Monday, September 28, 2009

Market Relationships, Social Relationships, and B2B Marketing in Social Media

I just wrapped up a great book – Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely – that discussed, among many other things, the different relationship types we have between people; especially market relationships and social relationships. Dan’s example was a great one for capturing the essence of the challenge; you have a great Thanksgiving dinner with the family at your mother-in-law’s place, and everyone has enjoyed the great food, drinks, and conversation. The meal ends and you pull out your wallet to pay your mother-in-law for the great meal she has provided. Obviously a very awkward moment, and entirely the wrong thing to do.

Essentially, the situation becomes very awkward because you have flipped the relationship from one form (a social relationship) to another form (a market relationship). Neither type of relationship, by itself, is problematic. We provide and receive dinners based on our social relationships frequently, and we receive dinners based on market relationships each time we eat at a restaurant. However, it’s the flipping between the two that causes that feeling of awkwardness.

Social media, for all its promise, does not change the nature of the way we categorize relationships. It just makes those relationships more visible. One of the most common questions that comes up in discussions of B2B marketing is how social media can be used to drive revenue. It can, and there are many great examples of ways in which social media can be used to drive revenue, but none that I have heard of ignore the ways in which humans categorize relationships.

What I mean by that is that each of our presences on social media needs to fit neatly into a relationship category, or it will seem awkward. If we want to use social media to connect with friends, exchange photos, and share stories, great. If we want to use social media to educate, inform, and guide buyer behavior, that’s equally great. However, it is when we attempt to merge the two that awkwardness can result.

I’m not in any way saying that if you’re in a market relationship, you cannot be fun, engaging, and interested in a person’s family and personal life. You can, and it’s a great way to connect with people; in the same way that a waiter or waitress can be gregarious, social, and interesting. However, the relationship category is clear.

Many of the known successes in social media are clear market relationships. The team at Dell, ComcastCares, Chris Brogan, and the Kado Barbeque Truck are all clearly engaging us in market relationships within social media. They may be engaging, personable, and friendly, but there’s no awkwardness when they try to educate or guide our buying behavior, as we know from the start that it is a market relationship, and an ultimate goal is business.

If a social media strategy, however, relies on this boundary being crossed, it may face more of a challenge than you anticipate. Social media can be a great environment for ideas to spread virally. However, if those ideas would appear to change the relationship type, they will likely not spread. We forward viral videos to our friends that are funny, cute, inspiring, or provocative. These fit within a social relationship. We generally don’t forward videos that appear to be selling anything or promoting a product or company too strongly. This steps over the line into a market relationship.

Relationship types form an interesting framework to understand what allows certain messages to be forwarded and others to fail miserably. We have each seen examples of enthusiastic PR teams suggesting that we try to get everyone we know to pass along a great press release to their friends on Facebook. It does not work, as it is asking for a relationship (social) to flip to a different type (market). An interesting example, is the viral success that is seen in forwarding “friends and family only” discount coupons in retail scenarios. The sense that it is an internal only offer, rather than a sales promotion, allows people to pass it on in the context of a social relationship. Promotions that are just as strong economically, but do not have the “inside scoop” angle generally do not see the same level of success among groups in social media who mainly share a social relationship.
However, not all social media platforms are based on purely social relationships. People who connect on LinkedIn, for example, likely are sharing a market relationship, and may be more likely to share, discuss, and engage in pure business conversations. Twitter forms an interesting hybrid environment where both types of relationships exist.

Thinking about the relationships our initiatives are resting on allows us a new perspective on our social media campaigns. If the campaign relies on a social relationship becoming a market relationship, chances are it will not work. This transition is fraught with awkwardness and established etiquette, as much in the realm of social media as it is at Thanksgiving dinner at your mother-in-law’s.
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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Unknown said...

I could have used this article yesterday before I sent out a business call to action to my entire friends list! Anyway, this was a very good article. Thanks for posting it. I'd like you to look at our site for other marketing info and tell me your thoughts. Thanks.

Susan Fantle said...

Thank you for this clear presentation of the "real" world vs. the "social media" world. Your description at the opening of your post is the perfect way to describe how I feel about my Facebook friends vs. by LinkedIn connections. A few of them are the same people and sometimes I do discuss personal activities with business associates. But I like to keep my personal life separate from my work life offline and online. I thought I was the only person left in the B2B world who felt this way. So thank you for pointing out that my instincts are valid.