Social Media and the Sales Cycle

8101239611_a32c274013_mThere was an interesting article in BtoB Magazine recently. Written by Julie Bee, who titles herself as “chief connector” at a social media agency, the article posits that social media can help shorten what can sometimes be the long B2B sales cycle. Some of our clients have told us that their sales cycle can last up to three years, even with repeated face-to-face meetings that include “wining and dining.” With that context in mind, the article headline grabbed our attention.

While the article does bring up some interesting points, there are a few things we take issue with. Let’s dig in more detail.

“Business has always been social”

The first point the article raises is what we like to call “social media serendipity.” This means that if you keep connecting to people, you could connect with someone who is connected to someone who might buy from you. This has always been the case – there’s a reason business people attend so many networking events and go to so many conferences. The argument is a double-edged sword, however. Yes, business has always been social, and thus jumping online to be social should seem semi-natural to B2B professionals. However, “social” in business has for countless years meant face-to-face meetings. It has meant golf outings, going to baseball games, nice dinners, wine tastings, and more. It has been about talking to a person IN PERSON in real time. Social can be great, but to truly deepen a business connection or to get to a point where someone is willing and ready to refer you, in-person meetings still trump online connections in our opinion.

Keeping the buzz going”

The second point in the article is that social media (specifically LinkedIn, which becomes the predominant focus of the story) can help maintain pleasantries after an in-person meeting has ended. In a way, this seems to counter point one a little. If your actual sales meeting still needs to happen in person, social may not be shortening the sales cycle substantially. But the argument that sending a message via LinkedIn thanking people for a meeting also seems to be a straw man argument. You don’t need to use LinkedIn to contact people you met with if you don’t want to. Email can work. Even better, send hand-written thank-you cards. That will really blow them away. It’s not a bad thing to use LinkedIn for post-meeting messages, but it’s not a convincing argument when debating whether social media can shorten the sales cycle.

“Connecting with multiple people at one time”

The third point is one that is often raised in regards to LinkedIn, and it’s not a bad idea. The concept is that you can go to a company page on LinkedIn, look at who the key personnel are (if they’re listed) and see if you are connected to them in any way, or perhaps if you’re connected at a 2nd or 3rd degree level. The logic goes that if a person can refer you to top personnel, that is much more effective than cold-calling. It’s hard to argue with that statement. However, the headline of the B2B article is not how social media can help you get your foot in the door. The headline of the article is, “Using Social Media to Shorten the Sales Cycle.” Does meeting with multiple people at a company ensure that your B2B sales cycle will be shorter? I’m not convinced. If your sales cycle takes three years because your machine represents a huge capital investment, that first meeting is really just the first step.

“Don’t you sell on social media sites!”

Finally, we get to the point of talking about how social media is “minimally invasive,” in the words of the author. While you can sell in person, online it’s all about building relationships. This is first of all not entirely realistic. If you have had a sales meeting with someone “in real life,” your online relationship with them is going to be carried out with that context in mind. In essence, you are selling to them every time you talk to them. But there is also, again, this missing factor of nuance. “Don’t sell” can mean, “Don’t send a message on Facebook every day asking if the person is going to buy.” That is fine. However, if your company has written a white paper and you want to stay top-of-mind with your contact, there is nothing wrong with asking them if they’d like to take a look at your content. You’re not *technically* selling, but let’s face it – you know and they know what you’re trying to do.

Can social media truly shorten the B2B sales cycle? The arguments presented in the B2B Magazine article are not wholly convincing. Social Media can certainly supplement the process, and it can help keep your company on the rader of your potential customer. In the end, however, B2B sales cycles are often long because of two factors – whether the product/service is needed and cost. No single tactic will help a company decide it’s time to spend a quarter of a million dollars, especially if they can live without the investment. Social Media is no silver bullet. At least not in our minds.

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eric-delcroix/8101239611/ via Creative Commons


6 comments on “Social Media and the Sales Cycle

  1. This is a smart and relevant take on it and I’m conflicted myself. At its heart i do believe that social media presents an extraordinary opportunity to network in a very effective matter. It’s about building relationships, and business benefits are delivered through relationships — so it’s hard to argue with that. But in many businesses, who is really hanging out on LinkedIn besides HR recruiters?

    I think a more subtle point is the ability for social media to build thought leadership and community. This may play an important — yet difficult to measure — role in the sales process and the sales cycle. This is why companies like Cisco, IBM and AT&T are being so aggressive with their content marketing. Plow the fields so to speak. Intellectually I think this makes sense but it may be difficult to prove. One thing for certain though — if you’re not engaging, you would have no chance to find out!

    Thanks for the great analysis.

  2. Yeah, I’m obviously pretty pro-social media when it comes to business, but I think the B2B article misrepresented things a little by indicating that social media can shorten the sales cycle, especially in the B2B manufacturing sector where I work. This comes back to the problem I keep encountering in the online world again and again – you even said it – subtle. There doesn’t seem to be much room for nuance or subtle arguments. It’s either, “You should use social media because it shortens the sales cycle or you’re just really behind the 8-ball.” There is a big grey area there.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. The article is thick on social practice but thin on social production. It’s busies itself with the front end of engagement, but says little about the follow up And with the amount of content that is typically consumed by a prospect before a purchase, it says little about the mechanisms to build credibility and trust, even with positive buying signals.

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