Some may question how effective B2B social media can be for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

This scepticism is understandable. Check out any recent research on businesses and social media networking (SMN) and you’ll find a pretty common attitude. Business leaders still tend to think of social media as something for the consumer-facing, business-to-customer (B2C) environment.

Just five years ago researchers in Finland found that only 8.8% of businesses involved in B2B marketing actively used social networking sites.

Yet social media is widely recognised as a crucial means to improve operations in many aspects of the business cycle, especially in B2B operations.

Unlike other one-directional marketing channels, social media allows for direct interaction with customers and enables prospective and existing clients alike to follow and participate in relevant conversations.

No other digital marketing channel can offer communication on this same level.


So who’s doing what?


While social media use in B2B operations is picking up, there is still resistance among some executives. But if you look around, you’ll see who the movers are.

The larger the business, the more likely it is to make use of social media to nurture B2B relations. Smaller companies tend to exert more control over social media use than larger ones.

So far the United States is leading the game. And predictably, tech companies use it more than any other sector.

It is wise then to look at the big US tech companies to understand best practice. Companies such as Oracle and Cisco have filled their social media space with extensive use of blogs, white papers, videos, podcasts and the like.

The smartest companies create social conversations using discussion groups and Q&A sessions on Facebook. Why? Well, research in the UK has found that these ‘content rich’ offerings tend to build better relationships while also improving visibility in the digital world.


Why network through social media?


While social media networking (SMN) clearly benefits B2B relationships, its implementation should be properly integrated. SMN shouldn’t be thought of as an add-on, but as a constituent of assimilated processes.

Traditional forms of engagement such as trade fairs and developer events remain crucial to any business and SMN isn’t to replace them. SMN is there to announce you, and to develop and sustain relationships built in real-world encounters.

In the age of abundant digital media, gaining trust is more difficult than in simpler times.  Companies that make good use social media in B2B communications encourage relationships of trust.

You see, B2B discussions on Facebook and comments on Twitter differ from B2C consumer engagements – they’re not from random strangers, and endorsements will come from trusted sources. B2B engagements become validations.

All of this together is also beneficial to your website’s search engine optimisation (SEO) and your business’s broader visibility.


Who needs social media networking (SMN)?


The established larger companies tend to best nurture relations through SMN right now, but it is perhaps most valuable for companies at the earlier stages of their business relationships.

We all know that trying to get noticed and gain trust when starting out are key challenges that new businesses face. Social media networks can become crucial for visible relations that demonstrate your worth. Plentiful content and extensive engagements will also reduce perceived risk.

When the assumed barriers to SMN include resources, knowledge and understanding; the question arises as to whether a company can afford it. Of course, the other question is: Can you afford not to?

In New Zealand, researchers have looked at the use of social media networking in SME B2B engagements. They recommended that this participation should include increasing business collaborations as well as marketing branding.

It seems then that businesses large and small, new and established can all benefit from SMN in their B2B operations.


How to do it


So whether enhancing operations, marketing, or facilitating relationships, we know that social media networking can make great improvements to business. But where do you start?

Well, the main thing we know about B2B SMN is that quality is everything. You won’t get any payoff without the investment. Make sure that your content speaks with and not at your clients. Be conversational and engaging.

Good use of SMN is not piecemeal, but should be ongoing and sustained. Ensure that the writing is of high quality, as it will reflect your business to your clients. Sharp, inspiring and engaging copy indicates professionalism, knowledge, and the forms of expertise that clients expect. Always keep your communications consistent.

Density of use matters too. More content and more engagement will mean stronger links between you and your clients. The more platforms you use, the greater the density and the more likely clients will find you and engage with you.


The bottom line


Generating online value for your company can seem daunting. It is perhaps unnerving to know that there is no magic wand for performance in the digital world. It takes time and may involve some experimentation.

So there’s a lot to do and of course SMN demands resources. Where the payoff is not always immediately measurable, it can be hard to convince the bean counters to part with money.

Yet the competitive advantage gained by those rising to the challenge is not one to be lost.