B2B content marketing and social media appear inextricably linked. The industry talk has been so bound up with the need to develop content that performs well on social that it’s almost inconceivable that the two should be thought of in any way as separate.

But should we really be quite so gung-ho?

Well, it’s complicated.

Where are we at with B2B social media today?

In recent months there appears to be the beginnings of a shift away from social media channels. Or at least some of the usual suspects. Not in a wholesale bolt-for-the-door kind of way but more in a rebalancing of priorities.

This is largely driven by some high-profile failures in brand safety and some experiments which, on the face of it, showed that big brands could switch off the likes of Twitter with no adverse effects. (The ‘big brand’ description is key here but that’s for another article.)

Part of the challenge is that social media has shifted from an emphasis on the social to a focus on the media. It has now become a pay-to-play medium just like any other, though with promises of better targeting (which are not always borne out in reality). This means that many brands are dialing down the social sharing part of what they do and dialing up media advertising (in its various forms).

For example on Facebook, according to benchmarks by Rival IQ, engagement per post by follower for a tech business is 0.02%. For Instagram, it’s 0.59% which is far higher but appears to be dropping steadily. On Twitter, 0.029%. These are not great numbers, especially when many B2B brands have a relatively small total addressable market (TAM) to start with.

It is, however, important to bear in mind though that this isn’t showing B2B tech vs B2C tech so your mileage may vary. We’d bet that for B2B-only, the numbers will actually decrease.

Of course, our focus on B2B inevitably means LinkedIn is virtually the default option. This is unsurprising when it’s claimed 80% of B2B marketing leads from social media come through LinkedIn (though this stat is promoted by LinkedIn themselves and is now pretty old coming from 2015).

In reality, B2B marketers use a range of platforms. Research from Social Media Examiner shows that LinkedIn leads the pack as the #1 network followed by, in order, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and the latest bright shiny thing, TikTok. Admittedly, at the moment, marketers using TikTok for B2B is more about them dipping their toes in the water and testing things out than anything more concrete.

What really drives B2B social media results?

As infuriating as it is, the answer is: it depends.

Your approach will be different if you’re looking to drive broad brand awareness than if you’re targeting in-market leads or aiming to generate wider market demand.

But, at a top level…

For awareness objectives, you’ll likely be focusing on an advertising-led approach. You’ll be looking for networks that offer the broadest reach among the largest number of potential buyers. This won’t necessarily be the network with the highest number of users of course. You may also add niche communities and networks for your particular sector. And you’ll need to have a consistent approach delivering reasonable frequency over long timeframes.

For demand generation, the focus will shift more toward educational content delivered in users’ feeds. You’ll still need to pay to increase reach and penetration as organic will only get you so far (probably nowhere near far enough). Retargeting users will become a key part of the strategy and where most results will come from. This will enable you to move potential customers from broad awareness through to deeper consideration over time. For most B2B brands, LinkedIn will firmly be at the core of your activity but your retargeting may span other networks and ecosystems.

For lead generation, your activity will be more focused on delivering against short-term buyer intent. Here it’s important to have a clear understanding of what a high-potential lead looks like for your business. While some social networks may be able to deliver volume, this is useless if none of those ‘leads’ convert into profitable business opportunities. This will, again, be largely an advertising-led approach with a clear value proposition and an unambiguous call to action. Retargeting also has a role to play but will likely be sustained over a shorter timescale than for demand generation approaches. Here, choice of network should be ruthlessly Darwinian. Make educated bets, refine based on results and kill non-performers.

Importantly, all of the above would still be supported with organic social activity. This isn’t either/or, it’s and/and.

So what does this all mean for today’s B2B content marketers?

When we talk about B2B marketers wasting time on social, we’re not arguing for wholesale abandonment. Far from it.

Social is important. It can deliver results (and does for many B2B brands). But it needs to be approached in a systematic, focused way.

Importantly, it shouldn’t be used in a vacuum. Social should be part of an integrated mix of activities and tactics.

Finally, as far as possible, it should be measured against real-world results such as revenue, pipeline and opportunities, not vanity metrics. While accurate attribution is still largely a mess, assessing what you’re doing and identifying indicative cause and effect is key to progress.