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Is social selling really the best way to make sales?

Anyone who earns a living in business-to-business sales and marketing has been exposed to the idea that social selling is the most effective way to get customers to engage with your brand and drive them to buy your products and services.

Social selling is the strategy of engaging potential customers and business partners through the development of first-class digital content (content marketing), disseminated across the world's largest social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter. The purpose of such content is to educate your target market on opportunities to make or save money, establish credibility and trust, and ultimately drive them to your door because they have identified you as a product or service provider that can uniquely help them.

The logic behind this strategy is considered to be irrefutable because business consumers are devouring digital content at unprecedented levels and self-directing their purchasing decisions based on a wealth of online information and reviews. The concept of networking and trusted referrals is as old as business itself, so it makes sense to leverage social media to build a solid brand and referral network. Furthermore, it is hard to refute the effectiveness of the concept when many of the world's leading businesses are actively educating their sales and marketing groups on social selling best practices, and reporting improved revenue numbers as a result.

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However, as with all contemporary trends in business, there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Underlying the theory that social selling is the best practice in revenue generation, is the notion that having sales people pro-actively reach out to customers, before the customer is aware of them or their brand, is a redundant relic from the 1990s. Social selling evangelists and digital marketers regularly refer to a commonly quoted statistics that support this view. They say that 67 per cent of a customer's purchasing decision of a buyer's journey is completed digitally, which social selling proponents interpret as meaning that no sales representative are involved until late in the game.

This statistic comes from a survey conducted in 2013 by SiriusDecisions, a respected business research and advisory company. Interestingly, the company itself claims this stat has been misunderstood. In a blog post entitled 'Three myths of the 67 per cent statistic,' SiriusDecisions' vice-president of research, Megan Heuer, wrote, "The 67 per cent statistic in no way says that no one talks to a salesperson before getting halfway through the buying cycle, but this is how some have interpreted it. Just because buyers spend time online doesn't mean sales is not involved at all stages of the buyer's journey, including the early and late stages."

Nevertheless, the misrepresentation of statistics should not diminish the value of leveraging social channels to build brand awareness, credibility and drive improved revenue. Social selling is a vital tool in the modern-day sales and marketing professionals kit bag. My only concern is seeing a new generation of sales people that buy into the notion that pro-active outreach and outbound calling is redundant. This is a dangerous path to tread and there should be great distinctions between high-volume uninformed cold-calling and informed outbound-calling.

If you rely entirely on social selling techniques and digital marketing campaigns to generate sales leads where the customer comes to you, you will lose out to competitors who are pro-actively contacting customers who meet their ideal customer profile before the customer even considered making a purchasing decision. There remains nothing more effective than pro-actively contacting a carefully identified prospect with a well-researched message that represents fresh insight on how to improve their existing business performance.

The best way to achieve positive results is a combination of research, insights and the use of multiple communication tools such as the telephone, personalized e-mail, social media and personalized video messaging. Social selling is a powerful tool in the arsenal of any progressive sales and marketing organization, but beware of buying into the hyperbole and denigration of long-standing fundamental principles that are as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.

Ben Firman is speaking about sales strategies at The Globe and Mail Small Business Summit – a one-day conference of insightful sessions, proven business growth strategies and innovative ideas from the country's brightest business leaders. Full details at globesummits.ca

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