Is Social Media more difficult in B2B than B2C?

I submit that it is! Please hear me out.

When I say Ralph Lauren, Nine Inch Nails, Vineyard Vines, GAP – or even Apple – you get a sense of a very homogeneous type of person. You get a picture of exactly who I mean and the “lifestyle” that brand portrays. When I say Ralph Lauren, it’s like reading the preppie handbook.

But what happens when I say Unisys or Delco or even Oracle? What mental image, what picture of homogenous people comes to mind, if any? Probably nothing, right?

Now, consider Nine Inch Nails and their use of social media. The band printed tour shirts with different, seemingly random boldface letters that, when strung together, spelled out a website address – iamtryingtobelieve.com. The tactic engaged an audience that was totally in sync with their brand and lit up their community site, Spiral.

Sure a B2B company can launch a microsite any day. But can it launch one that speaks to the company’s audience so perfectly that it resonates with a vast majority? I would submit the answer is no.

Yes, I know microsites aren’t social media. My point is that out in social media land if you know exact who your audience is, what will resonate with them and how to tap into it, you are home free. B2B audiences are more fragmented, with internal employees, external partners, channel partners, third party vendors, and, oh yeah, customers and prospects.

What’s your take? I’m interested to hear from you …

11 comments to Is Social Media more difficult in B2B than B2C?

  • Tom Humbarger

    Paul,

    I definitely agree with you for several reasons:

    scale — there are far fewer potential community members which translates into fewer passionate customers to interact with in a B2B environment

    excitement — even if you have really excited users, I don’t think it reaches the same level of passion as people feel about their cars, phones or favorite musical group

    continuous touchpoints and “feeding”— from my experience, you cannot stop working on building the community and maintaining the current base; after almost one year with our Catalyze community, it still feels like we are a long way from self-sustainability and do not know if we will ever get there

    time — I think it takes longer to build and ignite a B2B community than a B2C; B2C can go viral very quickly, while B2B may never go viral; one analogy is that it’s like we’re starting a fire with really wet firewood

  • Andy Sernovitz

    Hi Paul –

    I’m on the other side on this one. With BtoB you know your audience, you know what they care about, and it’s easier to connect them.

    You’re dealing with an existing community instead of unknown masses.

    Here is a post I wrote about it:
    http://www.damniwish.com/2007/08/gary-spangler-f.html

    Think about what a trade association is … a giant BtoB community that collaborates online and off. Old-school, but effective.

    Thanks,

    Andy
    Andy Sernovitz
    Author, Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking (http://tinyurl.com/2twm77)

  • Douglas Karr

    I think the most important factor is the fanaticism of the audience to the brand. Many large manufacturers have tried and failed at social networking (and many are still trying) but the truth is that very few fans are fanatical about a brand – they are fanatical about the people representing the brand.

    People aren’t fanatical about The Home Depot, they are fanatical about Tony Stewart. People aren’t fanatical about The Colts, they’re fanatical about Tony Dungy, Payton Manning, etc. You get the point.

    In other words, it’s much easier to make B2B Social Media work if there are people that represent the brand and not simply the brand itself.

  • Tom O'Brien

    Interesting – I was going along with your proposition – until I read Andy S’s post. Then it occurred to me that the big deal in social media (for me, anyway) is that (as a consumer) the network has made it easy for me to find my tribe around the world and have conversations.

    As a business person – we put (perhaps) more effort into self organization and seeking our our peers – and there (in the past) was more infrastructure to help us do so (trade associations, trade shows, publications, etc.). It is easier, faster, more involved and more interesting and useful that ever before with social media.

    The big AH HA for me is that the tools (internet) are available to self organize in a way never before – and that is the big deal.

    Tom O’B
    http://humanvoice.wordpress.com

  • Paul Dunay

    Excellent comments guys
    I really appreciate them

    Doug your comment about the person behind the brand really hit me

    And this is something we all need to focus on in B2B since its hard for a brand to be Social or have a “Social” life

  • Rick

    Paul,

    Love your blog and some great comments here. Social media is a different animal for the B2B crowd. It’s not about belonging to something and getting fired up about a brand and showing what a loyal fan you are in this space. It’s about being a more informed buyer or seller.

