B2B and Industrial Marketing: Why is Social Media Confusing Us?

Wednesday 21 August 2013
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Here are some interesting findings regarding industrial companies and social media marketing from GlobalSpec’s recent survey: Trends in Industrial Marketing 2012: How Manufacturers are Marketing Today:

  • 57% of industrial companies now use social media applications
  • 37% of them are spending more on social media activities in 2012 than in 2011


  • Only 17% of them are happy with their social media efforts

The conclusions to draw from these findings are pretty obvious: most industrial companies have taken the decision to embrace social media marketing, but when it comes to implementation and getting results, they’re confused and disappointed.

So, what seems to be the problem?

The social media phenomenon is massive and fast-moving, so there is, no doubt, a whole gamut of reasons why B2B and industrial marketers are fazed by it. But I’ve got a strong suspicion of what lies at the heart of the problem - the very real, but not always clearly defined or understood, differences between ‘consumer’ and 'B2B' (business-to-business) marketing.

How are consumer marketers using social media?

Think about the social media-focused campaigns that hit the headlines – the car manufacturer’s orange ‘spokespuppet’, for example, or the chocolate company’s ‘eyebrow dance'. I suspect that many of my B2B marketing colleagues would share the sentiments of the thought leader who posted this comment on YouTube:

What the hell does this s**t have to do with chocolate?

What the hell indeed. The fact is that consumer marketers (companies selling goods like cars and chocolate to individual consumers) are using social media forums like Facebook in ways that often don’t make immediate sense to B2B and industrial marketers. They’re engaging in online conversations with their customers that often seem (or perhaps are) trivial, have no obvious goals and have no direct connection to the act of purchasing the company’s product (e.g. no link to a website where the product can actually be bought). And we, the B2B crowd, are looking at it all and thinking: there’s something new and important going on here, but I don’t know what it is, or how it's relevant to me promoting my light engineering business.

So why are consumer marketers doing it like that?

Well, our groovy consumer marketing peers are doing something that would never cross the minds of most B2B and industrial marketers. The primary objective of their social media activities is to nurture positive feelings towards their brands at an emotional rather than rational level - to make consumers feel a connection with their brand. By uploading your dancing eyebrows clip, you’ll feel an affinity with the chocolatier; by filming your dog lip-synching to Lady Gaga, you’re engaging personally with the broadband supplier.

It’s all based on the fact that our buying decisions as consumers are strongly influenced by our feelings towards brands – much more than rational cost-benefit analyses. We buy into the whole world of Apple products because we embrace everything that is ‘Apple’ – from its design ethos to the fact that it’s not Microsoft – not because, say, we get more processing power per pound spent. And many consumers, clearly, are prepared to spend their time engaging with social media campaigns that are carefully conceived to develop the sense of affinity between themselves and their favourite brands.

But is this approach applicable to B2B and Industrial Marketing?

Let’s think this one through. The ‘brand affinity’ approach to consumer social media marketing is based on an understanding of how consumers make buying decisions. For example:

  • Consumer buying decisions are often primarily emotional, not rational (e.g. your new car)
  • Consumers often buy stuff primarily for pleasure, not utility
  • Consumers are usually only accountable to themselves (or at most, to their partners or parents)
  • Consumers often associate brands with their individual identities
  • Consumers won’t lose their jobs for making duff buying decisions

Now, I’m not going to argue that corporate buyers are automatons, uninfluenced by emotion or the power of brands. However, I will argue that corporate buying is fundamentally different from consumer buying, in that it’s primarily rational and utilitarian, and because corporate buyers are responsible to shareholders. They could lose their jobs if their buying decisions aren’t sound.

All of which leads me to the conclusion that corporate buyers need solutions to their essentially practical procurement problems. They need products that are longer lasting, cheaper, easier to use, lower maintenance, faster, and so on – they need to maximise ROI. But guess what? You knew that already. Providing solutions to your customers’ problems is what you’ve always done, and what has made your company successful. A change in the media environment, from printed materials to the internet, doesn’t change that fundamental fact. It does, however, open up a whole range of new ways of communicating your solutions to your prospective customers.

How B2B and industrial companies can use social media to solve their customers’ problems

I’ll keep this bit simple. Why not just do it like this:

1. Identify your customers’ problems, and how your products and services provide the solutions they need
2. Make those solutions the focus of your website, both in terms of static page content and a regularly updated blog (read more about 'technical blogging' here). This will help you get found on search engines, and make your prospective customers want to engage with you (read more about improving your website here)
3. Post your solution-rich articles to your company social media pages (e.g. LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+) so that prospective buyers in need of your solutions can follow you there (and you can find out who they are).
4. Optimise your website with 'calls-to-action', so that your prospective customers can subscribe to receive your solutions by e-mail (and you can find out who they are)
5. Think about where your prospective customers go online in search of solutions (e.g. LinkedIn industry discussion groups) and post your articles there too
6. Remember that your customers want solutions to their problems not sales pitches. Therefore give them ’10 ways to cut the costs of machining titanium’, rather than ‘buy our new miracle cutting tool today!!!’
7. Don’t waste your customers’ time with social media tittle tattle. As you know, they’re corporate buyers, not teenagers following the X Factor
8. Talk about what’s of interest to your customers (solutions to their problems), not what’s of interest to you (Geoff’s retirement, your latest award, or the great work your company does for charity)

And when your marketing company bangs on about your ‘brand’ (because that’s what they like to talk about) remember that you’re probably not Caterpillar or Cadburys, and that they’ve probably not completely nailed the differences between consumer and B2B marketing. Your ‘brand’ is all about your ability to solve your customers’ problems. And that’s what you need to talk about.
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