Facebook for B2B? Absolutely.

Not even the most entrenched Luddite in corporate America still questions the value of social networks for reaching the consumer market. How and what may still be up for debate, but it is no longer a question of if, merely when. Even small and local businesses are experimenting with Facebook and Twitter; the ubiquitous F and T are now found on even the smallest websites.

Business-to-business marketers, on the other hand, are still wondering whether consumer social networks like Facebook and Twitter have any place in the marketing plan.

B2B marketing generally organizes on vertical lines — even when products are horizontal. It’s just easier to understand and engage the customer when things are organized on the simple commonality of industry. As a result, it’s not that hard to make the leap to using social media tools within the company online presence by adding things like blogs, forums and wikis to the website. The B2B marketer gets the value of increasing customer engagement and loyalty.

Broad consumer social networks though? It’s not as easy to see how these might be useful in the business-to-business marketing context beyond personal connections and networking. That’s in part why the B2B answer to social networking is often “We are all on LinkedIn (or Twitter)”

In my opinion, B2B marketers should take a second (or third look) at Facebook as an element of their marketing plan. Here are a few reasons.

Go where the fish are
According to Facebook, the network has 300 million active users. About 50 percent of whom log in every day. Odds are that some — many — of your customers, prospects and other stakeholders are using Facebook. Perhaps not in a business context, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be interested in following your company news on Facebook. This is particularly true if your firm is a significant employer in a community or particularly active in an issue or cause. Your stakeholder is already “there” and the Facebook platform makes it easy to share the information with others.

Facebook Connect
Facebook Connect lets you use Facebook user credentials for secure areas on your site. One less password for the customer to remember. You can also allow the user to share back content on your site with his Facebook friends, exposing your material to the user’s friend base. Granted, Facebook isn’t the best place to share detailed product information and other material that just won’t be interesting to a broad base of consumers, but social initiatives, corporate materials, employee/community relations information. Why not Facebook?

Facebook Fan Page and Fan Box
You can use the Fan Box to display your Facebook Page activity on your website. This adds a dynamic social element missing on most B2B websites, which often resemble nothing so much as a corporate brochure.

Am I suggesting that every B2B marketer go out and set up a Facebook Fan Page? Not at all. But you should definitely do a little digging:

  • Are your customers on Facebook? Your competitors?
  • Are people discussing your products, your company, your issues, your competitors on Facebook?
  • Is your product a horizontal offering? Does it have both consumer and B2B applications?
  • Is your company a major employer in the community?
  • Does your company support a major charity or issue of interest to the community at large?

If the answer is yes to one or more of these questions, and you have or can create shareable content that lends itself well to the Facebook format, you may want to consider adding a Facebook Fan Page to your marketing mix.

Inside with an IT Guy

Aaron Hampton is the Regional IS Manager for Northern Tool + Equipment and co-founder of enDevelopment LLC, the makers of CommonCents personal finance software.

©iStockPhoto/kk5hy

©iStockPhoto/kk5hy

My time is like yours – valuable. And what I’m going to share is valuable to you as a marketing or sales professional. Why? Because if I’m not the one pulling the trigger on the buy decision, then I’m almost certainly advising the one that is. So here’s a view from the trenches looking out.

My phone rings several times a day with calls from sales reps or account managers asking for me to give them my time and focus to see how they can help me. Granted, it’s their job to get their foot in the door and to make the sale. Depending on what’s going on that day, I may give them a few minutes to make their pitch if their product or service is related to any of the multiplicity of things taking place between the present and the short-term horizon.

At some point in the conversation, I usually ask them to provide me with a link to their site or to a published report that gives me an apples-to-apples comparison of their product to their competitors or substitute products. It’s amazing how many show up empty handed. At best, they offer a trial version, a Web-ex demo, or whitepaper/case study of what their product did for some other customer. These can all be useful tools to help make the sale but their competition offers the same approach. Do they realize how much time I would have to invest if I were to take them and their competition up on their offers? Before I invest the time and effort to drill to deep into their product/service, they have to make the cut list. So the question of the moment is, “How do they make the cut?”

The simple answer – be the one who gives me what I’m looking for up front. So what am I looking for? Here’s what I am most interested in:

  1. Feature comparison
  2. Performance comparison (under a load)
  3. Price comparison

If you can provide these things to me, ideally from an unbiased source, then you’ve got my attention. Why? Because it shows me you know your products strengths and weaknesses and you know how you measure up. Some may say, “Well, isn’t that your job to figure out?” My answer, “Well, yes – and you can rest assured we’ll do our homework. But what do you have to hide? Is your product/service inferior in some way to your competition? If not, then why not show us how you measure up? – and be bold enough to publish it online.”

If every potential vendor came to me empty handed, where does that leave me? In essence, I have two choices – seek the information elsewhere, or do the comparisons myself. Of course, before I make final decision to go a particular direction, I’m always going to do my own homework in my own environment and thoroughly test a product or service. As the saying goes, “Trust but verify.”

Before I dive into doing the comparisons myself, I’m going to filter down the list of options by tapping into one of three resources:

  1. Other colleagues already using a product/service in a similar environment
  2. Comparisons published in industry-specific publications or research reports
  3. Consultants with expertise in the area of need

Let me elaborate.

