Social media and sales relationship complicated

A recent study by RSW, an agency that helps agencies, found “social media comes up short for agency prospecting”, eMarketer.com reported: “When it comes to identifying prospects online, RSW, found the vast majority (95%) of U.S. ad agencies used social media to identify potential clients. But the results of those efforts were modest at best. Most agencies attributed 10% or less of their new business revenue to social media outreach.”

Well, duh. Selling intangibles on social media is a bit like selling insurance at a cocktail party. It’s tacky and overbearing.

“Pssst. Hey. You. Wanna buy an ad campaign?”

According to Jeff Nelson, president of Anduro Marketing, a prominent Internet marketing firm, these findings were to be expected.

“The point is, social media doesn’t drive new prospects,” said Nelson in a Twitter exchange.

Nelson’s right, at least insofar as it concerns intangibles like agency services.

As someone who has sold a lot of intangibles over the last 20 plus years (advertising, newswire services, software and now consulting), the key element in closing a sale is trust. Since the client can’t touch the product like a car or running shoes, they have to trust you will deliver something of value. Oh sure, price and deliverables and so on will come into it eventually, but it starts with the client trusting you will not stiff them or make them look bad.

A Twitter message is unlikely to inspire such confidence.

With tangible goods, it’s different. If I see a Dell laptop on sale on Twitter I expect I’d get a well-known quality product if I ordered. That’s why Dell has built a solid sales channel on Twitter. If I see a WestJet seat sale on facebook, I can rely on the WestJet brand and my past experience to confidently move towards purchase. If it’s two-for-one pizzas, it’s so cheap I hardly care if it goes wrong.

But high-priced services? Not likely. If a lawyer tweeted “Hey @dblacombe, get your will written here” I’d be mighty suspicious. If an accountant messaged me on facebook with a tax prep offer I’d block them instantly as spammy and weird.

There are some exceptions. A friend of mine uses LinkedIn to find human resources professionals, then calls them up or emails them for an appointment. Recruiters seek candidates that way too, in effect closing a ‘job sale’. These scenarios represent a much softer form of sales than that contemplated by the study.

Way back in my newspaper advertising days we were taught about TOMA – top of mind awareness. Good social media marketing builds TOMA. It keeps your agency’s name in front of the market and builds trust – social capital in today’s parlance. It also humanizes the agency, building even more trust (unless you’re a jerk, in which case, avoid social media, in fact, avoid going out).

TOMA is sales support, not sales. If I have to use the first 15 minutes of a sales call establishing trust and rapport from a cold start, that will lengthen my sales cycle and stall closing the business. When I walk in the door I want you to have heard about my agency. It’s even better if it’s a referral (social or traditional) so I get the halo effect of someone else’s recommendation. With any luck you or the referrer have read or seen my stuff and found it valuable.

As agency leaders both Nelson and I came to the same conclusion. Social media helps create an aura of competence and humanity that can complement and even accelerate sales.

It is not a new business development tool, and using it that way might actually damage your agency’s reputation.

Doug Lacombe

President of Calgary social media agency communicatto

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