10 Keys for Starting a B2B LinkedIn Group to Generate Leads

b2b-LinkedIn-LogoMy friend Tom Skotidas and I recently talked about the keys to starting a LinkedIn Group as a means to generate leads for B2B companies. He is the founder of Skotidas, Asia Pacific’s leader in B2B Social Media Lead Generation. This is part of an ongoing series of conversations about the intersection of sales and marketing, well as social selling.

1. Start with your Product or Service in Mind

The first thing you need to do is create a group that is connected to your product or service. This may be related to the product category or your specific industry, but general enough that the right people will find the group relevant and interesting. Choose a group name that reflects the topic and will be meaningful to your prospects.

2. Determine the Most Likely Buyer

Since we are looking at this group through the lens of lead generation, make sure you take into account your most likely buyers. The group should be targeted to them. As you are planning the group make sure to develop a targeted persona so you know who should be in the group.

3. Never Mention the Product

Even though you have the product in mind, the point of the group is not to sell the product. Market trends and solutions related to the product and services are what is important to the group.

4. Create a Closed Group

You can create a closed group or an open group on LinkedIn. Start out with a closed group as you are building it up. This way only people you invite can join the group. As it grows and develops some traction, you may want to make it an open group to take advantage of search and sharing benefits of things posted in the group. While an open group is visible to all, you can still moderate members and comments.

5. Manage it like a Community

The LinkedIn group you build is a community and it needs community management. That means you, or someone on your team, must be a manager of the group. This person must have the personality to interact with group members on a regular basis, reach out to them publicly or privately to ask questions or elicit comments, and generally keep the conversation interesting and flowing. A number of different people can serve in this role.

6. Build it like a 3-Layer Cake

Start the first layer by getting your staff to join the group so it has a bit of a head start. The second layer includes your closest business partners and some existing customers. Let them know the purpose of the group and that their interaction is encouraged. Once the group has that lived in feeling, invite some targeted prospects to join the group. This is the top of the cake. They are the ones to focus on, and it helps that they are joining an active, growing group.

7. Know What Content to Share

The purpose of this group is to provide value to the community, and especially the prospects, so they begin to build a relationship with you. You can do that through content. You can use third-party content related to the theme of the group or even conversation starters, which are just what they sound like. Comments and questions that get people talking.

8. Engage the Group

The community managers need to continuous engage the group members to keep the conversation going. That may include messaging someone with a specific and relevant post and asking them to provide their thoughts in the group.

9. Practice Both Inbound and Outbound Lead Generation

You can use this group to manage both inbound and outbound leads. Sharing content in the group that provides links back to your blog, website and landing pages encourages clicks and shares to drive more people to those pages. As you build relationships with your targeted prospects in the group, you can coordinate with the sales team to reach out to them. And this is no longer a cold call.

10. Remember Marketing Led, Sales Fed

Finally, keep in mind that social selling initiatives like this are run by the marketing team, but ultimately they support sales. You are generating leads for sales.

Are there other best practices you have developed in using LinkedIn groups to generate leads?

How To Find the Best B2B Social Media Linkedin Groups

Most people learn how to use Linkedin by building a network of professional connections. Some even take the time to post updates to their activity feed. But if you haven’t noticed yet, not a lot of people hang out in the activity stream on Linkedin.

The lion’s share of real engagement happens in Linkedin Groups, especially for B2B companies. But not all Linkedin Groups. Most are veritable spam fests where unscrupulous marketers spam links to promotions or try to drive clicks to their blog posts.

So how do you find the really good Linkedin Groups? How can you tell which ones are worthwhile, and which ones are worthless?

You could just join a bunch of groups, follow the activity that occurs in each one and learn that way. But that’s time consuming. And since there are nearly 1.6 million Linkedin Groups and you can only join 50 at a time, finding the genuinely worthwhile groups that way could take a lifetime.

As an example, I used Linkedin Group statistics to analyze the three B2B social media groups I’ve been a member of to see which one is the best.

I’d rather spend more time in one Linkedin Group where I can have real discussions with other professionals who are interested in exploring a common topic, then spread myself thin over a bunch of groups, particularly if some of them are spammy.

Here’s how to use Linkedin Group Statistics to see which ones to join.

1. Review the Group

Go to the Linkedin Group you’re considering joining. But don’t join right away.

Instead, scroll down below the “Top Influencers of the Week” box in the right-hand column and find “Group Statistics.” The “3,759” number you see in the image is not accurate. Every group uses the same generic artwork. So ignore it and click “View Group Statistics.”

2. Review the Activity

Once you’re in the Linkedin Group Statistics page, click the “Activity” tab and check out the graph on the right. “Discussions” are new posts left to the Group and “comments” made underneath new discussions. A better way to think about “discussions” is as “new posts,” because if no one comments, they aren’t actually discussions.

