The B2B C-Suite can no longer afford to ignore social media

By Sarah Park,

According to a Brunswick Digital Report, over 50 percent of S&P 500 and FTSE 350 CEOs have no social media presence and the 48% that do, have poor posting records with only one in four posting in the past 12 months. That these companies have achieved global success without their C-Suite feeling the need to engage online means it is little wonder that CEOs, generally, continue to be mainly inaccessible online to their customers and consumers. This rejection of online engagement is especially prevalent in the UK with only 45% of UK CEOs being on LinkedIn and 10% on Twitter, putting them in the bottom half of the ranking of their European counterparts.

Who a company’s stakeholders are also makes a difference to the whether it seeks to build a presence online. A timeline based on Google Trends reveals there has been a growing interest from consumer organisations in social media since 2004, with that interest from B2B companies only starting to emerge in 2010. As a result of this disparity, consumer marketing is now regarded as a hugely visible part of the social media revolution while B2B organisations trail behind, rejecting online channels because of their seemingly ‘consumer-centric’ nature.

But with 3.196 billion people globally engaging in social media, and digital consumers now spending an average of two hours and 23 minutes per day on social networks and messaging, social media represents far more than a series of additional channels through which to communicate. Collectively, social media networks represent a radical change in communication behaviours that some people believe is only set to accelerate.

In 2011, Josh Bernoff called this global online movement of people sharing content and connecting with each other ‘The Groundswell.’ His book written with Charlene Li, Understanding the Groundswell packed a punch in terms of persuasion; it went straight for the fear principle, stating: “Your company’s customers are talking about your brand right now on Facebook, probably in ways you haven’t approved….This movement cannot be tamed.”

The big question

Yet if powerful and successful businesses are not considering it necessary to engage online, how can we expect smaller organisations, and especially those in the B2B sectors, to invest time and resources into it. And why should a B2B C-Suite care?

There may be billions of people conversing online, but considering cats were one of the most searched keywords on the internet in 2015, it is easily understandable how social media may not seem credible to a C-Suite that simply wants to see an impact on business growth and sales.

The advent of web 2.0 created new ways to communicate, collaborate and share content, yet only a quarter of UK B2B SME organisations are using social media networks to achieve brand objectives.

These SMEs cite a lack of financial resources and relevant knowledge to implement social media programmes. But these are tactical reasons; the main barrier is lack of perceived relevance with many B2B organisations considering social media an unnecessary distraction. According to the Brunswick Digital Report, many CEOs think the benefits are intangible. “But it’s Brand Awareness!” exclaim marketing directors, but with industry measurement associations like AMEC, the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication, still developing concepts on how to measure communications, it can still seem a hard sell to those to who believe that activity that delivers direct impact on business growth is king.

Rob Brown and Stephen Waddington’s book, Share This Too, offers three reasons why a CEO should be using social media: commitment; authenticity and personality. Stats reveal that CEOs who Tweet are regarded as company brand ambassadors, ‘humanising’ organisations and giving them a personality behind the corporate and being an integral part of the corporate identity. Through strategic – and authentic – social media engagement, a CEO can become a leader and influencer and use his or her channels to raise awareness for specific industry or social causes, as well as advocate their own organisation. Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, the multinational company behind consumer brands such as Dove, is a prolific Tweeter. He uses his twitter feed to promote his  global initiative ‘Imagine’ aimed at combating poverty and climate change and to share his philosophy on the role of business within wider society. His prominence as a business leader and influencer has led to many awards and accolades. The question is, what kind of CEO do you want to be?

Choosing to be the face of an organisation and make the company synonymous with a name or not to, has always been at the discretion of the CEO. Richard Branson chose to be a showman and social media engagement was a natural progression. A study into organisational engagement by Brandfog revealed that 82 percent of respondents were more likely to trust a company whose CEO uses social media. Surely, the CEO as the face of an organisation is no longer a strategic choice but a new and necessary role. It is no longer possible for a CEO to rule from their desk.

It was in 1992 that Gruing developed his two-way symmetrical theory and started to use the words dialogue and dialogical when talking about online relationships with publics. Consumer brands like Red Bull are not alone in encouraging customers to engage and communicate directly with them. It is the global consumer brands that are feeling more comfortable in allowing an engaged public to help shape their creative ideas.

So, if consumer brands realised back in 2004 they needed to start a dialogue with their customers, does the B2B C-Suite really believe they will be forever ‘hidden’ from this radical shift in brand-communication, simply because their direct customers are also in business? Are the business clients still not customers?

While many B2B C-suites may still not see the ‘direct’ correlation between time spent on social media and winning work, the fact that 3.196 billion people are engaging in discourse means their organisations are unlikely to be able to hide from it. As Sheldrake put it, rather prophetically, “only those who embrace it will survive.”

So, what are the barriers for the B2B C-Suite?