Other colleagues
Other colleagues are my first choice because I know them and because they are likely using the product/service (and usually have also evaluated others) in a production environment. Other factors, their perspectives are usually unbiased (they have nothing to gain by my choice) and this resource is certainly less expensive than the other two alternatives.

Published reports
Believe it or not, when we scan through the standard technology publications, WE DO pause briefly at the product comparison charts and might even stop to read the article. If it is a worthy comparison, I might even bookmark it or cut it out and drop into the project folder for down the road. At a minimum though, at least I’ve got a feel for how someone else views the product/service.

On this item, let me add that research reports are approached with a bit of skepticism because they are almost always sponsored by a specific “interested party.” So from the start, we know it’s likely biased and very likely has been cherry picked to emphasize the sponsor’s strengths. Rightly so, because what organization would pay any research group to publish a report if their product/service wasn’t top dog in the run-off.?” So, instead of a sponsored report, I’d much rather have an independent analysis, even if I have to pay for it.

Consultants
Finally, there are the consultants. The most trusted are the ones I’ve already worked with, who know our needs, and, very likely, have already implemented a similar solution somewhere else. If it’s a high dollar investment, I’ll rely heavily on their advice since I can usually hold them accountable. Now if the advice is coming from a consultant I haven’t worked with before, it will carry less weight but it really depends on their expertise and reputation in the industry. Hopefully, we get what we pay for.

So if you want me to consider buying your product or service, do both of us a favor and inform me of how you measure up. Come with your features, performance, and price comparison in hand and then we’ll have a productive conversation. Also, be mindful of the wake you leave behind. Your reputation will follow you. And when it reaches us, hopefully, it will crown you, not cast a shadow. If you pay attention to these things, you’ll very likely make the cut list and find your product or service in our test environment.

The Art of Predicting Demand

Stephen Walker is the Managing Director of Colborn Morrison, a boutique business strategy, research & advisory, and project-based consulting services firm, based in Richmond, VA.

There are a variety of components that must be in place to create and execute on a B-to-B revenue growing marketing strategy; differentiation from competitors, the ability to reach your targeted audience, and a clear, well articulated message to simply name a few.

However, on an almost daily basis I’m exposed to companies – of all sizes and across all industries – with marketing strategies that inevitably erode into failure because they lack the cement that holds together a successful marketing strategy: a baseline understanding of what the market in general, and their current and potential customers in particular, will need 3, 6 & 12 months down the road.

Two quick clarifications about the previous sentence:

  1. Although I’m fully aware that no one has a crystal ball that shows them the future, there are a number of overarching themes and trends that marketers can leverage to develop a baseline, or general, understanding of future market demands
  2. I’m emphasizing the word need because it is entirely different from what all too many marketing plans focus on – want. Especially true in the current uncertain economic climate, characterized by budgetary freezes on most everything not essential and directly revenue-generating, what your corporate customers want has virtually nothing to do with what they buy.

Sharing this notion just last week with the V.P. of Marketing for a risk management and compliance software and service company lead said V.P. to exclaim something along the lines of: “Well Stephen, that makes sense and all but a marketing strategy doesn’t happen overnight.”

Of course, forming and putting in place a timely, well-directed, and ultimately successful marketing program does not happen overnight; that’s why building out a marketing program on the foundation of understanding what your customers will need at the time when that program is up, running, and firing on all cylinders is so important!

Although obviously each company’s marketing strategy will differ according to their size, product or service, current and target customer base & audience, etc., there are a number of overarching themes and trends that can, if studied and correctly contextualized into the overall thrust and goals of the marketing program, serve as predictive barometers of market demand.

Two of the more prevalent overarching themes and trends today include:

  1. Those induced by Government – good examples being significant legislative, policy, and regulatory trend changes
  2. Those induced by the private sector – one good example being the rapid evolution of technological advancement.

I know, that sounds pretty general; because it is. However, as mentioned before, the key is putting these overarching trends into context and translating:

  • How that trend will eventually impact the market and what type of demand it will create
  • How your company’s core capabilities and offerings can already be positioned as a leader in meeting that demand.

To quickly illustrate the conversion of general trends to demand predictions, take the notion of what I call “Mobile GRC” – applying relevant corporate compliance and risk management policies & controls to the countless millions of corporate PDA’s, smartphones, and other un-governed mobile devices containing sensitive, confidential, business-determinative information.

How might this create demand in say, the healthcare sector? Well, consider the potential market impact of this phenomenon in light of recent HIPPA crackdowns and President Obama’s pledges to tighten regulatory requirements, modernize healthcare information systems, and both strengthen and stringently enforce patient confidentiality requirements – when hospital personnel can already access patient information from their mobile devices.

During a two week period this year, I personally found 3 “company” Blackberry’s, with no password protection, in the back seat of taxi’s; and I don’t even ride the taxi that much! It’s just as likely to assume that one of those phones belonged to a doctor as it is to assume that it belonged to a stockbroker – which is a completely different, but perhaps even more valid argument for Mobile GRC we’ll save for another day.

In the ridiculously (and ever increasingly) competitive technology and services market, timing is everything; market share, revenue growth, expansion, and ultimately success will accrue to those companies who master the art of predicting demand.