Social networking sites are becoming more prominent in the B2B world, with buyers relying on outside research and peer insight to finalize partnerships and solution implementations. As a result, organizations are utilizing these channels more frequently to form alliances and partnerships in a more intimate manner. However, there is an added layer of complexity for channel marketers that hope to utilize social to navigate to partners, as well as through partners.
A recent study from the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), titled “Marketing in Today’s Economy,” revealed that approximately 90% of marketing executives in the B2B environment use social media marketing. Moreover, 75% of marketers believe that utilizing sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn and even Facebook has a positive impact on their business.
While many organizations are recognizing the benefits of social interaction and engagement, many marketers are struggling to crack the communication code. Especially within the complex channel environment, where organizations are striving to develop and maintain an endless roster of partnerships, marketers are struggling to clarify messaging strategies, develop a brand efficient social media strategy across partner networks while demonstrating ROI.
“Today, a prospect in almost any industry starts searching in the Internet, in expert groups, asks questions on Quora or LinkedIn groups and makes an educated purchase decision,” said Axel Schultz, CEO of XeeMe and Chairman of the Social Media Academy. “Partners can play a strategic role in those recommendation networks. Most partners lost their influence in the traditional sales process – social media is a strategic way to win it back.”
However, a key issue that is making organizations halt initiatives is the company and channel worth of social engagement. While the ROI puzzle is still being solved, Sundeep Kapur, Digital Strategist for NCR, provided three key ways for marketers to quantify the success of social efforts. These metrics are as follows:
1) Engagement metric: The amount of people interacting with and responding to social content.
2) Reduction in cost: How building social communities and conversation can improve efficiencies and optimize partnerships.
3) Attribution to revenue: Social media’s influence on lead and demand generation, as well as overall sales.
To make sense of the infinite social media stratosphere, channel marketers must first develop a solid plan-to-action, according to Louis Foong, President and CEO The ALEA Group, a provider of strategic marketing services for B2B organizations.
By asking the following questions, channel marketers can develop a clearer path to an optimal social media strategy:
Channel players also must determine other vital areas, including how messages will be distributed throughout partner networks, and how social activity and sharing will be tracked.
Although social media presents an opportunity for organizations to inject personalized messaging and enhance end-user/partner engagement, channel marketers must view social networking as an integral part of an overall marketing strategy, rather than a lone tactic.
“The pressure on channel marketers to contribute to the bottom line is huge and a selective and measured approach to implementing social media plays is critical, just as the mix of different tactics is also important,” Foong told Channel Marketer Report. “Marketers must consider an integrated approach to lead generation, funnel management and conversion. Too often, we have a ‘flavor of the month’ approach to things and adopt a tactic that is timely/topical but unproven.”
While organizations can tap social media to help partners find potential customers and drive demand, channel marketers also can utilize these networks to communicate with their channels more seamlessly, and in turn, distribute information and content to their respective networks fasters.
However, with the influx of socially-driven sites currently available — from SlideShare, to WordPress, YouTube and Google+, along with the usual Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn — the vital first step for channel marketers is pinpointing their target audiences and partners, as well as the social platforms they gravitate to.
“Channel people, like any other marketers, need to be where their customers are,” Schultze advised. “Then, they need to make sure that their customers know where to find them. Developing presence is typically the very first step in a social media engagement strategy. Making sure that a channel manager knows where their partners are is the number one activity in a social media strategy — otherwise it would be an endless search day in and day out.”
Heather K. Margolis, Founder of Channel Maven Consulting, also spotlighted the importance of prioritizing social channels based on where partners are. In the blog post, titled “Ready to Amplify Your Social Media Presence?” Margolis indicated that from there, OEMs should opt to develop unique social profiles across sites that are complete with business-relevant keywords, in order to pique greater interest and drive more traffic.
In the social stratosphere, presence is everything. Once OEMs determine where their partners, customers and prospects typically gravitate to, developing a consistent schedule of news gathering, updating and tracking results is key, according to Margolis.
Marketers must determine the kind of news and announcements they want to share with their audience. From there, Google Alerts can be created, making the news gathering and organization process easier to digest. However, to be successful in the social universe, companies must always keep their audience in mind, according to Margolis.
“Anytime you’re about to post something ask yourself if your audience would care, if it would make their lives easier, if it would help them drive their business,” Margolis explained. “If the answer is no, you probably shouldn’t post it or should reconsider how you’re posting it. If you’re talking about an award your product has won, position it in such a way that your partners are now implementing an award winning product.” When asked about frequency Margolis prefers to use consistency, “Your solution providers need to know they have a true partner, posting everyday for two weeks then not again for two months is more detrimental then never posting at all.”
With a plan in motion, OEMs can share new product updates, offerings and announcements with Facebook friends, Twitter followers and LinkedIn connections. However, many organizations are struggling to create targeted content that is relevant to their partner networks.
“Currently, we do not see many channel marketers really ‘working the social thing’ well,” said Olivier Choron, CEO of purechannelapps, a social syndication and sharing solution. “Most companies have a Twitter/Facebook account ‘targeted’ at channel partners and communicate through this. Sadly none of these can be really targeted and therefore we end up with a mix of general/partner-specific information that typically starts and stops at event invitations.”
Channel marketers must see social media as an opportunity to not only build connections with partners and to stay top-of-mind, but to be seen as leaders in their respective markets. Social networking sites allow companies to share the latest research, insights and thought leadership on industry trends and pain points.
