Social Selling Is As Much About Marketing As It Is About Sales

The most basic definition of social selling involves using social networks to create meaningful relationships with prospects—an area where marketers, not sales, excel. The implication? Another “natural convergence” between the two disciplines, according to Jeff Spicer, VMWare’s VP of digital marketing.

Social Selling Is As Much About Marketing As It Is About Sales

Traditionally, B2B marketers have been thought of as the first line of contact with prospects. These days, however, marketers are engaged well into the sales cycle, whch requires the development of meaningful relationships.

That’s where “social selling” comes into play, according to Jeff Spicer, VP of digital marketing at VMWare, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based software services company.

In this exclusive interview with, Spicer drills down on social selling, the role of marketing and the CMO in a company’s social-selling program, and how marketing’s assistance in the sales process can be quantified. What exactly is social selling?

Spicer: I have a really simple explanation of what social selling is, and then we can get into it. At its top level, social selling is simply using social tools and networks to create meaningful relationships between the sales person and the buyer. I want to stress that it’s a meaningful relationship on both sides, that it’s not just a way to do prospecting using social tools. It’s a way to create a welcome relationship on the buyer’s side as well, so the buyer gets real value out of this social relationship that the salesperson creates through social means. What is marketing’s role in social selling?

Spicer: Social has typically been an area of marketing. Marketing introduced social into the enterprise years ago, almost a decade ago now, so that’s where you see the biggest concentration of social talent. Most marketing organizations have built a center of excellence around marketing, and the center of excellence is where you’ll see the tools and technologies, best practices, content strategies, and content programs that enable social marketing. So it’s only natural that marketing partners with other lines of business—specifically sales, in this case—to build out a social-selling program. That’s the first role marketing can have.

Second, marketing is the organization that’s typically responsible for the corporate brand and any programs that support that brand, so thought leader programs, influencer programs, branded content marketing programs, and all of those programs are really critical in social selling.

Social selling is not just about selling. Because it’s about building that valued relationship with the customer that isn’t just about closing a deal or doing an upsell, again, that’s an area where marketing has a lot of expertise and can bring that expertise, the content, and branded programs to the table. So those are a couple big reasons that I think marketing has this role to play. Do you mind backing up and talking a bit more on what social selling entails?

Spicer: I’m sure you’ve probably seen and written a lot of stories on the way that the buying process and the selling process have changed over the past decade. More and more of the buying process happens online. The salespeople, in some ways, are being a little bit disintermediated by some of the online capabilities, and some of those online capabilities are social networks, so buyers are increasingly looking to their peers and to social networks for information about products and services before they engage with traditional sales organizations.

These conversations are already happening out there, so it’s only natural that salespeople and marketing people would get involved in those conversations. Of course, from the seller’s positions, it’s with the outcome in mind of influencing the sale or even closing a deal. But the interesting mindset change that needs to happen for salespeople is it’s not just about closing that deal. It’s actually about creating a valued relationship first.

When we put our [social-selling] program together at VMware, one of the first things that we want to teach the reps is, first, stop selling. Social selling is really a little bit of a misnomer because it’s about how the salesperson adds value in that relationship that does happen to be centered on a sales cycle, but the ultimate goal is not about selling. It’s about creating the relationship. That’s the second thing that we teach.

The third piece of guidance that we have for our social reps is, “Listen first.” So get involved in conversations and listen to those conversations online so that you can learn about your influencers, learn about the buyers, and then get involved in sharing content and adding to the overall conversation.

Like I said, the reasons that we were so invested in this is because of the amount of interaction and activity that currently happens online and on social networks. If you look at some of the stats that are provided mostly by LinkedIn—and so, of course, you’d take this with a little grain of salt because they have an investment in social networks and social networking—in their surveys they say something like 92% of their customers will engage with sales contacts who they view as thought leaders. If the salesperson can position themselves as an expert or a thought leader, who is as interested in selling ideas as they are in selling services or products, then customers are going to be that much more likely to engage.

They have another stat. I think it’s that 86% of clients will engage with a sales rep if they get insight about their company, industry, or category. Again, that’s something that we really drill into our reps, which is provide information to your contacts and influencers that is of value to them in their jobs and their industry, and not necessarily product-centric about our products or services.

Those are some of the reasons that we think social selling is so critical because of today’s environment and because of the power that it can have. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these LinkedIn stats as well. Just a couple more about the efficacy of the sales reps who actually use social—they say that social reps create 45% more opportunities per quarter than their colleagues who don’t, and they are 51% more likely to hit quota than their colleagues who don’t use social.

We’ve had a couple of debates internally about how we measure social selling, and we have a lot of measurement tools internally that we’ve started using to measure the number of contacts that our social selling reps create, how their deals might be influenced. It’s still early in the cycle for us, so we don’t have a lot of this data. We rely on LinkedIn, but there is a correlation between sales reps who are active on social, willing to try new things, and trying to engage their prospects in different ways, and the efficacy in their quota and overall performance. You mentioned that social selling has to do with getting to know the buyer and then tailoring what you’re sharing with them based on that. In the marketing world, that’s called personalization, right? It looks like sellers are now on the hook for learning to do what has been traditionally up to marketing. How can marketers work with sales and help them from that perspective? What does that relationship need to look like between marketing and sales in order for social selling to work?

Spicer: That’s a really smart question because, in many areas right now, marketing and sales are starting to converge. Marketing has traditionally been the organization that understands the customer and collects customer data, and, as a result, marketing understands the buyer journey. Marketers are going deeper into the sales cycle online than they ever used to. So you see this natural convergence between marketing and sales in a lot of areas, and, yes, social selling is now one of those areas.

