Every year we ask the question. And there is now evidence to believe that B2B social media has reached a tipping point. But now more than ever, we need to exercise caution...
In the red corner: the enthusiasts who, since 2008, have been telling us that social media is the only way, that advertising is dead, and generally sounding the death knell for anything non-digital.
In the blue corner: the realists who still don't see value in social media within B2B – its effects are too small, its costs are too great, the learning curve too steep, the audience not ready. These people don't need to be told about the potential of social media – they simply question whether its time has yet arrived for B2B.
The outcome of the fight is not in question. And the blue corner will readily throw the towel into the ring just as soon as the evidence is there. But is it yet time?
The hardest facts at our disposal can be summarised in a few key surveys. First, the Buyersphere 2015 Report, which asked 211 B2B buyers how influential social media was to them in making buying decisions. These are real buyers, commenting directly on the process they went through. And the lead statistic is that 50% of those buyers used no social media when they were researching their purchase. So it doesn't matter how clever your Twitter campaign, or how much time and effort you put into LinkedIn – half of the typical B2B audience won't see it. This is neatly summarised in the following infographic (get the hi-res pdf here):
But it is changing. Research (Jan 2014) from IDG Connect shows that buyers are likely to find social (peer-generated) content more useful than vendor-generated content or indeed editorial in time. They say that 57% of B2B information technology buyers are using social networks as part their purchase decision process. This tallies with the Buyersphere findings since you would expect IT buyers to be more frequent users of social media than less technical industries. - See more at: http://www.baseone.co.uk/beyond/2015/06/have-we-reached-the-tipping-point-for-b2b-social-media#sthash.R0dP072j.dpuf
The report goes on to show that editorial content has the biggest influence in making IT investment decisions (35% of buyers give it the most weight), followed by vendor content (34%), and then social content (31%). In two years, buyers believe, content found on social networks will move ahead of both editorial and vendor content in terms of importance (37% say it will have the most weight).
Beware disingenuous reporting...
But also be aware that blogs are famously prone to interpreting data to say what they want it to say. One blog used Forrester Research from 2013 to suggest that social media (specifically LinkedIn) was an important way to connect with buyers. According to the report, "74% of business decision-makers in North America and Europe say they use LinkedIn for business purposes". The blog then recommended: "Be sure your social pages are designed to let buyers move forward at any time by providing links to your sales and support teams".
You and I both know that these LinkedIn users are not just using the platform to connect with buyers; much LinkedIn usage is about self-promotion and connecting with the next job. So to suggest that B2B brands will benefit from investment in LinkedIn promotion is, I believe, a little disingenuous.
Equally, a number of commentators cite the 2012 report by Social Media Examiner to claim that "68 percent of B2B marketers use social media". The truth of the matter is that this refers to 68% of B2B marketers using social media to "research customer insight". This does not necessarily mean that those marketers are investing marketing spend in those platforms...
So – are we ready?
The research into this blog is of course not exhaustive. But I believe we are nearing a tipping point, and the research from IDG Connect is a warning sign to B2B marketers who refuse to believe that social media has a role to play in B2B. But as we have always said, it is absolutely not something marketers HAVE to do. Many audiences are not ready. And many marketers will not get a good return from it. But perhaps that is going to change pretty soon...