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Questioning B2B social media results

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 25, 2013
Summary:
Those who have inside dirt on B2B marketing and lead generation cite one factoid to me: the surprisingly strong performance of email marketing versus the lackluster performance of social media - why is that? Here's some fresh data.

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Lazy definitions bother me – especially when I use them. Despite being an advocate for what is now dubbed 'inbound marketing,’ I don’t find it an easy term to define. The hyped-up role of social media within inbound marketing is particularly troubling.

Those who have inside dirt on B2B marketing cite one factoid to me: the surprisingly strong performance of email marketing versus the lackluster performance of social media - when it comes to putting butts in seats in webinars and on-the-ground events.

But is B2B even a relevant term? And should lead generation and other hard ROI measurements be the obsessive focus of marketers, or should marketing integrate itself with sales and service, with the aim of providing a genuinely positive (ahem) ‘brand experience’ – even if that experience is not easily measured?

I went looking for fresh data and fresh answers. Some vivid results came by way of Lead Generation Methods, a new report from InsideSales.com (report is free w/sign up). Though the sample size of the report is too small for definitive conclusions (423 total surveyed), I was drawn to the data because of its B2B focus and details on the effectiveness of different social channels. This graphic sums it up nicely:

insidesalesgraphic

A couple things stood out: marketers are struggling to find the value in Google Plus, though understanding how to take advantage of G+'s killer app, Hangouts (and Hangouts on Air), could change those results. It's not a surprise to see Pinterest's lack of traction in this particular B2B survey, though distinguishing between tossing up some photos versus a savvy use of Pinterest like Get Satisfaction employs is worth noting.

It's not a shock to see the big three: email newsletters, trade shows, and company web sites rating strongly. Given the relative ease of webinar production and easy tie-ins to email marketing and social media, I would have expected stronger webinar utilization. Online virtual events clearly have untapped potential, though we may be waiting for platforms that truly create an online networking experience rather than a stale menu of 'theaters', which are too often pre-recorded webinars.

The social media struggle is notable. As InsideSales put it:

One of the most interesting results we found was that social media tools were not considered effective for generating leads. LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and Pinterest were all rated near or below the bottom quartile for effectively generating leads.

One other data point that stood out:  the correlation between effective marketing options for brand awareness versus lead generation were strikingly similar, to the tune of 92%. InsideSales noted a few deviations, which I'd place in the category of  'confirming common sense':

Outdoor media, TV advertising and public relations, do not perform as well for generating leads directly, but they perform better in generating awareness. Webinars were strong performers in generating leads, and are even stronger in driving brand awareness. It is surprising that less than half of companies are using them.

Bottom line? InsideSales found that just 5% of those surveyed believe that social media is a highly effective method for generating leads; a slightly less anemic 10% say the same about social driving brand awareness.

Is B2B an obsolete term?

Is it foolhardy to talk about marketing in B2B terms? In Ray Wang's recent Identity Manifesto post, the leadoff in his seven point manifesto is:  'B2B and B2C are Dead - It's a P2P and M2M World.' Given how B2B enterprise software companies are redefining themselves, change is clearly afoot.

Oracle's corporate blog recently featured a variation on Wang's theme, Forget B2B and B2C – Tech Enables B2P (Business to People) Marketing. SAP's forays into B2C are proving impossible to dodge, with co-CEO Bill McDermott modestly proclaiming after Sapphire Now 2013 that SAP redefined itself as a B2B2C company, and press coverage hitting everything from the newly-named SAP Center (San Jose Sharks arena) to SAP's role reviving the Hostess Twinkie. Consumer brand awareness is the priority-du-jour.

But is B2B obsolete? In marketing terms, I say unequivocally no. You can potentially relabel this debate as 'the complex sale' (the usual domain of B2B) versus 'the impulse sale' (far more likely in consumer purchasing). Assessing a 'time-to-purchase' for the complex sale versus the impulse sale remain categorically different. Call it what you like, a protracted sales cycle calls for distinctions in assessing social media effectiveness.

Contradictory findings

To validate my view that social media is weak for B2B lead generation, I checked out Hubspot's latest data, which inconviently goes directly against my own bias and experience. In a June 3 blog post, Where Do Marketers Get Leads? Hubspot's Sara Davidson shares some relevant lead data from Hubspot's extensive 2013 State of Inbound Marketing Annual Report, which compiles data from 3,339 marketers (free with signup).

