For a business with a small marketing budget, social media feels like a no-brainer. Free communication channels to reach the world: a finance director’s dream come true. What’s the worst that could happen? No one sees it, no harm done. But watch out. A communications plan that starts with social media is at risk of being ineffective, and even damaging. We’re told social media fuels narcissism. It can also turn reasonable brands into self-important bores who only talk about themselves. The message may be loud and clear, but “let’s talk about me” has never been much of a chat-up line. Meanwhile, the business is missing opportunities to be relevant and empathetic.

Those talking to people at work have to be extra careful because their communications activity makes demands on their prospects’ valuable time. There’s always a danger of seeming intrusive or self-serving. So how can b2b brands use social media well? Here are three ways.

1. As a brand-building tool, to demonstrate expertise and build connection. Be relevant and interesting, and you can still land a strong message. Salesforce does this well by telling the stories of individual users and how Salesforce has changed their lives. Engaging human interest stories with a clear product benefit built in. Less direct routes also work. Marketing automation brand Marketo posts inspirational quotes with the hashtag WednesdayWisdom. Think people have had enough of inspirational quotes? Then consider creating a club of people with a shared interest, whether it’s gorgeous food or 100 ways to clear a paper jam. A brand which understands what matters to its customers builds credibility and trust. American Express’s OPEN Forum is about whatever small businesses might find useful, indirectly delivering the message that Amex understands and assists people to do business.

2. When there’s something new to say that people will want to hear. Maybe it’s a genuine breakthrough, or industry news, or something mundane but helpful, such as a special offer. That’s no different from any good advertising brief. In that situation, why be limited to social media alone? If it’s worth saying, it’s worth making sure the message lands. That probably means multiple channels.

Some businesses steer clear of anything overtly commercial on social channels, instead showcasing sustainability efforts, charitable work, or other employee activities to build their reputation. No need for such coyness. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth spending money to get the word out to the right people. Conversely, commercial news and offers may well be of interest and value to the customer. The test should be, what might a customer want to know, and should it come from us? Mutual benefit is fine. You are in business, after all.

3. As a two-way channel. Social media is, well, social – people can talk to a business and to each other. It’s essential to have resources and policies in place to deal with incoming and shared communication. This can be even more powerful and engaging than effective advertising, but neglected social channels look bad and can damage brand reputation. That’s why, ultimately, there’s no such thing as free media.

The watch-out is that for business-to-business brands, too much social media activity can undermine business development. A b2b brand that demands client attention better make that time well-spent, and not just serve its own interests. Too much self-promotion can be a turn-off, either because the company comes across as overly confident and self-important – and perhaps not interested in listening to clients – or because it appears desperate for sales. Neither of those is likely to have been the intended message. As George Bernard Shaw said, the greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

Thought leadership | November 2018