Social Marketing vs. Social Selling: What’s the Difference?


socialsellingOver the past several months, social selling has become the hottest topic in social media. Depending on who’s talking it’s either the pinnacle of modern marketing or a cynical repackaging of social marketing hype. So what exactly? is social selling, why is it trending, and how is it any different from the waves of social media trends that have washed over the web in the past few years?

The Origin of Social Selling

Sales has gotten a lot harder with the advent of social media. In the past, buyers had access to a limited stream of product information, orchestrated by the seller to lure buyers to the table. Buyers saw sizzling ads, but details on configuration and pricing for anything other than commodity products required a call to a sales rep. Today, buyers can find every detail on most products with a Google search, making it harder for? Sales reps to connect with buyers who prefer search results to a sales pitch.

Good sales reps have learned that social media is a great way to connect with prospects before they come calling, especially in B2B. With LinkedIn, sales reps can target and qualify prospects based on their profiles; they can identify common interests to open a conversation; and they can join groups where it’s easier to engage with prospects than cold calling.

It’s harder than ever for? Sales reps to connect with buyers who prefer search results to a sales pitch.

What sales people are embracing with social media—particularly the role of timely content to target and engage prospects—is often just good old fashioned marketing, which leads marketers to gripe that social selling is just sales people doing marketing and calling it an innovation.

But there is a difference between social marketing and social selling that is crucial to understand.

Understanding the Buyer’s Journey

socialselling_funnelEvery marketing and sales professional is familiar with The Funnel—the process of steps by which a universe of potential buyers gets reduced to suspects, prospects, leads and ultimately customers. Countless books have been written about the funnel and how to make it more productive, but arguably the best spin on the funnel is its more recent reformulation as the Buyer’s Journey.

The Buyer’s Journey flips the perspective from seller to buyer. Instead of focusing on processes for moving prospects through the funnel, the Buyer’s Journey focuses on the buyer’s selection process—how a purchase decision originates, develops into a consideration of alternatives, and ultimately into the selection of one solution over all others.

There are many good discussions of the Buyer’s Journey online, but the basic principle is that there are discrete stages of purchase decision-making that require different kinds of information and approaches to engage prospects and lead them to your solution. If a prospect hasn’t even recognized that a new solution is needed, offering them a 20% discount is a waste of time and effort. If a prospect is shopping price, trying to convince them your differentiating features are worth a premium is too little too late.

If a prospect hasn’t even recognized that a new solution is needed, offering them a 20% discount is a waste of time and effort.

Marketing develops awareness among potential buyers that a problem exists that you can solve. Marketing helps educate the buyer about how your product is unique, and how it solves the problem better than alternatives. Marketing helps guide the buyer through the consideration of alternatives to your solution, and hopefully turns the buyer into a qualified lead. Sales picks up the baton from marketing as the lead is considering a purchase and shepherds the deal through pricing and contract to a close.

The right content delivered to the right person at the right time is the key to both effective social marketing and social selling.

Reaching Decision Makers Earlier in the Process

As social media empowers buyers with more information to inform their decisions, analysts say 65-70% of their decision-making is now made before they ever connect with a sales rep. Connecting late in the cycle means companies have little control over decision-making criteria, and are often relegated to competing on price alone. One of our customers at SocialRep measured their win-loss rate with these late-cycle sales at only 10%, compared to 40-50% when they engage earlier.


It’s not surprising, then, that engaging earlier in the purchase cycle has become the mantra for marketing and sales. The earlier you can connect with prospects, the more opportunity you have to shape decision-making criteria. This is where we reach the critical breakdown in understanding the difference between social marketing and social selling. Reaching buyers early is indeed important, but reaching buyers earlier with sales messages is pointless. You need to reach buyers earlier with marketing content that helps shape impressions early, not rush to pick fruit that isn’t ripe.

Pitching cold sales messages to highly targeted prospects via social media only poisons the well with your highest quality prospects.

You can probably see this disconnect growing in your own LinkedIn message box. Some people reach out to connect to you on LinkedIn, and as soon as you connect, the first message is the same spam that clutters up your email. Many pundits and advocacy marketing startups want to turn your entire workforce into “social selling” armies of warm-blooded spambots, using the same techniques as automated email nurturing systems: blast messages to everyone you can reach and hope for a fraction to take the bait. There is nothing social about this approach, and pitching cold messages to highly targeted prospects only poisons the well with your highest quality prospects, by showing that you’re not a trusted advisor on purchase decisions, but just another shark.

Connecting with buyers early in the process is the domain of social marketing—it means helping buyers understand their problem, assess solutions and weigh alternatives. Social selling is about connecting with buyers later in the decision-making process, ready and willing to discuss a sale. The two work hand in hand; one without the other is like a car without wheels or wheels without a car.

Bridging The Gap

Good social marketing is about leveraging social media to listen to prospects, understand their problems and concerns, and develop content that helps them understand your unique value among a range of competing alternatives. With the right content and platform, anyone in your organization can be involved in effective social marketing, by sharing professional insights and opinions, white papers, webinars, and other types of decision-shaping content.

Good social selling is about leveraging social media to connect with prospects that have already shaped at least a general purchase intent—hopefully with the help of your social marketing efforts—and are ready to talk about pricing and contract. With the right content and platform, both field and inside sales reps can be effective with social selling, by sharing timely information about deals, promotions, discounts and other types of selling content.

Good social marketers know when to move a prospect into the sales pipeline, and good social sellers know when to refer a prospect back to the marketing pipeline for development so they can focus their energy on sales.

A good platform can bridge the gap between social marketing and social selling, by simplifying the process of listening to prospects, distilling and distributing good content for social sharing, and facilitating engagement with targeted prospects to move them through the decision-making process to a sale.

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