Tough times demand new tactics. Some years ago, the collapse of the dot-com bubble stirred an industrywide move toward online lead generation. Now a deepening recession has thrust social media into the b2b mainstream.
It's not that the payoff is so clear. In fact, a lack of industry-standard ROI metrics for social media campaigns continues to frustrate marketers. It's just that the tools are so darned cheap. Blogs can be launched for little more than the time required for employees to fill them, and so-called “white box” social network suppliers rent their services for as little as a couple of hundred dollars a month.
As a result, 63% of “best-in-class” companies plan to increase their social media marketing budgets this year, according to Aberdeen Group. EMarketer estimates that worldwide social network advertising will increase to $2.3 billion this year, up about 15% from 2008. In the U.S., the growth rate will be a more modest 10%.
“Top executives no longer dismiss social technology as meaningless adolescent musings,” said Peter Kim, a former Forrester Research analyst who now works for a stealth-mode enterprise social technology startup. “However, they are still skeptical about social media's ability to produce meaningful and measurable business results,” he added. The Aberdeen research concurs, estimating that nearly 60% of companies find it difficult to measure social media payback.
The metrics debate is likely to continue as platforms diversify. Traffic to a Web site is no longer a simple indicator of success, now the businesses are increasingly syndicating their content to other outlets, collecting friends and followers, and engaging in discussions on public and private social networks. For the foreseeable future, social media campaigns will continue to be justified more on gut instinct than on classic deliverables.
The workhorse of the b2b social media world is still the humble blog. Simple, flexible and search-engine friendly, blogs also enable marketers to set the agenda for conversations and to manage negativity. B2b bloggers at such tech giants as IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., SAP and Sun Microsystems have been tapping away for more than four years now with no negative side effects. That's cleared the way for brands like BearingPoint, Eastman Kodak, Nortel Networks, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Siemens to join the party.
Search performance is a growing driver of blog popularity as buyers increasingly begin the selection process at Google. Emerson Process Experts, a 3-year-old b2b blog written by a communications manager at Emerson Process Management, is now the No. 1 commercial link on Google for the terms “process management” and “process control.”
Social networks have come on more slowly, but their utility as knowledge-transfer devices and fast-and-cheap sources of market research is likely to increase their momentum. “These tools deliver substantial upgrades to yesterday's intranets and bulletin boards,” Kim said.
Private social networks are proving useful in attacking the looming problem of institutional memory loss as more than 77 million baby boomers reach retirement age over the next 20 years. Travel information provider Sabre Holdings uses a home-grown social network to let employees seek advice about the best restaurants in Budapest to German-speaking employees in Pittsburgh. “The more we can get people talking, the more we can capture,” said Erik Johnson, general manager of the project.
Marketers have also flocked to private branded social networks, where small communities of invited customers and business partners exchange ideas and advice. InterContinental Hotels Group “has been astounded by the results of its communities and has credited them with a 400% ROI,” the company said in an awards application last fall: “Traditional one-time focus groups or surveys are no longer necessary ... members are now 20% more likely to recommend a stay at an IHG property than before.” Dozens of social network service providers are flocking to this market.
No discussion of social media would be complete this year without mention of Twitter, the group text-messaging phenomenon that has taken the b2b world by storm. Marketers have learned that Twitter is a fast way to disseminate a message to thousands of followers and others who bestow the coveted “retweet.” Estimated membership grew an eye-popping 1,400% in the year ended in February, according to Nielsen Co.
Social media blogger Paul Dunay assembled a list of more than 400 brands with Twitter outposts last December, and the roster grows daily. Twitter's 140-character limitation is actually liberating—people tweet messages that they would never blog—and its continual stream of link-laden chatter is like a human-powered newswire.
It's also an easy way to drive traffic. B2b marketer Pat McGrew at Eastman Kodak Co. averages about 10 tweets a day, using the service as an adjunct to her blog that helps commercial printers and IT managers “wring every last ounce of value from their communication spend.” Private micro-blogging services such as Yammer have sprung up to provide private messaging to teams of employees, and more than 100 Twitter-related Web sites do everything from monitor brand mentions to find out if followers know each other.
Having just absorbed five years of technology change, b2b marketers are ready to put social media to the test. The recession offers a respite to evaluate new tools and figure out what the rightful place is for social media in post-recessionary budgets.