B2B companies have a strange relationship with social media. Because ROI is such an important factor, marketers are less comfortable with Twitter and Facebook because there’s no agreed upon metric. In fact, a Google search for “social media B2B ROI” yields over 3 million results — there are a lot of people trying to answer that question.

Social media isn’t just about ROI, though. The various platforms provide companies with a way to listen to their clients and users and measure responses. They open another avenue of communication, one with with a high number of short, digestible touchpoints; can you imagine what would happen if you tried sending to a mailing list every 45 minutes? I’ll leave that to your imagination. The takeaway: social media is a crucial aspect of a larger marketing strategy.

Convinced? Good. Now that you’re going to kick off 2013 with social media, here they are: our five best practices for B2B social media strategy.

Pick your platforms and stick with them.
There are lots of social media networks. The largest and most-recognized are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+, but there are plenty of others: MySpace, Instagram, Tumblr, DeviantArt, LiveJournal, Tagged, Orkut, Pinterest, CafeMom, Ning and MeetUp, just to name a few. Each of these has at least eight million users, but you probably can’t just dive in and tackle them all, as you would be spreading your marketing efforts too thin.

Analyze each network’s demographics and determine which will yield the highest return on your time investment. If you’re targeting primarily business professionals who should be in “work mode” as you market to them, spend time learning about LinkedIn groups, understanding the etiquette of participating in them and determining how to best leverage them. If you’re involved with marketing a product that’s exceptionally pleasing to the eye, Instagram or Pinterest might be more apt.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project recently shared a snapshot of the demographics of major social networks:

The social media conversation now centers around Twitter, Facebook and the like, but it’s important to remember that blogs are part of the strategy as well. They’re now ubiquitous, but be sure to have a system in place to ensure that your company blog is updated on a regular basis. Create a clearly-defined audience and scope for the blog in order to create a strong presence in your target niche and integrate it with your social media presences to cross-pollinate, publicizing new blog posts on social and linking out to social media profiles from the blog pages.

As for content creation, institute a shared editorial calendar and assign posts to your marketing team on a rotating basis. Make sure to draw in other departments, leadership included, in order to get an interesting and varied assortment of topics.

Get your executives to buy in. There has been a good deal of conversation around this topic. The quick hit is that C-level leaders are notoriously squeamish when it comes to defining and supporting a social media strategy. Between training expenses and difficult ROI calculations, it’s not as easy to justify a social spend as an easily quantified pay-per-click campaign. That’s why it’s important to make executives understand that “doing social media” isn’t a choice; people will be talking about your company in the social sphere whether or not the organization itself is formally engaged.

Show your leadership that by choosing to actively participate in social media, you can get a feel for the pulse of your customers and partners, actively respond to customer complaints, and deploy crisis management when necessary. On the flipside, social media gives you a wider, more engaged audience with whom you can share your successes in the form of press, stories, or customers’ positive remarks on your brand.

Be sure that your executives aren’t just rubberstamping a social media policy. They should take an interest in ensuring that it aligns well with the brand and, furthermore, should be reported to on the results of your company’s social listening. Because customers can now communicate their thoughts on a large scale, they are actively shaping others’ perceptions of your brand – and if you’re not involved, you’re missing out.

For more on this topic, take a look at Michael Brenner’s blog post on B2Bbloggers.

Throw money at the problem. Use the various paid promotional tools available on Twitter and Facebook to increase your follower count. Widening your online network is an excellent investment, and promoting your posts and content over the principle social networks increases your visibility and extends the reach of your messaging. Once someone has followed, liked, circled, pinned, or otherwise interacted with your online presence, they’ve demonstrated their interest and shown that they’re open to hearing more.

There’s a variety of paid advertising choices across the social sphere, but your expenditure should be based on your choice of platform and how successful each option proves itself to be. As with any investment, set goals, fund advertising, and examine conversions. At the same time, don’t expect your sales to explode because you’ve starting tweeting and curating your Facebook account. Social media is a longer-term investment and is only one touchpoint among many, albeit an important one.

Create and share content. You want to engage customers. The best way to do so is with exceptional content that is produced by or otherwise associated with your brand. At the same time, it’s important to not mass-produce content without a goal and an overarching strategy.

Identify your customers’ interests, goals, and pain points and then create content that addresses one or more of them. There are plenty of content creation possibilities, but use the opportunity to leverage your organization’s strong points.

At BrightTALK, we have an exceptional amount of data surrounding how users interact with webinars and their engagement features. Individual channel owners can leverage their channel and webinar control panel to gain insight about their viewers, but here at BrightTALK we also examine engagement on a higher level to determine and refine webinar best practices, which we then share. This process works especially well if the information provided is both unexpected and useful.

In our DataLeaks presentation from last year, we explored the best time to host a webinar. Assuming that your goal is to drive the largest, most engaged audience, you want to schedule it when your audience is at work, but otherwise engaged. Your success in picking the time can be measured by your conversion rate from pre-registrants to live viewers:

Why was this a successful piece of content? We looked at our audience (webinar hosts and attendees) and what they wanted to know, then leveraged our data and thought leadership to provide answers.

Monitor, refine and optimize. As with all marketing efforts, social media isn’t a “set it and forget it” type of tool. After you’ve made a commitment to fleshing out your social media strategy, it’s important to monitor how your efforts are producing results. Make sure the links included your tweets track the number of visits you get from Twitter and conversions when relevant. Review on a weekly or monthly basis to determine how the results compare to the amount of time you’re spending on executing.

Your first refinement should be to examine the social media sharing tools that you’re providing your customers. It should be quick, easy, and satisfying to share something and social tools shouldn’t be hidden away on your page. It should take two clicks or less for a visitor to spread your content.

You should also look at what you’re providing your visitors to share. Consider presenting bite-sized pieces of information as “tweetables”, setting them apart through formatting and a “Tweet This!” button.

Use these tips to begin refining your social media strategy. There are countless tweaks to increase sharing and engagement, though, so take a good look at your strategy to determine what would be the best path for you. Once you implement and optimize, tell us how you did and what you learned!