For most of human history, social selling involved in-person interactions at marketplaces and via door-to-door sales. Think of that friendly “Avon Lady” who leveraged her friends to sell makeup, or the Tupperware parties where someone might stop by to chat with some neighbors and end up spending a few hundred dollars on plastic storage containers. Social selling uses the trust built through friendly connections to sell products or services.
In recent years, the industry has pivoted to the digital realm, and most social selling now relies on social media platforms to create that trusting, organic connection with potential customers. This is in contrast to other marketing and sales tactics, like search engine marketing, which relies on serving ads to groups of customers selected by a computer algorithm. Effective social selling means engaging in actual conversations with potential customers and business partners, either in person or via the web. As you build trust and establish relationships, you can eventually move the customer through the sales funnel toward lead generation and a successful deal.
What is social selling?
Social selling is a sales and marketing strategy that prioritizes building relationships with potential buyers and partners. Unlike other sales strategies and traditional advertising, which focus on pushing products to customers by highlighting their benefits or how they solve a problem, social selling emphasizes a relationship between merchants and their customers.
What’s involved in a social selling strategy?
Social selling involves making meaningful connections with potential customers, learning their pain points, and finding ways that your products and services can meet their needs. What it’s not is cold calling and untargeted ad blitzes. The point of social selling is to foster connection and build genuine trust with your customer base in hopes of eventually making a sale.
Here are four key components of a social selling strategy.
- Getting on the right platforms. Social selling takes place via online social networks. Facebook and Twitter are big for salespeople, given their emphasis on discussion. Instagram, TikTok, and Snap reach younger audiences, while LinkedIn is great for networking in the professional world. Reddit and YouTube comment threads often draw enthusiasts with deep knowledge of a topic, or those looking to learn. Companies maintain these pages by sharing content related to their customers’ perceived interests. Beyond simply posting, they build a relationship with their customers by engaging and interacting with them through the comments section on posts or YouTube videos, through AMA (Ask Me Anything) forums on Reddit, or by retweeting a follower’s tweet.
- Using built-in tools to target potential buyers. Many online platforms offer social selling tools that steer companies toward their presumed customer base. These tools involve lead generation and a statistical breakdown of who is visiting your pages. LinkedIn, which specializes in business-to-business (B2B) transactions, reports that social selling tools can make a big impact on company-customer connections. Specifically, the company notes that 62% of B2B buyers responded favorably to salespeople who knew something about them—including business model, objectives, and pain points.
- Use third-party tools to expand your online presence. Social selling tools are not limited to the native functions of a platform. Other companies, including Salesforce, Hootsuite, and Amplify, have built tools that let businesses easily communicate with customers on a variety of platforms. These tools are particularly useful for communicating with a unified message so that a recipient gets the same message whether they see it on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or from an email mailing list.
- Listening first, selling later. Whether you are promoting a professional brand or your own personal brand, it helps to begin your interactions with social listening. This means paying attention to online conversations to hear what people are saying about your product, noting customer pain points or things they love about your company, and building your messaging around that. You engage in these conversations and answer people’s questions, but you do not launch into salesperson mode. The goal is to have authentic discussions; it is not to put on a hard sell.
3 benefits of social selling
Social selling offers three key benefits to sellers promoting a professional brand or their own personal brand.
- It builds trust. Trust forms the basis of dealmaking and the sales process—people want to do deals with someone they trust. The work of communicating with your customers and building a personal relationship with them translates into establishing a baseline of trust so that they feel comfortable with you, and by extension with buying your product or service. For example, using a social media network, like Facebook and Instagram, you can build a community around you and your company that gives people a sense of belonging (however big or small).
- It yields long-term rewards. Social selling doesn’t aim for impulse purchases. It steadily and progressively builds relationships with potential clients, and it maintains those relationships after they become paying customers. For instance, the online audio retailer Sweetwater assigns each customer to a “sales engineer” who periodically sends emails to check in, and who always follows up a purchase with a direct note of thanks. This has led to substantial repeat business for the company.
