It is the most frequently asked question before, during and after my workshops: "Steven, can this conversation vision also be applied in B2B companies?". As far as I am concerned, the answer is a clear YES! In this article I will try and explain why I think so, and I will try and convince you to get started with conversation management in a B2B setting.
B2B: the advantages vis-à-vis B2C
The basic philosophy behind conversation thinking is rather simple and almost ancient: the best advertising is made by an existing customer, who convinces a non-customer to collaborate with your company. For years on end there was the option in consumer markets to use smart, creative advertising to strongly influence people's perception. In those times without social media this type of communication was the loudest of them all, reducing the impact of word-of-mouth. B2B marketers have known this luxury to a much lesser extent: that is why conversations have always been important for B2B. Furthermore I am convinced that B2B marketers have many advantages over B2C marketers:
- Knowing customers: A good B2B marketer knows who a company's customers are, especially the top customers. For Coca-Cola determining who is the biggest Coke consumer in the Netherlands is much harder than it is for a company trading is iron ore.
- Co-creation is imbedded in the mentality: Many B2B companies tend to involve customers in R&D projects. A new product or technology is generally even developed in function of the customer's process. Social media allow us today to convert this co-creation into structure collaboration. For a B2B company that is the continuation of the existing approach. For a B2C it often takes getting used to the consumer joining them at the decision table.
- Customer feedback always arrived directly. In a B2B organisation you rapidly get feedback from the customer. Sales and service collaborators work together closely with customers, thus directly sharing the feedback given on the efficiency of processes and services. In a B2C context the feedback is usually obtained via market research. A somewhat lower percentage there is less fun, but it's less personal and less direct than for B2B.
- More limited conversation volume. A last advantage is the more limited number of conversations about a typical B2B company. When referring to online conversations the volume of an industrial company will be lower than of a food products manufacturer. On the one hand it is somewhat more difficult to get the conversation going, but on the other hand it's less difficult to manage, stimulate and grow.
Company culture is even more important in B2B than in B2C
In my latest book The Conversation Company (whitepaper, available for download in PDF) I describe the role of company culture in the marketing strategy. I am convinced that a solid culture strongly colours a company's positioning. A clear culture ensures that all employees know how to communicate towards customers. Thanks to the culture, collaborators know how to behave vis-à-vis customers and customers therefore know exactly what to expect. This philosophy is a foundation to build strong conversation on.
In B2B this philosophy is even more important, as many customers only get to see part of a company: the salesman, the account manager, the service team etc. The behaviour and attitude of these people to a large extent determine the image of a company, since people make the company culture tangible. The firmer the culture is shaped and integrated in what your company does, the stronger and more impactful the perception will be. The consequence is that positive and impactful conversations are started up.
A B2B collaborator is an ambassador even more often
At the moment when the culture is defined in detail, a major opportunity is born: collaborators who are willing to become proper ambassadors to the company. In B2B companies the collaborators already are implicit ambassadors to the organisation. By making this more explicit and working with it consciously, new opportunities arise. Here are some ideas to turn it into a success:
- Train customer-oriented actions: The main contact moments in B2B are offline contacts. All collaborators should therefore know the values to perfection, but they should also understand the behaviour you are aiming for. The more your own people are customer-oriented, the larger the conversation potential will become.
- Put the focus on the collaborators: Create content about your collaborators. Why does your company not write blogs or articles about collaborators in different departments? Don't hesitate to talk about collaborators who work behind the scenes. By putting them in the spotlight, chances are that they share these stories with their own friends and family.
- Discover you digital experts. Make sure you have a combination of content curation and content creation. That is how people will come forward as experts in your company. It helps them, but it also helps your company to look more professional.
- Train everyone on communication. These days every collaborator can be a spokesperson. Once you realise that and once you agree on that, it will be very handy to train people and help them on how to realise it.
Demo Days at HP
One of the examples is HP. They turn their collaborators into real brand ambassadors. Every year HP organises several Demo Days, where HP collaborators explain HP products to potential clients. The positive thing is that not only the salespeople do so, since HP asks all collaborators, independent of their function or experience, whether they would like to promote the brand. It is one of their many activities to increase customer-oriented behaviour in the entire organisation. If everyone gets feedback directly from the customer, the gap between internal and external worlds disappears. Furthermore the collaborators do so in their spare time and there is no financial compensation whatsoever. During the first Demo Days in 2007 10% of all collaborators volunteered. Year after year the enthusiasm and participation increases.
Certain companies have digital superstars amongst their staff. These are people with a huge online reach (e.g. many Twitter followers or a lot of LinkedIn contacts). They are often considered to be a company's face. These people are undoubtedly ambassadors of their organisation. Their dominance in both internal and external conversations is considerable. Edelman (a global PR company) plays a smart game. They put forward people such as David Armano and Steve Rubel as the company's thought leaders. They are responsible of positioning Edelman as a social media expert and of reinforcing the company's image. This is done in a very human and personal way, and this approach has impact.
The research agency Altimeter Research handles things the same way. Charlene Li (previously at Forrester) is the founder, she is mainly known as the co-author of the well-known marketing book GroundSwell. Jeremiah Owyang is one of the partners; he is also rather famous and also used to work at Forrester. He has some 100,000 Twitter followers and is therefore considered to be one of the more authoritative people in social media. Mid 2011 Altimeter was reinforced by Brian Solis, an even bigger superstar than Owyang. At that point in time Solis already had more than 90,000 followers and he wrote a bestseller (Engage). This was a smart investment. Digital superstars represent an important conversation tactic for companies. Thinking about it consciously will help to get the maximum out of your conversation potential. Check whether your industry has digital superstar. If there aren't any yet, this might be your chance to be the first!
