Feature Story

How Manufacturers Can Succeed with Social Media

by Kristi Essick

Most manufacturers know social media can be a powerful marketing channel, but few have taken the plunge. Here are five tips that can help manufacturers make social media a strategic part of their marketing and communications plans.

Ideas From You!  The idea for the following feature story came from Pam Burke of Michigan. Thank you, Pam! Got a story idea for The Network, Cisco's Technology News Site? Submit your idea to TheNetworkStoryIdeas@cisco.com

Large B2B companies are becoming increasingly adept at using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social networks to connect with prospects and build recognition for their products.  However, even though 81 percent of B2B companies use social networks, the manufacturing industry is one sector that has been slow to adopt social media.

"Many manufacturers aren't even online, let alone using social media," said Jeffrey L. Cohen, Social Media Marketing Manager at marketing agency Howard, Merrell & Partners and Managing Editor at SocialMediaB2B.com. "But the few manufacturers using social media are getting value out of it to connect with prospects, customers, and partners."

In 2011, 30 percent of global manufacturing companies plan to increase spending on social media and community marketing, according to a March report from Forrester Research titled Bigger B2B Marketing Budgets Come With Great Expectations. That compares with 53 percent of pharmaceutical companies and 50 percent of business and professional services companies.

What industries or companies are using social media well, and how are they doing it?

Most manufacturers know social media holds the promise to serve as a powerful marketing channel. So why have so few taken the plunge? The problem may lie in the way manufacturers traditionally approach marketing. Accustomed to focusing on RFP processes and lead generation tactics, most manufacturers "don't think like brand marketers," says Jeff Reinke, editorial director of Advantage Business Media's Manufacturing Group.

"For decades, manufacturers have focused on internal initiatives to make their companies more competitive," said Reinke. "But with ever-more competition from India and China, some manufacturers are starting to look at social media as a way to gain global recognition for their businesses."

The other challenge manufacturers face in adopting social media is the very distributed, complex nature of manufacturing itself. If a manufacturer has 500,000 parts that end up in thousands of OEM products, how does it craft global messages to encompass all of those products?

To overcome this challenge, manufacturers can use social media to tell "stories" that indirectly promote their businesses, without getting into the details of individual parts or products.

 "Early adopters are using social media to create educational or inspirational content, and that drives discussion within their industries that may eventually turn into sales leads," said Cohen, who pointed to Corning's A Day in the Life of Glass video as a B2B social marketing success. The video didn't promote any one product, but by obtaining nearly 15 million views on YouTube, helped build awareness of Corning's core business. Cohen also pointed to Boeing and GE as leaders in social media.

B2B marketers use social media to "showcase their expertise and build trusted relationships with prospects when they first start looking for information," according to the Forrester report.

Some manufacturers have found creating their own social network, to which they invite employees, prospects, and partners, to be an effective communications tool. Baker Hughes, a manufacturing and services company in the oil industry, created an in-house social network using Cisco Pulse to connect collaborators worldwide, and others have expanded these networks externally.

Manufacturers ready to make social media a strategic part of their marketing and communications programs can follow a few simple best practices.

1.      Get your house in order. Before you start a social media marketing program, make sure your website is modern, up-to-date, and communicates your company's core messages. You don't want to start generating conversation about your company and driving people to your website if it looks like it was created in 1998.

2.      Stake your claims. The main social networking sites are Facebook (700 million users), LinkedIn (100 million users), and Twitter (175 million users). Start by creating profiles for your company on all of these sites, focusing especially on the B2B-focused LinkedIn. But don't forget to research vertical social networks in your sector. There may be smaller communities and forums focused on your particular manufacturing industry, such as automotive, aerospace, energy, consumer electronics, machining, etc. Element14 is a popular social network for electronic design engineers working across various manufacturing sectors. MFG and ThomasNet are online RFP marketplaces for the global manufacturing industry that offer some community features.

3.      Start by listening.Social media is a two-way street that not only allows you to publish content about your company or industry, but also gives you a chance to listen to your customers and prospects. Follow your customers on Twitter and "like" their Facebook Pages. Attend product and industry forums to hear your customers and prospects' biggest concerns. Use free social media listening tools to get a sense of the overall "sentiment" about your company and the key issues in your industry.

4.      Say something worthwhile. Don't think of social media as a chance to sell your products, but as a place to provide value to your customers, prospects, colleagues, and partners. Create content that educates, such as how-to videos. Ask yourself, what are the main challenges in my industry and how can I create content that makes my customers' lives easier? You can also create fun content that inspires, such as human stories about how your parts or materials end up in amazing products. Connect the dots between your company and a new jumbo jet, computer, car, or other consumer product. Great content makes potential customers notice your company.

5.      Make sure it's working. Social media marketing today is measurable, meaning you can track which content drove the most brand recognition, increased website traffic the most, or generated the most leads. Most of the social networks provide basic tracking tools to quantify leads, brand reach, and reputation, and there are other free measurement tools available. As the program grows, you might want to invest in some more robust social media analytics tools like Meteor Solutions, Radian6, or Lithium.

"The manufacturing industry has adapted to so many changes, and they will eventually adopt social media marketing," Reinke said. "But they will do so at their own pace, and many will probably create their own social networks instead of just jumping into the public fray on Facebook and Twitter."

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