In 2009, two researchers set out to discover how social networks were being used by decision-makers in business, whether they were regarded as trustworthy and, in particular, whether they were relied on to support business decisions. Under the auspices of the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR), Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, and Don Bulmer, VP Global Communications at SAP, surveyed 365 decision-makers or influencers representing 25 different countries, finding that:
- Professional decision-making is becoming more social
- Three leading professional networks have emerged
- Professional networks are emerging as decision-support tools
- Professionals trust online information almost as much as information obtained in person
- Reliance on web-based professional networks and communities has increased significantly over the last 3 years
- Social media usage patterns are not pre-determined by age or organizational affiliation
Specifically, they found that decision-makers are using social networks to inform and validate their decisions, disrupting traditional influence cycles. However they want these online interactions to be collaborative, avoiding the preferred sales and marketing activities of many companies. In addition, three-quarters of respondents now rely on web-based professional networks (most notably LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter) to support business decisions. They also found evidence to dismiss the common misconception that social media usage is a generational phenomenon, with 20–35 and 55+ respondents being the more active users of social platforms. In fact, what they found is that middle-aged professionals are the ones getting left behind, creating a digital void right in the middle of many organization charts.
Yet let’s put this in perspective. The traditional decision-making process is not being replaced by the likes of LinkedIn and Twitter; instead social media is supplementing it. Equally, the ‘traditional’ methods of online marketing are still the most relevant, with even those decision-makers who are most active in online professional networks saying that conducting research via search engines and visiting company websites are the most likely steps they would take to inform their decision-making. Social media is definitely creeping up on the inside though, and that is why B2B marketers cannot afford to ignore it. When around 40 per cent of executives involved in the decision-making process say that they would gather opinions about a potential supplier or look them up on social networks and read other blog posts about them (interestingly only 21 per cent would read the company’s own blog), then it is time to sit up and take notice.