Forrester recently released a report by Laura Ramos and Augie Ray on How to Assess the Impact of Social Media in B2B Tech Marketing. While B2B marketers have been ramping up social media activities over the past 18 months, not all are seeing the outcomes they’d hoped for. As the report notes, “these social pioneers now ponder whether this new social activity will pay off in business results, and when. The tone of our customer inquiries about the role social media plays in B2B marketing has changed from cautious curiosity to healthy skepticism as we see B2B marketers question the amount of effort (required)…struggle to keep activities vibrant…and grapple with social roles and responsibilities.”
Laura and her team further write that “social marketing programs that don’t focus on a specific audience and objective get preoccupied with the tools and fail to connect with customers…Forrester has seen thousands of companies invest in social media, but few understand how to engage in social activity in ways that create a measurable impact on the business…Seeing tech buyers venture into social channels, B2B firms — more than half in a recent Forrester survey — react by spinning up poorly planned ad hoc programs with little organizational structure…as a result, internal teams begin to bicker over social duties, jockey to be the first to launch social programs, and create a disjointed, incoherent customer experience that fosters mistrust, uncertainty and ridicule.”
Wow — “mistrust, uncertainty and ridicule” — obviously not the objectives of any marketing activity. So what can B2B marketers do (other than ignoring social media; a perilous option at best) to avoid this harsh fate?
1. Set goals, understanding what social media is good for — and what it isn’t. Social media is more like a PR activity than marketing or advertising. It’s about engaging with customers, prospects, industry press, analysts, bloggers and other key influencers to increase the amount of positive conversation about your company, product or service. This can be measured in a variety of ways such as number of “mentions” of your company across social media channels, traffic driven directly from social media sites, and increases in branded search traffic (often the result of exposure through social media or traditional PR activities). It may require some creativity to translate these metrics into hard dollar amounts, but that doesn’t mean that social media results can’t, and shouldn’t, be measured. And as with any other marketing or PR activity, social media efforts be focused on a specific audience.
2. Coordinate efforts. This is easiest if different parts of your organization actually work together toward common goals, which should be the case (but isn’t always) in every company. If your internal groups “bicker” and “jockey” as described above, it may require a senior executive to exert control over the process. But “control” is tricky in the social media world. While management needs to communicate objectives, messaging and guidelines for social media use, ultimately employees from different parts of the organization have to realize they are all working toward furthering the success of the company, and coordinate efforts to meet the needs of differing audiences (e.g., separate Twitter accounts for support and marketing, separate business-focused and technology-focused blogs, etc.).
3. Make sure that social media efforts are sustainable. As the authors note later in the report, “Unlike conventional campaigns, community marketing lacks a specific beginning and end to the activity.” In order to avoid in particular the “mistrust” and “ridicule” noted above, social media programs should be designed to be perpetual, or to last at least until they no longer make sense (e.g. a particular platform loses favor; MySpace comes to mind). This requires allocating sufficient staff time to build and maintain social media points of presence, and having a succession plan in place for when team members move on to other opportunities.
The top five social media platforms being utilized by B2B tech marketers according to the report are, in order:
- • Blogs
- • Open, public social networks (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook)
- • Podcasts
- • Discussion forums
- • Video
Microblogging (i.e., Twitter) surprisingly came in at #7, with an equal number of respondents calling it “less important” for the coming year as making it a higher priority.
Measurement remains the biggest challenge in B2B social media marketing. 77% of respondents said they were either “learning about social media’s impact as they go along” or “struggling to find good ways to measure social outcomes.” Among the minority actually able to assess outcomes, however, most reported seeing benefits in the form of unaided recall, online reach, share of voice, and other brand-related metrics. These results, along with the fact that “many B2B marketers treat social media like an outbound communications channel, and our research highlights the consequences of this choice. Few marketers say that they can measure the impact of social activity on sales lead productivity” reinforce the value of social media as more of a PR-like tool than a direct marketing channel.
The report concludes by recommending that marketers use a combination of value chain analysis and total economic impact (I’ll leave the explanation of these to Forrester) to assess the impact of social media investments on B2B marketing success. Many marketers may find these analytical models difficult to implement and the results of even a successful exercise somewhat fuzzy. What’s most important, however, is to treat social media as an engagement channel rather than a broadcast medium, and structure measurement appropriately.
What’s the value of single phone call with a prospective customer, or a single email exchange? What’s the value of taking a call from an industry journalist who wants to include a quote from your company in a relevant news article? Any of those may be difficult to quantify, but that doesn’t mean you’d even consider ignoring an email or phone call from a prospect or influential journalist. In the end, it’s the same with social media value. It may be difficult to quantify precisely, but B2B vendors can’t afford to ignore it.