Generating B2B sales leads using social media

The 2009 Forrester Research report about what influences IT buyers in a B2B context presented the following list of the most influential sources of information for technology buyers. As it happens, the positive impact of all of the sources of influence on Forrester’s list can be enhanced through social media efforts. Starting from the top, in order of influence, the sources are:

  1. Peers and colleagues
  2. Vendor, industry, trade web sites
  3. Your direct vendor salesperson
  4. Technology or business magazines
  5. Consultants, VARs, or SIs
  6. Industry trade shows or conferences (in person)
  7. Industry analyst firms
  8. Forums, online communities, social networks
  9. E-mail or electronic newsletters
  10. Web events or virtual trade shows
  11. Interactive media: podcasts, video, online demos
  12. Blogs

(surveying 1217 technology decision makers at companies with more than 100 employees).

B2B sales lead generation - fitting the pieces togetherAlso according to Forrester, 91% of B2B technology buyer decision makers use social media to gather information.

It’s critical to recognize that a successful social media lead generation strategy doesn’t require reaching out to every customer on a one-to-one basis. Instead, the most powerful online strategy is to use existing communication channels by reaching out to the influencers who already have a one-to-one relationship with customers. Here’s how this strategy maps to Forresters list:

Peers and colleagues” – People will go out of their way to share good news with their friends. It’s human nature to tip off friends about big finds. The right tools can make it extremely easy for people to share information about products and services via email, Twitter, and other channels. State of the art viral messaging hooks can be built into the sellers web site, including a subscrition email messaging system and connections to other transmission mechanisms on the web (like Twitter). These are all trackable, incidentally, to provide feedback about the spread of a seller’s messages via various channels.

Technology or business magazines,” “Consultants, VARs, or SIs“, and “Industry analyst firms” – I lump all of these together under the category public relations (PR). The experts and commentators in almost every B2B community are constantly trading information. More and more of this discussion happens using social media. Social media like Twitter and blogs are now a key conduit for building relationships with journalists, bloggers, analysts, consultants, and other experts, who in turn influence IT decision makers. (See my post earlier this week for more about this.)

Your direct vendor salesperson” – Social media can reveal which specific people working for potential buyers are looking for a seller’s solution. For instance, LinkedIn provides a virtual directory of who does what inside many companies. Twitter and blogs can provide a blow-by-blow account of the projects specific people are working on.

Web site“, “E-mail/newsletters“, “Web events“, “Interactive media“, and “Blogs” – Initial contacts are stickier, stronger, and last longer when people can effortlessly keep in touch with a seller using the form of online communication – email, blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, webinar, etc. – that they are most at home with. But a surprising number of B2B sellers aren’t using these off-the-shelf subscription and interaction options to convert contacts into leads.

Forums, online communities, social networks” – These three are pure social media. But a company must actively and consistently participate in them to have an impact.

Last but not least, within every communication channel mentioned above it’s important to listen and learn what people are saying about your company, its competitors, and its markets. Companies that don’t make an effort to become aware of what influencers and customers are saying are likely to miss both sales opportunities and criticism. It takes an effort, but a wide variety of tools are available to automate the process.

PR in the 2010s: reach bloggers to feed journalists

It’s important to recognize how influential bloggers have become in the PR food chain. Journalists typically follow bloggers to spot news and trends for them. When journalists first hear about a new story, they’ll Google it to see what people are saying. If the only one talking about a new product or service is the company promoting it, journalists are less likely to pursue it.

On the flip side, many bloggers are highly motivated to stay ahead of the curve and are quick to break new stories. It’s comparatively easy to get noticed by bloggers via strategically re-tweeting their tweets and by submitting useful comments to their blog posts. To the extent that you care about the same things that a blogger does, and show it by contributing to their impact via your own tweets and blog posts, most bloggers will reciprocate. Then, when they receive news from you that is relevant to their audience, they will Tweet or blog about it. And after your information has been vetted by bloggers, journalists will be more likely to pay attention also. Of course, journalists may have received your message already via the bloggers by the time you contact them directly.

Last week I presented a hybrid social media and PR (public relations) proposal to a prospective client who is rolling out a new online service across the US. Obviously the financial success of this business will depend upon being found by customers, which he believes (and I agree) will depend upon a strong PR component, although I personally think the customer-to-customer viral component will wind up being huge as well.