3. Compare Discussions to Comments

The chart will give you a snapshot of whether or not people are having conversations. If the number of discussions is much higher than the number of comments, people are leaving new posts, but they’re not starting conversations. Unfortunately, this is the case most of the time in Linkedin Groups.

Now and again, as in the Linkedin Group used in the example above appears currently to be hosting healthy conversations, but not until recently. In fact, comments surpassed discussions just last month. Could it be a fluke?

4. Look at the Conversations

Let’s check it out and see. Just because there’s a healthy conversation going on, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a worthwhile group. A low ratio of discussions to comments is necessary, but not sufficient. So hop on over to the group’s activity feed and see if the discussions are interesting to you. If they are, join up.

As a rule of thumb, closed groups tend to be less spammy than open groups because they are actively monitored by a community manager. Some Linkedin Groups have rules for what they do and don’t allow. If they have rules, the manger will send them to you if your membership is approved.

So which B2B Linkedin Groups are the healthiest?

I compared the following Linkedin Groups:

Here’s what I found:

With more than 200 discussions posted in recent months, both B2B Online Marketing and BtoB Marketing do have more activity. But that’s not an indication of worthwhile conversation because they both have too few comments. There’s almost no conversation occurring there at all in these group, and since conversation is engagement, these are, you guessed it, spam fests.

B2B Social Media, on the other hand, has around half the volume of new discussions being posted, but those discussions most recently have started drawing a healthy number of comments. As of January, the engagement level has picked up sharply. For readers of this site, if you like what you see in the Group’s activity stream, this is the one to join.

Are there other ways you have evaluated LinkedIn Groups, or are there other B2B social media or marketing groups that provided value? Let other readers know in the comments below.

6 Ways B2B Companies Can Replace LinkedIn Answers

LinkedIn has announced that they will be shutting down LinkedIn Answers on January 31. This under-utilized area lets anyone with a LinkedIn profile ask questions of the entire social network. The section shows questions from your network, top experts and categories to browse. Members demonstrate their expertise by answering questions. One of the biggest problems for B2B marketers who tried to use this feature for business was that there was no way to be alerted to relevant posts. You had to manually review every question in the appropriate sections.

If you were using Answers, here are 6 ways you can use LinkedIn to connect with prospects and customers and generate leads:

1. Start and Manage a LinkedIn Group

There are two ways to interact with Groups. The first, and most common for B2B companies, is to create your own Group and encourage customers, prospects, employees and partners to join it. Rather than using your company name, create a name that represents your industry or your target audience. Posting content with links back to your website, third party articles and asking questions to get people talking requires the dedicated time of a community manager. Even though members of the Group can be emailed with updates, and can be sent a weekly email from the Group moderator, there is no visibility of the Group posts to non-members.

2. Participate in LinkedIn Groups

The other way to create a presence in LinkedIn Group conversations is to participate. This is not just the job of one person at a B2B company, but can be handled by several people, including subject matter experts. Start with a point person who joins many Groups and receives updates via email or RSS so they are alerted to relevant discussions. They can let the most appropriate person at the company know about the discussion, and even offer suggestions of what to post. The best approach is a mix of your own companies content, third party articles and short and engaging answers. It is best to be consistent so people get used to seeing and engaging with people from your company. Most groups are dominated by a handful of individuals and by regularly providing valuable contributions to the group your company representatives can join that level.

3. Post Status Updates on Company Page

Build a following on your Company Page by promoting it on other platforms (including your website). Post updates and links to company content that followers will see in their feed. Engaging posts will be seen by your followers’ network and will drive traffic back to your website. These updates can also be targeted by company size, industry, function, seniority and geography. Over time you will learn the right mix of content and offers for your followers. LinkedIn will show you impressions and engagement percentage stats approximately 24 hours after the post.

4. Post Photos and Files on Company Page

Taking a page from Facebook’s playbook, LinkedIn gives companies the ability to post photos and other files directly on their Company Pages. This may create more engagement and extend the awareness of your LinkedIn Company Page, but you need to mix these sparingly into your posting schedule along with links that drive visitors, especially prospects, back to your website to get them into your lead funnel.

5. Encourage Employees to Post Status Updates

People can post status updates on their personal profiles. Most, if not all, of your employees have profiles on LinkedIn. Encourage employees to keep their profiles up to date and share company content in their status updates. Coordinated employee updates are an underutilized resource for spreading B2B company blog posts, ebooks, webinars and other educational content. An active profile includes updates from other sources besides the company blog, so it is helpful to provide suggestions to employees of other sources of great content.

6. Encourage Employees to Connect Slideshare to the Profile

Slideshare has always been easy to connect to a LinkedIn profile, even before LinkedIn bought the presentation sharing site. If employees don’t have their own Slideshare account, encourage them to connect the company Slideshare account to their LinkedIn profile. This means that whenever the company publishes a new deck or ebook to Slideshare, it automatically appears on employees’ profiles as an update. These decks should include their own calls to action, giving prospects another chance to learn more about the topic presented in the deck or PDF.

