Social Media: Insights from an in-house specialist

Most B2B companies are just beginning to dip their toe in the social media marketing waters.  Consequently, I was delighted when Alan Belniak, the newly appointed Director of Social Media Marketing at Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC) agreed to an interview about how his company is approaching social media and why.

My questions appear in bold followed by his answers.  Here's what he had to say:

Why did PTC create your position?

Twelve to eighteen months ago, the company's senior marketing executives realized that conversations happen online whether or not PTC participates--and determined the company needed to take a more active role.  They considered various approaches but ultimately decided they needed a full-time resource.  For one thing, PTC is a large organization with almost $1 billion in revenues. For another, it was clear that social media was here to stay.

What does PTC hope you'll achieve?

Better engagement with customers.  People that participate online tend to be more engaged than those that don't.

Engagement is the name of the game.  Engagement equals a valuable brand.  Valuable brands attract more customers.

My job is helping PTC marketers determine where to spend time and how to spend it.  The key is figuring out how to create and promote good content.  If you pump out seven blogs in a week, you run the risk of overwhelming your audience.

How does your company view social media complementing other initiatives?

There are several ways.  For one, social media will augment other marketing activities.

Because of the nature of social media, perhaps it will reduce spend.  I use the word "perhaps" intentionally as it will only reduce costs if we can get more data for less money.

Social media can also help you get better qualified leads.  At a recent Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council meeting, Amy Black from Kadient said something along the lines of "A discussion through social media beats a cold call every day."  If you do something that causes someone to take action--and let you know they're interested--that's better than pursuing them.

Today, the focus is on marketing.  In the future, my personal hope is that the entire corporation will incorporate social media into their operations.

What are your primary responsibilities as Director of Social Media Marketing?

My primary responsibility is to help the company leverage social media in its marketing efforts.  I consult with marketers about how they can integrate social media into campaigns they are planning, and how they can put more power behind existing programs.

I also monitor social communications, "separating the signal from the noise", to identify opportunities for PTC to take a more active role.  For example, I look for mentions of PTC, our products, and keywords, such as "PLM software" (product lifecycle management) that relate to our business.

Because we're a global company, I also determine what tools to use in other countries by reviewing third-party research, interviewing local marketing experts, and traveling to other countries to learn more about what people are using there. Different cultures consume information in different ways.  For example, some countries, such as Germany, place a different value on face-to-face conversations than others.  If online activity doesn't influence the conversation, then it doesn't make sense to invest heavily in social media in those places.

What listening tools are you using?

I'm glad you asked that, because listening is so important.  We use a number of free tools such as Twitter's advanced search, BackTweets (which effectively reverses "the shorten URL process" to find terms that were in the original URL but are no longer visible), Social Mention, and OMGILI (an aggregator that displays results visually).  We also use BoardTracker to search discussion boards.

In addition, it's important to search on sites that are specific to your industry--and look through the sites themselves.  For example, I bookmark PLM--and CAD-related websites and then enter my keywords in their search bars.

We listen to traffic on three large networks:  Facebook, Linked In and Twitter; because that's where audiences have conversations about business--or blur the line between business and personal.  When it comes to Twitter, my main interest is the links that people share.

You need to use a suite of tools.  You can't rely on a single tool, because none of them do everything. You also need to accept that, initially, you will get overwhelmed--but you need to get over it.  You can refine your process over time--and use aggregators like Social Mention.

You want to get a rough sense of where things are happening.  If you record all the mentions of your search terms, you'll go batty.

You just want to understand where the conversation is happening, what people are saying about you:  the questions they have, the tips they offer others, how they feel about you) and the media they use (audio, visual, file exchanges), etc.  If we can answer those questions, then we know where to focus our time, what content we are seeking, and how to deliver it.

I also should add that not all the information we get is free.  Our PR agency uses a third-party tool to produce a thick report of all the times that our company gets mentioned and nice-looking graphs.

We pay for this service to leverage our time.  They search many sites (both relevant and less relevant); and we use this data to understand trends, such as where certain types of conversations are happening, and the general content of those conversations (such as the media they use, as mentioned previously).