The term PR as I’m using it here translates to “Reaching out to journalists to encourage them to write about your product, service, or company, which amounts to free advertising but can be much more influential because it isn’t paid for.”

There are two interesting twists to this online service, either one of which makes it more challenging from both a social media and a PR perspective. First, it’s hyperlocal, which is to say, the content delivered by the service is different depending upon where you use it. For this reason it needs to be developed on a city by city basis. (By way of analogy think Yelp, which spread from city to city and accumulated a critical mass of reviews in each city, rather than Hotmail, which could be used as-is all over the world right out of the box.) Because of the time and expense of adapting the service for each locality, he expects to go live in only a handful of U.S. counties per month over the the next year or so, depending upon how fast he can scale. This already presents an interesting PR challenge. But it gets better: this online service isn’t just local, its seasonal. In each city his service is only useful for a month or two each year (think “back to school,” “spring break,” or “holiday shopping” by way of analogy).

The curse of this combination of hyperlocal and seasonal is that, just because this service becomes news in one city – which is to say, it becomes available and valuable to people living there – it isn’t necessarily news anywhere else.

The beauty is that this combination of hyperlocal and seasonal creates a relatively small news window, which in turn drives a sense of immediacy for local bloggers and journalists who learn about the online service. They are under pressure to cover this story quickly. No one else is going to cover it, and if their readers are going to benefit from it they’d better report it soon before the window closes again. (Think about how much reporters value “breaking a story” and “an exclusive”.)

It’s tempting to take a “boil the ocean” approach and attempt to blanket every blogger and every media outlet in each city. But here we’re talking about a large number of cities and a startup PR budget. It makes more sense to cultivate a reputation in each community via a select group of bloggers first, then pitch the big local news outlets. Between the two, all of the other interested bloggers and news outlets should hear about the service and will have the opportunity to add their coverage.

Building social media connections with as many qualified bloggers and journalists as possible also increases the likelihood of getting their attention again during the local service season in subsequent years.

The process I suggested for each city was, beginning with the bloggers, then a week later with the traditional news outlets:

  • identify the right people to approach using a combination of search and lists (the expense of soup-to-nuts PR services like Vocus and Cision are unnecessary for this purpose alone, and because their media databases rely on user-contributed information, they are not necessarily reliable for this type of project);
  • subscribe to bloggers’ feeds, including Twitter, retweet each author at least once, and attempt to comment on posts on each of the blogs;
  • make confirmed contact with each blogger via an exchange of email, blog posts, tweets, or phone calls in an effort to get coverage near the beginning of the service season; and,
  • follow up with each blogger just before the end of the local service window in an effort to get a “reminder” mention or a second chance at getting full coverage.

While this online service may be tempted to put resources into obtaining national media coverage, like the Wall Street Journal, the Today Show, or Oprah, their story won’t be ripe enough until a larger portion of the audience these outlets serve is covered. And even if it did receive coverage—for example, as a business story (“innovative Seattle startup”)—if most of those exposed to the story were unable to use the service within the next year, the startup would have largely wasted their PR efforts. For these reasons, I recommended approaching national media outlets at a later date.

On the other hand, it will make sense to pitch national trade publications within the sectors covered by the online service if the online service provides a way for interested bloggers and journalists to subscribe to be notified once their city is covered by the service. Follow up stories can be placed with those trade publications as the online service reaches milestones like 25%, 50%, etc., of the percentage of the US population gaining access to the service. For this reason I suggested adding a press page with a subscription option to the online service’s web site.

No man behind the curtain: Twitter is only a tool (no faith required)

Once again last week I found myself complaining that no one seems to recognize the connection between Twitter and PR. But later that same day I saw a tweet from Laurel Papworth linking back to her own blog post: BBC says Use Social Media – or Leave (citing The Guardian).

Thanks Laurel!

Journalists and bloggers: more wired than most.The whole “Twitter: Pro or Con” argument is a bit like debating “Planetary rings: pro or con.” Twitter is what it is. Those of us in harm’s way because we are in marketing, public relations, or other areas now exposed to public discussion should learn how to use Twitter, then put it to work when it fits. Whether and how to use Twitter is a choice that should be decided on the merits of the tool, not on hype or emotional reaction to random, apocryphal stories in which people tweet about brushing their teeth, etc.

