It's been five years since we started moving our marketing, and our customers' marketing, toward more of an inbound approach. Most of our customers are B2B marketers, so we strive to find the best channels and content to meet their goals for lead generation and conversion to customers. We usually include social media in the mix, some customers more than others, depending on where their buyers are most likely to be found online. The question remains—is social media an effective channel for B2B lead generation, or should we focus on other channels?
A 2013 Business.com survey of 500 pay-per-lead advertisers found that a majority of B2B marketers were skeptical about the value of using social media tools for lead generation. Instead, more than 66 percent favored outbound marketing (inside sales, telemarketing, live events and tradeshows). While content marketing and social media sharing were in use by 71 percent of B2B marketers, only about 22 percent rated these methods as "effective," with customer testimonials and case studies rated as the highest performing types of lead generation. The infographic below summarizes this data.
If you believe that the above data accurately represents CMO sentiments these days, there are some pretty surprising implications.
I think the Business.com survey overlooks other surveys and reports showing the relative effectiveness of content marketing, social media and SEO in building sales pipelines. For example, the Content Marketing Institute reported widespread (and increasing) use of social media in content distribution in 2013, but, at the same time, respondents considered LinkedIn to be the only highly effective social media channel. CRM Daily reported inbound channels deliver up to 30X the conversion rate of outbound campaigns. According to HubSpot, inbound strategies double website conversion rates from 6 percent to 12 percent, and inbound marketing delivers 54 percent more leads into the marketing funnel than outbound marketing.
I think the frustration shown by CMOs with inbound tactics, especially social media, stems from the relative difficulty in deploying effective teams to support them. Let's face it, it's a lot easier to pull the trigger on an email blast, ad campaign or telemarketing campaign than it is to build an effective content marketing team that's well versed in social media engagement and promotion. Then there's the challenge of standing out in the crowd with content. As Jessica Meher so eloquently put it, "...the great thing about content marketing is that it works. The bad thing about content marketing is that almost everyone else has figured that out, and now, there is a deluge of crappy content on the internet."
On the other hand, while conversion rates for outbound marketing may be relatively low, time-to-campaign can be fast, with results starting to show up within a few days. CMOs love the immediacy of outbound, even if it can be difficult to measure results without driving leads to landing pages tied to marketing automation systems. Social media is particularly vexing for B2B because buyers don't generally like to use social channels to research and evaluate products and services. Most use Google for that. B2B executives use LinkedIn for networking, problem solving and job promotion (or search). Twitter is basically a news channel, while Facebook is for connecting with family and friends. And Pinterest? Pinterest is a big question mark for B2B.
You're both right! I think social media is getting a bad rap because it's been badly misused by marketers in recent years. While advertising sometimes works and works well for B2B, that's usually not the case. Social media is best used for relationship building, thought leadership and customer service. LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter are still go-to channels for content search and curation. Your content marketers, thought leaders and support people need to be there to get the word out about your brand and answer questions. Really, the marketing channel debate boils down to short-term vs long-term goals.
Depending upon your business goals, you will want to put more eggs in one basket than another, but that may change next quarter. Your team should be building both inbound and outbound strategies and fueling them with great ideas and content. Each initiative should be carefully planned and measured. Tacitly ignoring one channel, such as social media, can be a reckless strategy based on confusion and urban legend. Successful companies will find the right mix of all tactics that fit their goals and talent profiles.