Where are you focusing your initial efforts and why?

We are listening to hear where the conversations happen so we know where and how to engage: what channels to use, what content to create, who to follow, what media to use.  I'm also teaching the corporation how to engage with social media.

How will PTC know if you're successful?

The first indication will be 1.0 metrics such as page views over time and unique visitors. Moving forward, though, you need to change what you measure, and measure what you change.

To bridge the gap to 2.0 metrics, we'll look at better forms of engagement (such as the ratio of comments to posts to measure how deep the conversation is and average unique comment per post that tells you how many people you've engaged).

Then, there are intermediary measures.  For example, Facebook now allows users who won't comment to just click to indicate that they "like" a particular post.

Initially, you’ll want to look at the aggregate, rather than the specific.  There are no widely agreed-upon metrics that I’ve found -- but since everything is online, it's still easier to measure the ROI of social media than the ROI of a billboard.

What's been the biggest surprise in your new role?

Although there is a general awareness of social media, inside our company, it is very new to most people and initially, they weren’t clear as to how to apply it in their day-to-day marketing efforts. As I’ve dug into this role, I’ve learned that this is not uncommon amongst B2B companies.  Social media is so new that there is a lot of education needed inside a company to aid adoption.

Why do you think that is?

The adoption of online social networking was very rapid, likely attributable to Facebook (and others).  Since Facebook is primarily seen as a casual or truly social site (as in, non-professional), I think people associated it with kids and socializing.  They likely extended this thinking into other forms of online social networking.  However, Facebook is just one form of online social networking.

Other forms of social networking (online and offline) exist, too - for example, moving into a new neighborhood and asking for a good plumber – that’s an example of and ‘old fashioned’ offline social network.  But the social mores and rules are the same.

In addition, some people may have tried something small in one or two social arenas (for example, purchasing ads or trying a reach-out campaign), and may not have gotten the results they were seeking.  In doing so, they may ascribe their less-than-desirable results in one social arena to all social arenas.  For example, I thought that a recent article in the New York Times about how people often base their impressions on a single data point was a great take on this phenomenon.

What's your largest unanswered question about social media at PTC?

How long until it "pays off"?  By that I mean, “When will I be able to make a stronger correlation between our marketing efforts to stimulate engagement, and its ultimate effect on sales, revenue, and profit?”.

Altimeter produced a report that shows that the more engaged a brand is with customers, the greater their annual revenues are.  Companies that do participate online are more engaged with their customers.

Customer engagement equals a valuable brand.  A valuable brand leads to increased sales.  It also goes without saying that this leads to happier customers.

We've covered a lot of ground about your perspectives on social media.  What else should we cover?

I'm glad that you asked about listening platforms earlier.  That's where it starts.

One of the greatest challenges is getting people to listen before acting.  I wrote a fairly comprehensive strategy from scratch.  You need to figure out what you want to accomplish first. Else, the first time you fail, someone will ask, “Why did you do that?  It doesn't make sense.”

My own research shows that people who want a social media strategy often want to jump into interaction.  If you don't know what's important to your customers, prospects, or users, or where the conversations are happening, how can you have an impact?

I liken this to a cocktail party...You don't show up at someone's house and say, "buy my stuff".  You show up, survey the landscape, and maybe find someone you know.  You listen in on a few conversations before you add a comment or two.  As the evening progresses, in addition to adding comments into conversations, you strike up your own conversation.  Before the night is over, people are joining your conversations and looking to you for what you have to say.

Online social networking and the use of social media is similar.  Starting by listening and offering comments is a better bet than jumping into a sales pitch or a “go look at our stuff” mentality with respect to a web presence.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I love my job.  I appreciate that PTC gave me this opportunity and admire the company for being so forward thinking.

Also, I’d be remiss to talk about social media and not provide people additional ways to find me online.  My Twitter ID is abelniak (@abelniak ; http://www.twitter.com/abelniak), and my blog address is http://www.SubjectivelySpeaking.net

Hear more from Alan this Thursday morning when he'll be speaking on Social Media: What's In It For You? in Cambridge, MA at a NEDMA event.

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