A lot of bloggers and journalists already use Twitter. Based on my unscientific sample that now includes the BBC, this isn’t likely to change any time soon. So if you’re reaching out to journalists and bloggers, use Twitter.

More about this in my next post.

Deletion guidelines of an unsung customer community – Amazon Marketplace

Bruce WilsonI had coffee this week with someone knowledgeable about guidelines for managing comments posted by customers of Amazon.com’s Marketplace program. For anyone not already familiar with Marketplace, it ‘s roughly Amazon’s version of eBay. Independent Sellers sell their goods (new as well as used) on Amazon.com alongside Amazon’s own items. Items offered by Marketplace Sellers come up in product search results and can be reviewed like other products. Payments are processed through Amazon’s usual checkout. And in many cases fulfillment (boxing, labeling, and shipping the goods) is handled by Amazon.

So here’s where community comes in: also akin to eBay, and roughly analogous to BizRate.com, Amazon allows customers to evaluate the performance of Sellers in the Marketplace via both a rating (1 to 5 stars) and comments. This level of transparency with respect to Sellers no doubt reassures customers uncertain about purchasing from someone they’ve never heard of before. And of course, it also enables Amazon to monitor Sellers and take appropriate action, like terminating Seller from the Marketplace program, when merited.

The part I want to focus on in this post is when Sellers receive customer comments they don’t like. Sellers don’t have the power to edit or delete comments, but they can complain to Amazon. At which point someone at Amazon has to decide whether or not to remove the comments being complained about. (Apparently comments are never edited, they are either left as-is or deleted.) So how is this decided?

This question hearkens back to my earlier post entitled When to delete posts to your company’s Facebook page in which I roughly outline the concept of maintaining a consistent editorial policy for a company’s Facebook community that reflects fans’ tastes as well as the company brand.

Not surprisingly, Marketplace comment guidelines are worked out in a way that can be applied consistently to a wide range of Sellers and situations by community management staff (this is too big a job for one person). As in any community, fairness, or at least a credible attempt to achieve fairness, is a precious commodity. If either Sellers or customers believed that problems were being covered up, or that community rules were being applied arbitrarily, it could not only damage the MarketPlace brand but Amazon’s core brand as well.

In essence, the guidelines seem like a good attempt to strike a balance between the interests of customers and Sellers in a way that naturally enough puts Amazon in the best possible light by shielding the community from inappropriate or irrelevant posts while exposing potentially legitimate customer concerns.

Examples of comments that qualify a comment for deletion:

  • Comments containing obscenities (I tend to euphemistically call this “inappropriate language”).
  • Comments containing personal attacks against the Seller.
  • Comments concerning the product being sold rather than the Seller who sold it.

Examples of elements that don’t qualify for deletion:

  • Comments claiming that a product didn’t match its online description (which could indicate a mistake or misrepresentation by the Seller).
  • Comments concerning the condition of the product — except when fulfillment was provided by Amazon. (This last I found a bit curious. Amazon allows criticism of Sellers but vetoes criticisms of itself? But I didn’t get any details about how complaints about Amazon’s fulfillment might be handled otherwise.)

When situations arise that don’t clearly fall within the guidelines, front line community management staff are instructed to escalate complaints to higher levels of authority. Ideally this helps both manitain consistency and set the right precedents. (By way of comparison, see my post concerning Coca Cola’s 3-tiered social media policy – Coke’s social media policy for 1 million associates: a good template – wherein level 2 “social media certified spokespersons“ are instructed to refer issues to level 3 “subject matter experts” whenever how to proceed isn’t clear.)

Kudos to Amazon. This setup isn’t earth-shatteringly innovative, but it just makes sense.

Full disclosure: I do not participate in Marketplace, and have no Amazon.com product links on this site as of this post date, but I am a member of Amazon’s affiliate program and receive a small fee when people click through and buy books I’ve reviewed on other sites.)

Microsoft Surface Unboxing

One of my clients just received a Microsoft Surface computer, one of those coffee table sized touch screen computers that came out a year or so ago. These guys are using it for physician-patient interaction (one of their specialty areas). Blog entry to follow down the road a bit about how healthcare providers are currently using social media to improve patient diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes.

I couldn’t resist the temptation to photograph the “unboxing” of such an unusual device – click through on the photo below if you want to see my Flickr gallery of unboxing photos.

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