Tuesday, July 14, 2009

LA Fire Department has lessons for B2B marketers

I was in a conference session the other day and a case study on the Los Angeles Fire Department’s use of social media. I mentioned it on Twitter and was quickly thanked by the good folks behind @LAFDTalk, their Twitter handle for general community engagement.

The conversation got me thinking about the parallels with B2B marketing. I think there are many.

The first parallel is that at first glance, it’s not obvious what either should be doing in the social media realm. Although there are examples of fires being reported on Twitter, in general people still report fires using 911. Similarly in B2B marketing, when the deal is finalized, it is usually with a direct sales person in the field, not over Twitter or any form of social media.

However, when looked at more deeply, both are able to take advantage of the tools of social media extremely well. The difference is in how broadly you view your mission. I had the opportunity to ask Ron Myers at LA Fire Department his thoughts, and he expressed their mission in a very broad way:

A short answer to how broadly we view our mission lies in the LAFD Labs projects currently deployed or in beta production. With over 80 Web 2.0 projects in our sand box, we are able to assist in life saving efforts not only here at home, but, around the world. By using social media tools, we are able to provide real-time life safety information to those in harms way. Evacuations, fire information, recovery, and other real-time information saves lives.

By translating our safety messages into nine different languages, we have the awesome privilege of helping others around the globe while providing safety messages locally. LAFD Everywhere focuses on sharing our City’s experience and expertise with those who don’t have the resources to produce the information on their own.

Over the past 4 years, we have embarked on an aggressive campaign known as the “LAFD Everywhere Initiative”. Without a funding stream and with no staff, we have been able to utilize a wide variety of open source, social media tools to deliver the Department’s message and prepare for disaster management.

This is clearly far beyond fighting fires, and even beyond Los Angeles. The overall emphasis is on changing mindsets, awareness, and precautions in order to maximize the safety of the public in general. A quick glance on the LAFD blogs shows a broad array of articles talking about fire safety, traffic safety, and home safety as well as the stories of recent fire incidents. LAFD, through their social media efforts, including a great blog on all things fire and safety related in LA, has truly engaged their overall mission to educate the public on safety issues and keep us all safe.

In the same way, as marketers, if we think of our mission as purely generating leads for sales, we are focusing far too narrowly. As marketers, our goal must be to guide the market’s buying decisions to ensure they take into account the key factors that affect how purchase decisions are made. I talked with Ron about where he felt their social media efforts were most effective, and he had this to say:

This is an interesting question, one that we struggle with when deciding which projects take priority when developing new tools. Our primary focus is to protect lives. We have been able to take advantage of Twitter, Google Groups, Yahoo Groups, and other social media tools to provide real-time information for evacuations, floods, fires, and other life changing events.

We use blogs extensively to distribute preparedness message, recovery information, evacuation maps, and other messages almost daily. The old adage of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is true. Nothing haunts Firefighters and Paramedics more than the needless loss of life. Preparedness, Prevention, Mitigation, and Recovery all play a roll in our Emergency Public Information delivery system.

Similarly, as B2B marketers, if we focus on education throughout the buying process, as early as the education and awareness phase, we can alter perceptions and behaviors that will guide buyers to consider buying factors in a new light. By challenging ourselves as to how broadly we think of our mission as marketers, we are able to think of social media in a new strategic light. We spoke earlier about the three types of challenges that B2B marketers face, and each of these challenges can be thought of as an education challenge. Through addressing those education challenges, one potential buyer at a time, we are able to leverage social media to improve our organization’s overall brand perception.

Ron Myers, Brian Humphrey and their team are working to make the Los Angeles population safer through their use of social media as an education tool. Similarly, as marketers, we can begin to guide buyer decision making through our use of social media as an education tool in a similar manner.
Many of the topics on this blog are discussed in more detail in my book Digital Body Language
In my day job, I am with Eloqua, the marketing automation software used by the worlds best marketers
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