Deep Customer Engagement

Social networks may make internal information more accessible, but social media tools such as blogs, forums, and wikis can do something even more powerful for B2B companies: enhance credibility and improve responsiveness. “‘Interrup-tion marketing’ is having less effect on both the consumer and B2B marketing side,” observes Pick. “But if you can participate in a forum or post on a blog in a way that helps a customer solve a problem and is free of marketing spin,” he says, those tools can be very effective P.R.

Large, high-tech companies such as Oracle and IBM have led the way with the solution-oriented use of forums. Nikos Drakos, research director at Gartner, says that IBM’s developerWorks Exchange community “enables networking among customers, but it’s also ideal for bookmarking and sharing information with the community as it relates to their specific interests.” He cautions that the setup of a developer or customer forum should be undertaken carefully to obviate the risk of competitors using it for their own ends. Still, Drakos says, “if you create a place where engineers can find peer support, learning, and provide feedback to vendors, you are ultimately providing better customer care.”

Most experts agree that customer forums and blog comments in the B2B environment should be closely monitored to ensure that inappropriate discussions are taken offline and that negative comments are addressed quickly, though not deleted or ignored. Jeremiah Owyang, senior analyst for Forrester Research, calls those negative comments learning opportunities. “Responding to those comments lets a company build a dialog with customers,” says Owyang, who also covers the social computing industry in his Web Strategy blog.

That’s certainly been the experience of Protech Associates, Inc., a company that provides member relationship management services for nonprofit associations. Chad Ohman, the director of corporate strategic technologies at Protech, uses a number of different Web 2.0 solutions, including the MadCap Feedback Server, to track readers’ use of Protech’s product documentation and collect real-time feedback from customers. “By seamlessly integrating information from end users, it provides insight into what they’re searching on and finding,” says Ohman. “That allows us to check how well we’re doing and to prioritize our backlog of development options.”

Ohman notes that prior to the implementation of Protech’s online community forums, such user feedback would have been done by paper surveys. “Now I get user feedback from the discussion blogs in real time, and can react much more quickly. The impact on our customers has been fabulous. They say, ‘I just entered that comment and you’re calling me five minutes later to discuss it!’”

That sort of explicit feedback, where a customer enters a comment or review, can open doors for meaningful interactions with specific customers. However, tracking implicit feedback—that is, collecting information anonymously behind the scenes on how all customers act in the information search process—provides a slightly different angle.
Collarity is a company that captures the anonymous behavior of a website’s entire audience to deliver more relevant site search results and content recommendations, thereby improving a website’s monetization performance. Relevant site search results and content recommendations are drawn from communities of like-minded users, which are formed from around unique topic “hotspots.”

Deborah Richardson, Collarity’s SVP of marketing and business development, says, “Research shows that only a small percentage of website visitors are tagging, ranking, and voting when they visit a site, and those results are spam-able; users can skew the results. Collecting 100% of visitor clicks into an anonymous pool of data captures what communities are really reading and doing with the information.”

Forrester’s Owyang points out that with the immediate customer/vendor communication facilitated by social media tools come risks, such as an employee spilling the beans on a new product in development, or disparaging a competitor’s product. “It’s critical to train employees on both online and offline communication procedures,” says Owyang, to encourage valid participation without putting the employer at risk. Ramos points out that having a corporate policy about blogs and forums is a start, “but it can’t completely prevent someone revealing something sensitive. Should companies monitor? How will they take action? It’s definitely a grey area.” She sees companies taking a mostly hands-off approach for now, but closely monitoring their employee’s blog posts and forum participation.

Owyang highlights the rise of what he terms “micromedia”—shorter, faster communications between customer and vendor communities enabled by applications like Twitter, which allows users to build closed social networks with instant messaging functionality, and Jabber, which provides enterprise-strength instant messaging. “Communications are getting faster and smaller because we’re connected all the time,” says Owyang. Companies will do well to continue monitoring the platforms and methods—including podcasts and videos—by which their customers prefer to engage with vendors.

Uncovering New Information

Blogs and forums may represent a Web 2.0 improvement over user groups and paper surveys, but some of the most exciting social media tools enable companies to uncover information that was once difficult, if not impossible, to find.

Here again high-tech companies are leading the way. Dell is using a customer forum called IdeaStorm to collect customer input for use in prioritizing features for new products and services. IBM inaugurated its recurring “World Jam” back in 2001. This 3-day virtual brainstorming event invites employees around the world to participate in a moderated forum to focus on customer or employee issues, and a voting mechanism is used to rate solutions. Drakos, who authored the Gartner report “Hackathons, World-Jams, and Mashup Days Can Fit Your Collaboration Strategy” in October 2007, comments that “these events encourage innovation and engage younger employees, the ones most likely to adopt social media tools.”

Fetch Technology is helping companies mine information-rich blogs and forums with its Fetch Agent Platform, which uses artificial intelligence to collect, clean, and extract the unstructured data found on social media sites for use in a company’s business intelligence (BI) platform. Jory Tremblay, Fetch’s SVP for business development, says “B2B vendors want to know what’s being said about them, their market, their competitors. We like to say that we provide a very narrow information focus—one inch wide and a thousand miles deep.”

The Fetch Agent Platform can be configured to collect comments about executives, products, or user experiences. The value, according to Tremblay, “is that the data is collected in context, and includes comments that others have made in response.” The tool has been used by financial services firms to augment sentiment analysis and by public relations professionals to monitor events affecting client reputation.

Tremblay points out a further use of the tool: compliance monitoring. “Our tool can provide ethical clarity and educate content owners about what’s happening to their content,” he says, by locating instances where and how syndicated content is being used on third-party sites, including blogs and social networks. “But it’s up to our customers to enforce their rights with the other parties,” and negotiate appropriate monetization strategies.

Survival of the Fittest

With the growing momentum of social media in the B2B world, consultant Pick anticipates a shakeout of the myriad social networks and social tagging applications. “There will be a culling of the herd,” he says. “There are just too many to be successful. But sites that target a specific B2B niche, such as BeeToBee and dzone, can survive.” Gartner’s Drakos also expects there to be more examples, both good and bad, of social media adapted for the B2B world. “Companies will try to expand successful small-scale projects,” he says, “and every enterprise vendor will be trying to participate on the supply side.” Forrester’s Ramos says that she expects some disillusionment to set in for enterprises. “There will be a period of backlash,” she says. “We’ll hear about someone posting something on a blog that creates a financial or security risk before these tools reach maturity.”

However things shake out, no one disputes that the demand for social media tools for the B2B world is gaining speed. The trick, according to Drakos, “will be choosing those applications and technologies that make sense from a corporate strategy and culture standpoint.”