Visualize the two major rivers of information that flow into and out of the marketing organization. The first is the flow of data that informs the "in-bound" product management process, wherein customer requirements are gathered and prioritized. The second is the flow of "ou-tbound" product marketing work-effort, wherein products and services are presented to the marketplace.
Social marketing is the process of applying social listening and social communicating as a new and value-adding element to those in-bound and out-bound information flows. For example, the in-bound product management process that I mentioned has been traditionally informed by customer councils or user groups or surveys. With these traditional tools, information comes into the product management process in chunks: large volumes of data that need to be unpacked and analyzed a few times per year.
Now let's add in the social marketing tools. Staying with the product management information flow, now visualize new product ideas and customer feedback that informs the product managers in a real-time and continuous flow. A social tool for crowd-sourcing, where new features can be voted on and ranked by customers, can speed up the traditional process by orders of magnitude. SAP today has a robust social crowd-sourcing engine called Idea Place that does just that.
Social marketing begins with good social listening. Those same product managers should be tapping into the blogs or forums or communities where their customers are present—the virtual places where they are actively becoming self-educated about IT product and services. If you can be a good listener, you will then "earn" the right to contribute to the conversation, perhaps by connecting those buyers with information sources and tools to further their self-education journey. B2B IT vendors are placing their bets on this. Just in the past few months I have observed Dell and HP make an overt organizational change by placing their social listening function into their existing and formal market intelligence functions.
For me, the best part about social is that it can turn those classic asynchronous communication flows into a true dialog. This is what marketing should be! It should be a real conversation with our customers in which we treat them as the rational, evaluative, maximizing and self-directed people that they are, and not as a CRM record that is the target of our latest mass-mailing of email.
How important a role does social media play today for the enterprise B2B technology buyer?
Social still has a large association to its many B2C and personal-social applications. But it is really taking off in the B2B world, and will continue to accelerate.
IDC conducts an annual survey on "How Buyers Buy.” We seek to understand: Where do buyers go for their product education? What media types are most frequently accessed? What is the pathway of their digital journey? What are their preferred content types or subject matter? On this last point, buyers tell us that their preferred content sources are (in rank order): information that comes from peers; then information that comes from independent third-parties; and third, information that comes directly from the vendor.
This is why social marketing should be such an important part of the B2B marketer's tool kit. If vendors can help prospects connect with peers as part of their education process, they will be viewed favorably by those prospects. The social media are the best tools for doing this.