Hubspot's results do validate my view that B2B versus B2C is still a valid distinction for lead generation:

  • B2C companies get 3X more leads than B2B companies do through traditional advertising (9% versus 4%).
  • B2B companies get twice as many leads from telemarketing compared to B2C companies (8% versus 4%).
  • The least effective lead sources for B2B companies are traditional advertising (3%), PPC (6%), and direct mail (6%).
  • The least effective lead sources for B2C companies are telemarketing (3%), trade shows (6%), and PPC (6%).

These results generally support the theory that the B2B sales process is not only more complex, but narrower, so a telemarketer with industry know-how would get a better result than a niche ad only a minority of mainstream audiences would have a purchasing connection to. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the overall ineffectiveness of PPC (pay-per-click), which was one hailed as a key component of B2B marketing given the ability to target specific search phrases and demographics.

But the social media results did shock me a little:

  • The best three lead sources for B2B companies are SEO (14%), email marketing, (13%), and social media (12%)
  • The best three lead sources for B2C companies are social media (17%), SEO (16%), and email marketing (15%)

It makes sense that SEO, which thrives on targeted keyword hits, works a little better for B2B. But overall social media is performing better for lead generation in Hubspot's latest data than I expected.

Hub-and-spoke model is the way forward

My big objection to B2B social media is that it is viewed too often as a blasting channel, unsupported by relevant content. That's because it's easier to pour social media syrup on a marketing turd than to transform into a digital publisher. If social media is being used to extend conversations and pull audiences into a content-rich web site with plenty of lead conversion opportunities, my beef with social media for B2B largely goes away.

In this context, social, email, and SEO converge as cooperating factors into what Hubspot calls a 'hub-and-spoke' model, with a lively web site as the hub of content. As Hubspot puts it in their 2013 inbound report:

The best way to understand this social media magnification is to imagine a hub-and-spoke model of digital marketing to explain how leads are funneled from satellite channels, such as the blog or social media platforms, to your website. Once you draw traffic to your company site, you can then design a conversion process aimed at delivering on your final conversion goal. Social media is one of the critical “spokes” in this hub-and-spoke architecture.

I don't have the data to resolve the social media 'lead gen effectiveness' discrepancy I ran into with these two reports, but for now, I'll speculate: companies that have figured out how to become digital publishers and use social media as a spoke to drive traffic to their web site 'hub' are the ones experiencing the social media lead generation success.

Verdict

I see inbound marketing as earning attention rather than paying for it via 'interruption marketing,'. That means building a culture around your brand so compelling that your audience goes beyond opt-in, actively seeking out your content and attention. Just this week, we learned gmail's new inbox seems to reduce open rates by moving email subscriptions into the promotions bucket. It will be a beast to reach people if you can't engage with them personally and ace the relevance test. Forget 'trust your brand' - to make it into their inbox, they're going to have to trust you.

If you put attention and trust at the center, inbound marketing wins. Hubspot's 2013 survey makes the case:  twice as many marketers say inbound marketing delivers below average cost-per-leads versus outbound strategies. More stats: Hubspot found that inbound brought in 54% more leads into the marketing funnel than traditional outbound leads. As for that nagging ROI question: 'In 2013, 41% of marketers confirm inbound produces measurable ROI, and a staggering 82% of marketers who blog see positive ROI for their inbound marketing.'

Blogging is a good one to end on. Of all the inbound tactics, the hardest part of the hub to build is the blog. Given its lead generation potency, why is blogging such a tough nut to crack? Because unlike webinars, or even virtual events, money can't solve the blogging problem. Yes, you can hire an editor with a knack for surfacing stories. But in the end, the blog has to have a human face on it - yours. You can outsource a white paper; good luck outsourcing your blog. Abstracting from promotional product talk into big picture themes with reach is no cakewalk either.

Pull that off, and you have the base of your hub. You're no longer throwing PR money around to see what sticks; you're a bona-fide publishing maven. Then if you want to make the case for social media and lead generation, I'm all ears.

Photo credits: man © Viktor Kuryan - Fotolia.com

Disclosure: SAP and Oracle are diginomica partners at the time of this writing.

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