The B2B Business Case, Part 2

My previous post described the social media adoption gap that our “B2B Goes Social: a White Horse Survey Report” identified, and it noted that social media curmudgeons among the B2B C-suite were largely to blame for it. I then promised a three-part guide for building a B2B business case to win over those C-suites, but then only managed to deliver one of the lessons, which involved widening your CEO’s perception of what constitutes social media. Have you done that? Great. Here, then, are the remaining two lessons:

2. Social media is what everyone else is doing.

If you’ve ever observed toddlers at play, you know that the desirability of a given toy increases exponentially as another toddler plays with it, and it reaches a fever pitch if the other toddler appears to be misusing the toy, e.g., eating Barbie’s hair. With all due respect to both CEOs and toddlers, I must report that this behavioral tendency does not disappear with age, and you can use it to good effect in your business case.

At White Horse, we’ve made it a standard practice to present a sample one-month social clients in order to show them that conversations are indeed taking place around their brand. They really lean forward in their seats, though, when we show them what their competitors are doing—what share of the social conversation belongs to them, what perceptions accrue to them, and what keywords are used to describe them. All of this data can easily be obtained through a low-cost social media monitoring platform (we use Radian6 for our clients), and ginned up in a few hours of analysis.

“All well and good,” you might say to me, “but if I had budget to spend on a social monitoring platform, I wouldn’t be reading your damn blog post on how to get budget for social, now would I?” Fair point, and since we’ve already established that you’re not going to call me, I have no choice but to point out some of the free resources that can get you started. At the top of my list is the trial version of Alterian’s SM2 monitoring platform, which caps the number of results but gives you many of the slicing and dicing features that make analysis easier. Then you have a number of good scraping tools that leave the analysis entirely up to you: Google’s blog search, Addict-o-Matic, and, oh, what the hell, here’s the entire list of free social media monitoring tools.

So what do you do with all that competitive data? Think of social media marketing as a competition for a very finite resource: your customers’ attention. If data shows your competitors commanding a larger share of the social conversation in your industry, that share is essentially coming at your expense, whether you feel it directly or not. If, on the other hand, your competitors are falling short in social, so much the better for your business case: there’s a vacuum waiting to be filled by the first company in your industry that’s ready to liven up the conversation. In all cases, C-levels need to see social media marketing in a competitive context in order to see the light.

3. It’s about pie, not ROI

For decades, we marketers prattled on about the ROI of our efforts. Today you can’t throw a virtual rock without hitting five blog posts about how we all need to simmer down about ROI. While I am firmly in the simmer-down camp, I also have to acknowledge that we did this to ourselves. We got our C-levels addicted to hard data, and it is axiomatic that once someone is addicted to the hard stuff, you can’t get them off of it. Solution? You give them hard data that’s not ROI data. You feed them pie.

CEOs love pie. One of their favorites is the one that shows them the proportion of their paid impressions that can be replaced or augmented with free impressions. PR agencies have long been selling the value of this pie as earned media or “ad equivalency value,” so CEOs are used to seeing it. They get it. Once you’ve done your social media market analysis, it’s relatively easy to project how big that social media pie wedge will be.

Social media can also produce a pie flavor that PR usually can’t: the proportion of site traffic attributable to social sources. It’s all right there on the “Referrers” tab of your Web analytics dashboard. At White Horse, for instance, we can say that our social seeding program increased the proportion of our site traffic by 6% to 25% in six months, and that total traffic grew accordingly. We know that more traffic means more leads, and that we’d be crazy to call that ROI. But it sure is some tasty pie.

Other pies are possible, of course, but bake up these two, and I guarantee* that you’ll be halfway to making your business case. And if that doesn’t work, you can always call me.

*Not a guarantee.

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User-Generated Conquest: How UGC Will Save Brand Advertising

When the concept of “branding” really came into vogue in the mid-90’s, its practitioners touted it as a higher-minded field than raw advertising—because your brand, they said reverently, belongs to the customer. Cue the choirs of angels.

If this were really true, then you wouldn’t need to pay a branding agency tens of thousands of dollars to develop your brand, then millions more to sear it into your customers’ brains. You would just turn the whole process over to your customers and let them tell you who you are.

