Ever since the social media tsunami hit the corporate boardroom in 2008, B2B social media discussions have been usually met with rolling eyes and smug grins. After all, B2B is all about business, not fans, likes, and followers. Right?

At first, one would think the B2B skeptics were right, but Maersk Line, the global Danish shipping giant, is proving all the naysayers wrong.

Maersk Line is pioneering the use of social networking and in doing so is likely putting a huge culture clash to bed… Your stereotypical shipowner… would likely view social networking a confine for geeks. The very idea of “blasting” information about themselves or their companies over the Internet could still be considered anathema.

Social Media Gets Maersk Plugged In, by Ian Lewis, TradeWinds

Maersk believes that their customers, like consumers, are people who would also like to interact with them. Based on the tremendous response to their social media activity, it looks like they’re right. Since integrating social media into the corporate content ecosystem in late 2011, Maersk has completely transformed the way they interact with customers, vendors, partners, and employees. In global engagement scoring, they are 2nd only to fellow Danish B2C brand, Lego. The Danes obviously know a thing or two about B2C and B2B customer engagement.

So what is Maersk doing differently? Here are a few insights:

Be Strategic

Have a goal in mind before launching into tactics that may or may not get you anywhere. It’s shocking how many B2B companies venture into social media without a strategy and then get frustrated with their results. Like the old saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there”. If you want results, create the proper road map.

In our original strategy, we accounted for what we could achieve via social media, including brand awareness, insight into the market and increased employee satisfaction. But our primary goal has always been “to get closer to our customers”.

Jonathan Wichmann, Head of Social Media, Maersk Line

Start From the Inside

Authenticity and transparency are absolutely critical when executing a B2B social media strategy. There are certain things you can outsource, like developing your social media strategy, shooting video, creating graphics, but the voice must come from internal subject matter experts. The more you can do yourself, the better.

Firstly, we did it all from within. What happened was that I was ‘in-sourced’ to manage the project, as it would not have been credible and vibrant otherwise. I have pretty much done everything myself, which of course is one of the ideas behind social media, where everything seems to have become accessible to everyone.

Jonathan Wichmann

Tell Stories

Because B2B is traditionally bland and boring, you’d think a container shipping brand would be no different; however, Maersk embraces social media as a way to connect with its business communities by telling engaging stories and sharing useful content – content that not only provides knowledge and support, but, more importantly, sparks dialogue and gets shared.

By telling the stories Wichmann makes the firm more human. He stresses the importance of showing the many faces of the firm. “Instead of just being a business and a portal, with people alienated, they are now a network. It becomes refined.” Companies need to find out whether they will be corporate or social. “Social media is like a dining table with some special social codes. The rules of marketing do not apply. This challenges many industries. It is about creating meaning in a new world order. It is the firm you have a relation to. Not the advertising agency. The latter shall help with strategy and creativity, but the focus needs to be on what is best for the company. That kind of thinking needs to be present throughout the company.”

Telling the story of Maersk Line, by Anders Møller, Grasp Magazine

Listen and Respond

Believe me, Maersk is listening. Just this week I had a very responsive Twitter interaction with them even though there’s an eight hour time difference between Vancouver and Copenhagen. For Jonathan, Maersk Line’s social media is all about quality and engagement, rather than quantity. It’s communication, not marketing. He’s bang on.

From the outset, we have been conscious of the widespread (and misunderstood) tendency to regard social media as nothing more than the sum of a series of digital platforms on which companies can disseminate their news and campaigns directly to users of the various networks.

Jonathan Wichmann

How Maersk Line strategically uses social channels to engage customers

  • Facebook: Attracts attention by not being afraid to share both positive and negative newsworthy stories, including users’ own images and stories, reflecting Maersk’s efforts to be vibrant as well as credible. And being a global company, Maersk also set up global employees to post local news on Maersk’s global Facebook page so that their posts are only visible to their own region.
  • Twitter: Shares more serious news with the shipping press and other industry people with a panel of employees to bring expertise and diversity into play and foster a transparent social corporate culture.
  • Instagram: Started a #maersk spotting trend where people around the world take pictures of Maersk ships and containers with their mobile phone and share it on Instagram, which are then shared on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • LinkedIn: Set up The Shipping Circle LinkedIn group to invite shipping experts from around the world to debate industry challenges, opportunities, etc. It’s a fantastic way for Maersk to gain knowledge alongside experts they would not otherwise encounter.
  • Google+: Uses Hangouts to hold smaller press briefings where a few journalists can video conference with executives when the company is launching new initiatives.

Maersk Line is setting new standards for B2B customer engagement by using various social media channels strategically. It won’t be long before more North American businesses take notice and begin to rethink their approach to using social channels to generate demand proactively instead of posting jobs or self serving content. Companies that resist will eventually disappear.

For businesses that don’t jump in, in the next two to three to four years… non-engagement will be seen as, ‘Wow, this company really doesn’t get it.”

Richard Lui, MSNBC Anchor

Maersk’s advice to other B2Bs: Be ambitious and take some chances. No one wants to interact with a business without face.

Do you think B2B companies in North American can learn from Maersk’s example? How does your company approach social media? Share your thoughts and sound off in the comments below or on Twitter (@SterlingKlor).

For more information, I encourage you to read Jonathan’s blog, The Digital Blueprint. It is packed with nuggets of wisdom.

Read more: The Most Important Questions In B2B Social Media