Though business use of social media is rapidly increasing, many executives remain skeptical of its value. From a pure lead generation / ROI standpoint, this skepticism isn’t entirely unjustified; research from earlier this year showed that branding metrics (increased brand exposure, webs traffic, email subscribers partnerships)—not strict revenue or ROI measures—topped the list of benefits that b2b marketers realized from social media activities. A more recent study reported by Forbes stated that while “60% (of small businesses surveyed) credit social media with positively impacting their businesses…(only) 36% have attracted new business as a result of their social media efforts.”
The bottom line is that while social media marketing definitely provides benefits (such as a higher conversion rate for organic search traffic), it’s not generally effective as a direct promotion tool. In fact, trying to use social media primarily as an advertising and direct response medium is viewed as boorish social media behavior and likely to backfire, doing a brand more harm than good.
Rather than trying to force the proverbial square peg into a round hole by using social media in ways it’s not effective, take a broader view of the business benefits it offers. Here are seven valuable ways to use social media for business beyond direct selling or lead generation.
1. Share content (your own and others’). Producing and sharing content with your market both attracts prospective buyers and educates them, potentially shortening sales cycles. Content marketing doesn’t always produce immediate or direct results, but it does increase brand recognition, credibility, online visibility and yes—sales—over time. In the research cited above, 74% of marketers who have been using social media for at least two years report that it has helped them close new sales. Social media marketing requires a commitment over time; it’s the not an approach where you can dip your toes in the water and expect immediate success. But for those marketers willing to produce and promote their own content (building credibility) and valuable content produced by others (expanding their influence network), social media pays off.
2. Get ideas for product development. Ultimately, no one knows the challenges that your prospects face better than your prospects themselves. And no one knows the benefits and shortcomings of your current products better than your customers. There’s no better source of information than your prospects and existing customers to help generate new product ideas. Marketers no longer have to rely on expensive, contrived focus groups; social media provides a vastly larger, richer, more real-world source of information.
3. Provide customer support. Customers are increasingly seeking support through social media channels, as well as complaining via social media about poor product and service experiences. Smart companies are providing social media support options and actively monitoring social media networks for brand and product name mentions. (For example, DirecTV is good at this; JustHost is not.) Using social media channels for customer support can both improve a company’s image—by demonstrating, publicly, responsiveness to customer issues—and reduce customer support costs.
4. Perform competitive and market research. The prospective buyers in your market have been talking about their challenges, and the relative merits and shortcomings of alternative solutions and vendors, for as long as your market has existed. Social media brings these discussions into the open. Marketers no longer have to rely on expensive research methods or proprietary data sources to get this information. Tracking mentions of competitors and industry terms using social media monitoring software provides a vast trove of inexpensive, real-time competitive and market intelligence.
5. Answer prospect questions. It’s no longer the biggest ad budget that wins. People want to buy from companies that are smart, helpful and responsive. Social media provides the mechanism to demonstrate those qualities. Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn groups, community sites (e.g. Toolbox.com, Focus, Ulitzer) and specialized discussion forums all provide opportunities to respond to questions and demonstrate industry expertise. You probably can’t be everywhere, but again social media monitoring tools can help set priorities and provide notification of situations to address.
6. Develop relationships with influencers. Third-party validation has always been more valuable than advertising or other types of self-promotion. Traditionally, customer case studies, PR and analyst relations have filled this role. Social media provides a more direct path to identifying and building relationships with a variety of voices in your market: analysts, journalists, customers, bloggers and other key influencers. If you build and nurture this network, these people will help amplify and validate your message.
7. Facilitate offline connections (e.g., promote events, meet up at trade shows). As valuable as social media is for building and engaging online networks, there is still tremendous benefit to meeting with people IRL and deepening relationships through offline conversations. The social media “big four”–Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and blogs–as well as specialized social event tools like Lanyrd, Meetup.com, Eventbrite and Amiando can all help with arranging and promoting offline opportunities to meet in-person with your online social acquaintances.
In the end, social media activities have to produce a financial return, and they do for companies willing to commit to social media as a new way of doing business, not simply another marketing channel. Just don’t limit your thinking to one specific use for social media tools, and particularly not to one like hard-sell direct response promotion, which is more likely to produce a backlash than success in the social sphere.