South by Southwest (SXSW) is an annual gathering of film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences that take place in mid-March in Austin, Texas. For the past three years over 70,000 young, tech savvy, musical and chronically hip youth have been making SXSW sine quo non event on their calendar. For the first time in the conference’s 30-year history, the Vatican claimed a seat on one of the technology panels? Why ?

“Social media or digital culture,” said Bishop Paul Tighe, “in general is changing the way people relate to each other. It’s changing the way people form community. It’s changing the way people communicate and share ideas.”

A report released in 2015 by the Pew Forum found that the total number of Catholics in the United States dropped by 3 million from 2005 to 2015. Yet, internet users in the U.S. increased over 82 million in the same period. Perhaps, this 2000 year old institution is onto something? Perhaps, they’re going to where the people are going, which is online. As of today, the pope has more than 10 million followers on Twitter, as well as an Instagram account.

Social networking consumes a quarter of all time spent online and involves 75% of all users. In B2B markets “social selling” quickly became synonymous with selling. You’re told if you’re not doing it, then you’re a century behind.

But, is social selling the hottest thing going and the future of new business? Monica Zent, founder and CEO of Foxwordy answers: “potential investors, employees, colleagues, clients and customers are literally at your fingertips.”

And that’s what Bishop Paul was doing at SXSW — social selling — for after all, the Vatican is in the “business” of “selling” or offering a solution. They have a product for those with certain needs; so the church needs to reach out to them, to find them, and connect with them. They need to be where their “customers” are, which today is on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn.

Social selling promises connections and sharing insightful content. It’s about showing that you’re knowledgeable and offering your opinions as a way to prove yourself as a trustworthy source. It’s about building relationships, listening for the right moment, and then presenting yourself as a solution to a problem. And this is exactly what Bishop Paul was getting at when he said that “the church as an organization has an interest in how we communicate with people, what we have to say, and how we relate. So it was clear to us that we had to think about what an appropriate presence for the church in the digital arena would look like.” And that is what brought him to SXSW — social media — the need in this day and age to be engaged in social selling.

In the B2B world, social selling is a way for sales reps to use social media to connect with prospects. The immediacy of social media can help the rep, just like Bishop Paul, monitor prospects, looking for opportunities that signal when it’s a good time to reach out.

Concerning social selling, the statistics speak for themselves:

— 78% of salespeople engaged in social selling are outselling their peers who are not using social selling

— 62% of B2B buyers respond to salespeople who connect with them via social media to share insights and opportunities that are relevant to their business

— 31% of B2B professionals are saying that social selling tools allowed them to build deeper relationships with clients

— 74% of B2B buyers conduct more than half of their research online before making a purchase or contacting a salesperson

— Lead developed via social media is 7x more likely to close

— Organizations using social selling have seen a 10-20% increase in win rate, 20-30% acceleration in cycle time, and 10-15% increase in revenue

— In the final stage of the purchasing process, when stakes are highest, online professional networks (e.g., LinkedIn) are the number 1 information preference of buyers

Any salesperson will tell you that sales is about building relationships, establishing rapport and credibility, and providing the right solution to the right prospect at the right time. That is what being a good salesperson is about. Social selling isn’t any different. It gives today’s sales rep a set of tools which can put the focus on the most productive parts of the sales process, maximizing the benefits of the relationships and the connections to build an expanded network of prospects. Please remember social selling does not replace live conversations on the phone, instead it emphasizes having conversations (to build relationships) with the right prospects that are ready to buy.

Social selling is about establishing a trust through social networks. Social selling is the art of using social networks to find, connect with, understand, and nurture sales prospects. It’s the modern way to develop meaningful relationships with potential customers that keep you — and your brand — relevant and in your customer’s mind, so you’re the natural first point of contact when they are ready to buy.

Customers and prospects are constantly sharing incredibly valuable information on their social channels. They’re basically telling you exactly what they want and need. All you have to do is pay attention. Right now, there are buyers all over the world who want what you’ve got to sell. You just need to know who they are, where they are, and how to contact them.