What is your B2B company doing on LinkedIn to connect with prospects and help them along their buying process?

Photo credit: Flickr

3 Private Social Community Options for B2B Companies

What do you do when your B2B company wants to establish a social community but only for a select audience? Well, there are options. Creating a private community environment with the ability to control member enrollment is key, and making sure your community understands that it is a select group of qualified individuals will help keep the environment focused and held in high regard.

Many popular social networking tools don’t provide a logical space for this kind of community organization (like Facebook and Twitter), but there are a handful of options and likely one will fulfill your B2B social media requirements.

1. A Hosted Private Community
Building a private community provides the ability to fully control your community access, while offering a full set of social networking features. There are several solutions that will allow you to quickly and easily establish a social community using third party software and host it on their servers. The most popular options are Ning, KickApps and SocialGo.

The benefits to using these tools include a quick development timeframe (hours, not days) and support is usually readily available from the developer or from other users in forums or message boards. Most technologies are very customizable and the financial commitment is minimal, if not free.

2. A Private Community on your server
If you must retain control of your content for legal or security reasons (you may not want proprietary information on a third party server), you may need to consider developing a community using software you can install on your own webserver. Some of these options are add-ons or modules to a CMS (content management system) package and some are stand-alone applications.

Among the options to consider are JomSocial which integrates with Joomla CMS, Elgg, Pligg and Dolphin.

Setup of the software will require some technical assistance, and then you’ll want to customize the look and feel and the functionality to your requirements. However, once established, the community will operate in a very secure environment and you’ll retain full control over the content.

3. LinkedIn Groups
LinkedIn can also be used for private communities. Simply establish a group and send out invitations. The community creator will be able to control who joins. You can also create subgroups to further organize your members.

A private LinkedIn Group can be setup in no time, and you already have a contact list to use for the initial invitations. On top of this, LinkedIn makes it easy to send weekly messages to the group, create discussions and share information.

Managing Your Private Community
No matter which private community you choose to create, once its launched your work has just begun. Make sure you’re ready to manage it properly. To learn more about managing your community you should read Chris Brogan’s Essential Skills of a Community Manager, 3 Tips for Managing a Social Media Community or get a first hand account from Amber Naslund about Being a Director of Community.

Is a private social community in your plans? What options are you considering? Do you already have one? If so, please share your experiences.

LinkedIn Custom Groups = COMPLETE Waste Of Money

LinkedIn, the extremely popular B2B social network, announced that is was going to allow marketers to create custom groups. The problem: is they want $50,000 a month. Yes, you read that number correctly. LinkedIn wants you to pay them $600,000 a year for a custom group and platform advertising.

From MediaPost article:
“With the new custom groups, companies would typically pay about $50,000 a month to turn group pages from discussion forums into something more like full-blown marketing sites, with added content including video, white papers, feeds and other promotional tools that users want to extend to LinkedIn.”

Why Should LinkedIn Own Your Interactions?
The core issue I have with LinkedIn’s new custom groups feature is not the cost, but instead, it is the exclusivity of content and interactions on one platform. If you are a major enterprise level company, then maybe this service has value for you. However, their major selling point is that they have the built-in community for the group with their 50 million members.

It is great that they have a large user base and it could be a good strategy if a high percentage of your customers are highly active on LinkedIn. However, while LinkedIn has a core of highly active users, it also has a lot of inactive users and single purpose users. Single purpose users include those who only come to the community when they are looking for a job and don’t serve as regular users. Most B2B companies are still going to have a large percentage of their customer base outside of the LinkedIn network. While this is a major issue, the bigger issue for any brand should be: Why do I want LinkedIn to hold my community hostage.

Communities can happen anywhere on the web, but what happens if you decide you want to stop paying LinkedIn $50,000 monthly fee? One of your community hubs, goes away. I would advise to build community in ways that are sustainable for the longer term and not dependent on line items in the budget for their survival.

Community At What Cost?

Given today’s economy and the competitive online environment, I would much rather have $600,000 per year to drive social media and word-of-mouth marketing programs that are platform agnostic. Even spending that much for online advertising and direct marketing would likely yield much higher ROI. It seems to me that LinkedIn has completely priced themselves out of what could have been a good monetization strategy. Don’t forget that once you have spent this money for the customer group that you still have to resource the content and community management of the group, which will boost the overall price tag even higher.

This issue here is that free groups still exist on LinkedIn and when done right, they can serve as a good tool for community building and lead generation. The gap between free groups and custom group in terms of price is huge, but much smaller in value.

What do you think of LinkedIn’s new plan for custom groups?