As you mentioned, on the marketing side, what social selling requires is a better understanding of what the buyer journey is and how content influences the different stages of the buyer journey. That’s something that typically marketing knows, and they can now give that expertise to sales so that they understand the power of content marketing and the power of content at each step of the buyer journey.

Marketing is typically also pretty good at measuring certain interactions and understanding how well they work, so that’s, again, something that marketing brings to the table. And then, as I mentioned before, marketing typically is invested in tools and technologies for social marketing and the associated use cases, best practices, and content strategies, so they bring all that to the table with sales.

Sales traditionally is great at building relationships, offline relationships, in particular. Sales is good at understanding customer motivations or buyer motivations, and then trying to meet the needs of the buyer. When you marry these two things together, you can get a really powerful program when both sides bring their expertise together. It’s a natural fit in the world of social because social is all about building those relationships, which is something that sales excels in offline. If sales listens to marketing about how to actually build these relationships online and how to nurture them over time in one-to-one, one-to-many, and automated ways, there’s a lot of power in that combination of sales and marketing coming together and bringing their best expertise in these two areas. I just see this as really an area of convergence for marketing and sales. We can measure things like clicks on a banner ad or how many social engagements you’re getting, but how do you translate that into how you’re driving revenue? Could this relationship between sales and marketing with social selling be one of the ways that marketing could somehow better quantify its effect on the organization’s bottom line?

Spicer: It’s a really good point. It depends, in part, on where the program sits. The thing that we’ve done at VMware, which I think has worked really well, is we, in marketing, approached sales enablement about building the program a year ago and starting it as a pilot program in early 2015. We came to the table with a little bit of budget with our background in tools and technologies and said, “Let us help you build this program with us and train you how to run the program.” I think that’s important that sales needs to have some skin in the game as well. But to your point, yes, one of the things that we wanted to do is demonstrate marketing’s value.

Now, over time, as sales enablement gets more and more comfortable with it, the balance of responsibility for a social-selling program can start to shift to sales enablement. Marketing will probably always have a sort of center of excellence role to play in this because you want to make sure that your tools and technologies and best practices are still centered with the group that is driving social innovation. That’s probably not going to be sales anytime soon. That will still rest with marketing.

But to your point, this is one of those areas where marketing can get involved in demonstrating its value in source pipe and in revenue. What does all this mean for the CMOs, specifically?

Spicer: There are several takeaways for CMOs. First, there’s the obvious thing that, as we’ve just been discussing, marketing is suddenly playing a role, a much more involved and engaged role, in certain types of sales activities than they ever have, and the CMO just needs to be aware of that. They need to understand how their organization is interacting with sales and how that interaction is evolving over time.

Also, the CMO really should understand, and probably does, what the social center of excellence looks like in his or her organization, and how it is evolving over time and impacting or engaging with different lines of business, including sales. And then apart from those more logistic-based things, the CMO is traditionally the person in the organization who’s responsible for the brand and influencer programs. Social selling, as I mentioned before, in some ways, it’s less about the selling part; it’s about adding value to the customer or creating the relationship with the customer.

So if you call it almost like social relationship-building for sales, that relationship-building influencer program, those are things that typically the CMO has managed. Now he or she is expanding their programs beyond the boundaries of marketing into sales. And so the CMO really has to understand how these influencer and thought leadership programs, content marketing programs, and brand programs are now being used by sales. He or she may want to evolve those programs to better understand how they’re being used, or probably get ahead of the train and evolve the programs themselves so that they’re of more use to sales.

Finally, the CMO is the person who has generally been responsible for customer data, for building out that 360-degree profile of the customer, the touch points, attribution models, buyer patterns, customer satisfaction scores. That typically rests with the CMO. Again, you’re introducing a program into the mix that impacts all of these things, that impacts the buyer and the customer touch points, that has an impact on buyer patterns, customer satisfaction. So the CMO needs to have some sort of oversight into these programs, not to manage them necessarily, but to provide guidance and understand how they’re impacting her customer satisfaction scores or the change in buyer patters or buyer behaviors.

From the CMO’s standpoint, these are programs that require a little bit more than oversight. They really need engagement because of their impact on brand customer data and customer satisfaction. Is there anything else you think is relevant to the CMO about social selling that you’d like to share?

Spicer: Yes. There’s also an attitudinal shift that I think the CMO could play a crucial role in overseeing. I mentioned a couple times that social selling is a little bit of a misnomer. Yes, the ultimate goal is to make a sale, but through that, you’re using social to create relationships and get insight and become a smarter networker in a way. Some of that requires a shift in thinking on both the side of sales and even a little bit in marketing because we’re trying to shift away from looking for every opportunity to promote ourselves and our company, promote our services, position ourselves competitively against our competitors.

Instead, what we’re looking to do is provide value at the right time and the right place to customers, influencers, and contacts. We may say that we’ve got programs in marketing and sales that do that today. We have customer service programs, customer advocacy programs, listening to the customer programs, but this is taking some of those programmatic things and really pushing it down to the individual level, to the grassroots level.

I think the CMO has a real role to play in helping the organization understand exactly what that means on both the sales and the marketing side. What does it really mean to create a one-on-one or even a one-to-many relationship that is much more about providing relevant, contextual value to your contact than it is about making a sale? I think that could be the No. 1 most important thing that the CMO does with social selling. I think this attitudinal shift is probably one of the more important things.

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