Which is a pretty good description of what user-generated content (UGC) can actually accomplish. Of the many forms of UGC now flourishing on the Web – a category that includes product reviews, videos and photos, personal blogging, fan fiction, etc., just to name a few – consumer participation in brand contests is among the most prominent and prolific. Despite what we hear about increasing consumer disdain for mass-market brand advertising, consumers appear eager to participate in forums that allow them to riff on brand identity.

Why is that? It’s partly a shift in the balance of power between marketer and consumer – more on that later – but brand interpretation also has a more deeply rooted appeal. When you ask consumers to get creative about interpreting your brand, you’re really tapping into the same part of their psyche that the brand was meant to appeal to in the first place – you’re asking them to make deep connections between your brand and their lived experience.

Brand-focused UGC may in fact be the most revolutionary tool that social media offers the marketer, but only if brands let it happen. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re a well-known soft drink maker with a tried-and-true brand formula. In order to “activate the base,” your run an online UGC contest and ask users to submit new ad designs and taglines. You get a raft of responses, including some truly break-out creative. You post some winners, give out some prizes, and everybody goes home happy.

That’s a perfectly legit use of UGC, and it describes the vast majority of UGC contests out there. But what if instead of folding up the UGC tent after the contest, you took your finalists for what they really are – your true brand stewards – and let them play in the big leagues? What if you ran the ads they created? What if you started a conversation with your newly minted brand stewards, soliciting their feedback on new products and campaign ideas?

Taking this second step makes marketers nervous. It’s one thing to let consumers into the brand laboratory; it’s quite another to let their newly created brand monster break out of the lab and trundle off toward the village. Who’s going to explain the crowd of angry torch-bearing villagers to the CEO?

But when branded UGC is done right, the risks are contained, and the rewards are more than worthwhile. Consider the already well-worn statistical chestnut about consumer trust and social media, based on Nielsen’s tracking data: consumers trust in advertising is in serious decline, currently ranging between about 20 and 50 percent, depending on the medium. But trust in the recommendations of others is on an upward trend – as high as 80 percent.

I’m suggesting that marketers can tap into that trust level when they let UGC out of the lab. The mere act of asking consumers to participate in UGC helps to engender trust in the brand, but letting that content live outside of the UGC contest might actually help save advertising. Imagine commercial breaks so chockfull of innovative UGC ads that consumers take their fingers off the fast-forward buttons on their Tivo remotes. Five years ago, no one would have believed consumers would pay attention to commercial content that wasn’t professionally produced. But then no one could have imagined consumers being interested in Twitter either.

Before I start to sound too utopian here, let me point out the purely practical benefits of unleashing UGC. A good UGC brand contest is a classic two-for-one: you get the brand props for consumer participation and all the gross impressions you crave, but you also get a very efficient bit of “crowdsourcing.” If crowdsourcing is simply a way of putting the crowd to work, then UGC fits the bill: you can potentially generate terrific branded material at a fraction of what you’d pay an agency. And since you may have caught wind of some dark financial clouds gathering on the horizon, finding ways to do more with less should be a popular theme in 2009.

Still sounds too risky for your brand? Consider that you have full control over how much free reign to give consumers, and you’re ultimately the arbiter of what content gets used and how. I tend to favor giving consumers maximum latitude in what they produce and letting the best ideas float naturally to the surface.

But there are benefits to the tight-reigned approach as well. We developed a UGC print ad contest for an outdoor gear company with a fairly elite customer base of hard-core mountaineers. They wanted the campaign to produce a print ad they could actually run, as close to camera-ready as we could get it. We built a contest interface that allowed users to include 100% of their own photos and content, but constrained the layout to the established look & feel of the print campaign. The results were UGC print ads of quality and content comparable to the agency-produced work.

The bottom line is this: If we really want to use UGC to help us build better brand relationships with our customers, we can’t treat it as just another brand hit or traffic driver. Before you ask your customers to pour heart and soul (or even their half-baked ideas) into the UGC bucket, ask yourself a simple question: where will this content live six months from now? If you don’t have a plan for how you’ll use the best content to advance your relationship with your customers, drop the idea. You’re not ready. But if you’re willing to let it out of the lab, your customers will reward you for it.