Five Tips to Sell Social Media to Skeptics

Selling social media initiatives to corporate can sometimes feel like pushing a boulder up a hill. Veteran executives may believe they already have all the channels they need to reach their customers, or that blogging and tweeting are just an expensive waste of time.

The reality is that even businesses with a small audience and long-time relationships can benefit from the insights that social media gives them into their markets and their competition. What’s more, online conversations may yield opportunities in markets that the company doesn’t currently operate. And the cost of experimentation is low.

In talking to dozens of b-to-b marketers while researching Social Marketing to the Business Customer, I learned of some effective and low-pressure tactics you can use to break down executive opposition. Here are five approaches to consider, whether you sell to consumers or other businesses.

Shock and awe
When staffers in the marketing department at JetBlue Airlines were trying to sell the concept of listening to customer conversations to the top brass, they chose a leadership conference to make their point. As the meeting went into a morning break, communications staffers tweeted, “What would you say to JetBlue leadership in 140 characters or less? They’re watching.” They then set up a monitor in the conference room showing responses on a site called Twitterfall.

As executives returned, a cascade of live responses began to pour in. “The managers were glued to the screen,” Corporate Communications Director Jenny Dervin says. “It was a pure exchange of ideas between leadership and the people who are affected by those decisions.” JetBlue now has 1.6 million followers on Twitter – the largest number of any major airline.

Competitive pressure
If your management isn’t excited about social media, perhaps your competitors’ management is. Once executives see that a competitor is blogging, tweeting or actively managing a LinkedIn group, it’s a pretty powerful incentive to dive in, if only to keep up with the Joneses.

You can also monitor the blogosphere to see what online opinion leaders are saying about you and your competition. If they’re praising the other guys, this will often spark an urge to respond.

Find internal allies
The management ranks of most companies usually include at least a couple of risk-takers. Find them. If you don’t know them, seek out the ones who are active on Twitter or LinkedIn. Offer to create a small social media campaign for their line of business or product. Make it free and easy for them. If you deliver results, others will notice.

Guerilla tactics
Jim Cahill and Deb Franke started a blog at Emerson Process Management in 2005, when few people even knew what a blog was. Management wasn’t sure it was a good use of their time, but Cahill had the experience and credibility to win their trust.

It’s a good thing he did. Four years and a more than 500 blog entries later, Cahill is head of social media at the company and the blog has brought numerous business opportunities into Emerson, including an invitation to bid on a nine-figure contract. “I have the e-mail from that company on my wall next to a sign that asks ‘Is there any value in blogging?’” Cahill says.

Draughting with the leader
Most companies plan one or two big marketing pushes a year, whether it’s rolling out a new product or making a splash at a trade show. That’s a great time to piggyback your social media ideas onto the bigger campaign.

Offer to start a product blog or set up a Twitter account that customers can follow to learn more details. Product managers will be too busy with other things to put up much opposition.

Paul Gillin is co-author with Eric Schwartzman of Social Marketing to the Business Customer, a social media marketing book for business-to-business companies.