Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Feeling the Love: Narrowing the Gap between Social Media Tools and B2Bs' Needs

My goal with this post is to share some gaps between existing tools and client wishes besides the ones you most often hear about - metrics or influencer ranking.

To be honest, I created this blog post last September but went back and forth on whether or not to publish it. It's now January 2011 and I finally decided to go for it. I’m hoping that, if you are a social vendor, this post will help shed some light on what B2Bs care about and look for. And please know that I wrote this post with the utmost respect for the tool and application vendors out there. I sympathize with the position you, vendors, are in.

So why did I decide to publish this post after all? Because we, B2B marketers realize that we become more powerful when we partner with our vendors to help shape the industry. We want to make things work just as much as vendors do.

Although the disclaimer at the bottom of my blog page states that this blog represents my own thoughts as an individual and not as a Cisco employee, I would like to re-emphasize that point here. Furthermore, my observations are quite general and are from a large corporation’s perspective. This means two things: 1) not every point will be applicable to every tool or application vendor, and 2) small and medium businesses may have a different take on the below content (though I suspect that they will be able to relate to some of what I’m about to say).

So let’s dive in.

1. The Differentiator. But from Whose Perspective?

The truth is there are a lot of tools and applications out there and there are overlaps. It’s natural and expected as this is still a new market. It will take some time for things to shake out. The challenge for us, marketers, is to really understand how your tools and applications are different from somebody else’s. And how that differentiating factor can bring us more value than your competition’s. Once we know that, the question becomes: “does this incremental value really that important to our business to make us switch or invest in your products?” I think this last point is key. Your product may have one more feature than your competition's, but does that one more feature really make a difference for us when we take all factors into consideration? This is a critical question especially when we already have (an) incumbent(s) in place.

2. What’s Your Price?

Companies realize that since this industry is still evolving, you may not be able to take advantage of economies of scale and need to price your offering in a certain way. This can become a challenge when we evaluate your offering. Not only are we comparing your products to another social media vendor’s products, but we also weigh them against traditional, and in some cases our own solutions. In addition, we look at the purchase price just as much as the on-going maintenance and support cost should the latter be required. Then we need to prioritize (because we have budget constraints too). If there is a way to pilot your product at a lower price and/or under different terms than those of your standard package, that could help. The goal of the pilot is to show success and help other people inside the company see that your tool or application works so they can feel more comfortable with it and consider it for future projects. If you’re running programs or providing tools that require a minimum amount of investment from us, then a pilot at a reduced cost becomes even more compelling to marketers.

3. Finding the Balance: The Right Offer

If I had to sum this up in one sentence, it would be “too much or too little”. Depending on the type of social media activity we’re looking to do, we look at an offering in its totality: the product itself and the support/service attached to it. Let’s look at the “too much” side first. Many social media solutions have different components and vendors like to bundle these components into one comprehensive solution set. Large corporations often have some of the components in place already and are only looking for a subset of the proposed solution. Maybe they’re just looking to augment their own solution with yours. Being able to break up your complete solution into smaller chunks, and price as well as implement it according to our needs could go a long way. For example, if you have a solution that takes advantage of your listening tool on the front end and your potential customer already has a listening tool in place, then understanding why your tool would be needed (if at all needed) and eliminating redundancies in the process could help address the “too much” challenge.

On the flip side, there are tools and applications on the market that offer "too little" either in terms of functionality or support/services. We, corporations, need to figure out how to integrate, and later, maintain or troubleshoot these tools or applications after we have put them in place. This is ok in the case of free tools or applications, but is less desired for products corporations pay for. When a solution only addresses a small portion of our (non-business critical) needs, we may not find it robust enough for business use or may not rank it high enough on our priority list to get funding.

4. Support and Services

This is a key consideration for B2Bs so I want to give this some more air time. Remember where we’re coming from: our goal is to provide our customers with the best user experience regardless of where they are so the quality of the product as well as support is important to us. When you talk to us, show us how you are going to support us. We are used to enterprise-grade products and services, and while we understand that you may be coming from the consumer side and may be under-resources, we need to know that you’re going to be there when we need you. We are used to having dedicated project managers and developers to help see our projects through and help with on-going maintenance as needed. We are used to quick turnaround times on routine updates or enhancements. Are you going to assign a long-term team to us? How responsive is this team going to be? Are you going to train us on your tool? How are you going to help us work through our pressing issues? Etc. These questions are just as important as how your product works.

5. Flexibility, Flexibility, Flexibility

Again, this depends on what you’re looking to sell. I discussed flexibility in terms of pricing and support so I’m going to focus on the physical solution. In general, flexibility falls in these categories:
• Compliance with corporate user and brand experience
• Custom…
….tools and applications
….features on standard applications
….data capture

Large organizations have strict rules about how to address brand identity, user flow and need to meet user experience requirements at all times to help preserve brand image. Some solutions could be as simple as updating your tool or application with brand-approved colors or using the company’s approved icons or other visuals in your tool or application….while keeping your price at a reasonable level.

Granularity is another area that is becoming increasingly important to B2B marketers. When the standard level of granularity is insufficient, we look to our vendors to help us develop custom tools or applications, custom features on standard applications or a custom data reporting system to help narrow the gap (assuming the price is right). Why? Because companies that have been doing social media for a few years now are looking to get to the next level. Our questions are getting deeper and our needs are increasing – either driven by customer wish lists or internal expectations.

One more thing. I don't want to go into much detail on metrics as it could be its own blog. Just very quickly, by a "custom data capture system", I don't mean the ability to customize the results page view. I'm talking about adding custom fields in your tool, pulling in custom fields from another tool or application and/or making it possible to export the collected information into another tool or application (other than excel).

What it comes down to is that we’re all still learning. We both, marketers and vendors, need to help each other. We need to figure this out. Together. As an industry. We'll get there...one step at a time.


  1. Petra, perhaps there's a flip side to this issue that's equally troubling -- why do people that claim to be social media experts at large companies pay opportunistic vendors for tools that are clearly inferior to the free tools that are available?

    My point: we, the practitioners, must perform the appropriate due diligence before spending limited budget on these work-in-progress tools and platforms.

    Frankly, I believe that having a large budget without oversight is a common problem -- because it fosters and rewards apathy, when those funds are at the disposal of an uninformed person.

  2. nice post Petra, thanks for sharing your perspective. In my experience how vendors interact with you (and everyone else) in social spaces is just as important as the social products they sell. "Eat your own dog food" is the metaphor, but very true, especially in the social space.

    I also believe the partnerships you build with vendors are invaluable, but the street goes both ways. While you may be paying for a service, there is a cost that should be associated with the process and feedback you share back with the vendor. Larger organizations evaluate tons of products, and the feedback they could share could help a product sometimes more than the product helps them. SO vendors should recognize not only the revenue, but the additional value a company can provide back.

  3. Amen to that! Thanks for the additional opinion.