Scott Monty - Strategic Communications & Leadership Advisor

Scott Monty - Strategic Communications & Leadership Advisor

The following is a guest post by @ericschwartzman.

Up to now, one the biggest challenges that social media posed was forcing organizations to decide just how open they should be. The belief was that information that could be public should be transitioned to social media, but proprietary information should remain under wraps in email, on the phone and in meetings.

Those that did a good job socializing their external communications, like Dell and Comcast, saw productivity gains, since conversations that occur on social media are automatically recorded, discoverable through search and shareable. But those parts of the organization which were not customer facing, or which did not interact with outside entities, were pretty much sheltered from realizing similar gains.

It is now popular wisdom that Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin are good places for businesses to market their products and services. Migrating external communications to the social web turns customer service into public relations, and minimizes call center demand. But what if you want to use a social network to collaborate internally?

Until recently, no one dared share corporate secrets on social networks. When it comes to B2B social media uses like privileged discussions between manufacturers and resellers or internal discussions between sales and marketing personnel, you'd need a more intimate social network. Strategic planning, competitive analysis and product development are just a few activities most companies prefer to keep confidential.

In episode #594 of For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report, Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz discussed Steve Rubel's Ad Age column about what he calls the 'Validation Era' of online marketing. In our rush to amass friends and followers, Rubel argues, we've assembled online social communities that are so loud and so constant, that it's become difficult to use them for more than mundane conversations.

The early stage of most sales cycles is equally mundane. You start the process by searching Google and asking your online social network for recommendations. But the final decision for a considered purchase, like a car or computer, or a high-ticket B2B purchase, like selecting a raw materials supplier, has to withstand greater scrutiny. Search and social help us build the short list, but the discussion that leads to a final purchasing decision has been offline. But with the rise of private social networks, internal business conversations are likely to go social as well. And that will limit the marketer's ability to steer the purchasing decision.

B2C marketers may have some luck. But if B2B brands try to secure access to these exclusive, customer-only conversations, by encouraging their employees to engage through their personal profiles, or by dispatching their subject matter experts, they're unlikely to succeed. These B2B conversations will only be open to small stakeholder committees, no matter how trusted or influential those outside the circle may be. Private means private. After the vendors pitch, the buyers clears the conference room to discuss who they want to hire. Marketers must leave the room.

Rubel cites the rise of services like Path, Beluga and GroupMe as examples of intimate social networks gaining prominence. And indeed they are rising in popularity. But already, one high-flyer has come and gone. Google Wave, a private activity streaming service launched before its time failed to catch on, Google lost patience and pulled the plug. On the B2B social media side, Salesforce.com made its Chatter service free in February, giving up to five users the chance to establish their own, little private Facebook. Others are leveraging platforms like Jive to create their own, password protected social networks, as SAP has so famously done already.

The private social network as a B2B social media tool has numerous useful applications. But I wouldn't count on it replacing Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin any time soon. These services provide private messaging features which are already trusted enough to swap email addresses. Instead, we are seeing the dawn of an era where sensitive business conversations, which could never reap the benefits of social media, are beginning to be socialized as well.

External communications will stay on Facebook. Sensitive, business conversations will move to services like Chatter. And private social networking services will expose organizations to the benefits of leveraging social media to accelerate the pace of proprietary, confidential business processes like product development, workforce management, strategic planning, business process management, vendor sourcing, research & development and logistics. We will learn to pick the social media channel, based on the public or proprietary nature of the message.

What do you think? Have you seen interesting examples of B2B social media? Please share as a comment below.

About the Author
Eric Schwartzman (@ericschwartzman) provides social marketing research, social marketing services and social marketing training to businesses, government agencies and nonprofits. His book Social Marketing to the Business Customer with Paul Gillin is the first book devoted exclusively to B2B social media marketing.