Social media is an excellent vehicle for connecting with consumers. But what about other businesses? This question has surfaced many times in the last few months, and I'd like to respond to it here because I think a lot of people can benefit from the answer.
Business-to-business companies, like business-to-consumer companies, still have decision-makers and influencers that contribute to a sale. They also have a need to be personable, responsible, and communicative. In social media, companies stand to reach media, current customers, prospects, and other stakeholders.
If your company has something to say, social media can be a vehicle for you. If you care about a relationship with the media, then social media can be a place for you to dialog with them. If you currently send promotional email to your customer and/or prospect base, then social media can be a direct shot to these people without interference from a spam filter.
Now, the concern generally has been that people might actually talk back and you'd have to respond. Or, they may have something negative to say. Both instances are true; however, the conversation is already happening, and you're just not a part of it. People are talking about you, your industry, and your competitors right now in social media circles -- you are on the outside if you're not listening and participating.
If people are already saying negative things about you, then you're currently not satisfying them with an answer that might squash further disparagement. With social media, you can answer negative comments with the truth or with a way to solve people's problems. Consider that for a moment. What would it look like to prospective customers if you were to publicly display how well you solve problems for current customers? I assure you that few people expect you to be perfect, but they all expect you to take care of them.
Social media is necessary for your business if your primary target is regularly online. And while this is not everyone, I admit, B2B versus B2C is not the determinant. Social media is a place for feedback. (I believe it was Ken Blanchard who wrote, "Feedback is the breakfast of champions.") It's for sharing opinions and solving problems. Find the right mix of tools and vehicles and then put a communication strategy in place to use them efficiently and effectively.
In B2B, the most common tools I have seen used effectively are a combination of blogs allowing comments, as well as LinkedIn and Twitter. I have also seen Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, and wikis layered in for others who are perhaps more web-savvy. Your appropriate mix and level of dedication will be unique to you, but getting subject matter experts talking in social media circles -- if they truly fearlessly "know their stuff" -- can only serve to enhance your position in the market.
Remember, you don't have to have just one Twitter feed, one blog, etc. You might be able to have several subject matter experts with their own Twitter accounts in addition to the corporate account. The CEO can have a blog to talk about issues facing the company or strategic decisions, corporate communications can highlight positive community outreach, and the product development team can highlight company innovations. The company Twitter account could focus on news about the company, while a service account could simply deal with customer concerns. There are many ways to get creative in getting "in the game."
In any case, you should at least monitor social media for your name, your employees, your competitors, and your industry. Useful information can be gleaned in real-time. In fact, what you learn might support rationale for jumping in and getting into the conversation by virtue of what you find. Some conversations may simply inspire you to take action. There are many tools that can help you do that, including Google Alerts, search.twitter.com, as well as other more sophisticated (i.e., expensive) software packages like Radian6, BuzzLogic, and Nielsen's BuzzMetrics.
The myriad of options in social media are not exclusively useful for business-to-consumer companies. Some B2B companies are doing a great job engaging decision-makers and influencers, such as Hoovers, Intuit (in both B2B and B2C), Sun, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. The point is that anyone can and should leverage these tools to host a conversation with their desired, mixed audiences. The key driver for success, regardless of company type, is that there is a strategy in place that cultivates a healthy, open, and productive relationship with complex audiences. The bar is getting higher as more companies are getting better with the protocol; it is time to jump in.