Social media and content marketing were two of the hottest topics at BtoB's Digital Edge Live conference last month in San Francisco. The clear recommendation from marketers, agency executives and analysts who spoke at the event: Immerse customers in these two complementary channels.
"Make social media engaging, make it social and make it count," said Sharon Crost, global online marketing and social media manager at Hitachi Data Systems. She said Hitachi has created engaging contests and has senior executives speak to bloggers and influencers to create social content.
On the content front, panelists said a savvy combination of sales pitches and nurturing is essential.
"The key is to surround customers with content," said George Stenitzer, VP-marketing and corporate communications at Tellabs. "Make sure you are thought-provoking, and convert content and conversations into soft and hard conversions."
By using effective content marketing such as white papers, online videos, mobile content and social media, Tellabs has tripled both soft conversions (such as subscriptions to newsletters) and hard conversions (sales and other transactions) in the past year, Stenitzer told the Digital Edge audience of about 200 marketers.
"Content is the currency with which we can engage with decisions-makers," said Dennis Reilly, senior VP-business director at ad agency Digitas, Boston. "Yes, ads work, but they work better when the message platform connects with great content."
Reilly acknowledged that many marketers feel overwhelmed by the task of generating content to "feed the beast." He recommended focusing on one particular industry target at a time, "not just the decision-makers but also the influencers and the other influencers, such as bloggers, who influence them."
Digital Edge Live, BtoB's first full-day conference on digital marketing, also covered such topics as mobile marketing and pressing issues for CMOs.
Predictably, social media marketing was the topic of greatest interest. Perhaps because of its newness as a marketing channel, many companies are having trouble establishing and integrating social practices, said keynoter Jeremiah Owyang, industry analyst partner at technology analyst company Altimeter Group.
"It's an uncontrollable mess," Owyang said, "largely because customer communications has shifted to all parts of the corporation." Because adoption of social media is still in an early phase—74% of companies polled by Altimeter have had a social media program in place for three years or less—much of it is in disarray, he said.
The average number of official corporate-owned accounts at a company is 178, augmented by employees' own ad hoc social outreach, which is largely uncontrolled and uncontrollable, Owyang said.
"Marketers' scope of work is much larger than it has ever been," he said. "In fact, it's bigger than marketing."
The solution, he said, is to first build a foundation of social objectives, company policies and employee education. Companies ideally should build dedicated social teams and centers of social excellence; attend to social ROI; and ultimately seek out real-time intelligence for future action.
"The term 'social' ultimately will go away; it will be integrated in the way we work every day," Owyang said. "I call this the 'sentient world.' "
Owyang's analysis of social integration was echoed by a panel of CMOs, who discussed the challenges they face with the new social channel.
"Everything is becoming much more complicated, and my biggest challenge is trying to work out how I can use all these channels available to me as an integrated, outbound program to generate business," said Chris Boorman, senior VP-education and enablement and CMO at data technology company Informatica Corp.
Boorman said Informatica, like many companies, has had to adjust to the cultural change from a severely restricted corporate communications approach to one of openness via social networks. Traditional spokespersons and thought leaders don't always adjust well to being social participants, he said.
Further, social media itself may not always be the answer for all companies, said Janet Roberts, CMO of telecommunications technology company Syniverse Technologies.
"We did a study last year among our customers globally to see how they got their sources of information that influence purchasing decisions; social media was dead last in our survey," Roberts said. "We are using Facebook and Twitter to some degree, and that may increase. But right now social actually ranks lowest in how our customers get their purchasing information."
Digital Edge Live also featured a session on mobile marketing.
The on-the-go world can't be ignored, said Mark Wilson, senior VP-corporate and field marketing at Sybase Inc.
"Mobile usage is growing five times faster than previous IT trends, such as Internet connections, broadband adoption and PC sales," he said. "It's a profound change that marketers must take note of."
Wilson said Sybase has distributed 15,000 tablet computers to its workforce. A large concentration is among salespeople, who use the devices as demonstration and presentation platforms, "where our CEO is actually shown in a video engaging with the customer," he said.
"For us, the question isn't should we go mobile, but how much budget should be shifted to mobile?" he said.
The day concluded with a roundtable of advertising agency executives, who examined top digital marketing trends for this year.
"When you think about social, don't think just about Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter," said Jared Gruner, director-integrated strategy and planning at Ogilvy, Los Angeles. "Rather, think much higher up the chain, about less sexy but more industry-specific channels like forums, bulletin boards and industry-specific networking sites and blogs. Don't forget the unsexy things."
The main factor driving ultimate efficiencies will be effective sales-marketing alignment," Reilly said.
"Traditionally the two functions have been separate," he said. "In today's environment, sales is raising its hand and saying, 'I'm at a competitive disadvantage to other salespeople who have content, CRM and social media at their disposal, and I can't do it by myself.'
"Marketing has to help integrate marketing with sales. That's an uber-concern," Reilly said.