In this period of great change and experimentation with emerging media, two things have remained constant within the capital equipment and custom/discrete parts manufacturing industries – the special compliance and corporate requirements of industrial prospects, and the steps they follow through their unique buying cycles.

The stages & steps they follow have remained virtually unchanged throughout the industrial age. While media and communications options have evolved to make their journeys through the cycle more efficient, they’ve remained consistent in following these steps, in virtually the same order.

The Capital Equipment Buying Cycle (Gardner Publications)

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Social Media – unlike other traditional channels before it – stand to impact every stage of the Buying Cycle, rather than specific points of it. Beyond marketing, they can also be deployed to support sales, customer service, demand maintenance, applications engineering and administration.

The greatest strengths of Social Media today are found in its abilities to connect like-minded engineers, manufacturers and technology suppliers throughout the demand chain. Certainly, networking is a critical piece of any business – particularly in vertical industries like ours, with their distinctive requirements and qualities.

But when research-minded, stealth prospects enter into the Buying Cycle to conduct research, they demand control.

  • They want to remain anonymous
  • They want to consume, digest, compare and assess information on their own terms and at their own pace
  • The information they seek often must match ultra-strict technical & proprietary needs imposed by their companies, customers and industry/government regulations
  • Similarly, these same requirements prevent them from freely participating in open Social Media channels

With few exceptions, Social Media aren’t as useful for these prospects seeking legacy information in an archival environment because of Content Decay. (Data from ‘Attentionomics Captivating Attention in the Age of Content Decay, 2011.’)

Rapid Content Decay is counter to the complex research requirements necessary to support a protracted technology buy.

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Using Twitter as an example, most information that’s shared there has a very short ‘shelf-life’ – the quick bursts are useful in a time-centric environment (like a trade show, where attendees & exhibitors are focused on the event at hand) but not at all for an industrial stealth prospect looking for specs, performance, capabilities and features to make technology recommendations to an engineering team or C-suite.

Currently, Linked-In is indicated as the most preferred Social Media platform by your prospects, with just under 40% saying it’s very useful (Gardner’s Media Survey, 2011).  This is likely due to the more corporate environment that Linked-In serves, but its evolving prominence raises an important question for industrial marketers, regarding ALL Social Media platforms:

“What are our prospects and customers actually DOING there?”

Linked-In is, above all else, an employment site. Its primary purpose has been and is to connect prospective employers and employees. Looking at Linked-In from a macro perspective can be pretty seductive – but the fact is, many that use the site are either looking for employees (and we all know how difficult it is for manufacturers to find talent these days) or employment.

For a deeper understanding, check out this chart that shows the most recent data on who in your and your prospects’ organizations are using Social Media (Data from The NetProspex Social Business Report):

Many key influencers in your customers' and your own organizations don't see the value of Social Media channels to the industrial space.

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In all likelihood, you and HR are – far and away – the most active users of Social Media in your organization. Taking this into account for your customers and prospects, those preferences for Social Media expressed in the Gardner survey indicate even less effectiveness to serve Capital Equipment & Technology research.

The archival content properties of Linked-In and other group forums on the Web can certainly serve research-minded prospects searching for the information they need. But it’s a crap-shoot – will the precise, specific information they’re looking for be found in someone else’s context? And how willing are prospects to divulge their or their company’s identity & technology requirements in ‘the cloud?’

When assessing the benefits of Social Media to your company and the industrial markets, consider these points:

  • Currently, adoption among your prospect base is low (currently around 1/3), but it is rising
  • Carefully assess where and how your prospects are congregating online before committing to resources — WHAT are they DOING?
  • Listen first — for brand discussions — and engage when appropriate
  • Social Media are NOT currently strong archival platforms for manufacturers. Instead, they should serve your business as contact and engagement points for ‘rapid’ information gathering and assistance for prospects and customers — enable & train the prospect-facing elements of your organization. Social Media are a skill, not a position in your company. Connect Social Media to your outward-facing staff, CRM systems and throughout your organization to allow your internal customers to monitor and observe your prospects’ behaviors in Social Media platforms
  • Look at the behaviors – not the platforms. Industrial prospects, like everyone else, are developing preferences to communicate using Social Media’s TOOLS. Incorporating these tools into your own Web site will likely have as good or greater impact as participating in the current collection of Social Media platforms
  • Do your buyers really go to LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook to research you or your solutions? The research says ‘no’ (Gardner Publications)
  • Until online communities are created and curated to serve the specific, unique requirements of our industry, effectiveness & ROI will be messy & difficult within current broad platforms

As issues with Social Media evolve – like those around privacy, for example – industrial marketing professionals would do well to bring equal parts of skepticism and knowledge of customer & prospect behaviors to the table as they construct their integrated media strategies.

In June, I met with a group of industrial marketing professionals from the machine tools industry at an event in Chicago sponsored by Gardner Publications. The premise of the presentation I gave was to study how industrial prospects are using various media to support the complex research requirements necessary to support an advanced manufacturing technology purchase. (You can download a copy of Gardner’s Media Study and my presentation here.) This post is based on an excerpt from that presentation.