The explosion of Web 2.0 technologies has not reached the sales department of corporate America. Though social media consultants and Web 2.0 conferences abound, and the possible successes at the corporate level are preached seemingly in every trade publication in the country, the vast number of corporate salespeople are not only not using, but are unaware of the potential of social media in the sales process.
Some of the reason for this is structural - larger companies have established methods of new business development and silos of knowledge where collaboration is discouraged. Part of the reason is inertia. Large companies don't need to be as creative, and thus lack the impetus to try new things. For whatever the reason, the true successes in social media are occurring at the small business level, as owner/entrepreneurs discover that social media yields benefits in terms of marketing, PR, branding and new business development that allows them to compete with their larger, less flexible, and more risk averse counterparts.
I'll cover several areas where these tools are useful, and attempt to give examples of how the specific tools can be used.
I. Online Profile/Branding:
The first and most obvious use of social media is improving one's online profile. This is an extension of the traditional practice of networking. Where once salespeople joined BNI, the local chamber, went to user groups, and tapped their network of friends offline, the explosion of social media tools magnifies the ability of the salesperson to reach friends, colleagues and referrals. One of the ways that salespeople gain credibility is joining organizations that show their commitment to the industry.
This is the essence of social media. Salespeople join LinkedIn, add Facebook profiles, join MySpace and Yahoo groups, join up to Ning social networks in an industry, write and comment on blogs, and add friends in Twitter and Meebo and Plaxo that create an online profile to showcase their commitment to a community. As more people in an industry learn about social media, salespeople gain reputation as people interested in bettering the profession.
Writing intelligent commentary, adding notes to people's profiles, and adding to the conversation brands a salesperson and allows prospects and clients to feel they know the salesperson prior to even the initial call. In my business, I'm surprised at how often a call turns into a sale because the client already feels they know me and what I do. The easiest way to do this is writing a blog, a spectacular way to showcase one's interests and experience as a thought leader. Traditionally this has been done by writing columns, speaking at conferences, and organizing meetings. E-mail newsletters can have some of this effect, but they are single-use publishing events. With a blog, the salesperson controls the publishing, and what they write stays online, giving potential buyers a window into the thoughts and expertise of the salesperson. I personally found this very useful with clients, who read my blog and often debated my thoughts when we met, or picked up the phone to call me instead of waiting on me to call. This is gold for salespeople. A well-written blog in the industry is a way to capture mindshare and set oneself apart from other salespeople who are seen as cold-calling pests.
If a client or a prospect uses a search engine to check up on the salesperson, the blog makes it easy to find them, and allows them to control the content associated with their name. If the client is on Facebook, a Facebook profile allows the client to feel comfortable in pre-assessing the salesperson's bona fides. In every online community, clients and prospects are now looking for information about the salesperson and the sales company that isn't just gathered from a phone call. This information is considered more authentic, as you can't entirely control an online profile, and thus the smart salesperson learns how to "get found" online by spending time where clients and prospects spend time.
This is not just the latest and greatest social media platforms - this includes forums, user groups, listservs, and other, less "sexy" applications. The principle remains the same, and for a growing number of clients, the referral rate of new business is 100% from from their online interactions.
ROI: Warm Leads and Better Conversion of Leads.
II. New Business Development And Lead Generation:
A second area that social media is effectively transforming is new business development. Most people are familiar with business lists, Hoover's and internal company databases. Just as clients are looking to gather information on salespeople, we are using the tools to gather information on our prospects. That information in the database is by its very nature stale, and is often generated by a third party. Using social media, salespeople can gather in-depth, up-to-date, targeted demographic and contact information that is pre-filtered by the clients themselves. If a buyer or hiring manager or decision maker wants to get found, the most current contact information is the information they entered in a social network.
LinkedIn is the perfect example of this. Using my network of over 1400 connections, I can contact every Fortune 1000 company in the country through a warm lead, an advantage not easily replicated even for those with large rolodex across the country. If a manager leaves a company, their contact information goes cold. On LinkedIn, or any of the other networks, the information changes with the move. What this means is that you no longer lose contacts when they leave companies, and have the best opportunity to know when to contact them about new business. Facebook gives personal information about the decision maker, and Ning social networks let you get a sense of what's important to an executive. That insight can then be used to pitch other executives.
Using simple data mining tools or online monitoring packages, a salesperson has the ability to create and manage business lists on their own of current information. I currently use two such tools that can generate new lists of current titles in an industry and geographic region from the web, blogs, or social networks in less than 5 minutes. And that list? It's more comprehensive and more accurate than the leads we used to buy.
ROI: Lead Generation, Flexibility, Building a long-term, self-cleansing online rolodex.
Getting Found In An SEO World:
In 2005, 70% of recruiters admitted to using Google to search the background of a candidate before extending a job offer. What's amazing about that figure is how few of those recruiters realized that candidates were searching them before agreeing to work with that recruiter. Today's internet-savvy customers know enough to type a name into Google before dates, business deals, or letting someone babysit their kids. They're also learning to do this with salespeople.