- It gives you insights into your customer base. When a company commits to social listening and robust dialogue with customers, it learns a lot about what motivates those customers. In this regard, social selling is not only a sales technique but also a market research technique. Even if a social interaction does not yield a sale, it can still provide the company with valuable information about customer wishes and interests. Companies can use this information to shape future marketing campaigns, develop new product designs, and refine product descriptions.
How to choose the right social selling platform for your brand
Choosing a social selling platform largely comes down to an honest self-assessment of your brand.
- LinkedIn is great for business-to-business interactions. LinkedIn is a B2B platform, where people refine their personal brands to pitch themselves as employees or business partners. It features a proprietary tool called the LinkedIn Sales Navigator that helps you target business customers, much like Google and Facebook can help you target retail customers.
- Instagram has an extremely dedicated user base. Instagram has over 200 million users who use the service every single day. The company also reports that 70 percent of present-day shoppers would consider researching a product or buying it via Instagram. Instagram’s user base skews younger than that of many other platforms, which means an active Instagram presence can help companies that market to younger demographics. For example, the US Census Bureau advertised heavily on Instagram in 2020 to encourage younger people to participate in the census.
- TikTok offers quick virality and a younger audience. TikTok’s unique algorithm offers social sellers the opportunity to go viral, quickly. It’s not just videos and memes that go viral on TikTok—products go viral too, and often sell out in a matter of days. While TikTok’s own e-commerce strategy isn’t as advanced as other social media platforms’, like Instagram’s, it’s quickly becoming more refined, including through a prominent partnership with Shopify. Companies can tap into a younger market by using TikTok to track and engage with viral trends, and leverage that to make viral content of their own.
- Facebook promotes both discussion and sales. A June 2020 eMarketer survey by Bizrate Insights found that 18.3 percent of Facebook users had made a purchase on the platform. The company is trying to tap into this trend by rolling out Facebook Shops, its own in-house e-commerce platform. This can make the Facebook platform a one-stop shop for learning about a product and then purchasing it. Facebook is also known for lengthy discussions in its comment threads, including those by product enthusiasts sharing their experiences on a brand’s official Facebook page. Lengthy, substantive discussions naturally foster social engagement and are a key facet of social selling.
- Twitter is important for customer service. Twitter is a highly influential discussion forum, especially for customer service. Many social sellers carefully monitor their Twitter mentions and take extra care to take action on negative feedback. Twitter has not invested in e-commerce to the same degree as Meta Platforms (owner of Facebook and Instagram), so brands use it more for product discussions and fielding feedback.
- YouTube keeps your audience informed and connected. Many major brands operate a YouTube channel where they showcase their products and provide useful content that might interest their customer base. The secret to social selling on YouTube is to not make long-form television commercials. Authentically engaging with your audience, give general-purpose information, and over time the sales will come organically.
4 tips for social selling success
As you embark upon your own social selling campaign, remember what distinguishes social selling from traditional advertising—it’s that trusting connection. LinkedIn pioneered a tool called the Social Selling Index, or SSI, which measures social selling success and relationship building based on four broad criteria. Whether you use its tool or not, these guidelines can help you create a unique and successful social selling campaign.
- Create a professional brand. Get fully certified in your industry, maintain an up-to-date website, and offer prompt communication to your customers.
- Focus on the right prospects. A key advantage of social selling is that you connect with customers who genuinely care about your product (if you’re promoting a professional brand) or your core competencies (if you’re promoting a personal brand). The most self-aware and efficient social sellers home in on the people who truly seem engaged, and they don’t bother with uninterested people who will never be converted into paying customers.
- Build trusting relationships. Engaging in genuine conversations and listening to potential customers about their needs and current pain points.
- Use analytics. Most social networks, from LinkedIn to Facebook to YouTube, provide sellers with robust analytical insight into the types of people engaging with their profiles and their platforms. Top social sellers make use of these insights and then accordingly refine their messaging and outreach.
Engage with customers, listen to them, treat them with respect, and feel confident that you will reap sufficient rewards as time passes.