Make the Most of Social Selling

It doesn't take an expert to see that social media is ingrained in our culture, not just in personal communications but in the business world as well. Beyond setting up company profiles, many businesses (particularly those in the B2B marketing space) are turning to social media as the platform to reach potential and current leads—a trend known as "social selling."

In some ways, social selling is just another example of how businesses are seizing every opportunity to convert customers. However, industry research shows that the tactic works. According to Salesforce.com, 73 percent of customers have engaged with a vendor on social media. Social selling also produces concrete results: One study found that approximately 78 percent of salespeople who used social media as part of their process sold more than their counterparts.

It's no wonder businesses are integrating social selling into their sales teams. This begs the question, though, of how social media should be used, and if sales teams are taking full advantage of the platforms at their disposal.

The majority of the discussion around social selling is about distributing content through social media, with articles detailing topics such as finding leads, driving the conversation, and utilizing best practices for social profiles.

Social selling should also include the context social media can provide, and how businesses can integrate that context into their selling strategies.

In short, social selling, as with any other sales strategy, works best when you understand your customer. Given that sales professionals are already on social media, a social selling strategy should use social data to craft a better, more relevant message for each consumer.

Rule number one is to know your audience. But even when you do, it's hard to know what to do with the wealth of social information at your disposal. LinkedIn is the easiest. A basic social selling tactic is to reach out via InMail to spark a conversation. This strategy is on the right track (LinkedIn says that you're 30 times more likely to get a response from sending an InMail message).

It's less clear what marketers and salespeople should do with other social channels. Facebook, for example, is seen as a way to connect with friends, Twitter as a way to follow influencers, and Pinterest as a way to aggregate interests in a visual format. Oftentimes, it doesn't seem natural to connect for business purposes via these personal (as opposed to professional) channels.

This is where context comes in. While you may not be actively reaching out to users via Quora, their profiles can provide valuable background on their interests, and give you a touch point to start a conversation and form a connection that can lead to a sale. When going into a sale, wouldn't it also be helpful to know what your lead is interested in based on her tweets, or that he just had a guest article published in the The Wall Street Journal?

The best social selling uses information from a variety of platforms to paint a comprehensive picture of the customer. With that context in hand, it's up to the sales professional to reach out through the most appropriate channel—which may or may not be a social network—and use the information to form a legitimate connection with the potential lead.

Social selling is only starting to gain traction as a sales technique, but given its already promising results, it's only a matter of time before it becomes integrated into every sales team. Consider this: "Tele-sales" used to be a buzzword describing the novel idea of selling via the phone. Now, we just think of phones as a channel. Similarly, I predict "social selling" will eventually stop being a buzzword and instead become standard practice. Therefore, it is essential that sales professionals shape the technique by understanding how to do it right starting now. It's more than just sending a message and hoping for the best. It's about understanding your leads and using that information to help make better connections, which can then convert them into customers. After all, the sale is only half of the equation: It's important to remember that a successful social selling strategy is as much a social transaction as a business one.

Bhavin Shah is the CEO and cofounder of Refresh, an iOS and Web app that finds common ground with the people you meet.

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