Let’s get social! Use social media to humanize your B2B company

Written by: Nadine Abel


Social media is not a hard-selling vehicle. Instead, social media has set the trend for B2B companies’ digital marketing strategy to focus on relationship- and brand management. This paper provides four reasons why you should engage in humanizing your B2B company through social media despite several barriers.

 Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Blogging - The web 2.0 with its emphasis on user-generated content and opportunities for a digital two-way communication has changed the online landscape. Social media has set a new trend in marketing communication that rates developing customer relationships by interactive discussions higher than the increase of sales (Järvinen et al., 2012; Kho, 2008; Michaelidou et al., 2011; Brennan & Croft, 2012). Therefore, social media is the vehicle for soft marketing, namely relationship- and brand management (Brennan & Croft, 2012). Jonathan Wichmann, former head of social media at Maersk Line, phrases it as following: “Social media is about communication, not marketing. It’s about engaging, not pushing” (Katona & Sarvary, 2014, p.147). Hence, in order to adapt to this trend and use the power of social media, your B2B organization needs to shift the primary digital marketing objective from sales increase to the humanization of your company (Järvinen et al., 2012). 

There are several showcases of successful B2B social marketing strategies. However, many B2B companies still have problems to adapt to this trend and integrate the emerging social media tools into their established digital marketing strategy (Järvinen et al., 2012). According to Järvinen et al. (2012), the industrial sector still uses established one way communication tools in their digital marketing strategy, such as e-mail marketing and digital newsletters. These established tools are not suitable to deliver additional marketing objectives, such as increasing brand performance (Järvinen et al., 2012). 

Purpose and Research Question

This paper will present four explanations on the research question why B2B companies should humanize their organization by engaging in social media despite barriers for the social media engagement of B2B companies. To do so, several barriers for the social media engagement of B2B companies as stated by literature will be explored, in order to provide an extensive understanding of the underlying impediments for the industrial sector. Following this analysis of issues for the industrial sector, the following four business objectives of social media for B2B companies will be examined: Positioning, customer engagement, brand awareness as well as trend spotting. These objectives will be investigated in relation to specific case studies in order to provide an insight into the industrial sector’s social media concepts. 

Break down barriers that limit your social media engagement

The industrial sector faces several barriers when it comes to the active use of social media networks. However, when taking a closer look, most of the barriers stated by literature can be broken down. According to Järvinen et al. (2012), many B2B marketers perceive digital marketing and social networks as not being in line with the general objectives of marketing. However, Järvinen et al. (2012) argue that in fact, social media is conform with the general objectives of marketing, particularly acquiring new customers and enhancing current customer relationships by having online interactions.

Due to perceived barriers, B2B organizations have been slow in adoption when it comes to social media activity. Especially smaller companies lack money and time to exploit social media adequately (Michaelidou et al., 2011). Additionally, a lack of expert knowledge and unfamiliarity with the new technologies are further barriers (Michaelidou et al., 2011; Brennan & Croft, 2012; Järvinen et al., 2012). One way to break down this major barrier is to invest in human resources with digital marketing expertise (Järvinen et al., 2012). 

The last barrier: How to measure the benefits from social media engagement?

As with every marketing tool, the effectiveness of social media activities in achieving marketing objectives has to be evaluated in order to justify the digital marketing budget (Michaelidou et al., 2011). The measurement of the social media performance poses significant problems for marketing managers, since traditional marketing metrics are based on a linear form of communication (Michaelidou et al., 2011). 

However, solutions for the measurement of digital marketing performance do exist, like web analytics and social media monitoring (Järvinen et al., 2012). Nevertheless, the measureable benefits for the B2B sector from social media (such as the return on investment (ROI) or the transaction rate) are limited (Järvinen et al., 2012; Stelzner, 2015). Nevertheless, your B2B company should have a social media strategy in order to humanize your company. 

Four reasons why your B2B company should be active on social media

Most of the above described barriers of social media engagement for your B2B company can be overcome in several ways. In the following I will present you concrete reasons why you should be active on social media. 

1. Positioning - You are not boring 

Do you think that your B2B company is dull? Do you think that your industry sector is not suitable for social media? Wrong! Just because you do not sell exciting products or services, it does not mean that your social media presence has to be boring: “(…) for years we [Maersk Line] thought we were boring, so we helped convey to the world the idea that we are boring. But we’re not” (Katona & Sarvary, 2014, p.148). By engaging in social media you can use your enthusiasts’ perception and thereby change the face of your company (Rosso, 2014). 

By telling stories about who the company is, Maersk Line has found a way to humanize their B2B company in a successful way (Katona & Sarvary, 2014). By publishing moving, user-created and personal stories, which are connected to the company’s product, Maersk Line created an authentic picture of their company (Katona & Sarvary, 2014). One example is the story of Clara Maersk and the rescue at sea of 3,628 Vietnamese fugitives in 1975 (Katona & Sarvary, 2014). Additionally, having a pro-active approach to negative occurrences in connection to your product can help your company to gain influence and control over a situation through social media (Katona & Sarvary, 2014). Maersk Line, for example, used social media in the year 2012 to have a dialogue with its users after one of their ships had strike a whale (Katona & Sarvary, 2014). As these examples illustrate, the terms positioning and reputation management go hand in hand in the sphere of social networks. 

