Buying something new used to be easy: Decide which option ticks all the boxes, find a vendor, spend.
Not anymore. In a permanently connected world, things are no longer that simple; second opinions — as many as you want — are available on demand, and buyers are taking note. Whatever you’re buying, whether for personal or business use, chances are one of your social-media connections has something to say about it.
The time of the socially active customer has arrived. Get used to it. Adapt, or risk becoming irrelevant — it’s a clear choice.
Preparing for the Socially Active Buyer
Although business buyers and consumers typically follow different buying cycles, the ground rules are similar. Business owners wanting to stay ahead of the curve need to understand these new buying behaviors and plan accordingly. Relying on the status quo will likely land vendors in the same boat as Eastman Kodak when it decided in the 1970s to ignore the possibilities of digital photography in favor of its traditional, print-based technology.
Taking the necessary steps isn’t difficult. Business owners face a two-stage process that holds good throughout all sectors:
- Understand what type of information the customer looks for on social media.
- Decide how the business can contribute to making it available in an authentic manner.
Given that most customers want information from trusted third parties, “making it available” isn’t as simple as it sounds. That’s where familiarity with the channel scores heavily, and organizations without an active social-media presence risk losing out.
Research shows that consumers exhibit markedly different behavior from business buyers. Each case is best considered individually.
Surprisingly, the 2014 State of the American Consumer Report from Gallup concludes that social-media channels have “no influence” on the purchasing decisions of nearly two-thirds of consumers; a little digging reveals that this statistic reflects a lack of trust in brand social-media sites rather than a complete disregard for the channel.
What is clear, as Ed O’Boyle, Gallup’s global practice leader, emphasizes in a supporting blog post on Harvard Business Review, is that companies are wrong to believe that people who “like” or follow them on social media “are an attentive audience.”
“Too many companies continue to treat social media as a one-way communication vehicle and are largely focused on how they can use these sites to push their marketing agendas,” says O’Boyle. Such behavior is not seen as authentic by consumers, he posits.
Gallup concludes that marketers should focus on creating a more open dialogue with consumers, becoming more responsive to specific questions and providing content that is objective and easily digested. Creating content that fulfills these requirements is only half the solution; finding an appropriate, trusted source to deliver the message is often more difficult for brands.
Earning Consumer Trust
Although consumers distrust owned (brand) advertising, they are known not only to trust but to take action on word-of-mouth recommendations as well as consumer reviews and opinions posted online. Nielsen’s Global Survey of Trust in Advertising highlights these as the most trusted forms of advertising messaging, accepted by between 70 and 84 percent of consumers. It’s this territory that brands need to explore if they are to influence consumer buying behavior via social media.
Enlightened businesses see the opportunities that lie in these findings and make it easy for customers to create and access consumer reviews, often via third-party sites that include Amazon and Google Shopping. While reviews aren’t directly under a brand’s control, operating an open-door policy and encouraging consumer interaction increases the degree of trust underpinning a company’s products and services.
Social media’s word-of-mouth nature makes it ideal for companies that promote brand advocacy. Taking relevant, objective content and encouraging employee advocates and external brand ambassadors to share it via their personal social-media accounts is proven to expand the reach of brand messaging up to twentyfold. Even overtly branded messages become palatable when delivered by someone known personally to the recipient rather than broadcast via an impersonal corporate social-media account.
Encouraging Consumer Engagement
Content isn’t the only tool that works for B2C companies. The Effects of Social Media Engagement on Purchase Behaviors, a 2012 study by the Northwestern University , showed that appropriately structured social-media contests can have a positive impact on consumers’ purchase behaviors. The report noted that in such contests, “relevant brand-prompts link to far greater engagement” and consumers spent more, both immediately and over time.
Conversely, contests with less-relevant brand association produced little engagement and had no beneficial effect on spending behavior. While brands need to consider both the structure and the marketing message of contests before embarking on high-profile campaigns, clearly social-media contests have the potential to influence consumers for the good.
Researchers also noted an unexpected benefit that applied across almost all forms of contest — low-spending customers who re-engaged with a brand through the medium of a social-media contest showed the greatest percentage increase in spending behavior. An unsurprising result, perhaps, given the low start point, but potentially valuable for brands with large numbers of disengaged customers.
In the B2B sector, the story is markedly different. Commercial buyers are shown to make more structured use of social media than their consumer counterparts; the 2013 B2B Buyersphere Report from Base One Group showed that two-fifths of respondents used one or more social-media channels to find information or advice about purchases.
Whatever the sector, it’s a highly structured process. Such is the discipline shown typically by B2B buyers that Lori Wizdo of Forrester Research claimed they “control their journey through the buying cycle much more than today’s vendors control the selling cycle.”
Citing multiple touch-points throughout the buying cycle, Wizdo notes also that “buyers may be anywhere from two-thirds to 90 percent of the way through their journey before they reach out to the vendor.” Companies without a clear strategy for using social media to engage these buyers during the first part of the cycle should be worried.
Stimulating Engagement With High-Quality Content
While there is no clear channel-of-choice for the business buying cycle, one aspect of B2B buying behavior is common: the first and largest part of the process involves research — and plenty of it. Web search is the most common starting point, according to the 2013 B2B Buyer Behavior Survey from DemandGen Report, followed by a combination of social-media and special-interest groups. This is fertile ground for businesses with informative, value-added content and the social-media skills to present it effectively.
Many B2B purchases are team-based projects, typically with three or more people involved. The DemandGen Report survey highlights some telling behaviors:
- 37% of buyers said they spent more time using social media to research solutions than in previous years.
- 57% of buyers said that they browsed existing social-media discussions to learn more about a topic.
- 53% of buyers said they relied more on peer recommendations — nearly three times the number from the year before.
LinkedIn proved to be the most popular channel for buyers at C-suite level, with blogs marginally more popular among non-execs. Irrespective of channel, more than three in five respondents agreed that the winning vendor “delivered a better mix of content appropriate for each stage of the purchasing process.” More than half viewed eight or more pieces of content from the winning vendor.
The message is clear: B2B vendors need to position high-quality content across the entire spectrum of relevant social-media channels to have a realistic chance of success. An overwhelming majority (82 percent) of senior executives said “content was a significant driver of their buying decisions.”
Practicing Social Selling
Social selling is the logical counterpart to the aforementioned buyer behavior. Michael Brenner, vice president of SAP Global Marketing, writing on Forbes.com, describes social selling as “sales people building strong personal brands.” Empower those people to connect with key influencers, using the power of value-added content to develop relationships that position both the individual and the business as the vendor of choice.
Don’t ignore the role of the subject-matter expert (SME) in social selling. Promoting a key team member as the “go-to” person in a specific area can be immensely powerful. Arming an SME with well-researched, highly topical content creates an exact fit for a demanding B2B buyer in the research phase — and boosts both the personal and the corporate brand in the meantime.
Successful social selling demands a clear understanding of the relevant social-media channels and the skills to operate them effectively. It’s not a tool to be employed from time to time; it’s a way of ensuring that when the time comes, a vendor is positioned to take advantage of the opportunity presented by an active buyer. It is, says Brenner, “the process of helping social buyers become customers.”
Revisiting the Common Ground
Although the application is markedly different in each case, the power of value-added content and the vital importance of effective delivery via social media stand out for both consumer and business buyers. Whether the medium is brand advocacy, subject-matter expertise, or social selling, familiarity with the social-media channels relevant to the brand is essential.
Socially active customers demand socially prepared vendors. The challenge couldn’t be clearer, and businesses that rise to it most effectively will win.
Be one of them.