Social media has a very attractive cousin that’s quickly gaining popularity: social selling. Social selling—salespeople using social applications like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter for selling purposes—is social media’s newest and fastest-growing subcategory. Since LinkedIn is the dominant social application for B2B, this article focuses on its use and strategies for generating referrals and leads.
B2B companies with a history of sales innovation—like General Electric, Salesforce and IBM—have implemented social selling programs with their sales teams. IBM is a thought leader in this approach and recently reported a 400 percent sales increase from a social selling pilot project centered on LinkedIn. The good news is that these techniques are just as applicable to small businesses, since most of these tools are free.
Social selling consists of two strategies: The first is outbound prospecting, wherein a sales “hunter,” responsible for generating his or her own leads, uses social information and relationships to identify and connect with prospective customers. It’s replaced the timeworn cold call as the preferred means for starting a new sales cycle. The second strategy gives the salesperson access and means to the role of a marketer. In this role, the salesperson’s goal is to attract interested buyers by supplying the right information at the right time. Both practices use well-known marketing segmentation principles.
Prospecting with LinkedIn is a two-step process: identify, then connect. To identify a prospect, a salesperson uses LinkedIn’s Advanced People Search feature to select key characteristics of the target prospect. Sample criteria include: keywords, title, company name, location, industry and company size (a premium filter available with a paid upgrade).
With more than 160 million professionals involved, LinkedIn is a large and accessible contact database. Plus, it has advantages over typical contact databases. One is that the information is self-supplied, offering the possibility that it’s more up to date, detailed and personal. More important, LinkedIn is built on social connectivity. That’s where the “connect” step comes into play.
The final and most important filter criterion to use is the salesperson’s LinkedIn relationship to the target prospect. The chances of getting an appointment increase significantly when the salesperson includes the criterion that the prospect is in his or her second-level connections. In other words, someone they’re directly connected to is directly connected to the prospect. This common connection opens the opportunity to receive a personal introduction, which is the best way to initiate a sales cycle. It’s also why LinkedIn recommends you only invite people you know to connect. Few people would make an introduction for someone they didn’t know.
Inbound marketing with LinkedIn is a natural response to a number of trends associated with the emergence of social media:
• Buyers’ trust in corporate marketing messages continues to decline;
• Buyers’ own social networks continue to increase as a key influencer in the buying process;
• B2B salespeople are building trusted relationships through applications like LinkedIn; and
• Social media applications have given every salesperson the opportunity to be a worldwide publisher.
These trends present a powerful opportunity for forward-thinking companies that can get marketing and sales to work together. This “mini-marketer” role is new for most salespeople, who often lack the time or skills to craft approved, quality messages. When marketing supplies a regular stream of social posts (new product, case study, event) and salespeople distribute them through their individual networks, the result is professionally created messages delivered via the most trusted distribution channel. In some instances, the messages will be relayed unedited. In other situations, where time, skill level or authority allows, a salesperson may customize a message.
Following are three steps to implement a corporate social selling strategy.
Train salespeople on LinkedIn selling. While most B2B salespeople have a LinkedIn account by now, few know how to really use it to produce a steady stream of results. This is because LinkedIn is a free application that isn’t considered a company asset. Hence, it’s overlooked as a budgeted item. The majority of companies have left learning LinkedIn selling proficiencies up to each individual salesperson. The result is a wide range of skills and no consistency with a sales organization. By implementing formal LinkedIn sales training, companies can increase the overall skills of all salespeople and establish minimum criteria to boost consistency. This, in turn, makes it possible to monitor and manage social selling efforts.
Coordinate marketing and sales. Marketing has the skills, tools and authority to create the company’s messages and distribute them via a variety of channels (print, web, email, press, trade shows and such). The sales team’s social [business] network should be added to the list of distribution channels. Customized messages should be created to take advantage of the unique characteristics of this high-trust network.
Manage results and adjust. One example for measurement occurs when marketing includes links to custom landing pages in the messages supplied to sales. Then, the click-through response rates of individual campaigns, posts or even salespeople can be measured via this coordinated effort. Imagine a sales manager being able to pull up a dashboard that showed how one salesperson’s high click-through rate by his or her LinkedIn network resulted in record sales. That’s true collaboration in the age of social selling.
From the customer’s perspective, this new era of social selling should improve relationships between B2B buyers and sellers. That’s because both the prospecting and marketing will be much more targeted toward the customer’s needs. It’s an extension to selling target marketing concepts, which have improved the relevance of Internet ads over the years. After all, what businessperson wouldn’t like to receive a phone call with the perfect solution to their most pressing problem?
Kurt Shaver is CEO of The Sales Foundry, a company specializing in helping B2B companies implement social selling strategies. For more information including free videos and a two-minute self-assessment of your LinkedIn score, visit www.thesalesfoundry.com.