On June 17, Forrester published my latest research on how business buyers use social networking sites to inform purchase decisions, the role these sites will play in future buying processes, and three key ways for B2B marketers to tap into open, social network value. Just under half (45%) of buyers we surveyed early this year said they use discussion forums, online communities or social networking sites when evaluating products and services they want to buy at work — which much less than peers and colleagues, a source to which 84% of respondents turn when making purchase decisions. This is not all that surprising. We find this result crops up consistently in our research over time — business and IT folks rely on word of mouth and advice from friends and associates when buying, so customer references and testimonial become crucial parts of any well executed marketing plan.
More interesting are two key insights coming from this research: discussion forums and online communities are poised to become the online supplement for colleague interaction and the decision to join in community activity depends mostly on the quality of the participants — the discussion relevance, demonstrated experience, and shared thought-leadership. The figure here shows the data.
This represents and interesting challenge to B2B marketers who seem anxious to rush to put up a company-sponsored community site as a way of tapping into this emerging social activity. But sponsoring a gated, private community without understanding your company’s objectives in doing so and your audience’s willingness to participate leads to false starts, wasted time, and fruitless effort. Instead, B2B marketers interested in building community destinations should start by joining into existing conversations — and seeing if you can get some of your key customers to do so with you — before investing in a fully moderated, gated community. What do I mean by “join the conversation?” Namely:
1. Participate as a community peer. Use resources or social listening tools to listen into what buyers say about your firm and products. Join the conversation to hear about hidden pain points, discover innovative ideas, and share valuable experiences. Offer exclusive insight, talk openly about shared community issues, and address problems forthrightly to establish your credibility.
2. Energize customers to help tell your story. Give enthusiastic customers new ways to engage with each other and gain accolades from peers by using interactive content like videos, podcasts, and blogs to trigger the chatter, allowing users add to or rate the content, and giving them widgets and wikis to help share their stories.
3. Nurture loyal customers by supporting their success. Use open social sites to foster connections between your best customers by complementing techie forums with online social networking tools, creating a fan base on social sites like LinkedIn that feature customer advocates, extending physical events with an online social component, and encouraging participation with appropriate awards — like sneak peeks and exclusive chat access to top execs — for those who demonstrate a propensity to drive community activity higher.
In the B2B space, I believe private, gated community sites will trump public, open social networking for delivering business value over time because quality discussion and demonstrated expertise matter more to business buyers than the size or breadth of the community. Open social networking sites in the business world will remain just that — social places to keep tabs on friends and associates. Buyers interested in uncovering tips and tricks of the trade will seek out gated communities that feature social networking features like profile pages, friending, and question-and-answer but that focus on topics that make their businesses run better. Business buyers join communities to solve problems, follow industry trends, and get advice, so I expect participation on registration-controlled community sites to replace open public social networking activity during the next few years.
I know there are a lot of community-building advocates out there now. Let me know if you disagree with my position and why — looking forward to hearing from you.
PS: I was on hiatus during July, so I’m backfilling my posts for June and July at this time. Don’t be alarmed if you feel like you’ve missed something — it’s just me filling in some blanks. Thanks for reading.