Photo by Duane Tinkey
Photo by Duane Tinkey

As social media moves from marginal to mainstream, more companies are integrating applications such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube into their business-to-business marketing strategies.

Beyond building brand awareness and promoting products, social media allows businesses to inform, educate and interact with clients as they work to reach target audiences.

“Social media enables you to meet people on level ground and in a way that is very friendly and hopefully authentic,” said Paul Chaney, author of “The Digital Handshake: Seven Proven Strategies to Grow Your Business Using Social Media.”

An independent consultant focused on online marketing and social media, Chaney was in town this month to conduct a social media boot camp geared toward business-to-business marketers.

Chaney, who was invited to Des Moines by the Iowa chapter of the American Marketing Association (AMA), said getting started is often one of the biggest challenges companies face with regard to social media.

And when businesses begin to blog and tweet, it is important for them to have a strategy in place, as well as the necessary resources to execute that strategy.

“It is a cost-effective way to market a business,” Georgann Smith, president of AMA Iowa, said of social media. “But I think you have to be thoughtful about it and not necessarily random.”

Al Myers, founder and president of Ag Leader Technology, said education is a key component of his company’s overall social media strategy.

Ames-based Ag Leader, which develops and markets precision farming products and services, relies on dealers and distributors to sell them.

“It is a way to do a lot more efficient job of getting more information out to people that are interested,” Myers said, adding that those who connect with the company via Facebook or Twitter gain instant access to announcements and other news.

Ag Leader also uses blog posts and YouTube videos to educate customers about rapidly advancing technologies that are changing the landscape of the agriculture industry. Eleven employees are listed as authors on the company’s Precision Point blog.

“One of the challenges we have – both with the dealers and with the end users – is to get them educated enough,” Myers said. “Social media, for those who do use it, it is a way for them to be more connected in real time.”

Eva Quinn, vice president of corporate relations with Principal Financial Group Inc., said social media is only one aspect of her company’s arsenal of advertising options.

“We’ve incorporated social media development and tactics into our overall marketing efforts,” Quinn said, noting that those efforts also employ print media, television advertising, websit and other avenues. “Our goal was really to focus on how to be social,” she said. “You just have to add it to the mix of things you are already doing.”

Working to reach four key audiences – financial advisers, business owners, human resources executives and employees – Principal uses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn to promote its retirement plans, employee benefits packages and other financial products and services.

A large part of Principal’s foray into social media has been dedicated to its America Rebuilds campaign.

And though some in the financial services industry may be more hesitant than others, Smith said, more companies are beginning to embrace social media.

Smith, director of marketing and communications with The Members Group in Clive, said her company, which provides card processing and payment solutions to financial institutions, works closely with a number of local credit unions and community banks.

“In the financial space, you’ll see people being late adopters to different things, and social media is one of them,” Smith said. “But it continues to grow every day. I see credit unions opening up to social media and using social media as a way to reach their audiences.”

Smith, who said consistency is one the most important aspects of social media marketing, noted that The Members Group has committed to updating its blog at least three times a week.

“You can’t go and dip your toe in the water and expect immediate results,” she said. “It is a dedicated marketing medium that requires dedicated resources to make sure you are being seen in the marketplace. Otherwise, why do it?”

Smith and Quinn both expect companies’ social media activity to move beyond marketing departments and into executive offices as younger employees climb the corporate ladder.

“As that generation moves though the ranks, they will eventually make it to the C-suite,” Quinn said. “We have to keep our senior-level management informed of what we are doing in this space.”

“This is second nature to them,” Smith said of members of Generation X and Generation Y. “This is the way that they grew up. I think for people like myself, the tail end of the Baby Boomers and beyond, it’s something we’ve had to adopt.”

Smith said an executive vice president with her firm, who at the end of October attended the CU Water Cooler Symposium in Indiana, recently created a personal Twitter account.

She said that event, which emphasized the impact that emerging media and other technologies are having on credit unions, helped him realize that having a social media presence is important.

“It’s really about returning marketing to a human level that I think we got away from for a few years,” Chaney said.

Ag Leader, Principal and The Members Group each have consulted with an advertising agency to help develop their social media strategies.