It may suit some to portray social selling as the latest complex incarnation of marketing’s dark arts.
And yet, as salesforce.com says, there is also something reassuringly straightforward and familiar about its ‘social’ descriptor:
“All selling is social. Always has been. Always will be.”
Consumer history records that prospective buyers once routinely consulted their social circle prior to purchase, consistently ‘swore by’ decent products and possibly swore at suppliers about shoddy goods and services.
The same behaviours exist in today’s consumer society; it’s just that the discourse has largely moved on to digital forums. With 69% of Australians using social media in 2015, and 28% of that total actively conducting consumer-related product research, contemporary marketing is all about understanding the significance of this shift.
The same phenomenon is evident in B2B where LinkedIn’s vice-president of sales solutions, Mike Derezin, also believes social selling is now a mainstream trend.
“We’re seeing a critical mass of buyers,” he says. “LinkedIn has over 313 million members and here in Australia we have over six million members. That’s north of 80% of Australian professionals.”
Customer relocation: the implications
While customer online purchasing is understood, the implications of consumers and clients taking to social media are not always fully appreciated.
Savvy buyers are now better prepared than ever when it comes to making smart purchasing decisions.
Using a mix of social media and other online sources, they can now discover volumes of product data, opinion, user reviews, comparisons, case studies and industry-gossip blogs without even once clicking on the manufacturer’s own website.
Though a corporate homepage is always impressive and its page links point to informative and well-edited product detail, the alternative options have an authentic independence and ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ appeal that is very hard to match.
Social selling as a response
Companies must now adapt their marketing strategies to reflect this new context. Well-informed prospective purchasers in any setting now have very different expectations and are much less impressed by a well-honed ‘features and benefits’ pitch.
According to Peter Kim, director of sales at LinkedIn, this means any kind of sales contact must necessarily become a much more nuanced encounter: “Before you engage with anyone, do some research on them.
“Find some information to establish a rapport and find some common ground. Ideally, that would be a mutual relationship – someone who can give you an introduction. Commonality is what builds trust.”
Social selling in action
LinkedIn have conceptualised the process of social selling as a four-step procedure that evolves progressively over time:
1. Create a professional brand with its own integrity and reputation
2. Identify your target audience on social media with detailed precision
3. Engage your prospects with useful and relevant insights
4. Build a trustful relationship
Even when active on social media, some businesses clearly employ the platform simply to expand their media presence and boast about their achievements and market position.
However measured and factually accurate such statements may be, this strategy is unlikely to persuade prospective clients that they are customer-oriented and is therefore seldom productive.
Genuine social selling across social media is much more likely to result in a sales relationship, provided the potential purchaser really believes that the business considers his positive experience of the product and brand to be central to the whole transaction.
Sales and marketing functions
One important message social selling conveys is that, in the social media marketplace, products and services are sold thanks to a subtle blend in which price, features, reputation and customer service are all important components.
For many organisations, this means that selling and marketing functions should be closely linked and even overlap in response to customer demands. New technologies and expanding consumer access to multiple information channels are also likely to accelerate an inevitable convergence.
Back to basics
Though social media has altered the typical customer journey, social selling still depends on many virtues practised in old-school networking and sales psychology: the customer is valued, their needs are paramount, a bond of trust is essential and the company’s reputation simply enhances the bargain.
Essentially, the contemporary consumer is extremely wary of buying from strangers, but will look much more positively on a seller who at least understands and shares their perspective, and may eventually become a trusted and familiar friend. The important difference is that, in a social media context, this process could be conducted on a global scale.