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Mythbusting The Differences Between B-To-B Email And Social

My column for MediaPost this week is another look at the intersection of email and social, this time within the context of B-to-B, as that is where most of our clients operate. The opportunities for B-to-B companies in social media are not the same as for Starbucks or Red Bull. But the opportunities exist, and given the low cost, scalability and potential ROI of social, my objective was to try and remove some barriers by debunking some of the myths keeping B-to-B companies out of social media.

Mythbusting The Differences Between B-To-B Email And Social
by Mike May
published in MediaPost’s Email Insider, 9.21.11

Depending on whose statistics you believe and where your company does business, there are somewhere between 250 million and 1 billion reasons to accelerate your social media strategy.

But the email clients I work with are principally B-to-B, so the sheer tonnage appeal of social media is not as persuasive with them. If a company only needs a dozen new clients to hit its numbers for the quarter, what should it care that 35 million soccer moms are playing “Farmville,” or that #quikster is trending? Instead, it’s easy to point out the ways in which email and social media are different, and how it is possible to conclude that a company that has built its communications program on email should not move resources into social.

I hear the arguments a lot, and will of course concede that the tactics for success in social are very different from those in email. Ambient atmosphere, message frequency, message length, content strategy and conversational expectations can be wildly different between the two channels. But email and social are alike in a very significant way: They are the only two permission-based channels.

I believe marketers whose teeth are sharp from email head into social with a  competitive advantage, as they already understand the principals of audience acquisition, respect, empathy and relevance. How you execute on these principles varies between email and social, but for the email marketer, operating within them is already second nature.

That email marketers make excellent social media marketers is one very good reason to supplement communications through social. Still, there are many counter arguments I come across, some less defensible than others. Here are a few of the most frequently cited, each in need of a little mythbusting:

1. I don’t really know who my fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter are.
With email I know who they are. If you have open subscription for your email list, I would posit that the same is true –you don’t know who your subscribers are, either. Sure, you may know their names and companies (unless they use Gmail or Hotmail or Yahoo, which is common even in B-to-B), but you also know the names of your Facebook fans, and most Twitter accounts use or reference real names as well. What you don’t have in social is the ability to see who exactly is reading or clicking. Instead, you know who is commenting, liking and retweeting. Isn’t that just as valuable?

2. Not everybody uses social, but everyone is on email.
It’s true that only 250 million Americans, out of a population of 307 million, are on Facebook. And it is possible, I suppose, that the 19% of the population who are not on Facebook are highly correlated with your customer base. But statistics aside, is everyone you want to reach already on your email list? And if they are, do you enjoy 100% open rates, consistently? Most of the population on Facebook and Twitter is not a direct hit for B-to-B marketers, but your audience is there — and your business would benefit from reaching them.

3. Business doesn’t get done in social media. It’s where people talk about where they went to lunch and look at pictures of high school reunions.
“On Facebook / Twitter” and “at their desk, doing work” are not mutually exclusive. Your audience may be doing both at the same time. Even if they are snickering to themselves at the 25 pounds Cliff gained since prom, they’re still only a quick shift in attention back to doing their job. And if they are completely immersed in Facebook, you may find it’s easier to get their attention there than to try to lure them back to the inbox. It’s a water cooler environment. Conversations happen there that you are only privy to if you’re present.

4. My brand isn’t right for social media.
Is Vistaprint’s? It has 33,000 Facebook fans and 9,000 Twitter followers. What about The American Society of Mechanical Engineers? Its industry recruiting program on Facebook earned 10,000 “likes” in only a few months. Both of those brands, as well as Omni Hotels & Resorts, Optify, Lexis Nexis, Sybase, Cisco Systems, EMC and others, were all B-to-B Magazine 2011 Social Media Marketing Award Winners. If your brand says something to your customers, then it is absolutely right for social media.

5. I can control my message in email, but in social media it’s up to everyone else.
I’m not sure this is such a bad thing. Look at it this way: Which would you rather have — an unqualified email address, or a visit to your website from an in-market prospect referred by one of your customers? Good things can happen when your customers help tell your story, even when you have to give up a little control to let it happen.

6. I like email because of the one-to-one targeting. With social, you’re just talking to a sea of nameless, faceless, largely anonymous people.
Let’s be honest here. Do you really do any one-to-one targeting with email? I mean, besides inserting your subscriber’s first name after “Dear” and maybe segmenting by geography or some other fairly wide attribute? Truer one-to-one conversations happen in social media, owing largely to the expectations that customers have about their questions being answered. Whole Foods reports that fully 80% of the company’s tweets are part of individual conversations with customers. And one of the reasons Vistaprint has been so successful in social (see above) was a company policy to respond to every Twitter mention directly, whether it was positive, negative or neutral. As a result, its Twitter followers more than doubled and its NetPromoter score (a scoring of customers who would recommend the company to others) also increased.