I debated writing about Social Media as so so many people are already talking about the importance of social media – so my writing about Social Media could end up like my striking a match in a forest fire. At the same time, I see most social media writings pertain to creating Business-To-Consumer relationships – and very little on use of social media in developing Business-To-Business (B2B) relationships – the environment I live within – as do many of you.
What follows is based on observation and results – and not theory. My team and I are still figuring much of this out. But we have seen several start-ups in our B2B environment make good use of social media to boot-strap their business.
Back to Basics – Word of Mouth
As has been true for millennia, the number one way most businesses find new customers is word of mouth. Potential new customers don’t know you, have no reason to trust you, are likely to initially assume you shouldn’t be trusted, but what a friend, or just another customer “like them”, says and does is trusted. Prior to social media, building your business through word of mouth took time – and could take a lot of time if your target customers don’t frequently talk to each other. In the old days, printed publications often were the next best thing to word of mouth – a way for the experience of one or two customers to reach many people – but in many people’s minds print is suspect because of potentially having hidden motives – such as keeping advertisers happy.
It’s Still About Word of Mouth
Social media is in most part another form of word of mouth – and from a customer’s perspective – a much superior form of word of mouth. They can quickly get a variety of viewpoints from people just like themselves unedited by intermediaries – the “unvarnished truth”. If they Google you and find nothing but your static website – the customer will immediately assume working with you means they are “guinea pigs” (test subjects) – which all but a few brave customers will avoid.
So you need to as quickly as possible build a web presence where your customers talk about you. A web presence that web searches by your target customers will uncover your happy successful customers and show the prospect you are a viable potential source of a solution to a problem they are having. Your web site doesn’t fill this need as the customer knows you are not going to give them insight into the hurdles and limitations in your solution. They want/need word of mouth information on you before they trust you enough to invest time contacting you. Plus your web site will get relatively little traffic compared to a good social site. What customer would visit your web site every week or month for years – like they would do a good social property? So your web site leaves you on the fourth page of a Google search – where a good active social property gets you on the front page.
Which social media to you develop first – that will grow your business through trust creating word of mouth? Discussion Groups? Blogs? Facebook? Twitter?
For B2B relationships, we’ve found Discussion Forums and Blogs to be the most effective tools for creating trust based on word of mouth. Over time, both Discussion Groups and Blogs create a large amount of “searchable/findable” material and repeat traffic that will get them 9and you) listed near the top of a Google (or Bing) search by your target customer.
Discussion Groups enable prospective target customers to quickly see how your existing customers are doing with your products and/or services in a form they can trust. They can see what problems and hurdles are – while also seeing what the answers are – from you and other customers. If you have a significant “problem/limitation” with your product/service, they’ll see it. If there is little traffic on your Discussion Group, they’ll see that too – and know they are working with young technology. Yes there is no hiding in a Discussion Group – but that is why it’s so effective – an accelerated one-to-many form of word of mouth. So whether you already have an ongoing business, or are about to start one, be sure to start a Discussion Group as soon as you can. It will be one of your best sources of new customers. It will also be a great source of customer feedback to help you steer your development direction. Last, you need to actively moderate the Discussion Group, and need to do it with a “light hand”. Sure you can remove “mud-slinging”, but if folks say something negative, you need to answer it – and not hide it. It’s all too easy for potential customers to “smell” a Discussion Group that is managed with a heavy hand – making it more of an advertisement then a source of truth by word of mouth. Great answers to hard questions in a Discussion Group are very powerful convincing potential customers you can be trusted and are worth engaging with. Discussion Groups are a modest investment of your time – and you should expect it to take six plus months to develop into an effective tool that pulls in new customers.
Blogs are a great way to provide potential customers insights into what your technology is all about – from benefits to successes to applications to working around limitations. The informality of Blogs makes them more trusted. The customer questions that come from Blog postings are a very effective form of word of mouth. A Blog enables you to create a virtual relationship with many many current customers – that will pass your writings on to their friends (word of mouth) – while enabling potential customers to learn more about your solution and see what “kind of people” you are to work with (i.e. build trust). Blogs are a big investment in time and effort. We find it requires at least one posting per week – if not two or three – to build significant viewership. It can also take near two years to build an effective lead generating Blog that is creating relationships and awareness of what your technology is all about, showing your customers are being successful with your solutions, building up content and traffic that gets you near the top of a Google search, and delivering potential customers that “word of mouth” experience that is the basis of their trusting you enough to invest in your technology. You are thinking “two years” – you have to be kidding? Sure there are Business to Consumer Blogs that grow very quickly – but B2B blogs take more time because word of mouth moves slower in a B2B environment.
How About Facebook Twitter and Other Social Media?
I don’t know. We are still learning how other Social Media can be used effectively in a B2B environment. A few of my team members are using Twitter but it’s hard to say how effective they are developing new relationships. Many of us are struggling with Facebook (and Google+) being first a personal “friends and family” tool – and unsure how to effective use in a B2B environment. We’ve had some successes with YouTube – getting partners and customers to provide videos – as another source of word of mouth truth – but the volume of viewers of these videos is still modest.
If you are a small software company looking to build your business, I without reservations strongly recommend you develop a lively Discussion Group and Blog. It takes modest time/effort to moderate a Discussion Group – and quite a bit of work to maintain a lively Blog – but you need to do it. They will absolutely pay for themselves by finding you new customers through tried and true word of mouth.