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Does Social Media Influence Technology Purchases?

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On Mac McIntosh’s “Sales Lead Insights” Blog, Mac says he’s been searching for quantitative evidence of social media’s impact on B2B leads and sales results.

Aren’t we all?

Is all that time people spend on social media Twittering, linking, commenting and posting status updates leading directly to BTB (business to business) sales or not? And if not, why this obsession with social media? (Note: For the purpose of sharing my own observations on this blog post, I’m focusing on BTB technology sales only–which tend to be more conservative by default than BTC sales.)

There are two reasons why I don’t think Mac (or anyone else) is going to find much quantitative evidence.

First, many companies are just starting to stick their toes in the social media waters, and they’re doing it poorly (translation: adding their “nails across the chalkboard” corporate-speak to a new broadcasting medium). So, of course, they’re seeing little to no ROI before abandoning their effort as a waste of time.

Try reviewing Twitter profiles of many technology software vendors or VARs. Note their dearth of followers and conversations, but their number of updates. Technology buyers just don’t have a cornucopia of conversations to join yet as they move through the buying process. This may be a recession, with jobs and resources cut to the bone, but technology staffers have been mandated to “see if you can make this social media thing work because it’s free and all of our competitors are doing it!”

Give them credit. They’re trying.

Second, companies that have social media success are not going to share their findings with the rest of us. Cracking the code that attributes top-line sales to social media is a huge competitive advantage. In a contracted marketplace, when the best most BTB sales organizations can do is steal market share rather than create it, it’s also a business differentiator.

Mac quotes from a Forrester Research survey which asked: “Which of the following sources of information impact your decision making process?” Here were the answers:

  • Peers and colleagues – 84%
  • Vendor, industry and trade Web sites – 69%
  • Your direct vendor salesperson – 69%
  • Technology or business magazines – 66%
  • Consultants, VARs and SIs – 65%
  • Industry trade shows or conferences (in person) – 59%
  • Forums, online communities and social networks – 45%
  • Industry analyst firms – 45%
  • E-mail or electronic newsletters – 41%
  • Web events or virtual trade shows – 40%
  • Interactive media: podcasts, video, online demos – 30%
  • Blogs – 24%

Here’s how I explain the disconnect between the obsession and time suck of participating in social media as a business activity and my potential buyer’s acknowledgement (because I have no direct sales dollars to show for it) that my actions are, in fact, not leading me to a sale:

People buy on emotion and justify their purchase with logic. This has always been the case in sales, and it will continue to be so. It’s human nature.

Discounting the sales value of social media is premature, even if we can’t yet see a direct correlation to orders. It’s simply too new a communication channel. In my business, for example, there’s mounting buzz over Social CRM, the new shiny object. CRM offerings without a platform for managing “the social conversation” leave a deafening silence. In a contracted economy where the risk of buying buzz-less technology is greater than doing nothing, I don’t think technology companies can afford not to be social. That’s just where the market is going.

Take, for example, my own recent “in-house” survey of the social buzz over Salesforce and ACT! Software, a contact manager I am a reseller for. In the past 5 days, there were 1,032 Twitter updates for Salesforce and 32 Twitter updates for ACT! (and I threw in searches for #ACT and ACT! database for good measure). Does that mean Salesforce has a better CRM product? I don’t think so, but it depends on what the users want to do and their willingness to analyze the feature sets (there’s that logic again).

Of course, since Sage Software, makers of ACT!, currently chooses deafening silence in the social marketplace, it makes my sales job harder. At the very least I know going into every sales meeting that I’ll have to defend ACT! against all the anecdotal conversations “out there.” Salesforce has done a phenomenal job of influence leadership in conjunction with making their product easily accessible. This is, in fact, a text-book case of how to use “consensus,” one of Robert Cialdini’s core principles described in his book Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini basically says people look to quell their confusion by asking, “What do my peers say is best?” And, whaddyaknow? Forrester Survey says, that’s answer #1!

Could Salesforce give Mac quantitative evidence of social media’s impact on BTB leads and sales results? Probably, but Mac, don’t hold your breath. They’ve got a good thing going right now.

Conversely, companies that wait till social media is a “proven strategy” will be too late to the game. Just look at the newspaper industry: They should’ve stuck their toes in the water testing new business models in 1982, the year USA Today came out with its national daily–which news pundits were certain would fold within the year. Instead, they did nothing beyond try to replicate their ink-on-paper model online. Now that it’s too late, they’ve escalated their search for the silver bullet, even though content-wise they have a superior product. Just goes to show, you can’t wait too long to try something new.

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