By Gretchen Hyman(opens in new tab), contributor of Underground Group
⏰ 5-minute read
Social selling(opens in new tab) is the practice of engaging with potential customers via social media.
Social selling is not guaranteed to generate sales, but it is a valuable way to build the awareness, rapport and trust that inch prospects closer to becoming customers.
Before you start a social selling campaign, take time to understand the language of each social media platform and develop standards for genuine, not salesy, communication.
Social selling is a relatively new and yet surprisingly influential component of a standard social media marketing plan(opens in new tab).
Put simply, social selling harnesses social media’s reach to make contact with new customers on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and other platforms. The process provides insights about prospects, which can help businesses personalize further communications (like marketing emails(opens in new tab)) and differentiate their brands from competitors.
Social selling can look like sharing original photos or videos(opens in new tab) on your brand’s social media pages, re-sharing other brands’ posts and interacting directly with users to build relationships, trust and awareness. Ideally, the process helps convert social media connections into paying customers.
Luggage brand Away engages with customers by posting their photos on Instagram.
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What social selling isn’t
The combination of the words “social” and “selling” can sometimes create inflated expectations among marketers. A common misunderstanding is that social selling is a conventional sales tactic with measurable and consistent results. Retailers, for example, might erroneously treat social selling like a digital ad campaign and post a big, bold promotional image of their product on Twitter.
The ideal social selling interaction, however, is far more subtle and service-oriented.
"Social selling works best when consumers see the ancillary messages in an appropriate context and not just as attempts at retargeting(opens in new tab),” said Mark Naples, managing partner of WIT Strategy, a marketing and PR firm specializing in digital media. “So, instead of selling me harder on why I should buy, say, that flower box, why not add value by showing me the right season to plant different flowers?"
"Instead of selling me harder on why I should buy, say, that flower box, why not add value by showing me the right season to plant different flowers?"
What social selling is
Social selling is often described as the next evolution of the cold call. Unsolicited outreach no longer offers(opens in new tab) the same value to potential buyers as it used to, according to tech media heavyweight IDG. Engaging through social media platforms is much more likely to create enduring and meaningful connections between buyer and seller.
In fact, 90% of C-level executives said they never respond(opens in new tab) to cold outreach, according to a recent survey by InsideView. Meanwhile, 75% of B2B(opens in new tab) buyers use social media to research and connect with vendors(opens in new tab), indicating that businesses are increasingly relying on social media to bridge the gap between cold prospects and warm ones.
Overall, “Social selling done correctly is the precursor to a stronger connection with a sales prospect,” said Sean Cheyney, VP of global business development at Triad, a retail media consultancy.
Wendy's builds relationships with customers on Twitter by retweeting them. (opens in new tab)
Sixty-eight percent of B2B professionals said social selling helps them primarily with lead development(opens in new tab), according to a study conducted by research group CSO Insights and Seismic, a sales enablement solutions provider. Sixty-four percent said it helps with account research. And more than half of respondents said social selling helps them research contacts or stakeholders and build brand awareness.
These statistics echo the idea that there is not necessarily alignment between achieving a meaningful, one-on-one connection with a prospect via social selling and hitting sales quotas. Rather, social selling is valued for its ability to inch a prospect closer to understanding the virtues of a given product or solution.
Social selling = doing your homework
There is no shortage of instructional programs on how to sell across social media’s various platforms, according to Cheyney. But many so-called experts promote the wrong approach, he added.
As an example, Cheyney shared that many times per week, he receives LinkedIn messages with tone-deaf sales pitches. These solicitations might include lead generation solutions, mobile app development services, crowdfunding requests and even real estate offers -- none of which are personalized or indicate awareness of Cheyney’s business goals.
“It’s important to remember this is social, and that intrinsically means it’s personal,” said Cheyney, a digital media executive of more than 19 years. “To be personal, you need to pay attention, learn and do your homework.”
"This is 'social' media, and that intrinsically means it’s personal."
Some basic research on Cheyney -- through LinkedIn and his other social media pages -- would’ve led brands to discover that he had just returned from a family vacation at Disneyland and that he likes surfing, video editing and fine dining. A smart social salesperson would’ve used those insights to send Cheyney a more customized message, like a discount offer for Six Flags tickets. This would be more likely to move him into the “interested consideration” phase of the social selling relationship-building process, he said. Those non-targeted messages, however, just make him click “delete.”
The average social media user maintains about eight social media accounts(opens in new tab), per GlobalWebIndex. Social sellers can glean a great deal of insights from the way in which a sales prospect interacts on these platforms. Each of the prospect’s behaviors provides a clue about their personal traits and interests, which can help inform the way companies approach them with social selling.
Social selling = respecting the platform
Before starting to practice social selling at your company, it’s important to understand the personality of each social media platform.
For example, Facebook is known as a valuable resource for observing your prospects’ connections and group memberships, which might reveal clues about their lifestyle and natural brand affinities. LinkedIn, meanwhile, is ideal for learning a prospect’s career details or finding the right potential customer to target within a vast organization. Twitter and Instagram are best used as “participation tools” for finding large communities of potential customers who share a given, common interest.
Virgin Voyages Cruisers is a Facebook group for fans of the Virgin Voyages brand.
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You might start researching the various platforms via guides from local creative or marketing agencies, like this infographic(opens in new tab) from Leverage, a St. Louis-based creative agency, or this article(opens in new tab) from Impact, an inbound marketing agency in New Haven, Connecticut. If you want more expertise, you might contract one of these agencies to develop a customized social selling strategy.
The bottom line
The golden rule of social selling, Cheyney said, is to keep all posts and interactions as relevant as possible, gradually making your way into a potential customer’s trusted circle by adding value. It’s tempting to spam Twitter users by posting blatant product ads or text that outspokenly promotes your product, he said. But on social media, this is a turnoff for prospects.
Instead, use social media to participate in the existing conversation among prospects. If a user shares a silly image, for example, retweet or reshare it as a way of making a connection. Your audience knows the difference between genuine interest and a gratuitous sales pitch -- and it responds to the former.
“Look at social selling as a chance to be at the neighborhood barbeque and connect with people,” Cheyney said. “When it’s used correctly, it helps you go layers deeper on the person you need to contact and connect without being annoying. It’s about building relationships, and it can be a really valuable tool."