that hounds them elsewhere. Reddit ads themselves, deemed “promoted” content, are usually visually jarring in the otherwise text-only, utilitarian flow of questions, answers, rants and responses. Some companies, such as the Datadog example seen here, are using their ads as a quasi-thought leadership moment to entice people to click away to a white paper or blog on a topic of interest to the subreddit. The jury’s still out on how well this works, and B2B marketers do run the risk of ticking off the very people they’re trying to attract. Give it a shot, but make sure whatever is posted is of real use to the subreddit community being targeted.
It’s worth mentioning that white papers are among the few assets that prospective customers are willing to give up their contact information for, so they (along with webinars and in-depth case studies) can be used as gated content to generate leads.
B2B buyer’s journey: overwhelming information about the solution
In-depth content such as white papers should always be a part of the B2B marketer’s arsenal, but so should concise, “just the facts, Jack,” assets. As part of the decision-making process, people will want an easy way to compare the solutions they’re considering, and wading through pages written in prose is just not conducive to that—nor does it easily translate to the ubiquitous PowerPoint slides they’re likely to throw up on a screen every time they get together. Assets that provide effective data visualization will also help the decision-making team with some of those issues in bold in the Gartner illustration, such as solving misalignment on the problem or the solution scope, deconflicting information and group debates on requirements.
Use social media channels to point the way to checklists, product data sheets, competitive comparisons and such, and consider headlines that let customers know an asset will help them differentiate between solutions quickly. And don’t just tell them, show them. Many platforms lend themselves to visual imagery, and a thumbnail image of this type of asset can convince a customer to click.
B2B buyer’s journey: business case data unavailable + customer testimonials video review
In general, people want to understand how a solution has worked for others like themselves before making a go/no go decision that on a significant investment that will affect their business. B2B marketers should endeavor to create a library of business cases and customer testimonials that highlight different aspects of the problem customers are trying to solve. Customer care-abouts will vary by industry, of course, but consider aspects such as ease of use, ease of implementation, return on investment over time, the impact on the customer’s customers, etc.
Business case studies and customer testimonials are two areas where video can shine if done from a compelling, story-telling point of view using real customers and field/frontline/technical company representatives (not just C-suite) who have solved challenges similar to those prospective customers are facing. Ideally, each business case study and customer testimonial will be available to view or read, but if the marketing budget won’t accommodate that, those with the most compelling stories should be produced in video format. Here are a few stats that may convince you even if the social media marketing budget is lean:
- On Facebook, the engagement rate for video posts is almost twice that of posts that don’t feature video content, a stat B2B marketers can test for themselves with guidance from Facebook for Media. And being the acquisition beast that it is, cross-platform social media marketing options create more bang for the buck.
- When it comes to YouTube, “entertainment” tops the list of reasons people use the platform, but “to follow brand/companies” is the primary purpose for 18% of users, and 7% visit to strengthen professional networks.
- Although it’s the new kid on the block, TikTok’s popularity has skyrocketed. Regardless of what happens with TikTok from a U.S. government standpoint, right now, it has the eyes and ears of the under-30 generation (66% of users), and although they may not be high-level decision-makers in their careers yet, the oldest cohort is coming of age to be seen as credible influencers in some fields. Plus, users grow up and grow in their careers and may remain loyal to the platform as they do so.
- Slick production values can cost a lot of money, but today’s B2B decision-makers aren’t necessarily looking for that. They’re looking for useful, trustworthy content from—here it is again—people who know what they’re talking about. The video needs to have a level of professionalism, but it doesn’t need to be a Super Bowl ad. Companies such as Magisto, Animoto, Moovly and others make quality videos for social media on a limited budget possible. The FreshBooks customer testimonial video is an excellent example of a believable testimonial from a reliable source that didn’t cost a lot to produce.
B2B social media marketing is powerful
Social media marketing is a must-have for B2B brands, and the philosophy behind it is similar to that of B2C marketing—meet people where they are and give them content that helps convince them to buy your product or service. The B2B buyer’s journey, the spend and the potential impact to a business, however, call for data-rich content from trustworthy sources that address real business challenges from the points of view of everyone in the decision-making and influencer sphere.