Is targeting B2B buyers on social channels effective? Readers debate

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 28, 2018
My last post on B2B buyers stoked readers' fires. The debate: are social networks an effective channel for reaching B2B buyers? Here's some reader views - and my reactions.

You never know what will spark reader feedback. In the case of B2B Buyers are changing; we are all publishers now - answering the top audience questions, it all goes back to my offhand comment:

It’s true that most B2B buyers are not active socially.

That raises a ton of issues about marketing spend, eh? Some readers questioned my statement. Others think I understated it - they don't see the point of social marketing whatsoever. I followed that up with:

But those who influence their decisions often are. Understanding the network that impacts your buyer is vital to your social strategy. It’s usually a mistake to market to one buyer persona, and not to those they network with and trust.

Another huge advantage to a social media presence - accessibility/transparency. That's a big part of earning trust. But let's look at what readers said. Sprinklr's Marshall Kirkpatrick hit on the social angle:

This line is particularly notable to me: “It’s true that most B2B buyers are not active socially. But those who influence their decisions often are.”

Is social then “necessary but not sufficient”? Is the purchase a second-order effect of social engagement? Is social primarily a path to the “vendor awareness” stage of the customer journey, on an organizational level? If great strategies require thinking in terms of sequences of events, why do so many of us demand one-step, immediate, demand generation with clear attribution from our marketing, including from social? So many questions. I believe the focus on certainty also leads to a dramatic under-investment in tactics that are powerful as a nexus of causality, if not clearly in a purely instrumental way.

Granted, Sprinklr bet heavily on the social angle, but then again, so has diginomica - though we bring loads of caveats, including the central importance of email. I responded:

Agreed. Again it depends on the buyer. But to your point, attribution models, while getting more sophisticated, do not do a good job of assessing how trust was developed. And they often miss elements of the buying decision, and who influenced whom.

Consumer example: how many of us have quickly checked a review site without even logging in? In a B2B context, you might also scroll reviews or have a private Facebook conversation about a vendor with a trusted friend. Almost all attribution models are going to miss things like that, no matter how cleverly weighted they are.

That’s why this type of content strategy is often under-estimated. But I’m here to say it works. Eventually, the numbers will catch up. That said, attribution models have gotten better, and some of them are really helping companies to be smarter with content.

Kirkpatrick wasn't done. He started a thread on LinkedIn about the piece, which generated plenty of worthwhile comments. B2B social advisor Betsy Hindman disagreed on the buyers-aren't social point:

Hadn’t thought about social bringing the added feature of accessibility. Must disagree with the statement of buyers not being active social users however - is there data on that? As they get younger they are certain to be. Either way I agree their surrounding committees are active.

My reaction:

  • Depends on industry and yes, to some extent, age (age will also impact the preferred apps/networks).
  • Depends on how you define social. Example: most buyers are indeed on LinkedIn, or an equivalent in other geographies. But are they checking their profile daily, or is it just a business card in the sky? Are they actively involved in conversations? And even if they are active, do you have access to those conversations - and do you have the expertise to earn trust through your own contributions? Marketers who talk in branded spiel aren't generally welcome in the moderated online conversations most B2B buyers seem to prefer.
  • Depends on how you participate socially. If you are a brand promoter that loads up your tweets with hashtags, don't expect to reach many buyers. But if you run a topical, 20,000 member LinkedIn group, then you have superior trusted access to buyers than if you're just buying ads (you can send announcements and curated summaries to group members, which will even hit their email inboxes).

Accessible budget holders get sick of social sales "pings" pretty quickly. Soon, their filters and buffers are in place. You can count on Gartner's Hank Barnes to dive into this discussion:

Our research in the world of B2B tech buying is that social amplifies and may gain attention, but it is not yet viewed as a truly trusted channel. It may help influencers and buyers get to that channel.

Hindman responded:

What’s most trusted? Realizing of course most are not going to convert on one channel for such a high-value purchase. Social is a good supplement to email, calls, etc, and even with LinkedIn price per click it’s still cost effective compared to some ways of reaching specific decision makers (e.g. attending conferences).

Hindman brings ads into the mix, which is a bit outside the scope of my presentation (update: see blog comments for more on what Hindman is referring to here - not typical ads but sponsored content placement). My own experience with LinkedIn ads is: tread carefully, and watch your cost per click. Make sure you are converting into either a sale, or a desirable content subscriber. You'll have to place an exact value on both to make those ads work - which brings us back to the attribution conundrum. Barnes added:

"Trusted" is not exactly channels (my bad) - tech buyers tell us it is more traditional forms (case studies, third party reports).

Barnes got into my wheelhouse, re: "don't get on social until you have something of value to share." Meaty content qualifies, and the lines between channels blur:

We think it may be influenced by formats that they think others they share it with will value. It's a complex scenario with no one magic bullet.

That's a good place to leave it for today. If you want more, my last piece is a boiled down view of (almost) all my views on engaging B2B buyers. It's based on a live audience podcast, which forced a concise take. There was, however, one big piece that I've spoken about but never written: the importance of a rootable narrative.

A "rootable narrative," as I see it, is a story about your brand that is relatable, that people can root for and get behind (note: this is the exact opposite of a bland mission statement. It must be a story that energizes your people and makes them want to commit bold creative acts of brilliance, aka evil plans).

That's accompanied by an elevator-pitch-with-attitude, a burning phrase that sticks in people's minds about what your brand stands for (you may need a second one about what you specialize in as well). If there's interest, I can elaborate. Those two are the trees and fertilizer, the branches to hang all your content on. Without that, you're just cranking out copy. That's not going to work.

End note: this piece is part of my ongoing series on the informed B2B buyer. You can also check out the full podcast discussion, Reaching the informed B2B buyer (and their networks) – an informal podcamp session with Jon Reed.

Updated, 8am US ET, with a few resource links and small tweaks for reading clarity.

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