How to use social media for B2B lead generation

How to use social media for B2B lead generation

The following was originally published in the Cambridge Business Magazine as an introduction to social media lead generation.

There are two questions that I routinely get asked by B2B companies. The first is, “Is social media just for B2C companies?” When I tell them that social media is actually much more effective in a B2B environment, because it’s inherently more focused and targeted, the second question invariably follows: “How can we use social media to generate leads?”

I usually explain that a successful social media strategy requires you to build trust and provide value before you can expect to generate positive returns. You don’t get word-of-mouth recommendations or referrals without first making ‘friends’, so the emphasis should be on building up a trusted support network that can be relied on to engage with and share your most important news.

Now, that’s completely true, but there is a more compelling response which I’ll explain here.

The fact is every business already has a ‘trusted support network’. This consists of its staff, suppliers, resellers, partners, regular customers, industry media and other friendly connections. There is no reason at all why you shouldn’t build your initial social media strategy around these individuals, after all they are likely to be connected to and followed by people who share similar interests to them, including your target customers. 

In a recent project, working with a technology business, we identified around 80 people who were interested in their services, ‘friendly’ to the brand and active on social media (in their case, LinkedIn, Twitter or blogging). By focusing on those individuals, we were able to start sharing content, tracking the response and building up a positive word-of-mouth network within weeks. The exciting part is that we were also able to generate leads. Here’s how.

You’ll hear me referring to this process as social media marketing, but that phrase is probably rather out-of-date. The social network is a crucial element, but the success or failure of your activities will be down to one thing: the quality of your content.  Whether it’s a presentation, white paper, tweet, blog post or webinar, if you aren’t piquing the interest of your target customers at that specific moment in time your content will fall flat and nobody will share it. You will sense virtual tumbleweed rolling across your screen.

So let’s assume that you’ve identified your initial target network – the people who are likely to share your content - and that you’ve created an excellent piece of valuable, timely and targeted content. Which social network do you share it through? There are now hundreds of niche networks but, in summary, you have repositories of content, such as your blog (for articles, images or downloads), YouTube (for videos) or Slideshare (for presentations), and you have channels for sharing, such as Twitter, LinkedIn (status updates and Groups) and Google Plus (posts and Communities), plus Facebook (if you’re focused on the US).

I would always recommend limiting the repositories you use and maximizing the sharing channels. The combination of a blog with a well-followed Twitter account is hard to beat and Slideshare has a useful (paid) data-capture option. For B2B marketing, though, I believe LinkedIn has much more to offer. Here’s why.

The recent news that LinkedIn, the world’s largest business network, has surpassed 200 million members may seem like just another meaningless social media statistic.  Knowing that Facebook has 1 billion members, that 175 million Tweets are sent every day and that 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute is, frankly, irrelevant to most businesses. Yet the statistics keep coming.

As a business owner I know how irritating it is to hear about grand ideas and sweeping trends that simply bear no resemblance to the daily challenge of keeping clients and staff happy, meeting targets, delivering returns and keeping the lights on. Yet as a Social Media Consultant it’s also my job to dig a bit deeper and see if, behind all the smoke, there really is some fire.

Most of us joined LinkedIn because our colleagues joined and, hey, it’s free! But after connecting with a few business associates, plus a few random strangers (where do they come from?) we tend to forget about it. Our account ossifies quietly and gradually becomes an out-of-date, virtual CV featuring a youthfully flattering photo, our last-but-one job and some overegged skills.

The more adventurous among us have explored posting personal Updates, which then show up in the Newsfeeds of our Contacts, joining Groups – of which there are more than a million, covering almost every niche imaginable – and perhaps even created a Page for our business, which other members can then Follow for updates. And yet, remarkably few people, other than recruiters, can claim that LinkedIn has changed how they do business.

While LinkedIn provides a useful ‘connected’ contact list and online CV, it has never really been a social network. As Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, knows only too well, the true power of social networks is only unleashed when you enable people to spread ideas, content and opinions with a single click. Until last year, LinkedIn seemed far more focused on milking its recruitment cash-cow than creating a truly social network.

But something has changed.

Finally, LinkedIn seems to have woken up to its true potential. They’ve made several intelligent changes in the past year, promoting the Newsfeed to front-and-centre, ditching the distracting (if quite useful) Answers and Events, adding a rating system called Endorsements and re-designing Company Pages to be much more visually impressive and useful. They’ve also made it really easy for anyone to Follow your company, so they can receive your latest updates directly into their Newsfeed.

If you’re a casual LinkedIn user the results of these changes may not be immediately apparent, but speaking as a long-suffering power-user, I’m prepared to put my neck out and say this: if you work in a B2B (business-to-business) environment, LinkedIn is going to change the way you do business within the next two years.

How can I be so confident? Well, put simply, what happens in the social media industry tends to be adopted by mainstream business; and it happens within two years. I’ve seen big changes in my peers’ usage of LinkedIn in the past six months. Now, when I post a status update – let’s say I’m sharing a link to a report that one of my colleagues has published – rather than simply being seen by a handful of my LinkedIn contacts, something much more interesting happens.

First off, one of my business contacts will make a comment, such as “Interesting report. Good analysis”. This comment then appears in the newly highlighted Newsfeed of their contacts and, since they know the person who made the comment, one or two might venture a reply, or Like or Share the update, both of which continue the spread of my message. This isn’t advertising: each contribution to my original update acts as a word-of-mouth recommendation. And the great thing is: this can be done systematically. By sharing links and content through LinkedIn, then evaluating the results, analysing which types of content, topics and even writing styles, work best, you can reach a valuable new audience.

For a quick example - a blog post that I shared through a LinkedIn status update last week got nine Likes, five shares and three comments. I knew six of these people, but eleven were completely new to me. On further analysis, I would class six of them as potential leads - i.e. senior marketing executives from B2B companies in the UK. It’s a small example, but I think it amply demonstrates the potential of the medium.

I’m pretty convinced this is the start of LinkedIn as a mainstream B2B marketing channel, but even if you’re not, here’s one statistic that’s hard to ignore: 11 million businesspeople in the UK have LinkedIn accounts. Put another way, there are now more LinkedIn users in the UK than pensioners.