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ANALYSIS: Can business get social?



According to a recent survey published by email broadcaster Emedia, one in ten users of social networking sites visit for business purposes. And just days ago, BT Tradespace relaunched its website to include a social networking platform for businesses. It's strong evidence to suggest that Facebook fever has reached the B2B marketing sphere. B2C advertisers have been getting in on the act for some time, using the astronomical rise in popularity of Facebook and Bebo to reach their audiences.


The medium so far hasn't suited B2B brands; after all a huge proportion of social network site users are university students and teens. But the landscape is starting to shift. BT Tradespace, which allows companies to build relationships and share information in a purely professional environment, has already surpassed
25,000 members since its launch in April, while another new kid on the block, online business social network, Viadeo, has accrued 30,000 members since hitting UK shores in January. The latter, along with more established networking tool LinkedIn, also offers brands the chance for display advertising on its sites, which in turn offers up the opportunity for some incredibly targeted marketing.


One-on-one communication

A recent Neilsen study showed that the average age of LinkedIn's US users is 41, and that they have an average income of $106,000. Half class themselves as business decision makers. LinkedIn says that its one million UK users have a similar profile. That offers massive potential for B2B brands to reach its key audiences, says
its international director Liz O'Donnell.

"We have a similar, albeit slightly wealthier, demographic to the Wall Street Journal," she says. "We can also help advertisers to target potential end users based on elements of their profiles. So if Blackberry wants to target CEOs in the UK across a range of 15 industry sectors,we can do that. If they want to target only people called Fred from Twickenham, we can do that too. You're getting almost one-to-one

At the moment, says O'Donnell, 30 to 35 per cent of LinkedIn's revenue is generated from advertising and is a figure the company expects to grow as more and more businesses catch onto the power of the medium. "There is still a fairly long lead time on selling the advertising - the feedback from our ad sales teams is that it takes
quite a lot of explaining. But it's catching on, and part of our plan is certainly to grow our sales team in the near future."

Viadeo, originally set up in France by a group of entrepreneurs who wanted to meet regularly without having to travel, also allows companies to pay to advertise on its site, but UK and Ireland director Peter Cunningham is keen to point out that the networking function is just as crucial for building brand awareness amongst the business community. The site encourages users to network via hubs and blogs, and last month created an event management tool, allowing users to invite contacts to, for example, a conference they are arranging. Companies can also set up their own ‘groups' and invite customers to join. A recent example lies in J4b, a UK grants database providing funding for SMEs; its recently-formed group already has
over 700 members. Explains Cunningham, "When you set up a group, we can add in your company logo so that essentially, you're running your own branded environment."

Like LinkedIn, Viadeo has a highly relevant demographic for B2B brands; mostly middle management to CEOs with an average age of 35. Almost 13 per cent of the demographic is also made up of company executives or founders. "When individuals employed by a company join up, they usually set up a personal profile, but company founders tend to set up their page to look like their business. And they can choose to have visibility on Google by checking a box," Cunningham adds.


Cross-over sites

Sites like Viadeo and LinkedIn aim to attract a purely business audience, but can more consumer orientated sites have benefit within B2B? Ivan Croxford, head of market development at BT Business and involved in its Tradespace project, thinks it is possible. "It depends on the sector you're working in, but there are instances where personal networking sites can provide benefit. I've been contacted by business development people via my Facebook account, for example," he says. Tradespace, which hosts both B2B and B2C brands on its site, invites businesses to promote themselves but also its customers to participate too, by joining community groups or posting reviews. This, he says, works well for both consumer and business brands. "If you are an account manager who only gets to visit clients quarterly, you can set up a community group and interact with them daily," he explains.

BT Tradespace's largest single site category is business services, showing there is real demand for companies to interact with one another. The launch of the social networking tool was also in part a result of seeing how, when companies signed up on its initial launch, one of the first things they sought to do was communicate with like-minded individuals. "We've seen a really strong emergence in businesses seeking out other businesses to work with," confirms Croxford.


Learn by example

It's the consumer orientated social networking groups that make the headlines; take for example the recent reintroduction of Wispa chocolate bars following a campaign by over 13,000 Facebook members to reinstate it. There's debate over whether the campaign was actually started by Cadbury's own marketing department and just cleverly disguised. But there is plenty of scope for the B2B sphere to watch, learn and try for themselves.

"In B2C, brands have found success by creating groups on social networks, offering
discounts to members and providing forums for interaction," says Henry Elliss, head of social media at online advertising consultancy Tamar. "While the B2B market is a few steps behind, there is no reason why this personalised approach should not translate. Successful B2B marketing is about using a blend of consumer and business data to provide personalised messages to the decision maker and this principle is key when it comes to social networking." Social networking appears to be on the brink of enjoying a healthy relationship within the B2B community.


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