12 June 2013 18:49 [Source: ICB]
Chemical distributors have been wary of embracing social media in their marketing and communications mix, but there are business benefits to being active online
The B2B (business-to-business) space has been slower at adopting social media platforms than B2C (business-to-consumer) companies, with the chemical sector in particular falling behind the trend. Throughout the corporate world, some firms see social media as a way to enhance the brand, while others still regard it with caution.
Facebook is just one place where companies can build a presence
Copyright: Rex Features
Mic Adam, general manager at Belgium-based social media policy creator Vanguard Leadership, agrees: "You might as well be taking part - after all, someone will be talking about you somewhere, and marketing can no longer control what is said about a company."
But a quick Facebook search reveals only a few of the "big name" chemical distributors have Facebook pages. A source at one company said they felt they were a bit too "old school" at present to be tweeting. And, while the chemical majors are more visible, some pages are not always kept up to date.
Ask around though, and Dow Corning and BASF are mentioned as two companies that are regarded as doing social media marketing well. BASF's Patrick Schmidt-Kühnle, manager corporate social media, says, "Social media provides an opportunity to intensify customer contacts and appeal to new target and stakeholder groups. The measures are also aimed at increasing the company's profile and strengthening the BASF brand as 'The Chemical Company'. Ultimately, it helps us implement our corporate strategy."
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and blogs are perhaps the most widely used tools at present. SlideShare, a community for sharing business presentations and documents, is also becoming more popular, as is Pinterest, a site that allows users to "pin" images and videos to a virtual pinboard.
Google Plus is also growing in popularity. Similar to Facebook and Twitter, it also allows you to join the community as a brand and includes a feature called Hangouts, which enables group meetings, discussions or demonstrations. In the future, there may be scope to introduce more chemical apps, but these can be expensive and take time to develop.
Facebook and Twitter can be used in much the same way to launch a product or promote your brand, although says McDonagh, Facebook may be more suitable for more research-type launches where slides can be incorporated or more educational information shown, and will also allow you to reach a larger audience. Some companies also use it to for recruitment purposes.
Blogs (which Adam sees as underrated) continue to be a useful tool for product and brand promotion as well as keeping customers updated on industry developments.
LinkedIn has limited opportunities for company promotion, but can be useful on a personal level for building contacts. McDonagh says, "It is a good door-opener. It might be hard to get the chief exec on the phone, but you may be able to reach him because he recognises you from LinkedIn". And of course it offers recruitment opportunities.
YouTube meanwhile is a good medium for posting videos to demonstrate the benefits of products or putting across a corporate message. Along with Flickr, it is also used for sharing corporate video and photo material, while Skype can be a good way of ensuring "facetime" with colleagues at the other side of the world.
Social media is increasingly being used as a good way to reach fresh blood, a key aim of an ageing chemical industry. Cefic's "Your Formula" website, for example, draws together blogs from young chemists alongside Twitter, Facebook and YouTube applications.
Adam says that social media can be essential for reputation management (who is talking about what, where and when); lead generation (how much money can this make me); employer branding (how attractive are you as an employer); as well as building up a network and understanding your customer.
But McDonagh points out that when marketing a product, it is still necessary to have a comprehensive marketing campaign alongside the use of social media. Search engine optimisation is vital. Her company links news stories on Twitter back to its websites and has purchased a piece of software that can track the visits back to a certain tweet.
Putting a financial value on social media activity of course is difficult. McDonagh says that at Cornelius they use exposure, engagement and conversion as indicators. The company has increased its "followers" and saw a 27% increase in click-through rates to its websites in 2012. She also quotes greater interaction with the media as another benefit.
So if your company decides that social media is the way forward, what are the next steps? Adam estimates that six months to a year is needed to be able to master the basics that a company will need and set up the correct platforms. Companies need to make sure they do their research. "If your target audience isn't using it, then it is like shouting in a desert," he says.
