The emergence and growing influence of the web in B2B buying decisions is undeniable. Executives are relying more on search engines to start the browsing and buying journey for solutions to help their companies, and are turning to sales teams later and later in the consideration process.
To that end, social sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter also are playing pivotal roles in the early stages of the buying cycle. Executives are tapping into their social networks to obtain detailed thought leadership from solution providers, receive recommendations from peers, and most importantly, identify optimal solutions based on unique company pain points and relevant trends taking place in their respective industries.
As a result of these more independent research tactics, organizations are refining their social media marketing engagement and sharing strategies to ensure their brands are seen.
Results from the B2B Content Marketing: 2013 Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends, released by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, indicated that social media now is the most popular content marketing tactic/sharing channel for organizations, garnering 87% of responses. On average, B2B marketers use as many as five social media sites to distribute content.
The ongoing shift to social sharing and communication within the B2B realm is being carried over to the channel, with vendors and resellers becoming more active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and now Pinterest.
“Buyers take posts and discussions seriously, and use them in their decision-making process,” said Axel Schultze, CEO and Founder of Society3, a social media solutions group. “So now, channel marketers are turning to experienced business partners, asking them to fuel social conversations and even share their own experiences to add depth to content being published on these sites.”
Heather K. Margolis, Founder and President of Channel Maven Consulting, added that vendors “now need to be accessible through social media to stay top of mind with partners. They also need to provide partners with the resources they need to stay top of mind with end customers. It’s about search, it’s about blogs, and it’s about being active on social platforms.”
However, there’s an extreme disconnect between what vendors want from their partners and what vendors actually delivering in terms of education and enablement.
According to the Aberdeen Group research brief, titled: Distributed Marketing Management: Think Global, Market Local, 33% of best-in-class organizations share content for social media marketing with local marketers who control distribution. Conversely, only 25% of all other organizations reported that they have this ability.
This social skill gap is becoming more defined and hindering sales, engagement and loyalty results. To keep pace, vendors need to improve communication with partners and integrate necessary tools, tips and resources into their channel programs.
“Vendors aren’t providing resellers with the tools needed to successfully market to the end customer,” Margolis said. “MDF shouldn’t cover magazine ads and telemarketing scripts as much as doing SEO and hiring someone to help master LinkedIn and Twitter. The old telemarketing and list purchasing is happening way too much without the social elements to make it more successful.”
Louis Foong, President and CEO of the ALEA Group, also honed in on the ongoing need for communication and collaboration between vendors and their partners, especially in regard to social training, campaign strategizing and execution.
“Typically, channel partners and VARs are smaller, leaner organizations that neither have the resources, knowledge, or the time to increase social activity,” Foong said. “They have bigger business challenges to wrestle with on a daily basis. Instead of helping these channel organizations develop a realistic social strategy and giving them the tools and techniques they can implement, manufacturers ask them to bring in a social media consultant. Or they urge them to completely outsource their social activity. That is where we see a strong and damaging disconnect. You need long-term planning and sustainability if results have to be seen and measured against the bottom line.”
Four Steps To A Winning Social Training Program
As more B2B buyers turn to social networks to gather industry thought leadership, educational resources and insights on potential solutions, it is imperative that vendors develop a strategic plantoaction for their partners.
Organizations can follow these four steps to ensure optimal social strategies:
1. Understand end user buying behaviors: Before vendors can provide social training programs, information and resources to partners, they must understand end users’ current wants and needs, according to Kathleen Schneider, Executive Director of Global Channel Marketing and Programs at Dell. “It starts with listening and learning more about our customers, and then applying these insights to engage with them in various ways and amplify vendor and partner messages.”
2. Test and evaluate strategies: Once vendors understand the forms of content and information end users are searching for across social networks, they can develop strategies and social campaigns relevant to specific segments.
“Before education and enablement can take place, vendors need to undertake testing and evaluation at their end,” Foong explained. “Channel partners already know what social platforms are out there. Vendors must be able to guide them on the best performing platforms and be able to back their recommendations with validation and proven results. Do vendors really know what’s working for them? Is there a Social ROI Model in place? If not, then they are flying blind and expecting resellers and partners to get on the flight.”
3. Provide the education and resources: Case studies, relevant research reports, best practice webinars and other resources allow vendors to provide added support and education to their partners.
“Vendors can help by being prescriptive for ‘to’ and ‘through’ partner campaigns, making suggestions and providing content that’s readymade for different platforms,” Schneider said. “For example, to help partners leverage social media, Dell builds social media elements into all of our marketing campaign materials — from suggested copy to best practices. We’re also continually adding useful tools and tips to a dedicated social media topic area within our PartnerDirect portal.”
Regardless of the kinds of resources vendors provide, all assets must be easy to access and digest, according to Margolis. “The important thing to remember is that vendors need to break things down into easily digestible pieces. For example, webinars are helpful but an hour is probably too long. If you do a series, make sure resellers have ‘homework’ in between to get them practicing right away.”
SAP partnered with Society3 Academy to create a program focused on engagement, hands-on practice and experimentation, according to Schultze. “SAP has a whole multi-series educational program to help the channel,” he said. “Another example is Red Hat, which built a dedicated Red Hat Partner presence in parallel to the brand presence that exclusively focuses on channel related topics.”
4. Make it easy to execute campaigns: Content syndication, curation and amplification, Schultze stated, are “three magic wands in the new marketing world. One goes with the other and all together, these solutions make new content easily accessible for partners as well as end users.”
For example, social syndication and amplification platforms such as ContentMX, gaggleAMP, Pointburst and SharedVue all make the social content sharing and amplification process more seamless, Margolis added. Vendors also should integrate social content that aligns with specific campaigns into one main resource center that is updated consistently. This process will ensure partners leverage messages that are consistent with specific assets, resources and offers.
Integrating Social Into Company Culture
As social media becomes a key channel for buyers to begin their researching and consideration journeys, it is becoming more paramount for vendors and partners alike to make social networking and sharing an integral part of their company cultures.
“Channel marketers can best tap social media by embedding it across the fabric of the entire company,” Schneider said. “Social media is not just an add-on to a marketing campaign or for customer support. It is a tool employees can use in various ways to achieve better results for customers and their business.”
While there still are few social media stars in the channel, Schultze predicts that 2014 and 2015 will be “the top years for vendors and partners participating in social media. This year, however, the thought leaders and innovative companies are investing in social media to keep their leadership positions solid.”
Alicia Fiorletta is Senior 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.