Supplier Diversity

Leveraging Social Media to Find Diverse Customers and Suppliers

Social media is evolving into social business, implying business intelligence. Conducting social business includes deliberately turning social media into an integrated tool for customer and supplier recruitment.

- By Debra Jenkins

The new term floating around management circles is “social business,” which takes social media to the next logical level of deliberate integration of technologies to create a business advantage. Finding the right customers and suppliers are two important factors in business success, so leveraging social media to fulfill that function makes perfect sense.

Social media is maturing and is now recognized as an avenue for creating real business opportunities and improving competitiveness. Traditional methods for finding suppliers and customers, like cold calling and direct mail marketing, have very limited value in a globalized, technology-based business environment. Social media, as the core of a social business, is a much more relevant communication system for a widespread marketplace.

The same principles for developing social media strategies integral to a social business apply to finding the right suppliers as well as finding the right customers. Social business creates measurable value through marketing, social enterprise networking, branding, collaboration and thought leadership. It does not matter whether a business is targeting suppliers or customers in terms of principles. As social media transforms into social business, it is a value proposition. This is in comparison to setting up social media sites to earn some “likes” without regard for establishing a business case.

Setting Up the Feedback Loop of Perpetual Motion

It is challenging to manage social tools that drive specific goals, like attracting the right suppliers and customers. Social media cannot be approached as a standalone project. It needs embedding into all critical business functions. Integration into marketing, customer service, product development, supplier management systems, and research and development is crucial.

Manufacturing is one of the most recent industries to realize the value of doing social business. ThomasNet research indicated that 68 percent of small to medium-sized industrial suppliers are communicating with prospects by using social media. The research respondents, manufacturers and distributors reported using social media to generate customer leads, market products and services, conduct industry and marketplace research, and solicit opinions about suppliers. It works in reverse, too. Suppliers are using social media to generate new business and to find out what their customers are saying.

Manufacturing is purposely mentioned to prove that social business applies to all industries and not just retail or service industries. Used as a value proposition, social media can enhance traditional activities like customer and supplier engagement and attract just the type of suppliers and customers desired. In the process, the business captures invaluable input that can be used to improve customer service, achieve cost efficiencies, and even more spectacularly, develop new and innovative product ideas. Then social media is used to promote the new products or improved customer services, attracting even more of the right suppliers and customers. This is similar to an open feedback loop that continually grows.

These are not vague concepts. Dell developed a customer engagement website called IdeaStorm, and in the last six years has implemented over 500 new product ideas out of thousands submitted by customers. Without social media, it would have been costly and difficult to gather the ideas. The same applies to engaging suppliers able to bring innovative ideas and proposals to Dell.

The difference between implementing social media and developing a social business is that in the latter the ideas are not lost due to lack of follow-up. There is a system in place for monitoring new engagements and ensuring the right internal departments and for staff to assess ideas and take action. Dell also developed a business intelligence system to monitor online conversations about competitors, Dell, new technologies and customer needs. The data is translated into new products and services. The social business strategies are centralized, while the various social media functions are distributed across the functional units. To keep the functions on target, representatives meet regularly as a team to discuss strategies and results.

Taking the Random Out of Social Media

Taking advantage of the full power of social media requires strategizing, which many companies fail to do. Strategies are supported by activities designed to attract the best suppliers and the ideal customers.

For example, many businesses use social media as a way to communicate with current suppliers under contract, but that approach excludes potential suppliers. To attract new suppliers, the business can maintain a LinkedIn account and regularly research suppliers and create groups that encourage collaboration. Actively working the account for making B2B connections and to establish thought leadership in the relevant industry turns random conversations into value propositions.

Businesses are also making use of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and some of the newest programs like Vine to attract customers. Businesses are increasingly relying on video for marketing, replacing static images and reflecting a marketplace that wants to be entertained. Vine is a video-sharing app that allows people or businesses to make six-second looping videos. The short timeframe forces a business to drill down and identify the competitive heart of its brand to attract the customers savviest in the use of social media.

Blogs and industry forums are just as effective as popular social media sites and tools. Industry forums provide excellent opportunities to develop thought leadership and attract the most creative and active suppliers willing to share expert knowledge. Those are the suppliers for which businesses are always on the lookout.

Social media is an excellent collaboration tool for working with suppliers as well as customers. The days when social media “likes” were enough are quickly coming to an end. Businesses must develop a social media value proposition supported by strategies to attract the right suppliers and customers. A social business is prepared to turn new connections into stakeholders in the company’s success, and that is where the real power of social media is found. It could be said that an intelligent business today is a social business.