Once organizations build up their social presence among partners, OEMs must educate partners the channel to ensure all messaging strategies, tools and tactics are consistent, according to Schultze. Then, marketers can work to boost awareness and share relevant content with their peers across the channel.
Developing a presence across social networks is only half the battle. While it is important to maintain relationships with partners and be seen as an organization “in the trenches” of industry news and happenings, it also is important for companies to effectively extend offerings, news and value propositions through their partner networks.
Although the joint benefits of marketing to and through partners is an apparent low-hanging fruit opportunity for OEMs, few companies are truly optimizing this area of investment, according to Choron. “Many vendors do not believe their channel partners have presence on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn,” he explained. “But they fail to understand that most resellers have built their reputation and presence on a strong network of contacts. Many resellers — the vast majority, I believe — have now converted traditional business cards into Twitter followers, Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts.”
Best-in-class vendors socially empower channel partners with effective marketing materials and resources to reach their networks. To that end, if partners haven’t built their social strategy, OEMs must train them on the benefits of social engagement and how to develop an optimal, sustainable plan. Margolis also spotlighted the need for educating partners to be more successful. “All the content manufacturers provide to partners is great but truly educating partners “how to use social media to drive more demand is also hugely important, she said. How much more successful would an email campaign be if partners posted it to LinkedIn Groups, created a webinar around it, posted that to twitter and put some SEO terms behind their landing page?”
“Organizations that sell through channel partners should spend more time creating and delivering on an ‘ indirect social media strategy,’” Choron reported. “Vendors should provide end-user content to their partners in a way that is relevant to these partners and their followers (i.e., an Enterprise VAR should receive ‘enterprise’ content whilst a SMB reseller should receive ‘SMB’ content) and help them post these on their own social media very easily.”
Choron indicated that successful channel players focus their social media attention less on their own activities and more on their partners’ capabilities. “Vendors must empower their partner bases by training them, creating valuable content and delivering this content to end-users in an efficient way,” he said.
While many organizations take pride in social efforts that consist of “liking” articles and “re-tweeting” a peer’s content, it is vital for marketers to extend beyond the impersonal and formulaic approach to social engagement. Developing compelling content collateral that addresses industry trends and customer/prospect pain points, and sharing it through partners is a key way to stay top-of-mind in the competitive marketplace.
Creating a blog that shares company announcements, relevant research, as well as insights and prescriptive articles on market tools and tactics, is the perfect way for a company to be seen as a thought leader and ideal source. By allowing comments and open interaction on the blog, organizations also can create a more compelling dialog among target audiences. Marketers also can extend blog content by posting links via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. To extend information and announcements, OEMs can share all relevant links and resources with partners and encourage sharing across their brand’s social networks.
With the consistent rise of time-starved executives with short attention spans, marketers must ensure that their content messaging and target audience is on point. Furthermore, highly interactive, hard-hitting strategies, such as video, photographs and compelling calls-to-action must be explored and integrated into collateral to make brand experiences more memorable.
Channel executives also must ensure content life is extended to its maximum potential by ensuring all tweets, Facebook updates and LinkedIn communications are timely. Recent findings from a Bit.ly study revealed that the average shelf life of content posted on Twitter is 2.8 hours, while Facebook engagement lasts 3.2 hours. These results spotlight the growing importance of keeping conversations consistent and relevant, and ensuring that they are delivered in an engaging way.
In the channel, it’s not enough for OEMs to position their brand as a thought leader. Channel partners must be empowered to integrate their messaging and offerings, providing them with the image as a go-to industry source, as well.
As B2B organizations migrate towards individual research strategies via the web, companies that tap into more personalized marketing strategies are more poised for success.
Research from DemandGen Report’s Inside The Mind Of The B2B Buyer survey spotlighted this highly independent, savvy consumer. The majority of buyers started with an informal researching process (83%). Others engaged with peers who experienced and addressed similar business challenges (46%), followed industry conversations via blogs and social media (35%) and asked questions about outside experiences via social networks (16%). This continued shift has made social engagement and interaction a low-hanging fruit opportunity for channel marketers and thus, has made it an area of investment for 2012 and beyond.
Schultze explained: “2012 is considered by many thought leaders to be the year of strategy. Managers will stop experimenting, outsourcing or ignoring the space and start getting strategic. We expect a continuous growth over the next few years and finally seeing social media as omnipresent as IT, Internet and other tools. With more than one billion people in the social web already today, that is a natural progression.”
Results from the SIIA survey also suggest great growth potential within the social space. A majority (65%) of respondents indicated that social media was a key area they’d like to invest in more, while more than 70% said they expected to increase their use of Twitter and LinkedIn during 2012. To succeed in social media however, channel marketers must focus on the sole goal of Facebook, Twitter and others: developing long-lasting engagements with peers.
“Social media is a great way to intensify relationships to customers,” Schultze explained. “It also is a great way to intensify relationships to partners. Partners who are actively engaged in the social web can inspire customers and create demand and new leads. Channel marketers can utilize social media to get socially connected with their partners by caring and sharing their lives and simply be social.”
Alicia Fiorletta is Managing Editor for Channel Marketer Report. Working closely with industry analysts and experts, Alicia reports on the latest news, technologies, case studies and trends coming to forefront in the channel marketing world. With a focus on emerging marketing strategies, including social, mobile and content for demand, Alicia hones in on new ways for organizations to market to and through their partner networks. Through her work with G3 Communications, Alicia also acts as Associate Editor for Retail TouchPoints, a digital publishing network focused on the customer-facing area of the retail industry.