Managing the 4 Cs in a B2B company
In my book I describe the 4 Cs for managing the conversation. Below I present some cases of B2B companies that manage to apply these Cs.
The foundation of impactful conversations is a great customer experience. This originates in the first place from good products and services. In the end the art is to be conversation-worthy during every interaction with a customer. Cisco strongly focuses on that. Cisco's CEO John Chambers himself spends a lot of time with his customers. Every year he wants to talk to every important customer in the market. That is how he stays in touch with his top customers and how he feels perfectly what is alive on the market.
And he expects the same from all his senior executives. They are even evaluated on the percentage of their time that they spend with customers. Cisco also has a kind of "special forces service unit". They call it the TAC team. These people are the best service people in the company. I fan unsolvable problem arises at a customers, the TAC people are sent out. Their target is to solve the problem, even if that implies making a new product. John Chambers himself does the follow up of all TAC unit files. Such an attitude and actions create a customer-oriented setting.
As a B2B company it is also important to observe the conversations and to participate in the discussions when this might add value. On social media one sees a lot of people who work in the service industry. People who sell knowledge consider social media to be an ideal channel for learning and sharing knowledge. Besides, that is something my colleagues and I (as we are B2B too) like to do too. Many of our consultants are active on Twitter where they share a lot of content. Furthermore we have our own dashboard where we follow the conversations about our people and our company.
If you are an e-mail marketing company for example, it might be wise to share a lot of insights about the e-mail business, cases or to discuss the trend reports of e-mail service providers. Sharing information via blogs and starting a conversation about a subject you know well, in this case e-mail marketing, leads to renown on the market and on social media: a good story will find its way online and will be linked to your expertise. This means that you have to allow your (e-mail) consultants to play freely in order to be able to share their expertise via blogs. Many B2B companies have built a full content programme and planning around that.
A conversation company creates its own content, which the company is happy to share with its customers and sector partners. Via this content people have something to share and to learn. In a previous article I already described the different steps on how to get to good content planning. An example of a company which applies this well is Hubspot, and American software company. Their software helps people to obtain new leads via various channels such as social media, but also Google and other websites. The company was founded in 2004, but grew rapidly between 2009 and 2011. The number of customers increased in those 2 years from 1,400 to 3,600. Their philosophy is close to the one of the conversation company. The culture is very authentic and open. They believe in their collaborators' and customers' conversation for supporting the company's growth. In 2010 the company was voted Boston's best employer (David Meerman Scott in: Real time marketing & PR, 2011).
Hubspot invests in a smart content strategy (check out the SlideShare presentation later in this document). The company has 3 targets. First of all they want to be seen as the opinion leader in their domain, secondly they want to be found easier on Google, and finally they want to increase their reach via social media. Every day they publish content on their blog, on YouTube, on other blogs, on Slideshare. In a short timespan they obtained the best results on all three targets in their sector. The visitor numbers on their blog are impressive. 10% of the blog visitors move on to the site. 10 to 20% of these people turn into a lead. However the company thinks as a real publisher: every day they publish interesting articles. That is how they build a larger online reach, which is immediately converted in sales.
The last dimension is the integration of the customer's opinion in the company's decision process. The Intuit story is a nice example. Intuit underwent a 3 year process to embrace structural collaboration. The financial software producer needed 3 years to organise this. When enthusiastic collaborators gave feedback to customers on online media, the management was very surprised. This effort rather rapidly resulted in quite some positive conversations, and the management understood that helping out customers is added value. So they decided to take it one step further and to think about how customers could structurally contribute to the company. During a management gathering in 2005 Scott Cook, the Intuit CEO, asked his 300 top managers: "How can we benefit from our customers' contributions?"
The first idea was to create a Wiki where all types of frequently asked questions on how to fill out the tax papers were discussed. People can ask questions and supply answers on the Wiki. 33 days after the management gathering the Wiki was launched. Three years later this site contains 170,000 pages with advice from and for consumers about taxes. More than 400,000 people use this knowledge.
Despite this first project's success, there was no mention yet of structural collaboration with the market in the rest of the company. The reason for that was a second initiative which failed. In 2005 Intuit launched a second website where users had to look after the content. It was a review site for local traders, linked to the company's financial software. The market did not understand the combination between reviews of smaller traders and the software and the site did not manage to reach the people concerned. Shortly after that, the project was cancelled.
Late 2008 one of the engineers came up with the idea that would lead to structural collaboration. The collaborator suggested integrating a user forum in every page of their software packs. Users could use it to ask questions and to give feedback on the page in question. Both Intuit collaborators and other users can provide an answer to the questions. Intuit gets page-related feedback on their software. This feedback is used to further improve the software. These insights are very valuable for the company. This initiative was at the basis of the choice for further continued collaboration.
Collaboration with end product users
CSM (who are planning to sell the branch bakery supplies in EU and North America) sells bread dough to retailers such as Albert Heijn, which simply needs to be finished off in the oven. CSM had little view on how the consumer saw the company. They wanted to become a sparring partner for retailers, and needed to learn more about how the consumer perceives bread, how the in-store bakery of different retailers is evaluated. Based on that data they could present a solid story to retailers, and the data resulted from a community of consumers. A B2B company can also contact the target group and the final user of the end product this way: consumers have helped CSM this way to increase their knowledge of the market.
Conclusion: there are differences, but they are rather limited
I personally think that B2B marketers sometimes hide too much behind the B2B label. B2B companies have brilliant stories and are close to their customers, which is the ideal starting point towards becoming a conversation company. Furthermore it is a realistic aim for most B2B companies to be the first in a sector, which means being considered to be the reference and expert in the sector and the product. The changes are there, the technology is there, it's only a matter of acting. I am curious to hear about the examples you know of B2B companies who do a great job on one or several of the 4 Cs. Feel free to add any reactions below!!