Everyone is talking about "Social Media" like Facebook and Twitter and how it fits into the B-to-B marketing and sales efforts. But Social media is really just a "catch-all" for Web 2.0 direct engagement with customers. We are all at the beginning stages of understanding how to use the new tools of customer engagement, so instead of losing sight of the forest in the 'technical question" trees of all this new "Social Media" technology, step back for a moment and think about the bigger picture and what it probably means for different aspects of the B-to-B supply channel.
Web 1.0 vs. Web 2.0: What is it?
Achinta Mitra recently authored "Most Industrial and Manufacturing Websites are Still Stuck in Web 1.0" which has generated a number of phone conversations and emails to me lately about "What is Web 2.0?" So here's a quick overview of that: If you think of most static websites as outdoor billboards that you can read things on but can't comment or ask questions that's Web 1.0; Web 2.0 is now a billboard where customers can ask questions and post comments. Social Media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all "social" sites that are examples of this kind of engagement. Web 2.0 websites are similar. They permit customers to engage with you in a similar fashion by posting comments, asking questions, and sometimes even engaging in on-line chats, webinars, etc.
What does this mean for Industrial Distributors?
At the outset, changing from a static (Web 1.0) website to a more dynamic "social oriented" site (Web 2.0) has a bit of a learning curve. Outside and Inside sales teams need to learn how to use the various engagement tools in the same way that they had to learn to use email in the mid 1990's and fax machines in the early 1980's. Although there is a learning curve, once past this, it can actually reduce the workload and improve customer communication and interaction.
Think of it like this: When you search for something in Google right now from somewhere in North America, you are not seeing advertising or search results from Belgium or Japan (for the most part). Without going into the technical reasons why this works what you need to know is that Google finds things that are in relative geographic proximity to you.
That means that if a vendor of yours has posted a new product press release or promotion it may not show up in the search by your local customers. However, if that vendor has taken the press release, wordsmithed it a bit, and posted it as a blog on YOUR Web 2.0 website, all of your customers can see it, comment on it, and sometimes even get direct feedback from the vendor. By including more technical information on your site it improves how you appear in Google searches (SEO). More importantly, it makes your website a valuable resource for 'one-stop' answers to product questions. What this means is that you have now "crowdsourced" your website: You have moved responsibility for updates and promotions (via blogs, etc) to your vendor. If you have competing vendors then you have created an element of competition amongst them to post more information. Remember, all of this information improves both your search results and theirs.
Several distributors with Web 1.0 websites already have relationships with some vendors to tap into their "co-marketing" budgets with "You can buy a banner ad on our site for $XXX.00/year" With the advent of a Web 2.0 website you can approach your vendors and explain that they can join your site for free and post promotional materials. Those that participate, obviously get more attention. Remember, once a blog post is in ether, it's essentially there forever: It's ongoing content and reference material.
What does this mean for Regional Managers and Manufacturer's Agents?
This kind of thinking is going to shift more responsibility to vendors. As more and more channel partners such as machinery dealers and industrial distributors move to Web 2.0 platforms it will become almost impossible for a marketing department to maintain all of the site engagements. More and more responsibility is going to fall onto the regional managers and, in some cases, the independent manufacturer's reps to be posting these blogs, responding to questions, etc.
Although this will require some more "work" it has the potential to provide very big returns on the investment of time for the Agent and/or manufacturer. If a customer can post a question directly to an agent or technical sales person they will be more than likely to "call them first". Many times in sales, it's not about being 'included' in the RFP or RFQ, it's about being the "first call" resource. Again, there's a distinct advantage to the regional salesperson participating. By commenting and answering questions on the website, they establish themselves as the "thought leaders" on technical topics and add credibility in the rapport step with "new" customers whom they are meeting face-to-face for the first time. Remember, people do business with people they like and trust.
What does this mean for manufacturers using supply chain channels?
Web 2.0 presents manufacturer's with a choice that they may have not had previously. If the manufacturer has created a Web 2.0 site, they can answer questions directly to customers. Responsibilities for customer engagement have increased to address these new on-line question and answer areas. This may have led to increased staff or increased responsibilities for existing staff. At some point, the manufacturer will sit back and start to ask:
"What's the value proposition of my supply chain partners? We already deal with the customers directly, we already answer their questions in our new Web 2.0 platforms, maybe we should just sell directly from our site."
I recall a conversation I had when hiring an agent in the early 1990's "If you buy a fax machine, I'll hire you, if you don't I can't. We need to communicate with you faster than the postal service" That has now shifted to "Can you get emails on your phone? If you can't I can't hire you" Soon, it will shift to "We just had a question from one of your customers on Facebook, can you open up your Facebook on your phone or tablet and take a look at it and get back to him?"
If the channel partner, either distributor, dealer or agent can't access the site what value do they bring to faster service?
Channel Partners need to provide Value Added
We now live in a world of instant gratification ( you want to come back and read this link). Customers want answers now. I spoke to an agent at the IMTS show last September who told me that he had a call from a young engineer who told him "Do you have a YouTube video on this? I don't want to see anyone until I take a look at all the videos of the competitors and then I'll make an appointment" Online vetting is happening. Those industrial distributors and agents who can meet the new demands of customers for engagement will enhance their value proposition to the manufacturers and save the manufacturer's time and labor cost. Those that don't may find themselves asking "Why are they selling directly to my customers?"
Questions to be asking: