Will Social Become the Dominant Media for B2B Brands?

Messaging on social channels is eclipsing email as a primary marketing tool

By Matthew Schwartz

Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

It was a love letter from John Deere. To celebrate this year's Valentine's Day, the agricultural equipment manufacturer posted a picture on its Instagram account showing two newlyweds celebrating their big day nestled against an antique John Deere tractor. "Nothing says love like green and yellow," reads the post, referring to the brand's distinct colors.

The picture helps illustrate how B2B marketers are changing their tune when it comes to social media. As the lines between B2C and B2B marketing blur, the value of more freewheeling platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter is coming into much sharper focus for brands targeting vertical audiences.

Even before COVID-19 hit, the traditional in-person sales call was on the wane, pushing marketers to produce more original content distributed via multiple channels. But changes in the workplace sparked by the pandemic got B2B buyers conditioned to purchasing from home while spending additional chunks of their day perusing social channels.

A recent study of 200 business professionals spanning multiple markets found that social media and social media advertising are the most implemented marketing tactic (83 percent), trumping email marketing (75 percent) and search engine optimization (61 percent) for the first time. The "2022 B2B Marketing Mix Report," released by Sagefrog, also found that social media is climbing the ranks of marketing spending (34 percent), with digital marketing (37 percent) and website development (41 percent) now holding the top two spots in B2B marketers' budgets.


Social Media Takes Over As the Top B2B Marketing Tactic

note: Social media was the top marketing tactic across multiple markets for 200 business professionals who were queried about which marketing channels they use.
source: 2022 Sagefrog "B2B Marketing Mix Report"

Some B2B firms are playing catch up. "The majority of B2B marketers who I have been talking to more than anyone else in the last two years are the brands that had limited budget and didn't have a digital presence established and now they're scrambling to build out that digital presence, including social media," says Rick LaFond, director analyst in the marketing and communications practice at Gartner.

LaFond adds that B2B brands ramping up their social media investments need to develop a healthy mix of organic and paid advertising. "In the short term, the ROI of paid social media is a lot faster to achieve than organic social," he says. "Balancing the two is a good way to show some quick wins early on and at the same time enables you to be afforded the luxury of building out a good social media presence organically."

Dual Marketing Strategy

In addition to ascending as the top B2B marketing tactic, social media is also on the rise with direct mail campaigns.

The ANA's "Response Rate Report 2021: Performance and Cost Metrics Across Direct Media," based on the responses from roughly 1,250 marketers, found that email was the most used medium in all direct mail campaigns (82 percent), closely followed by social media (74 percent). However, social media advertising moved the most, up 17 percent since the ANA's previous response rate report, released in 2018.

"Brands have to engage with their audiences where they are, and now that is social media," says Anita Veszeli, director of social media and advocacy at Ericsson Group. "While email marketing is a one-way communication, social media is conversational."

Taken together, the Sagefrog and ANA studies underscore the growing need among B2B companies to deploy a dual marketing strategy that entails both branding and lead-generation efforts.

"There's such a rich, robust toolset for marketers that they want to leverage each one of them appropriately, as well as collectively," says Bill Zengel, SVP and head of the B2B practice at the ANA, adding that email addresses are often the key to unlocking first-party data.

Zengel continues, "What you'll see from sophisticated marketers and sales teams is that it's great to drive demand-generation among the people you know, but you also need to fill the top of the funnel with branding efforts. You can't ignore one to the detriment of the other."

The Long and Winding Road

As social media channels command additional marketing dollars, brand managers will need to tailor their message to each social channel.

Brands that landed new business were seen on an average of four social media channels, according to a recent report released by B2B International, a Merkle company. "Connecting You with Today's B2B Buyer" is based on interviews with 3,500 business professionals who were asked to retrace their steps for roughly 6,200 purchases across four B2B sectors (financial services, manufacturing, professional services, and technology).

"It's different horses for different courses," says Nick Hague, head of growth at B2B International, whose clients include AWS, Cisco, and MSC. "You've got to make sure that along the buyer journey you use a multitude of different ways of communicating with the B2B decision-maker, as the buying process is a long and protracted one. But one thing is clear: social media is definitely growing in importance."

John Deere deploys its spending to customize its social media messaging based on segmentation and targeting criteria, says Brian Torrey, manager of paid media and search, B2B. "For example, in the Ag space, we find the majority of row-crop farmers on Twitter tend to be early adopters of new technology," he adds. "So, our paid efforts there are tied to new technology messaging. There are late-majority adopters as well, so we run different messaging there to promote performance upgrades."

John Deere's B2B units also have a well-defined strategy for organic social, according to Holly McAvoy, senior public relations and social media manager at Deere & Co. "We try to post the right content on the right social platforms in terms of what that specific audience would be interested in," she says.

She adds that "feel-good" content works well across all social media channels, such as a picture celebrating the birthday of company founder John Deere wearing a party hat that appears on the brand's Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts.

No Longer Relying on Lead-Gen

Social media networks that inherently skew to consumer audiences offer paid programs catering to B2B marketers, including Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok.

LinkedIn remains the most popular social platform among business decision-makers (62 percent), per the B2B International study, followed by Facebook (54 percent), YouTube (53 percent), Twitter (44 percent), and Instagram (42 percent).

Amid the growing competition for ad dollars, LinkedIn continues to shore up its position. Last December, for example, the company rolled out Group Identity for B2B, which leverages first-party data to group members based on shared professional identity attributes such as seniority and business sector.

As B2B marketers entertain more consumer-ish social channels, they're also increasing the number of branded advertising campaigns on LinkedIn, says Penry Price, VP of marketing solutions at ANA member LinkedIn, who adds that ad revenue is up 43 percent year-over-year. "We're seeing more and more customers lean into brand storytelling to drive conversions instead of relying on traditional lead-gen campaigns," he says.


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