Talking business in social circles

Business-to-business brands are finding social media a lucrative way to build relationships and do big business reports Matthew Valentine.

Social circles are making an impact in B2B
Social circles are making an impact in B2B

The B2B arena has sometimes been seen as a backwater in traditional marketing terms, but that misconception is now being trounced in the social media arena, where stakes in some categories are proving to be higher than in B2C.

A global B2C brand might have millions of individual consumers, while the catchment of B2B clients is far smaller – but there is great potential for lucrative deals. For B2B brands that service the IT and technology sectors, a big deal can involve six- or seven-figure invoices from one transaction. Some of these deals have been sparked, or nurtured, by one-to-one encounters via social media channels. So it’s clear that social media is and should be moving up the agenda for B2B.

“For us, certainly, it’s all about following our customers,” says Virgin Media Business head of marketing Jon Hexter. The brand has had a social media presence for two years.

Initially, it took an experimental approach to discover how its B2B customers were using the technology. It used social media as a communications tool to keep in touch with press contacts and a few key customers but now these conversations are deeper. “We very much want to have a two-way conversation with our customers. So we’re looking to ensure that we’re in the forums or the channels where customers are going to interact with us, and us with them,” says Hexter.

He adds that an ICT procurement project might take 12 months, or longer, from the initial tender to a client – such as a local authority or a large company – placing an order. For client IT teams working on these projects, regular interaction with suppliers can be key in reassuring them that they are talking to the right people.

The first half of 2012 has seen Virgin Media Business sponsoring The Guardian’s Innovation Nation Awards. With a mainly IT-based target market, the brand sees a direct connection to innovation and its sponsorship and link to the awards sparked social media interaction. The brand has been measuring the traction these stories have gained and to what extent they were picked up in the wider media. Winners of the awards used social media channels to announce their success, which lengthened the chain of communication.

A global B2C brand might have millions of individual consumers, while the catchment of B2B clients is far smaller – but there is great potential for lucrative deals

Social media is also been used more as a customer service tool. “It has increasingly become a significant factor as customers find us online and many find it a convenient way to engage with us if they’ve got a problem, or a question. They engage with us now via Twitter. So this year we have been changing our approach to how we handle those conversations. We are looking to use and empower our customer service representatives to handle those tweets and respond to them and really to act as an extension of how they would use the phone,” says Hexter.

Even relatively recently this would have been a rare initiative, as brands shared a widespread fear that a Tweeting free-for-all could leave them with egg on their face.

“I think if we go back to this being a communications channel there is no greater risk on the face of it than if they were handling customers on the phone,” says Hexter. “If there is a risk, it is through the immediate wider audience that you reach by posting things online.” There has been a significant internal debate about what strategy to adopt: “Our approach has been to work with our customer service colleagues, in particular our director of customer services, to put the right guidelines and framework in place. We don’t want something that restricts the way that we can service our customers, but there is obviously a difference between Tweeting on your home account and how you represent the company.”

Document technology group Xerox is another brand that has seen the customer service benefits of empowering more staff to communicate via social media. “While we are a B2B company, and there are differences with B2C, we do try and think in a B2P,” says Xerox Europe head of marketing communications Darrell Minards. “We are about business to people.”


Xerox began to “take social media seriously” in 2009 and has a global presence on all the major social media platforms. It judges its performance in a number of ways, including monitoring every mention of the brand and trying to engage people in conversations. It is also moving towards more personal use of social media by its staff and has set up a formalised training programme. “We have a number of different elements in place. The first is a piece of e-learning which is called Social Media Fundamentals and it is exactly that. It talks people through how to start engaging safely using social media. We want people to use social media, engage with their customers and do it in a way that is very transparent and authentic. We want them to be clear that they are a Xerox employee, not to be hiding anything, and to talk in a way that is very genuine,” says Minards.

More advanced training is provided in workshops, where web and social media executive Andy Hill helps develop further tactics for improving customer service and providing genuine help. He also runs workshops for Xerox customers to help them identify profitable uses of social media.

The company broadly divides its social media activity into the categories of listening, engaging and providing support to customers. Tangible results can be widespread, from new product ideas to improved customer service techniques.

“We tend to organise objectives around specific campaign elements,” says Minards. Events are a focus for social media activity, with the two-week Drupa print media trade show in Germany the most recent example. “We wanted to engage with customers not only at the show but before, during and after. We consciously worked out what the social media objectives were every time we did part of the marketing campaign,” says Minards. “In this case, it was driving traffic to the stand and to the Xerox events site and social media handles; increasing interaction with the show attendees; and creating a buzz around what we were doing at Drupa.” Xerox, which was not the biggest exhibitor at Drupa, achieved its objective of gaining more social media mentions than any other vendor there.

Performances by Cirque Du Soleil, which Xerox sponsors, were one method of driving activity. Others were less visually arresting, but equally effective. One example was a Tweet announcing the signing of a $100,000 deal with a reseller which was seen by another reseller in Brazil (who wasn’t attending the event) who eventually signed up for a similar deal.