Location can affect what type of social media needs to be used. Twitter is popular in France and the UK, whereas Facebook is preferred in Poland, Russia and South America. LinkedIn meanwhile is predominantly used in the UK and France. Adam points out that many local platforms have now been absorbed by the larger international services, so researching your market is essential.McDonagh admits that you will get an eclectic mix of followers and a company needs to figure out just who it wants to target.
Training needs to be given to those who will be participating, and crisis and risk management policies need to be put in place so that it is clear how companies need to react to any positive or negative situations that might arise.
Then there is the day-to-day upkeep. Facebook pages and blogs must be updated at least daily, and Twitter feeds much more frequently. Enquiries must be responded to quickly.
Some companies choose to have a social media manager for these tasks. McDonagh recommends restricting access to corporate accounts to a few marketing professionals and then working with the staff's social media accounts, keeping interest levels high and generating interesting content.
Adam, however, considers a different approach. "If everybody in the company takes part, then it becomes a light-weight effort and that is where the concept ultimately needs to go. When social media is well-implemented, it is part of the employees' DNA."
The idea of the corporate brand in the hands of the staff may of course make some chief executives' blood run cold, and there are inevitably potential pitfalls associated with the use of social media. McDonagh points out that protection of the brand is essential, especially as it can be easily damaged by an "ill-thought-out tweet", and unfair dismissal tribunals after a dubious tweet are on the rise.
Schmidt-Kühnle says BASF always seeks to communicate, both in good and bad times. "The biggest challenge lies in correctly assessing how serious a situation is, in knowing what carries weight on the web, and also that it's just a fraction of what is published on it.
"We rate the risks as being the same as in conventional communication work - the difference being the much quicker dissemination of information. Our strategy is based on the assumption that transparent, authentic communication by BASF in social media helps to minimise the risks. We view social media not as a means to contain crises, but as a platform for dialogue. We want to engage in open dialogue with the public, which also means being able to take criticism."
Upkeep of Twitter, Facebook and blog pages is also essential - a page that is not regularly updated can give out a negative image. The issues of resources must be carefully considered before launching the social media presence, McDonagh advises. Attention must also be given to "closing" the active campaign: in case of a product being discontinued, or promotional offer ending, old social media postings need to be deleted.
Adam adds, "Posting is the quick part, the biggest time consumer is actually reading messages from others and finding the information that you need. You can also take part by just listening without actually contributing."
Use of social media in the chemical sector is in its early and experimental phase, with a dose of trial and error mixed in. However a company decides to engage in social media, there will always be a need to be flexible. Adam points out that what is hot today may not be so hot tomorrow. And the "young blood" entering the chemical industry is most likely going to drive social media innovation and lead enthusiastically in the right direction.
PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF CHEMICALS IMPROVES
Public perception of the chemical industry was put under scrutiny again in 2012 by Cefic in its Pan-European Survey. This revealed that the industry is "better than we have been telling ourselves," says Cefic's media relations manager James Pieper.
"It surprised us that everywhere scored above 50 on the industry reputation index." The industry received an average score of 56.5, with the UK and Germany rating the industry the highest, and a lower score achieved in France and Italy. The survey once again revealed that the public considers the industry to be essential for providing everyday products and improving the quality of life. Energy efficiency was also a top strength and innovation rated well with audiences.
However environmental topics remained a weakness and those surveyed were "on the fence" when it came to performance in the area of safe use.
Opinion was also divided on whether tougher regulations were needed as some participants felt this would come at the cost of forcing companies to relocate and reduce capacity to bring in new products.
An area identified for improvement was communication on key industry initiatives.
"There was some awareness of Responsible Care", says Pieper. "Those who do know it have a higher opinion of the industry and it helps to increase transparency. We need to keep driving efforts to improve awareness of Responsible Care."
The latest survey was targeted at the general public across 10 countries and, for the first time, Brussels stakeholders. A new sub-group surveyed was opinion leaders, the "chattering classes", who, says Pieper, have a significant influence in driving opinion both in national capitals and in the EU policymaking sphere.
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