Besides, social media can contribute to positioning your B2B company as a thought leader. By providing content-rich social media material, like General Electric’s #springbreakit blog, B2B companies can position themselves as experts while influencing the direction in which markets develop (Brennan & Croft, 2012). 

2. Relationship marketing - It’s all about engagement

When it comes to engagement, not only customers should be in the focus of your social media activities’ attention. Since social media rates the objective of relationships over increasing sales figures, the target group of B2B social media marketing goes beyond direct clients. Employees and other stakeholders (like investors or the print media) can be addressed and engaged as well (Brennan & Croft, 2012). 

Maersk Line’s social media presence, for example, helped the company to increase employee engagement by providing an online platform to share their love for the “big blue ships” (Katona & Sarvary, 2014, p.148). When in former times, employees were only able to share their proudness of sailing the seas in a Maersk Line ship with their direct friends, they could now share it with a much larger group of like-minded people. By publishing user-created photos on Maersk Line’s Facebook page (see Illustration 1), the company inspired people around the world to take photos of the company’s visible side, the ships (Katona & Sarvary, 2014). Maersk Line encouraged their followers to interact with the company (Katona & Sarvary, 2014). Thereby they took the ‘corporate’ out of social media and started engaging on a personal level (Rosso, 2014).

Illustration 1: Example of Maersk Line’s Facebook page with user created content (Maersk Line, 2016)

In comparison to established digital marketing tools, social media platforms enable your B2B company to have an active dialogue with your clients (Järvinen et al., 2012). Communication on social media is not a one way street: “While we [Maersk Line] are a B2B company, our customers are people who just like in B2C also would like to interact with us” (Katona & Sarvary, 2014, p.147). Therefore, it is important that your B2B company provides the platform for interaction. By creating discussion groups on LinkedIn, Maersk Line enabled their customers to have a dialogue with the company on the one hand, and to discuss industry issues with other professionals on the other hand (Katona & Sarvary, 2014). 

Additionally, when a company participates in social networks such as blogs and forums, they can provide help to solve customers’ problems (Kho, 2008). Especially, large high-tech companies have led the way with solution-oriented use of forums, like the IBM developerWorks (Kho, 2008). Besides, this solution-orientated use of social media can decrease expenses for customer service. Maersk Line’s social media engagement has saved the company money, since the social media crowd was able to solve customer service issues before the company had to intervene (Katona & Sarvary, 2014). All the above examined factors support the overall objective of stakeholder engagement. 

3. Brand awareness - Be on top of mind

The two above described objectives are conducive to a company’s digital marketing target of increasing brand awareness. Due to the competitive business landscape, the corporate brand has become a major way for companies to differentiate themselves and their products or services from the competitor (Kotler & Pfoertsch, 2006). And this is not only the case in business-to-customer marketing: IBM, General Electric, SAP, Boeing – all these brands are examples that some of the world’s strongest brands are actually B2B brands (Kotler & Pfoertsch, 2006). Strong B2B brands can enjoy higher loyalty of their buyers while having a stronger negotiation power (Michaelidou et al., 2011). All in all, having a strong brand performance is a necessity that can be enhanced by social media presence. 

4. Trend spotting - Get innovation ideas first hand 

Another reason to engage in social media is trend spotting, since business-to-business companies get customer insight by monitoring social media (Kho, 2008). Social media channels offer the opportunity to uncover information about, for example, customer preferences. By creating the above described groups on LinkedIn, Maersk Line invited customers and shipping experts to discuss industry challenges and opportunities (Katona & Sarvary, 2014). By monitoring those conversations, the company was able to spot trends (Katona & Sarvary, 2014). Therefore, social media engagement can deliver innovation ideas for your B2B company first hand. 

Soft marketing will improve your bottom line

The four above described objectives illustrate the advantages of social media engagement for B2B companies. The lack of measurability should not daunt a B2B company’s utilization of social media. Instead, it might be time for the B2B sector to focus on giving your company an authentic face, developing stakeholder relationships and increasing public brand awareness through social media engagement. Besides, spotting trends within the industry sector can form a competitive advantage when it comes to positioning your company as a thought leader. 

Since this paper examined the question why B2B companies should humanize their organization through social media engagement, further research is needed in order to analyse which social media platforms are the most suitable ones for this intent. Additionally, future research should focus on developing a metrics to measure quantifiable and monetary benefits from social media. 

According to Wichmann, the four above described objectives of social media marketing will sooner or later improve the bottom line: “But does that translate into more containers being booked? No, not necessarily. […] Instead, it gives us brand recognition and engagement. It’s a way to keep our products and services both top-of-mind and talk of the town. And achieving that will undoubtedly affect the bottom line positively - at some point in the future” (Katona & Sarvary, 2014, p.152).

























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