Events are a bid deal for computer giant Dell too. “Events are huge for B2B companies, and we have this big yearly event called Dell World,” says Dell executive director of digital marketing Rishi Dave. “We invested a lot in the digital experience to enhance the physical experience last year. We created a digital app; we had conversations; and we had social amplification of the event while it was going on. We streamed the content and interviews. We got hugely positive feedback from customers on that. We even had live polling while people were [on stage speaking], where they could ask customers questions and people could answer them with their mobile apps. That’s another great example of integrating social, digital and physical together for the B2B customer. And we are going to do that again this year.”

As the way that brands use social media evolves, so does the metrics they use to measure effectiveness. “We basically take every single platform and we look at it individually and check the activity level. So for a blog it might be visits. It might be how many people are taking an RSS feed, how many are commenting. We build that up to a metrics package,” says Andy Hill of Xerox. “We set ourselves targets of how much activity we want each year, or each month, versus how much engagement we want. And that is helping us to evolve the types of messages we put out and the types of ways we engage. In the beginning, you might be broadcasting an awful lot. But as you evolve you suddenly realise the real success is when you start understanding your customers. It’s not about selling, but trying to help.”

Case Study: Dell

Computer giant Dell has always sold direct to its customers, so the company had a natural inclination to become an early adopter of social media to improve its ability to communicate with them, says Dell executive director of digital marketing Rishi Dave. Digital communication is the company’s primary method of communication with customers.

“The challenge that B2B companies have is around getting the right content on what they provide to the right customer, in the format that customer wants,” says Dave. “And social media is the channel in which to do that. The reason why social media is so critical is because it’s one of the primary content delivery mechanisms for B2B companies to explain to customers, interact with customers, and solve customers’ problems.”

With a technically literate B2B audience for its products, Dell quickly realised that what customers wanted to talk to the company and its experts about was technical issues. With generic sales pitches, and even detailed technical specifications easily available, when Dell started to interact through social media forums it soon became involved in active technical discussions about real world IT challenges.

Things have evolved from there, with the brand now hosting a lot of its own social media content. “We have the Dell Tech Centre, which is a fast-growing technical community. It has more than 10,000 members and has grown 90% in visits year-on-year,” says Dave. The forum enables Dell’s experts to communicate directly with customers to solve problems, or suggest new ideas about how technology can grow their business.

But Dell’s social content now encompasses far more than technical advice. “Right now it is everything,” says Dave. “We started out very organically – driven by customers – but as this became a bigger way to drive our business, we stepped back and developed a very comprehensive content strategy. We said: ‘Here are our messages; here are the different types of customers we want to hit; and here are the people who can use social media to interact with customers.”

When it became apparent that customers wanted to talk directly to technicians or product development teams, the right staff were empowered to enable that. “We have a very formal training programme, and we have trained more than 3,000 people around the world at Dell to talk to customers via social media about their area of expertise,” says Dave. “This has allowed us to massively expand our presence and interactions with customers and the content strategy we are trying to drive in the B2B space.”

Dell’s Enterprise Efficiency site, operated with publishing group UBM Techweb, is aimed at an executive audience. The community has more than 35,000 members, with credible, thought-leading content provided by technology journalists and experts from both inside and outside Dell.

The company spends a lot of time and effort measuring the effectiveness of its social media strategy using several techniques. Some are a mix of qualitative and quantitative, such as monitoring the online behaviour of B2B customers and comparing it to transactions. The company will use its CRM system to look at which members of its larger client companies are visiting and what they are asking about, and this quickly led to a deduction.

“In B2B the impact of this stuff is almost bigger than it is in B2C, because you can initiate a huge deal through a simple social interaction between one or two people,” says Dave. “That massively justifies your investment. So in B2B you’re talking big customers, big influence.”

The new B2B magazines

By opening regular discourse on social media platforms, brands are creating a heavy demand for content to keep their clients engaged. Articles, case studies, opinions and research findings are all popular because they position the brand as a thought leader and increase its profile in SEO terms. One result is that brands are fulfilling a service that used to be performed by small B2B magazines, many of which have folded as tough markets have reduced their profitability.

“Brands are becoming like magazines and publishers because marketing to B2B is all about providing content and converting customers based on that content,” says Rishi Dave of Dell.

“Customers are buying based on content. Regardless of who it comes from, they want great content. Using a content-led marketing strategy in B2B allows us to get our perspective and viewpoint on the best solutions for all these technology problems to customers. And then we can find them and convert them.”

Establishing a reputation for thought leadership and creating a cycle of advocacy for its products is important for Xerox too. Increasingly, the company plans to be a curator of relevant content through its social media platforms, which is one way of dealing with the enormous demand for content that social media strategies can create.

NMA Explains: B2B social media by Charlotte McEleny


If there was any better summary of the growth and importance of social media in the B2B space it is the recent acquisition of enterprise social network Yammer by Microsoft. Largely an internal network, the service in its premium format also allows companies to build out customer service functions. The deal was made for $1.2bn cash. But whether it is on a bespoke B2B network, on LinkedIn or via the more consumer focused networks, business relationships tend to take more tending to, particularly for higher value transactions, so the ROI driven is often very clear. The key for brands is to understand where its customers feel most comfortable communicating, before jumping into developing a community of customers in a dead space.



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