As a former classical studies major, I’m fascinated with etymology, the study of linguistics. The word that is the focus of so many marketing books – conversation – has its origins in the Latin word conversari, which means "to dwell, to keep company with." And this is entirely appropriate in the name of social media marketing, since having conversations requires spending time with people – namely, customers.
Too often in B2B marketing, we see the definition of the more personal "customer" devolve into the distant and cold "decision maker." Decision makers are relegated to the sales cycle, engaged in research and in need of information and education. The prevalent attitude seems to be that marketers develop the message and decide which information to share with decision makers. This is command and control, with unidirectional messaging at its core.
Is it any wonder then why B2B companies are slow to adopt social media as a marketing channel?
It's not that B2B customers are steering clear of social media. On the contrary, they use blogs, message boards, podcasts and online communities in their research for business solutions as well as in their personal lives. But B2B marketers don’t seem to be aware of – or worse – care about conversations that are taking place within the social media space about their brands.
Brands are being discussed, both positively and negatively; now marketers can follow the conversations and join in. Ignoring it won’t make the problem dissipate; indeed, businesses that continue to put off the decision to join the conversations will find themselves at a disadvantage.
But – to return to our etymology lesson – marketers need to spend time with their prospects and begin to embrace bidirectional conversation. A simple way to start is to listen. Keep listening. And listen some more. Take the time to explore the sites. Look around. Follow the conversations with RSS feeds.
Above all, resist the temptation to jump in until you understand the context. Businesses that attempt to harness the power of social networks or new media sites without realizing the generally accepted etiquette will find themselves unwelcome. It is only by listening and learning that B2B marketers will be able to start talking with their customers.
Note: this post originally appeared as a chapter in The Age of Conversation.