Is Facebook really useful for B2B?

I was struck by the title of Chris Koch‘s recent piece for Social Media Today, 4 Reasons Why Facebook Stinks for B2B Marketing – it’s an eye-catching headline. This topic is something I’ve thought about a lot recently. In my professional space, much of the marketing is in aid of business-to-business product awareness – or sometimes, business-to-employee, or developer relations – but it is rarely a straightforward, business-to-consumer/man-in-the-street model. I read Chris’ article with interest, as well as another article he’d earlier tweeted about, Facebook Can Work for B2B Marketers, and I was surprised to find that both pieces missed out on what I believe are some very important points.

As regular readers will know: I’m not a marketeer, I’m basically a techie who sometimes talks about social stuff. However, since I’m tagged as a “social media guy” within a software development organisation, I’m often asked whether a particular software product or technology should have a Facebook page. What about support information, documentation, introductory videos – surely those kinds of things should be available via Facebook? Isn’t that where all the cool kids are?

My answer is usually tentative and skeptical. Don’t get me wrong, I think the idea of  brands having some presence on Facebook is fundamentally useful for visibility, and more so if an organisation is prepared to spend some time on engagement (NB ephemeral, instead of ongoing engagement is one of the key holes that B2B campaigns can fall into that Chris Koch picks up on in his piece). I follow Starbucks UK and love getting the occasional freebie from them… and I am a fan of many other brands, too. However, considering a B2B relationship, I personally feel that Facebook is a far less useful social space in which to share information and engage with customers than, say, a network like LinkedIn or a standalone site with API hooks to existing social networks.

Here are my own “4 reasons” why Facebook doesn’t hit the mark for B2B:

  1. Facebook is famously a “walled garden”. You put content in, and they keep it there; it’s not indexable or embeddable from the outside. They’ve recently added a tool to export personal profile data, but not product or brand pages, to my knowledge. Facebook has always been about absorbing data, whereas a company like Google has been about indexing it. If you read Jeff Jarvis‘ excellent book What Would Google Do? it quickly becomes clear that Google grew and became successful by building or acquiring tools which made it easy to embed their information and gadgets into your site (whilst of course, recording signals as people visit those sites). That YouTube video you created? Easy to socialise and embed on other websites. Post a Facebook video? it can only be played on Facebook.
  2. It’s ok for Business-to-Consumer products, but not so useful for enterprise software and middleware where the relationship is essentially B2B and less visible. What does it mean for me to “like” WebSphere Middleware (or whatever) on Facebook? Why would I want to make that statement in a personal context? Will my friends and family, many of whom I don’t work with, know what these things are when they show up in their social streams? It makes sense for me to be part of a professional network via e.g. Slideshare or LinkedIn, but the value for B2B / middleware / invisible products is a lot less tangible.
  3. Facebook is blocked by a very large number of companies. I may not like that personally, and in fact I’m a supporter of the Stop Blocking campaign. I happen to work for an organisation where I have a wide degree of freedom in my access to and use of the web. On balance, though, it’s unlikely that users connected to a corporate network will be able to do lot with content that is posted on Facebook, during business hours. Have a presence, but think about whether it’s worth the effort to push a lot of content through that channel (and see point 1, again, too)
  4. It’s not necessarily a useful place to post content if your goal is to attract people in “nascent / emerging markets”, either. I spent some time in China last year, and clearly in countries like that, Facebook is officially inaccessible. Consider how to maximise access and “sociability” of content – Facebook is unlikely to be that channel.

So, having said all of that, and started out declaring myself “not a marketeer”, I end up sounding suspiciously like one, talking about channels, content and effectiveness! I am a page owner and I’ve played around with the advertising tools, so I do know that Facebook offers some very compelling segmentation, reach and analytics tools – but again, I’d argue that you have to consider whether you’re really providing wide access and ongoing value by centralising information inside their network.

What about Google+? I’ve not written about the social network of the hour here on my blog yet (but if you are on G+ feel free to add me to a circle…) but given Google’s interest in making content indexable and easy to locate, it is likely that when business pages arrive, content over there will be more widely accessible than it is inside Facebook. I’m not saying that “social” in general doesn’t work for B2B communications and marketing… I’m just saying that Facebook, to me, doesn’t make the perfect choice.

I’m still not a marketeer, and I don’t think I’d make a very good one – but I try to apply common sense to these spaces. Those are my 4 pennies on this issue… let me know what you think!

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14 responses to “Is Facebook really useful for B2B?

  1. Well reasoned Andy. I tend to agree on all four of your points. It’s too early to tell how things will play with G+ as it’s still in limited release and the ecosystem isn’t fully formed. But for the reasons you mention, I think it may have a better B2B foundation.

    • Absolutely – I’ve been the one saying “wait before getting too excited”, but in theory (!) Google could have a better story to tell in this space in the future. Plus is evolving quickly so we’ll see how it goes.

  2. Hello there Piper,

    I’d say I agree with your pennies. As a former marketeer (which I’m associating with the Mouseketeers, but I digress…) I will say that there are often times where you get the “let’s get on Facebook!” without actually thinking about the channel.

    B2B business is not usually something conducted at a personal level (especially when you get to enterprise level organizations) so a channel like Facebook where you’re representing yourself as your everyday self (essentially and regardless of marketing rhetoric, Facebook is a personal network,) is probably not the place to market WebSphere.

    LinkedIn however is often untapped with B2B marketing and I’m not sure why…maybe because it doesn’t have the same number of users as FB, but again, consider how many of the users will actually be receptive to associating themselves professionally with a B2B product or service vs. personally.

    Bottom-line, you don’t have to be a young Justin Timberlake (MMC reference) to speak to common sense Piper. You’re still on.

