Can B2B Products be “Social Objects”?

A couple of weeks back I attended MeshMarketing and Hugh MacLeod of Gapingvoid was the keynote speaker.  In his talk he discussed “social objects”.  By his definition a “social object” can be a thing a person or an idea that people talk about.  Hugh talked about working at an ad agency where customers would ask them to get people talking about products like it was as easy thing to do.  His comment was (I’m paraphrasing) “Getting people talking is magic!  They were asking us to perform magic but their perception was that we were just pulling a lever.”  His described how people talk about things they are passionate about and how creating that passion in customers is about more than mere features and functions. “It’s not about features or what you build, that’s important,” he re-iterated “it’s about how people talk about what you produce that matters.”

This isn’t a new concept for traditional marketers.  One of the folks on the panel I moderated (Barry Quinn from Juniper Park) gave the example of car companies sponsoring Formula 1 racing as a way to get people socializing around a brand.  However, that thinking has historically come after the product is delivered.  After it’s released, traditionally companies just had to pay the ad agency to pull the “make people talk about it” lever.

I’ve seen some products coming to market where the social aspects are a key design point, particularly on the B2C side but I haven’t seen much evidence of that type of thinking in B2B.  Rypple (case study here) is a great example.  But frankly, for B2B, those products are few and far between.  I personally, have yet to sit in a planning meeting where how we might inspire a customer’s passion or the “social-ness” of a given feature was really discussed.

The situation gets worse when we talk about infrastructure.  Can companies that sell products as boring as data center hardware inspire passion in a way that translates to sales?  My experience as the head of Nortel’s Green IT initiative tells me it can.  However that experience also taught me that there aren’t many folks on the B2B product side out there that are believers today.  I suspect it’s the reason that so many B2B vendors are being blindsided by technically inferior yet inspirational consumer products pushing their way into the enterprise.  Sure there are some features and functions that have to be there in order to win, but a lot of nice to have features go out the window when higher-order issues like social responsibility, bragging rights or sheer user delight come into play.  Product folks working on consumer products understand this better than their B2B counterparts.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have successful products without inspiring people.  It’s possible and I know it because I’ve done it.  I launched a product that generated $80 million in its first year that was as dull as paint and I couldn’t find a single reference to it online outside of our own website.  It did useful yet really boring thing very well at a time when no other product did so people paid money for it.  I don’t think believe that’s changed and there will always be some markets where sheer utility works.

However I also believe that in competitive markets, more social products or products that people really love have a distinct advantage, even when they aren’t the best product for the job from a feature/function perspective.  For B2B product folks increasingly, the magic in our jobs will be figuring out how to inspire our customers and make our products more social.

Subscribe to this blog or follow me on Twitter or Friendfeed

15 thoughts on “Can B2B Products be “Social Objects”?”

  1. Part of getting customers to talk/rave/sing praises about B2B or enterprise software will be providing them vehicles for a) doing so with/amongst peers and b) getting them involved in the development cycle early, or from the very beginning.
    There are plenty of social networks out there but I hardly think the CIO of Megawidgets, Inc. is going to update his Facebook status with, “The Flux Capacitor Modulator from Bob’s Software is the best thing since pockets on a shirt!” LinkedIn, maybe – if you promised him a cool t-shirt but that’s not necessarily going to be the right audience and doesn’t have a true discussion component. There has to be communities where people who care can share ideas, experiences and talent, ask questions of their peers and rave about stuff. I know of several outfits developing those communities.
    Deeper, though, is that sense of participation or ownership that will drive him to crow about your stuff. If he’s been involved in vetting the idea, reviewing design specs and milestones, etc. so that it solves a particular need “his way”, then his satisfaction and delight will be higher than something he bought off the rack. Look for ways to involve key customer(s) right the way through and you will be able to ‘pull a lever’ to get them to talk about it.

  2. Hi Tim,
    Thanks for your comment and I couldn’t agree with you more that some thought has to be put into how customer’s can feel more ownership of products. As B2B product folks, we’re good at things like advisory councils but making that scale is tricky.
    I’m also interested in the characteristics of the product itself that make it “social”. For example in the Rypple case, there are network effects in using the product that naturally drive folks expand out the user base, increasing the chances they’ll be talking about it.
    April

  3. April,
    I’ve been in the biz long enough to have witnessed the advent of color printers. Initially, the objection to color printers was “I don’t need to print in color” which really meant, “I’ve never been able to print in color so I don’t need to print in color.” The absence of the ability to do it drove a perception that it wasn’t needed or of value. Today, we get really upset if the color printer needs services and we have to resort to just black printing.
    I think the same dynamic applies here, too. There hasn’t been a good vehicle for (insert business buyer title here) to be social about technology, process innovations, etc. outside the exclusive and rather static nature of advisory boards, executive luncheons or the long-hoped-for interview in CIO Mag. The scalability will come from vibrant online communities that can discuss ideas AND be involved in the development process to whatever level is appropriate for them.
    We’re on the cusp of that happening now. Five years from now you won’t be able to market a product if you don’t have a community wrapped around your company or technology sector.

  4. Pingback: Paul Philp

  5. Pingback: Ujwal Arkalgud

  6. April,
    While more akin to an open-source offering, the Spiceworks (www.spiceworks.com) model is worth studying. The company offers an ad-supported IT management application for SMBs (i.e., it’s free to users). And it seems to have quickly built up a passionate community of 700,000 users.
    Even companies that charge for their products can learn from one interesting Spiceworks’ element: its latest version “integrates with Twitter and allows users to turn Windows events into social media alerts for collaborative problem-solving and to share real-time SMB IT trends with the world’s largest network of IT professionals.” Let’s face it – IT professionals value their peers’ perspectives and insights. But visiting an online forum is not always practical. Why not embed functionality directly within your product that facilitates community interaction?
    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!
    Best,
    Stephanie

  7. Hi April
    I think that “social” is more of an indirect thing. Like the first commenter said, social techniques are perfect for crowdsouring. With participation in place, you create better products than without – so “social products” are better.
    Many B2B Solutions require the folks to learn. Often you need to learn a lot about a technology before you can judge. Here “social” can help as well, because nobody looks into an advertising ad, but everybody is keen to hear about the experiences of a neighbour.
    A third dimension might be that all of us judge products in a social / “ethical” way. For instance if you were offering the perfect product with perfect marketing, but if this product were unethical, not all would buy it, because not “social”.
    Yes, they can (be social objects).
    BR, Andreas

  8. Hi Andreas,
    Thanks for your comment. You’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that advertising is becoming more irrelevant and what other people have to say is very important. I’m interested in examples of products where there are things built-in that are designed to get people talking or to facilitate conversations.
    Thanks again,
    April

  9. Pingback: Adam Bullied

  10. Pingback: AlexBewley

  11. Pingback: Lilian Mahoukou

  12. Pingback: Community Roundtable

  13. Hi April, this is an interesting post.
    I think it is far easier to create a buzz around a B2B solution (= product + service) rather than a product. That said, Google’s B2B products have created an adequate buzz and following. Another product that I believe has significant following is Red Hat’s products.
    As a B2B marketer I have been looking for examples of companies that are able to create WOW effect leading to WOMM. So I appreciate Stephanie’s
    Here are few companies (they are not pure B2B players) that I think do a good job of creating adequate buzz around their B2B offerings Rackspace, Google, Animoto, and Freshbooks.
    The reason, I think, solutions are more likely to have a “social following” is because it is possible thru the service component to provide a WOW experience.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *