Put the “Social” Back in Social Selling

Salespeople have forgotten the social part of social selling. 

Instead of using social media to make connections and strengthen relationships with potential prospects and referral sources, they pitch, spam, and annoy their contacts. They actually think it’s helping them sell. It’s not, because that’s not what social media is for. 

What Is Social Selling?

Social selling is a misleading term. Done right, it doesn’t actually involve selling, which is good, because no one wants to be sold to on social media.

Social media is a place to begin conversations, which leads to building relationships, which can yield real-world sales. It is a place for networking, research, and engaging audiences, not for pitching prospects. Ultimately, social media selling is not about the number of contacts you accumulate; it’s about the real connections that you make.

(Image attribution: Antoni Shkraba)

You can arm yourself with all the social intelligence available on a prospect, but it isn’t likely to give you an advantage over your competitors, who have probably done their research too. Clients now expect you to know all about their companies. It’s the bare minimum a salesperson can do, and bare minimum isn’t a winning sales strategy.

What will set you apart from the rest and get you in front of decision-makers hasn’t changed a bit; it’s still a personal connection and a referral from someone the client trusts.

Gartner research backs this up, suggesting that social engagement is the more appropriate term. Derry Finkeldey, research director at Gartner, puts it this way: 

“Rather than focus social selling efforts on ‘contacting more’ or ‘contacting faster,’ a more effective method is to think of social selling first as a path to improved preparation and engagement. Once that has been achieved, subsequent, more targeted sales interactions can also be made using social connections.”

Put Social Media to Work for Your Sales Team

Social media isn’t a place to sell, but it is a great place to learn about the people you want to sell to. Tim Hughes, my colleague in London and CEO and co-founder of DLA ignite, is one of the leading worldwide experts on social selling. He states: 

While I’m biased, the data shows that social is the only way business will get the pipeline needed to get back on a growth trajectory. Not by spamming people, but by implementing a #socialselling methodology.”

I say exactly the same thing about referral selling. Social selling and referrals go hand-in-hand; they’re two sides of the relationship-based selling coin. People do business with people they know, like, and trust—or people who are trusted by people they know and like. Pestering strangers on social media doesn’t earn anyone’s love, like, or trust. But social selling is a great way to strengthen real-world relationships, which can lead to referrals and sales. 

Tim says social media also provides a great opportunity to deepen your understanding of your target market, to learn what they want from you and what messages resonate with them. He encourages businesses to use social for end-to-end business transformation. He explains:

“End-to-end business transformation through social media has become a pivotal strategy in the modern digital landscape. It involves leveraging the power of social platforms to reconfigure various aspects of a business, from marketing and customer engagement to product development and organizational culture. Social media platforms offer unparalleled opportunities for businesses to connect with their target audience, gather insights, and drive innovation—enabling brands to communicate more authentically, build relationships, and foster customer loyalty.

(Image attribution: Thanakorn Lappattara)

Social media is also a great place to find out who knows the people you want to know. My colleague Brynne Tillman, CEO of Social Sales Link, brings this exact point home. When I asked for her input on the power of social media, she explained:

“Often when a happy Client says, ‘I’d be happy to refer you but I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head,’ the best next step is to search their connections on LinkedIn and make a list of people that you’d like to meet and ask for 15 minutes to review the list. Generally people know 20 percent of their connections, so if you identify 20 people, chances are they will know four of them well enough to make an introduction.”

Finally, social media is a platform to share valuable information, ideas, and insights. By sharing your subject matter expertise, you become a trusted resource—exactly the kind of salesperson people want to work with, and want to refer. 

Social Selling Dos and Don’ts

Done right, social media selling can help you grow your referral network, deepen relationships with clients and prospects, conduct sales research, and position yourself as a go-to subject matter expert. How do you do it right?

1. DO Be Social … for Real

Requesting to connect with someone without adding a personal message isn’t being social; it’s just clicking buttons. Selling is about building relationships, not having the most LinkedIn connections. It’s not enough just to grow your networks. You must also nurture them. That means putting in the time and effort, online and off.

2. DON’T Pitch Strangers

When you invite people to connect on LinkedIn and then immediately hit them with a sales pitch, you’re breaking all the rules of social selling. The prospect doesn’t know you and doesn’t expect to hear from you. That’s the very definition of cold calling. 

3. DON’T Ask for Referrals on LinkedIn

Social media is a great place to find out how you’re connected to your prospects and to identify potential referral sources. But when you ask for referrals on LinkedIn or any other digital format, you don’t get the opportunity to explain the business reason for the introduction. You don’t even know if the person actually knows the prospect you want to meet. Asking for referrals requires an actual conversation. If you don’t know someone well enough to pick up the phone, you don’t know that person well enough to ask for a referral.

4. DO Use Social Media for Research

Social media sites can help you prepare for meetings with potential clients by giving you insights into their backgrounds and their networks. Instead of rambling about the weather, you’ll have something to talk about during your first meeting. It can also help you identify referral sources—mutual connections who can provide even more insights into your prospect and provide a personal introduction, which is a far more effective way to get meetings than cold calling.

5. DO Demonstrate Thought Leadership

Social media enables sales pros to build a personal brand and gain exposure as subject matter experts. That’s what business buyers want from salespeople. In fact, as more companies move to self-service digital models, expertise will soon be the only thing that buyers need from salespeople. Share your insights with your network. Provide information or links that would interest them. Share interesting and relevant content from others. Share content from your marketing department and work closely with them to ensure they’re creating content your buyers will actually want to read.

6. DON’T Be a Stranger

Salespeople often get so caught up in developing new relationships with new prospects and clients that they neglect their existing connections, at least until they need something from those folks. Big mistake!  Once you’ve done the groundwork to earn someone’s trust and friendship, don’t waste that effort by neglecting to stay in touch. Social selling requires you to reach out to all the people in your professional network on at least a semi-regular basis. Find out what’s going on with them. Ask how you can help. Share your insights and offer introductions to others with whom they could have mutually beneficial relationships. And while you’re at it, ask for referrals.

When to Get off the Computer and Pick Up the Damn Phone

My best advice for social media lead generation: Remember to bring your best self to your online interactions—not the hard sell—and to eventually take relationships offline and have real, live conversations. Actually talking to people strengthens connections in a way that just doesn’t happen when we’re staring at screens.

Social selling is an amazing prospecting tool, but the best tool in your toolbox is still you. Get out of the digital world, have conversations that count, and ask for referral introductions from people your prospects know and trust. If you don’t, someone else will.

(Featured image attribution: khwaneigq7223)

(This post was originally published on August 23, 2018 and updated November 9, 2023.)