    Talk soon,
    Jenny

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mickey_Mouse_Club

    • Ahhh I saw the tweet about MMC but hadn’t seen your comment!

      As I wrote, I can see the value in a brand presence of some kind, but for me, it doesn’t warrant too much effort. I think the issue is that some people hear the term “social media” (note that I haven’t used that too much in the post) and translate that to “Facebook and Twitter” and assume that they must be in those spaces to be cool and hip. The important word, of course, is SOCIAL – socialise your message, make it available, embeddable, and then ENGAGE. I don’t think Facebook is an ideal space for socialising information that is intended for individuals inside a large company, and that’s all I’m saying here.

      Thanks for the feedback :-)

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  4. I agree with all of your points, and to that I add: Do you think having a Facebook page diminishes the legitimacy of a b2b company because it’s such an ineffective platform?

    • Hi Debbie. No, I’m not saying “don’t have a Facebook page” – I’m simply saying, it may not be the most effective channel to publish a lot of information, unless you are prepared to duplicate that information and maintain it in two places. Actually I think (as Sam and others have said here) that having a presence is valuable and can demonstrate forward-thinking. The problem is simply that because that information and presence faces inwards to Facebook, it doesn’t make it widely available across the Internet.

  5. Hi Andy,
    I agree with the others – great piece and good points.

    I’ve talked a lot (more in presentations than on the web – must fix that) about Facebook as a channel to consumers. It seems to me after reading your piece that there probably is still a role in B2B marketing around the ephemeral engagement you mention, because Facebook as a channel is fundamentally a way of reaching individuals (in a personal context) not businesses (or people as an employee). I guess Facebook could try to change that in the future, but right now they are focussed on the individual.

    Of course, you could say the same of billboards at airports, and they are full of B2B marketing (including IBM’s Smarter Planet). Whereas billboards at bus stops are generally consumer focussed. So I can see a role for B2B brands on Facebook getting generic, brand building messages out – and maybe also engaging with individuals to understand their personal opinions of a brand (which is going to influence their business decisions) rather than a traditional marketing channel supporting sales. More for Social Marketing by a Social Business.

    Interesting topic, thanks for the post,
    Stuart

    • Well – I see billboards and other spaces as much more public. I agree that there’s a role for “generic, brand-building messages” and engaging with individuals to understand views of a brand. Absolutely. Great – a good example of why the space shouldn’t be ignored. However, I’d hesitate to use a limited network like this as a way of publishing, say, support or product documentation, or talking about (for example) software which is low-level, technical, invisible, and not of too much interest to a consumer audience.

      Thanks for the kind words and additional thoughts!

  6. I gave my comment on your google plus page. However you say to make it available, embeddable and to socialise it. Not quite sure how to do that so I’m just going to duplicate it:

    IBM apparently, depending on how you measure it, has fewer product pages on Facebook or any other social media than its main competitors. Just because Facebook has always been for something doesn’t mean it always should. It needs to evolve. It is banned from certain companies because it is not currently for business. When it becomes for business they will allow it. I know what a Facebook Like means. It’s a bad name for it. It means you want their updates to appear in your newsfeed. Your friends can exclude it from their newsfeed. Facebook may be for individuals but individuals work for companies. Coronation Street (as a random and possibly incorrect example) is for individuals but IBM still advertise in its commercial breaks. Facebook may be for cool young kids but these kids are gradually moving into the workplace and bringing their tools with them. Some Facebook info can show up in a google search, a lot of people object to that but its all configurable I agree that Facebook is currently not the best tool for the job but it’s one of them. It will be a shame if a big corporation can just come along and displace them by taking their ideas, they need to respond to the competition and evolve.

    • I agree that Facebook is currently not the best tool for the job but it’s one of them

      That’s exactly what I’m getting at, Sam. And equally this isn’t a bash at the company I work for – it’s just a comment on my reaction when I’m asked to advise on setting up a Facebook page for… “whatever”. My questions are then, who is your audience, what information do you want to communicate to them, and how widely available do you want that information to be.

      Facebook may be for cool young kids but these kids are gradually moving into the workplace and bringing their tools with them.

      Yep – I talk about that regularly. See my talk(s) on social at work :-)
      I think it may become more important, but again, Facebook’s exposure to the rest of the Internet is (deliberately) limited. Their push to make themselves your homepage points more and more towards a interest in having you play within their walls. That’s fine – but again, I think the percentage of corporate networks that DO NOT block the site will vastly outweigh the percentage that allow that traffic through. This may be a point in time statement, of course, and that’s another good reason why it’s good to have an “outpost”, if you like – but my own advice would be, don’t build your primary corporate B2B (and this is very much a Business-to-Business comment, not a general branding one) portal inside Facebook.

      On the fact that your comment from G+ couldn’t be embedded here… wait for their API :-) I am sure those kinds of things will come, just as Twitter and Facebook commenting systems are being built into blogging platforms today :-)

      Thanks for the feedback. I think we’re on the same page, believe it or not!

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  9. Interesting post – my opinion is that social media shouldn’t be looked at solely as a marketing tool and that Facebook offers all companies b2b and b2c the opportunity to provide a window into the organisation and the people that work there. As a place to tell stories through words, pictures and video Facebook is still unrivalled, but do’t expect it to generate a lot of leads.

    I would be using Facebook to interact with your own employees, tell there stories and make your company look a fantastic place to work so you can attract the top young talent (who will all be on Facebook remember!).

    You might even pass your company Facebook page on to HR rather than marketing! Let them run it.

    You can still reap marketing rewards from this, your company has a presence in the most popular space and having a Facebook page means you can push out content onto a popular social network. You will also get your brand out there when people interact with your page.

    My advice is b2b companies should be jumping on Facebook but when it comes to social look beyond marketing (both in terms of uses and internal advocates) to really reap the benefits and make it work for your company.

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