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5 Steps to a Thriving B2B Community
Web 2.0 Expo '10 — Day 3: A marketing executive from Philips, the largest consumer group on LinkedIn, shares what it takes to run a healthy community.
Posted Oct 18, 2010
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NEW YORK — When the healthcare division of Philips, one of the largest electronics companies in the world, wanted to get involved with social media, executives had to be careful to do a thorough diagnosis of the space. Given the highly regulated nature of the healthcare industry, Philips couldn't just go about making or joining conversations all over the social Web. Instead, the company needed to find the best location for healthcare pundits to convene, while maintaining relevance and staying true to the Philips brand.

So, did Philips opt for Facebook and its community of half a billion members? Or pursue the buzz of Twitter? In the end, according to a Philips executive presenting at the recent Web 2.0 Expo here, the company decided to stake its claim on the decidedly out-of-the-spotlight social networking site LinkedIn.

As Frank McGillin, a senior healthcare marketing executive for Philips, explained to conference attendees, only a well-defined effort to integrate the brand into social media has enabled Philips to establish what has become the largest group on LinkedIn.

The company's prescription for success? McGillin shared the five steps involved in maintaining a vibrant B2B company:

1. Define objectives and strategy

McGillin's team began by looking at Philips Healthcare's main demographic — 40-year-olds, essentially. The team determined that these people may be using online tools but they're not as tech-savvy as the Web 2.0 crowd, McGillin noted. In terms of objectives, the content and destination "needed to be relevant so that [participants] felt they were getting value," he said.

Though McGillin said Philips did consider the option of building its own community site, the company opted instead for a partnership, ultimately choosing LinkedIn for the site's built-in audience of professionals. "It's seen as a place to have a dialogue," McGillin said. Philips had also evaluated the kinds of conversations that occur within LinkedIn groups — in part, to ensure a Philips community would deliver value to the business professionals active there, but also to confirm that Philips itself would deliver relevance in the context of the community.

2. Roadmap the conversations

The question Philips asked itself, McGillin told the crowd, was, "What kind of people do we want to attract and what do they want to talk about?" The company decided it would be critical to have that answer in hand prior to the creation of any LinkedIn Group. Philips eventually decided to focus on the macro issues affecting health, including chronic disease, aging, lifestyle and prevention, and access to care — and gave the group a name: Innovations in Health. [Editors' Note: Free registration at LinkedIn is required to visit the Group page.]

"We wanted to make this a dynamic, living organism," McGillin said. To that end, Philips started sharing and subsequently monitoring new and interesting tidbits around healthcare. Soon, however, the participants themselves began dictating the parameters of the conversation — and that, McGillin said, is when the community began to thrive.

3. Build the infrastructure

"This, for us, was important," McGillin said. "Once you let the genie out of the bottle, you have to make sure you can handle it." One critical acknowledgement, he said, was that Philips, like most companies in the healthcare industry, can be at times a "slow-moving beast." Since healthcare is incredibly regulated, getting corporate and legal approval didn't come easily. "The lawyers were scared to death of this," McGillin said. "And our company would quickly jump on it if we were going out beyond the boundaries."

Trying to identify the path of least resistance, McGillin said he focused on building leadership support. In fact, he recalled, the original plan was to hand off the social media project to one of his colleagues — but that's not how it panned out. "Everyone I asked to do it flatly turned me down," he said, recalling the universal resistance to the "newness" of the project. "This was a big experiment for us," he said. "Basically we needed permission to screw up."

In time, McGillin's team did get permission, and there are now three full-time employees running the group. Creating and maintaining a simple social media policy has helped foster a respectful yet flexible environment. Two of the primary aspects of the policy are simple enough to abide by: "Don't spam," and "Keep it positive."

4. Invite more people to the party

Knowing that you're bringing the right people to the party is essential, McGillin said. Initially, Philips made a priority of driving membership from within, inviting employees to register for the group. Next, the team began sending InMails — messages delivered via LinkedIn's own system — to relevant LinkedIn members, encouraging them to join and to add to the conversation. McGillin said he's pleased with Philips' audience base — as of mid-October, the LinkedIn Group boasts a membership of just under 19,000, consisting of hospital workers, medical-device providers, and healthcare and pharmaceutical professionals.

5. Establish benchmarks

Initial growth, McGillin said, "blew away our expectations in terms of this kind of group." Already the largest commercial group on LinkedIn, McGillin said he expects the growth to continue. To ensure ongoing vibrant activity, Philips tries to ignite one conversation a week — and the average post by a Philips contributor sparks responses from four non-Philips employees. 

Central to all these efforts, McGillin told the audience, was the mindset to "fail and learn fast." What Philips learned, he added, was the essential question to ask repeatedly when building a community for any brand — whether B2B or B2C: "What's in it for my customer?"

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