This area is closely related to the online profile, but it's important enough to address individually. In addition to making sure your name has a strong online presence, it's important that your company (and ideally a salesperson) rank highly in organic search terms related to your business. PPC campaigns are good for selling products, and organic search rankings help direct customers to the right information about the enterprise, but the Search Engine Optimization is rapidly becoming a two-pronged strategy of architecture and social media. An SEO consultant today recognizes that social media gives him/her the best tools to create the important anchor-text heavy linking that is so vital for high rankings. Using a variety of platforms, social media serves the dual purpose of SEO and traffic building, and thus the salesperson who regularly engages in social media will find themselves showing up in Seach Engine Results pages for terms related to their industry.
A coordinated approach is best - but each Web 2.0 software seeks to improve their SEO rankings, and thus using the profiles from several dozen sites and actively engaging in them increases your SEO. The easiest example of this is the LinkedIn profile. If you have no other information online, your name often will return the LinkedIn profile as the first result. Smart salespeople can use this to their advantage.
An example is my recruiting site, http://socialmediaheadhunter.com. I purchased the site in February, launched it in April, and inside of one month, I was the number one search on Google for "social media headhunter." That's nice, but I'm also the 2nd-10th result on Google from nine other sites talking about SocialMediaHeadhunter.com. I dominate those rankings, and results 2-10 provide third party corroboration of my experience and skillset. Each individual salesperson can mimic this strategy, but early adopters with the right domains will have the best results.
ROI: Lead Conversion, Warm Leads
I often use the phrase, "reserve brain" to explain how the blogosphere has helped me sell consulting and marketing services. I'm a prolific online reader, and with my RSS reader, I can surf through hundreds of blogs in numorous industries looking for best practices, economic reports, sales tips, and local market knowledge in the time it would take to read the business section of my local paper. The information I read is not always 100% accurate, but it is self-correcting in that comments and other articles, and the reputation of the writer can be debated and updated in real-time.
That makes me smarter than other salespeople. I have an army of bloggers and social media types reporting on the information in their lives, and social media helps filter the important stuff to the top.
This intelligence is a vital part of any salesperson's day. Being connected and seemingly with a finger on the pulse of the market, a salesperson becomes a trusted resource to clients. If they trust you to serve as an information conduit, they'll purchase your product or service as well.
Taking a look at blogs again, the need to create content often requires a salesperson to look at how their organization does business. Writing your message gives you practice crafting your pitch, and the introspection often leads you to improve your business. Competitive intelligence on what the market is doing is important, but knowing your strengths and weaknesses is often more important to your quarterly results. Tagging, which is the use of creating remote categories, is an effective way to organize the information you come across. Sites like del.icio.us and technorati allow you to organize your information, but it also allows savvy salespeople to take advantage of the filter done by experts in their field. Tags can also be used to publish information, as people who use tags to search (an advanced search engine operation at sites like Technorati.com) come to your site based on the tag you choose instead of the content.
ROI: Internal business process improvements and market intelligence.
We often talk about social media, but many of the Web 1.0 technologies provide information that we can monitor for great effect. Primarily we're talking about listservs, forums, and e-mail newsletter sign-ups, but smart Web 2.0 tools utilize new interfaces to monitor those sites. An example is Relevant Mind, which provides in-depth information on forums. Forums are great because they are often closed networks of highly engaged consumers giving fantastic market research into why they like and dislike products. Using technologies like this, CRM companies can provide a steady diet of market research to salespeople within the application. Companies like Vurv (who my RSS reader just told me was purchased by Taleo), were incorporating blog and newsite feeds into their Applicant Tracking Software. Many of the smaller CRM firms have RSS capability, but it's a very simple version where they're trying to get salespeople used to using the application, and the RSS feeds are a way of getting you to stay in the CRM application instead of going outside it.
Some CRM's are adding social networks and wikis to their offerings, but since the technology is pretty much free, it's not very successful. Simply having such a network isn't proof of it being used correctly. The perfect example is the client who built a $100,000 internal blog network to replace their intranet. The problem is no one contributes. Of course, no one was reading/contributing to the intranet either.
What can be done is collaboration, as companies like Pfizer make use of wikis and tags to monitor what other divisions are doing inside the corporation. This is a major initiative for companies that deal in information, as it allows groups working on the same problem in different regions to collaborate, or at least make a decision on who is working on what.
ROI:Improved Internal Collaboration, Improved Market Knowledge
Some companies are using Web 2.0 technologies effectively, and while I can't share confidential client information, the examples of I have are still outliers. Individuals are driving the change, which makes sense as social media is simply the process of people sharing information with their friends and colleagues without an editorial power. Widespread adoption is simply not the case in any company I've spoken to or read about, but this is expected to change as the workforce begins to see the personal advantages in being connected.
CRM softwares can build in applications that enhance personal profiles, contribute to SEO rankings, and provide an industry filter for the salespeople. Drag and drop technologies that make it simple to share information to and from the database and the external Web 2.0 software would help. But technology is only a small part of the answer. Training, education, and curiousity can power a salesperson's social media efforts. The technology only counts as an enabler. Ultimately, the success of the software depends on the users themselves.