How to use social media for B2B marketing campaigns? Stop being creative. And forget that you’re trying to sell.

Now that I’m on the verge of leaving Maersk Line to join Wibroe, Duckert and Partners (and while I’m still on paternity leave) I think it’s time to highlight a valuable lesson from my past two years in this great company. Unfortunately, it’s something I find I need to repeat again and again. Here it goes:

“Social media is about communication, not marketing.”

Yes, in case you hadn’t noticed, with social media we’re dealing with social networks, not a list of broadcasting platforms where companies can launch campaigns with the sole ambition to sell more. With social media, the users have finally taken control. They themselves control what they want to see, and they sure as h… don’t want to follow companies that are only there to sell to them.

If companies want to play a role in the new digital landscapes they need to realize this and think about the end users more than they think about themselves. If they do that, they will be rewarded. And long-term value through brand reputation and many other areas will be obtainable.

This goes for B2C companies, but it’s even more true for B2B companies.

However, it does not mean that you cannot sell through social media. It just means that it’s no longer sufficient to think like a marketer or a sales person. The key question companies need to ask themselves is this: “How can we create content or experiences that create value for our fans right here and now, irrespective of their buying behavior later on in the so-called sales funnel?”

Somehow this is difficult to understand for many companies. Maybe it goes against our instincts. Or just against everything we’ve learned about marketing before social media arrived.

But I’ve experienced it first hand: Each and every time I’ve made posts tilting more to the marketing-side of things engagement rates have dropped. No exceptions.

The difference between marketing and communication
So what is the difference between marketing and communication? Why am I so sure the latter is a better for social media?

In Maersk Line we did a small test on Facebook earlier this year. Our marketing guys had just created a small campaign around the fact that our Asia to Europe services were now calling Busan, Korea too.

First we did a very marketing-like execution on our Facebook page, playing around with the themes of East, West and artistry and adding a Van Gogh filter to a photo from the port in Busan. We thought it would be interesting to try something new. Here it is:

Screen shot 2013-08-27 at 10.29.11 PM
The caption reads: Bringing Eastern industry to Western artistry. The AE10 now calls Busan, South Korea. Read more –>

The post performed really poorly compared to our other posts. Although it did bring about 70 clicks on the link taking people to an article on from where we also linked to the campaign website.

But what’s wrong with the post? Well, first of all it’s too elaborate and complex. People couldn’t care less about our reference to artistry. If they wanted an art lesson they probably wouldn’t look to Maersk Line to get it.

Secondly, adding the Van Gogh effect to the photo from Busan doesn’t really work. People want amazing photos. And when I say amazing it includes real. It’s difficult to amaze people when they know it isn’t real.

Taking these things into account we shared the story again later that day (after the first Facebook post had died out). The new post was fully aligned with our regular way of posting, i.e. with a stunning image (the one that underwent a Van Gogh surgery earlier that day), a simple caption and the link to the website. Here’s the second attempt:

Screen shot 2013-08-27 at 10.28.27 PM
The caption reads: Maersk La Paz berthed in Busan, South Korea. The AE10, one of our main Asia-Europe services, is now calling Busan. Learn more:

As you can see, this one performed much better. It actually performed better right from the first minute which helped it beat Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm, and through a much higher number of shares it also gained a larger reach than its predecessor.

The result? More than 300 clicks, or more than four times as many as the first attempt.

Case proven. Stop being creative. Just share it.

Can you be playful in a split second?
When people see a company post in their news feed they spend a split second in deciding whether they would like to engage further with it. So the photo has to be like or share-worthy in itself.

After having seen the photo they then look at the first 5-6 words in the caption and if they cannot detract any meaning from it at this point in time they will most likely move on. The first part of the caption should therefore explain the photo in simple words.

Again, why do any gimmicks if people are not ready for it?

If you really do want to be playful you should be so consistently and in a subtle, charming way – across everything you say. In my opinion, you need a very good reason (or idea) if you are to break this ‘rule’.

The conclusion?
So what is the lesson learned from this example? It tells us that:

  • You need to keep it real
  • You shouldn’t over-think it
  • You need a great visual
  • You can still drive traffic to your campaign- or website
  • Playfulness should be part of the tone-of-voice, not a one-off

Join the Conversation


  1. Great article and I think you are very right about the need for serious consideration before using ‘social media’ as a channel for the sales pitch. I put social media in ” here because I worry we have a tendency to treat ALL social media channels as one and while companies may engage very differently in general they also have different stakeholders on the different social media channels. For Maersk Line it could be that most of the followers on Facebook are better categorised as ‘fans’ and not necessarily ‘customers’ for which reason a sales pitch would obviously be a complete miss.

    The same goes for the creativity you mention; Our followers are fans of the seas, large ships, the container industry, huge machines, Maersk Line as a company and what we add to the world. Fun facts, great (real) pictures and two-way communication is what they are there for, not a modified reality.

    That being said, I do believe there are plenty of companies who can use the social media channels for sales and many senders who can satisfy their audience with art and creativity. Identifying social media channels, specific audiences and from that determine what one wishes to communicate is an art in itself.

    Everybody can yell and scream. Only few can make people listen.

    1. Thanks, Sara. I fully agree. And I must admit that it’s not as black and white as I tend to describe it. The black and whiteness is a desperate attempt to at least detract some sort of position in a digital landscape where you can discuss back and forth forever.

      There are so many nuances and exceptions to every ‘rule’ and we need to draw the line somewhere.

      Here’s one example: Even though Facebook is mostly for our casual fans numerous customers are following us there as well (and not elsewhere). How do we then reach those people with messages that are relevant to them?

      Not easy to say. One suggestion is to make better use of our employees so that they ensure that we connect with those customers with our relevant messages. But it’s easier said than done…

  2. Terrific post, Jonathan

    As a marketer I hear you loud an clear. I hope more B2Bs study what you have done at Maersk Line. We see too many B2Bs here in North America try to force their old sell jobs into their social channels… too many gimmicks and not enough useful content (that actually helps buyers want to trust them).

    I love your analogy that social tools are no different than using the phone. B2Bs on this side of the pond need to read and reread this post until they finally get it. Good stuff!

    PS: Congrats on your new job. Maersk will miss you.


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