Businesses that sell only to other businesses (B2Bs) have ventured past the cozy confines of LinkedIn and other professional networks to foster deeper connections with the companies that comprise their customer base. They are carving out niches on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a host of other platforms. And they are using these corners of the digital space to articulate thought leadership, amass connections, and announce new offerings.
Such strategies cover the how of social media engagement. But we’ve entered an era in which fresh attention must be focused on the who, and ultimately, the why. Three marketplace forces are exerting outward pressure on the boundaries that once defined the B2B audience. It’s not just about their customers anymore; it is—at times exclusively (please see Foxconn and Apple)—about their customers’ customers.
That means B2B communications strategies need to be about more than sales and lead generation. They need to emphasize the creation of brands (please see BASF—"We don’t make a lot of the products you buy, we make a lot of the products you buy better.") that can support end users and survive a frontal assault in which your key customers are used as weapons against you.
Simply put, B2Bs need to act more like sophisticated B2Cs in their communications strategies. The dynamics driving the need for such a transformation include:
1. The Poster Child
Last week, Human Resources Journal ran a story about a class action lawsuit targeting three Los Angeles-based companies accused of wage theft. Walmart wasn’t one of the companies involved, but its name appeared three times—and once in the headline—before the article made any mention of the defendants.
That’s because all three of the accused are Walmart contractors and the story simply wouldn’t warrant significant attention if they weren’t.
In recent months, we’ve seen Apple, Victoria’s Secret, and a number of other big brand names similarly taken to task for alleged supply chain-related improprieties. Such instances should dispel illusions among B2B communicators that they still operate at a safe distance from the harsh media spotlight. A focused communications strategy among plaintiffs’ counsel (and other adversaries) is shattering that old paradigm.
In the case at hand, every ounce of public pressure applied to Walmart further incentivizes the defendants to settle for fear of jeopardizing relationships key to their most lucrative contracts. Highlighting Walmart also injects the story with a viral potentiality. Media-savvy plaintiffs’ attorneys understand that the media loves a poster child and that Walmart fills the frame far more persuasively than, say, Schneider Logistics (one of the contractors named in the case).
Corporate adversaries also understand that the leverage is mainly on their side because there is often little to no resistance against the poster child strategy. Big brands have few incentives to aggressively defend a contractor caught up in controversy. If the B2Bs at the center of the story respond at all, it is usually to a limited number of customers, prospects, investors, and relevant journalists. That enables B2B adversaries to control the narrative—and with it, likely, the business consequences.
2. How the Sausage Is Made Matters
As Nike, Kathy Lee Gifford, and others can attest, the poster child strategy is nothing new. But today, there is an added dynamic at play forcing B2Bs to rethink who their customers are and what their brands are worth.
Time and again—and contrary to the conventional wisdom—those that use the poster child strategy have proven that the end user really does care about the company kept by big name brands; that ordinary consumers are now highly attuned to the procedures, practices, and policies that their buying decisions support; and that no link in the supply chain automatically escapes new levels of scrutiny.
In just the last two years, we have seen Lego drop APP Packaging after activists railed against the supplier’s record of deforestation. We’ve seen The Body Shop drop Daabon Organic after reports that the supplier sought to evict peasants from their lands in Colombia. And we have seen Nestle drop Sinar Mas Group over the environmental impacts of palm oil harvesting.
Not to be outdone by their activist counterparts, regulators have issued rules requiring public companies to disclose the use of "conflict minerals" in their supply chains. During last year’s proxy season, companies such as Walmart and Domino’s were forced to confront shareholder proposals demanding greater transparency about how suppliers treat workers and adhere to animal rights standards.
It’s an Upton Sinclair moment for B2Bs. End consumers of products, services, stocks, and ideas are paying greater attention to how their sausage is made; and that fact has torn down the walls that once differentiated B2B and B2C communications.
3. Loyalty Matters Too
In Webmarketing’s 2011 State of Digital Marketing Report, 68.6% of B2Bs reported that generating leads and sales is the top objective of their digital communications campaigns. That figure stands in stark contrast to the mere 15.3% that said building brand awareness was their top priority.
While such an allocation of resources is certainly understandable in the B2B context, it also underscores the fact that B2Bs are largely failing to leverage the most important aspects of social media engagement at a time when such engagement is crucial to continued success.
Understandably, they see social media as merely a new business tool, rather than a platform to compel the loyalty of whole communities. While understanding the value of the technology, this misses the point of the information revolution. Social media is all about getting large numbers of people to do what you want. In other words, it’s about a new model of capitalism.
How do you identify and win the support of influencers—the previously ignored brand ambassadors that make or break Susan G. Komen, Foxconn, or Kony2012 almost overnight? How do you forge powerful connections rooted in how products and services empower and enrich the lives of consumers?
It’s a relatively new concept in corporate social media circles, but it’s one that B2C companies are already starting to consider and in some cases, master. B2B companies must embrace it as well, given the larger consumer population they must now engage and the speed at which things change. B2B brands need to speak to the larger issues that end users care about—and do so in the online venues those end users rely on to decide which companies to support and which to shun.
B2Bs may never enjoy millions of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, but the more they do to build brands rooted in consumer value and social responsibility, the better positioned they will be. In the Digital Age, speed (aka, no warning) and transparency (aka, the whole world is now watching) are the rule, not the exception. That means every B2B is now a B2C.
—Author Richard S. Levick, Esq., is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis and public affairs communications firm. He is the co-author of The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis and Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference, and writes for Bulletproof Blog. Mr. Levick is on the prestigious list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom," which is compiled by the NACD and Directorship Magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with him on Twitter @richardlevick.
[Image: Flickr user Carl Jones]