A few weeks ago, I walked past a street vendor here in New York. Standing on a plastic bucket, he shouted to no one in particular about the wares that were piled on a folding card table next to him. Everything about his sales strategy violated what I’ve learned as a CMO: he wasn’t learning about the needs of his prospects or educating them on how his product—I can’t even recall what he was selling—could solve their problems. Most importantly, he was failing to establish any kind of relationship with his potential customers. I couldn’t help but think about the current state of social selling and how it often mimics exactly what the street vendor was doing: shouting.

Too many organizations fail to look beyond the sheer ease of access that social channels offer them and see the opportunities social offers for establishing relationships with current and potential customers. If social selling is going to truly grow beyond its adolescence and become a mature sales and marketing strategy, organizations have to quiet down long enough to hear what their customers are saying.

How IBM Did It

When it comes to B2B sales and marketing, it doesn’t get much bigger than IBM. When the tech giant learned that a third of its enterprise customers were already using social channels to engage with vendors and that 75 percent were likely to use social as a guide in future purchasing decisions, they knew it was time to make social selling a priority.

They started by building a rigorous structure around how their reps used social to reach clients. The first step was launching an initiative the company called “intelligent listening” within their cloud computing division. Reps used social channels to monitor the conversations that their clients and prospects were having, looking for common priorities and pain points.

The next piece was the most critical. The IBM team developed customized social personas for their inside sales reps and used those accounts to share relevant content—mostly white papers and studies from industry analysts and thought leaders—with leads. This exercise in relationship building quickly paid off: in just six months, the reps’ social reach grew from just 54,000 followers to a staggering 1.3 million.

Listen, Learn and Engage

Not every company will achieve the sheer social clout of giants like IBM, but even a smaller organization like my company, Relationship Science, has seen success in adapting their model to our much smaller teams. To start building a structured framework for social selling, you'll need answers to the following questions:

  • What networks do our prospects use most?
  • What companies and thought leaders do they follow?
  • What kind of content do they share?
  • What common themes and priorities emerge from their social history?

From there, focus on creating personalized, relatable social personas for your sales team. This is a crucial step toward social selling success. After all, it would have been easy for IBM to broadcast a ton of unfocused content from a faceless corporate account. But by humanizing each rep, IBM gave its inside sales team the chance to build genuine relationships with prospects.

Of course, establishing a relationship requires more than sharing content. That’s why smart sales teams are using relationship-mapping software to make their social selling programs more effective. These tools can help sales reps leverage their existing networks to research prospects and qualify leads, but their biggest advantage comes from helping sales and marketing teams gain access to previously untapped decision makers. Eighty-four percent of B2B purchasers begin their buying process through referrals, so knowing who your team knows—and who their connections know—is critical for building a successful social selling initiative.

The Takeaway

To be effective, B2B sales and marketing teams have to use social channels to build genuine, human relationships with decision makers. It’s time to stop shouting and start engaging.