The trouble with the ‘social selling’ argument

I was reading an interesting blog a few days ago by Matt Heinz (@HeinzMarketing) in Seattle. Hat tip to him. I didn’t totally agree with his point of view but that’s fine, he got me thinking. One of his central tenets is that would-be buyers are already active within social channels and this provides salespeople with a short-cut into those organization’s challenges / opportunities – just so long as the salespeople know where to look i.e. Hootsuite and the like. There’s plenty of logic in that. It’s the whole ‘social selling’ argument.

But I got to contrasting that approach with the findings of a recent client project in the traditional manufacturing industries. We’d used our methodology to identify the top market influencers. The majority of these individuals were buried deep inside their giant employers – these weren’t outside world-facing people but they had tremendous clout internally. Many had been with the same employer for twenty or thirty years. When at the end of our research we were checking their LinkedIn profiles we found the majority almost totally empty. A number had less than five connections and many contained perhaps just a single line on their career history. It made our team wonder why they were on LinkedIn at all.

Most likely it’s because at one stage of their life they were curious and created an entry, then thought twice about it, couldn’t see a reason to be there, and abandoned it. If they weren’t looking for a change of employer they likely saw no point in filling out their profile. Their lack of LI engagement has made no difference to the influence they wield in their industry.

As for their blogging and tweeting – well, they’d paid even less attention to that. Their online footprint was often zero. Yet they were undoubtedly influential, many had responsibility for large numbers of people and in some cases very substantial budgets. ‘Social selling’ wouldn’t reach these people, indeed it wouldn’t even know these people existed, and I can’t help thinking there are many thousands of middle-managers in traditional industries who are similarly ‘invisible’ to social selling.

Before we’re told that social selling is more immediate, more cost-effective, more engaging and whatever else, we need to bear in mind that it will only reach the minority of sales prospects. In the largest, most established industries, it may be a very tiny minority. And that’s not about to change.

Step One of any social strategy

I was talking to a social media consultant friend of mine the other day. She’d been asked by a client to come up with a social strategy for his firm. She knows all the social tools & processes off by heart. But she wasn’t sure which to prioritize in this case and her client had given her only the briefest of objectives. She asked where I’d start.

I’d start where I always start. With her clients’ customers. Who are they? What makes them buy? What makes them decide they have a problem in the first place? Where do they look once they’ve decided to solve that problem? How do they go about their search? And what are they hoping to hear?

Once you’ve answered those questions your social strategy, and your broader marketing strategy, should be much clearer. It’s then just about tactics.

She wondered if her new client, the head of his firm, would be willing to let her talk directly to his customers. He might not have the time and so just want her to get on with the social outreach. She shouldn’t worry – he’s the boss, a businessman – and the last thing he’d want to do is invest in marketing without some strong business reasons to do so. A marketer might want to do outreach for the sake of outreach. Trial and error. The head of a business would never do that. I’ve never believed that the customer is always right. But the customer is always the start-point.