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* There are two types of social networks: online communities and professional  networking sites
* Social networks are currently more valuable as a reputation tool, although some  organizations use them for demand creation
* Internal social networks can be a very effective way to foster collaboration and  knowledge sharing

Editor’s Note: Sirius Trends examines the impact of emerging business strategies and tactics on bto-b organizations. This brief – the second in a series on social media – provides an in-depth look at social networks, and how they be leveraged by sales and marketing.

You know the drill; as soon as an organization sees lead levels ebbing, everyone begins clamoring for new ways to refill the hopper. In the past, sales and marketing leaders may have tried to solve the issue by bringing in reps with desirable personal networks, or buying lists that often wound up having few new names. The paradigm has begun to shift, however,
with the rise of social networks.

Although social networking is more established in the consumer world, the concept has piqued the interest of b-to-b executives as both a reputation and demand builder. In this brief, SiriusDecisions shares its opinions on the value of these networks for each of these tasks, as well as tips and tricks for how they can be woven into the fabric of sales and marketing.

Social Networks Defined

There are two categories of social networks. Online communities allow users to post profiles about themselves and connect with others, while professional networking sites enable users
to link to others through their association with friends or colleagues. Following is a look at each of these categories:

* Communities. Although MySpace and Facebook are the main examples connected  with online communities, the idea actually started in the 1980s with Usenet and bulletin  board systems where individuals with similar interests (often revolving around  entertainment or sports) exchanged online messages that were posted to threads. Since  then, many different communities and forums have evolved, including those targeted to  business or technical users across different verticals and sub-verticals.

 Companies are  also allowing current employees to start their own networks behind the firewall to foster  internal knowledge sharing and management and directly connect employees with  subject matter experts around the organization. Vendors that are helping businesses  build such internal and external communities include Microsoft, IBM, Google and  Yahoo!, as well as newer entrants such as Leverage Software and Visible Path.

* Professional networking. Including LinkedIn, Jigsaw, Spoke and Plaxo, these sites range from simple business card exchanges to communities that allow users to create profiles and connect with other business professionals that they know or want to meet
 through existing associations. The sites build trust due to the fact that connections rely on  either existing relationships or the recommendation of a shared contact. Privacy and  spam are controlled since there are no anonymous connections or communications,  although some professional networking sites have a premium (paid) component that  gives users access to others with whom they have no prior connection.

Social Networking: Functional Analysis

The real question for b-to-b organizations is how to most effectively leverage social networking; what follows is our analysis of the value of social networking for three specific sales and marketing functions, with the impact on each function rated as low, medium or high:

* Communications (online communities high, professional networking (low). Many b-to-b organizations now have user communities that essentially serve as online user groups or customer advisory boards where users can share best practices or insight into solving technical problems. Designated employees should be available to monitor, moderate and drive discussions within these communities; technical staff should be able
 to respond to any support issues and proactively address any negative threads that  develop, rather than simply deleting them. Tools and services from vendors such as  Factiva, Vocus and Bacon’s can be used to track sentiment (and customer loyalty)
 within these communities over time, and certainly will be used to justify their resourcing.  In addition, because much of the workforce you will hire from this point forward will be
 from a generation used to using social networks, we expect a wave of business-specific  communities to emerge as a meeting ground for employees to share interests, weave  themselves into the cultures of their organizations more quickly, and talk business as  appropriate. These communities can be a real value-add for new employees, and can be  introduced by communications functions as part of the onboarding process.

* Field marketing (online communities low, professional networking low). Many b-to-b organizations have tried to interject themselves into online communities built around their target marketplaces for the purposes of demand creation. Others have tried viral marketing on different social networking sites or forums, either surreptitiously posting a positive mention of their company or overtly offering something like a white paper. In most cases, these efforts have failed because it became apparent quickly that the only reason the company joined the community was to advertise, something that community  members have never taken kindly to. The key to successfully joining these communities  is to make sure you have a connection to the subject matter and can actually add to the  discussion or appropriately mention your company; for most b-to-b organizations,  however, this will be time consuming and not worth the effort. For field marketers, internal  online communities will be more valuable, particularly for knowledge sharing among field  groups that are decentralized and need to share best practices. In our research brief  “Putting Priority on Program Execution,” we discuss the importance of a feedback  loop to optimize program creation and execution; an internal online community is an  effective way to facilitate this type of conversation.

* Sales (online communities medium, professional networking high). We have observed reps having very good luck using professional networking sites to gain access to a network of contacts that can eventually turn into leads, raising their individual productivity. By following the connections of individuals they already know, they have been able to search for and learn about buyers and their organizations; some professional networking sites allow users to trade business cards or contacts  to gain access to others. Not only do we believe we will continue to see the use of these  sites increase as sales seeks more access to potential buyers, we expect to see more  internal communities built around knowledge sharing and best practices, particularly as organizations continue to view their existing sales and marketing portals as ineffective.  Such internal communities are being enabled by platforms offered by vendors such as  SAVO and Kadient, which transform the idea of a sales portal into an online destination  where reps can find the most appropriate content for an opportunity or ask questions  of an organization’s subject matter experts.

Social networks have become a consumer online staple; though they have not penetrated the b-to-b world to the same degree, we believe that over the next several years this is a fact that is
poised to change. Organizations looking to create marketing and sales strategy that has a social media component should move forward under the assumption that reputation-focused tasks – market awareness, loyalty and building internal morale – are likely a better place to focus organizational efforts around social networking, although individual reps will surely try to take advantage of professional networking sites.

About the Author:

SiriusDecisions, a leading source for business-to-business sales and marketing best-practice research and data. SiriusDecisions Executive Advisory Services, Consulting Services, Benchmark Assessment Services, Learning and Events provide senior-level executives with the sales and marketing operational intelligence required to maximize top line growth and performance. 

©Sirius Decisions, 2009. Reproduced with permission.

 



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