This year’s Buyersphere Report on B2B buyer behaviour shows a remarkable decline in social media usage amongst B2B buyers - but also compelling evidence that this is only temporary as younger ‘digital natives’ begin to make their mark. These are only some of the findings of this major report into B2B buyer behaviour.

Buyers are still hungry for information
The 2012 Report showed an increase on the previous year in terms of the sheer amount of content sought by buyers in the course of the buying process.

This is good news for all those marketers who are investing in content programmes and thought leadership campaigns. Buyers want content more than ever and they will find you via Google. A solid, well-planned content strategy and best practice SEO is a pretty safe bet right now.

But social media is down - which begs the question: are we over-hyping social media? Let’s not forget that this survey asks the buyers themselves whether they actually used it. This is not marketer opinion; it’s what the buyers actually did last year when they were wondering whether to spend money with you or with your competitors.

Let’s look at why this might be happening…

Business use of Facebook has dropped from 15% to 5%, while use of Twitter amongst B2B buyers has gone from 10% to just 3%. Is this social media burnout? Have people tried it and realised it does nothing for them? Or have they streamlined their activity onto a single social media platform after a period of test driving multiple channels?

We don’t know why. But we can see that, at least in the short-term, there is something of a counter reaction against social media within the buying community.
So were those brave campaigns to establish a presence on Facebook all in vain, considering only a third as many people used that as an information source?

Are we getting bored of social media?

When we asked buyers if their usage of a certain channel has increased or decreased over the last 12 months, Twitter and Facebook showed a similar marked decline (see graph below). For every B2B buyer who is greatly increasing their use of Facebook and Twitter, around 4 are greatly reducing it.

However, it would be wrong to pull the plug on the social media budgets. There is greater evidence to suggest that social media is here to stay, and it comes from looking more closely at the ages of the respondents.

The Millennials are coming

As the graph below shows, the over-30s are not very likely to use social media as a source of information - and it is their weight of numbers that is probably driving the results we saw in the previous graphs. Above the 30-year threshold it varies comparatively little. 14% of the over 60s used it, compared to 26% of the 31-40 bracket. But Generation Y are almost twice as likely to use social media as those born only a decade earlier.

This does not prove that the under-30s are somehow strange or remarkable. They are simply products of their times. What is remarkable is the trend itself. In a short space of time, buyer behaviour has changed drastically.

And as Millennials find themselves with greater amounts of corporate money at their disposal, social media campaigns will suddenly start reaping fruit. If we extend these results and consider the people who will be making B2B buying decisions in just 5 years’ time, the difference will be remarkable.

Social media is the only way forward. So, whatever the current crop of B2B buyers think, you’d best start planning now.

It’s good to talk

But the frequency of use of social media is only part of the story, because social media can be used in two very distinct ways. It can be a channel through which to find published, static information eg whitepapers, or for direct dialogue. Naturally, marketers will respond to these behavioural trends in very different ways. When business buyers do use social channels, direct conversation is shown to be a very important factor, as shown in the graph below.

Of those that used LinkedIn, for example, as a source of information during the buying process, 58% used it to find published information, 81% used it for direct conversation. Facebook too, showed similar figures.

There is a tendency amongst B2B organisations to use social media mainly as a platform for publishing information. Embracing the conversational side of social media is much more complex - and scary - for many marketers. They have to unblock access for a start. And then there are confidentiality risks, revised job descriptions, legal ramifications, policy guidelines, training etc etc.

For now, liberating the workforce as an army of social media brand champions remains a problem that many marketers would rather avoid, but the case for addressing the conversational side of social media is getting stronger with each passing year. And, as always, the brands that embrace it first will have an advantage…