Dialogue with stakeholders is nothing new to the B2B C-Suite. CEOs spend a great deal of time developing relationship opportunities; 61% of CEOs prefer face to face communication as it is a perfect opportunity for them to exercise influence and learn what is going on around them. With responsibilities including improving a company’s performance, growing the business, creating jobs and providing shareholder return, what is the value of committing time to social media either themselves or as an investment in a strategic marketing function?

It was Bernstein in 1986, who pointed out the breadth, complexity, and importance of corporate communications and who argued that “organizations should communicate effectively with all of their stakeholders.” The combination of corporate identity theory with the clear shift in engagement between businesses and their publics reinforces the case that perhaps there is something in this social media. It is becoming more important than ever that a CEO contributes to an organisation’s corporate identity as part of their set of responsibilities.

So, who is advising the B2B C-Suite within organisations who may not be large enough to run senior communications and/or marketing?

Online research reveals there is a wealth of information about B2B online marketing, but little aimed at the C-Suite. Written for marketeers, by marketeers, the language and emphasis focuses on the language of marketing teams, ‘building brand loyalty and trust,’ ‘solidifying brand presence,’ ‘establishing thought leadership,’ ‘attracting talent’. Social media is integral in supporting all of the above, but this intangible language is often a barrier to a C-Suite that wants to see tangible results.

The Queensland Government business website describes social media in its most straightforward terms: “Social media can reach millions of people all around the world’ and ‘many forms of social media are free for business.’ The emphasis is on the power and ease of social media as a fast, inexpensive and efficient way to reach almost half of the world’s population. That surely must be of interest to a B2B C-Suite?

Brunswick speaks the language of its C-Suite audience within its Digital Investor Survey claiming “88% of investors make decisions based on information from digital sources.” Its Connected Leadership Report reinforces that, “…while practically every stakeholder group that’s important to their influence as leaders and the performance of their businesses – is very much online.”

Other strategic consultants such as PWC explore C-Suite issues like risk management, conduct and accountability.  IBM reinforces the need for “the fortitude for perpetual reinvention” and describes the internet as a platform for transformation.  An increased focus on technology and change reinforces the significance of adaptation and organisational behaviours. When an organisation asks itself, ‘who are we and how do we behave?’ this is corporate identity and the role of social media needs to be on the table as part of the identity conversation.

What next for the B2B C-Suite?

However an organisation wants to deliver social media, it was Stephen Greyser who said that corporate marketing was intrinsically a boardroom and CEO concern. Whether this is led by a marketing director or by the CEO, the emphasis is on how essential it is to ensure the organisation’s communication is not only advocated but receiving input from the C-Suite for it to be truly effective.

This means that C-Suite must get back to the strategic planning process to determine how the organisation’s corporate identity looks online. Technology has caused stakeholders to multiply and each expects a relevant, authentic and a consistent message. Today’s B2B ‘client’ decision makers are no longer the peers of the C-Suite, but 30-something year olds who are digital natives having grown up surrounded by technology all their lives. The way they communicate and form relationships is entrenched in social media networks. Companies are embracing research methods such as Ethnography to inform communications so they can engage Generation Z who are entering the workplace and who have a strong set of values both as consumers and as employees and which businesses need to understand.

While the use of social media to disseminate leadership values and content for passion projects is well known, less highlighted is its power in competitive bidding situations, a normal method of procurement within B2B and industrial markets.

A strong B2B brand is more likely to enjoy higher loyalty and more referrals by enabling companies to provide additional information and insight into culture. A brand that is more easily accessible and offers further insight into a brand character may help achieve consensus.

As a listening tool it creates an opportunity to acquire valuable information from stakeholders that can inform strategy and engagement. Walters advocates the internet as providing three value add strategies: an information rich strategy (the availability of information); a relational exchange (trust satisfaction and commitment); and a joint learning strategy (partnership, sharing and collaboration).

Today’s B2B CEO may prefer face to face communication, but time and resource is limited; by using social media in the right way this two-way information exchange can be developed on a mass scale and valuable information secured and used to inform.

There is an argument for a B2B organisation to protect itself against dialogue with its publics and the ‘third wave of branding’ for as long as is possible. But surely this is nothing more than burying heads in the sand. Using social media to start this process of dialogue and how a B2B organisation and its C-Suite will manage it, is about future-proofing the organisation.

The role of business leaders is changing, and the leader of the future needs a new set of skills and this includes the emotional intelligence to be able to engage with a vast array of stakeholders. The future CEO needs to be able to convey the corporate culture of their business and translate its values in a manner that motivates and engages, and which is authentic to its corporate identity. It is not viable for a CEO to leave these channels of communication in the trust of a young ‘social media guru’ who simply has an enthusiasm for Tweeting.

Sarah Park is founder of Park Communications Consultancy. She is studying the CIPR Professional Diploma with PR Academy and this article was written for one of the assignments.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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