Ways in which social selling are used today by B2B professionals include lead development, account research, call preparation, and awareness building. You can also monitor when an executive leaves one company for another, when one company buys another, or a when a division gets spun out as its own company. The opportunity to gather intelligence on prospects and competition is always right there to be found on the “grapevine” — the social media line, or platform — you just have to be on it and listen.

Social selling tools can help provide advance notice of significant shifts in the business environment. They can monitor what your competitors are saying, what individuals within their company are saying, and the responses they’re receiving. This lets you spot competitive movement earlier, and react faster.

One good way to monitor competitors with social media is to set up Google Alerts for terms related to the competition (brand names, products, key people). Another is to join customer groups on LinkedIn. Also, follow customers, competitors and thought leaders on Twitter. For additional insight, look at Q&A sites such as Quora.

And this engagement definitely pays off. Your prospects may well be discussing their needs online – posting comments on forums, asking questions to their followers on Twitter, and updating their status on LinkedIn. Again, you just need to be listening.

Social selling is more than listening, though, it’s also about sharing great content. Identify your target, and which social media platforms they use, and then create original content, such as blogs, articles, and white papers, as well as sharing complementary content from other trusted sources to affirm your credibility. Engage your audience. Positioning yourself as an industry expert and interacting with your prospects will keep you on your buyer’s radar.

You should also be thinking about getting sales to work together with marketing to generate inbound leads. Working together is essential. Both sales and marketing need to understand what the ideal customer profile looks like, so that marketing can ensure the website is up to date with content that attracts and converts the right people into leads for your sales reps to follow up with.

And then you have to flow what you know, the info you gather, into your CRM system, creating a social customer profile which allows you to capture everything from Twitter handles, tweets, and LinkedIn profile pictures, to details of user/customer connections – plus anything that’s ‘public’ on Facebook. The most useful tools will give their users a single, multi-dimensional view of each customer.

Every good salesperson researches their prospects prior to making contact. “Without detailed knowledge of your customer base, your social selling strategy will implode before you launch your first ad,” says Ryan Kh of Catalyst For Business. If you really want to understand your customer base, you must tap into data. Social sellers should leverage market research tools to learn more about their target customers. “You need to take advantage of analytics software that is capable of tracking and deciphering your data, for monitoring traffic and conversion rate optimization.” Analytics also provide insights for social selling. “You can monitor bounce rates, heat maps, click through rates, time on site and other important variables to see how users engage with different types of social media content. Analytics data can help you test new ads, angles, engagement styles and pain points in your social selling campaigns.” Maximizing ROI is the goal of every social selling campaign. And it’s good data that helps you see what factors have the strongest impact on your bottom line.

Another thing our bishop at SXSW was concerned with was losing parishioners — or “customers” in business parlance — so the question for him, just as with any business, is how to prevent customer attrition. And the answer is “social selling,” because social networks glue connections together. You’re continuously updating and checking and sharing. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing and the shared interests keep the connections strong.

But, don’t be a robot! Don’t use automated liking and commenting tools. Engage! Show up, be active, be alive, care, predict assistance and provide it. The point of social selling is to build relationships, to be there when needed and throughout the entire sales process. Always be authentic, be real in social media interactions. In an almost counter intuitive way, social selling is not about making sales, it’s about building the relationship and sharing a value that will nurture sales far into the future. Your goal is to engage buyers on an on-going, long-term basis. So, put the emphasize on “social” rather than “selling.”

It does seem the bishop was in the right place physically after all, when he sat on the technology panel, and in the right frame of mind when he proclaimed “social selling” to be the the way to find, and a place to form, the religious communities of the future. So, if you’re a sales rep, follow the Vatican’s lead, get engaged like the pope on social media — get your company involved with social selling. The time is now. The conversation is already happening. Join it! And watch your prospective targets turn into prosperous sales.