    We’re seeing this more now in the financial services, specifically tied to industry conferences. As the industry I cover continues to suffer from the liquidity crunch, conference attendance is way down. To compensate, conference organizers are launching social sites (using NING or creating a group in Facebook or LinkedIn) and trying to get people to log in. Those who don’t have the budget to travel seem to be taking the bait.

    Success depends upon providing enough valuable content to keep members engaged. That’s not easy and we’ll see far more failures than successes. But for those who can load a social media site with the kind of great content that leads to interaction, the future is very bright in the B2B space.

    Rick.

  • Tracey

    Great post and thought-provoking comments. I’m currently grappling with a B2B blog myself. One of my challenges is getting execs to make time to post regularly… I’m just not sure that can happen. And they are the ones that know enough to actually write something compelling. I’m working on getting there, but to be honest, my industry knowledge just can’t compare with theirs. I’d love to see some tips on getting a B2B blog started. 🙂

  • Mike Selissen

    Good to see someone acknowledge the complexities of B2B social media. Consumer social media can focus on features, fashion, and trends – all those things that appeal to people regardless of income, profession, geography, etc. B2B audiences are much smaller relative to those in the consumer world, yet, as you point out, more diverse (executive, legal, IT, users, purchasing, external influencers). The people that occupy each of these roles have their own perspectives, agendas, hot buttons and language. How does a vendor create a social media environment that provides each role with relevant information in the right forum? Not as simple as many (“just do it”) social media experts suggest.

    B2B companies like Oracle and IBM are way ahead of the game in integrating Web 2.0 into the marketing mix, as are online communities of practice like ITtoolBox. All good models. Each of these endeavors has transcended the fixation on individual Web 2.0 tools to provide a seamless integration of social media with traditional collateral like white papers, case studies and landing pages. ITtoolBox in particular clearly demonstrates the power of peer-to-peer influence on purchase decisions and information exchange. These communities, I believe, are where the future lies for smart B2B marketers. Guess I came around to Weber’s way of thinking…

    Big tech companies notwithstanding, B2B marketers first need to assess the relevance of social media within their own particular industries and among their intended audiences. Not every customer or salesperson or influencer cares about blogs and podcasts. If all looks good, then social media needs to become part of the integrated marketing plan that ties into and complements the other channels.

  • Paul Everett

    Well Paul…

    …looks like you’ve opened a can of worms here!

    I think the difference between easy success and doomed to fail is this question (which I haven’t yet answered for myself):

    Can a community exist online if it wouldn’t (or doesn’t already) exist offline?

    In B2C there are enough people to create a buzz about a band (thousands go to see them live), and the very idea of new technology can be enough to build excitement (second life?).

    But I would really struggle to create a site about the fund to restore my local church’s roof (aside from the lack of numbers in a village of 200 people, most of the key audience at the church probably aren’t online).

    I think there must be too many companies out there having conversations like this:

    “We should use social media to get more people involved in this”
    “Why will they get involved?”
    “Because it’s social media”

    Having said that, others have already mentioned some great examples where enough people can see a good enough reason (career advancement; help informing better decisions) to give up their time and make social media work. Maybe the ‘would it work offline’ (albeit on a smaller scale) test can help predict future successes?

  • Dwight Griesman

    Fascinating series of comments here everyone. thank you.

    To be sure, there are ay number of reasons for people to engage in a b2b community and informed buyer and seller status is key among them. But I would suggest there are also important psychological benefits of belonging that apply in B2B just as in B2C.

    To get a nice overview of all of this including how companies might be able to leverage social media, I recommend that you all look into a new book – Groundswell. Its written by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, two of my colleagues here at Forrester and (bias aside) is an excellent framework for both B2B and B2C marketers in approaching the space. http://www.forrester.com/Groundswell/book.html

    Pardon the promotion, but I think it can broaden the discussion by thinking more deeply about the objectives of engagement both from the customer side and the company side.

  • Tom Pick

    I’m not sure it’s more or less difficult, but the approach certainly has to be different. Psychologically, people are more passionate about things they want than about things they need, which is why it’s far more profitable to produce movies or music than toasters or tomato sauce.

    Paul Everett had a very good point–ask why your B2B audience might be involved in social media. The answer is likely to be the same reason they would join a trade organization or attend a conference: to learn something and solve a specific category of problems more effectively.

    If you can get your own people providing helpful, objective advice in online communities you’ve built an extremely effective PR channel. And if you can get your customers to evangelize about your product or service, you’ve achieved some incredibly powerful marketing.

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