Have Digital Marketing and Social Media Killed the Industrial Sales Job?


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Remember the very first music video ever played on MTV? It was called “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the British band The Buggles and was aired at 0001 hours on August 1, 1981, the day the cable station was launched in the U.S. Every disruptive technology is known to cause major upheavals in any industry. And digital marketing and social media are as disruptive as they come.

Even though the widespread adoption of social media in industrial marketing has been slower than general B2B and B2C marketing, it has had a serious impact on industrial sales, especially on the traditional role of the outside sales rep.

Digital marketing has also changed how industrial and technical buyers behave, search and consume information that they need at different stages of the buy cycle. They are time-challenged and want to interact with salespeople based only on their needs and schedules.

The impact of digital marketing on complex sales

I am deliberately making a distinction here between simple transactional sales and complex industrial or technical sales. The first type uses a self-serve model and is typically completed in the very first sales interaction, be it in person or online.

Complex industrial sales require many face-to-face meetings with several stakeholders within the customer’s organization. Often closing the deal requires participation by many members of your sales team.

Digital marketing, social media and the constant pressure to cut costs have radically changed this traditional industrial sales model.

Steve Woods said it best when he wrote in his blog post, “As the emphasis on face-to-face interaction as a way to build trust decreases in lieu of other ways of building trust, the need to be “in the field” also decreases.”

I read a blog post by Robert Lesser of Acquiring Minds where he talks about the ways that digital marketing has changed complex B2B sales. The key in my opinion is that these are all changes that are driven by buyer behavior and not the other way around.

Here’s how I see the impact of the changes:

  1. Industrial buyers are using more and more online resources for initiating and going deeper into the industrial buy cycle. They prefer to consume information at their convenience and in their preferred format. Buyers have neither the time nor the patience to wait for call backs and meet with sales people at a later date.
    Solution: You have two primary responsibilities; a) make sure your website is easily found so your company can get on the shortlist early if you hope to be considered in the decision making stage and b) serve up content in different formats and be relevant to various stakeholders. To get on the radar screen in the early stages, shoot for a variety of content instead of generic one-size-fits-all marketing content.
  2. Engineers, technical buyers and C-level executives are time-starved and on the go. These people are looking for specific content to solve their problems whenever and wherever it is convenient for them. They don’t have the time to sift through volumes of general search results.
    Solution: Curate content and make it easily searchable. Provide online access to your in-house subject matter experts via a blog or live chat. Conduct a content audit and make sure you have mapped your content to the buy cycle.
  3. Globalization has made the buyer’s world flat. Decision makers and stakeholders are spread over different states and even countries. In today’s globalized world, geography and time zones are meaningless. Swimming against this tide by trying to set up face-to-face meetings is an exercise in futility.
    Solution: Make more efficient use of tools like webinars and online meetings to bring together stakeholders who may be spread out all over the world. Incorporate mobile solutions since many decision makers are not tied to their PCs during the workday. Pay close attention to your website, does it truly address the needs of a global audience? Don’t make it mere word-for-word translation in different languages.

Death of an industrial salesperson

Does this mean the industrial salesperson’s job function is dead? Not so fast! The famous Mark Twain quote, “The report of my death was an exaggeration” is very applicable here.

Social media and online marketing have forced the traditional salesperson to change his/her tactics like the rest of us but have not made them expendable.

Dave Brock in his post makes the most compelling case for the evolving role of today’s salesperson. He makes the following key points:

  • Just because something is on the web doesn’t make it accurate or even right. The salesperson may have to spend a lot of time re-educating the customer and correcting misunderstandings
  • Customers are prisoners of their own experiences (we all are). Today’s B2B salesperson must bridge the gap from the experience of others to the specific and unique needs and priorities of the customer. That starts with helping the customer ask the right questions
  • Great sales people help their customers consider new opportunities to grow their businesses; they help them understand new opportunities to improve performance. They help bridge the gap that marketing content and social media can never do

According to Dave, social media is not disintermediating the great sales people, it provides them the vehicle to be a more important contributor to their customers’ success. It changes the role of the salesperson and great sales people recognize this and are embracing it.

In other words, new and disruptive technologies can never make good sales people extinct. However, to remain relevant, they do need to embrace and master today’s social media and digital marketing tactics.

How has the role of the inside and outside sales team changed within your organization? Leave your comments below.


  1. Achinta: great points here. A book I read, The Nature of Technology, states that people and companies don’t adopt new technology, they encounter it. There is much more to this distinction than semantic hair splitting. The word is a more fitting way to express the evolution of technology. Too many times in technology, people look at innovation as terminus for what was invented before. “RFID will replace barcoding!”–an inaccurate pronouncement I’ve heard many times.

    As you point out, social media won’t eliminate salespeople. Salespeople encounter social media and use it in systems to achieve a business purpose–sales. If anything, social media will bring about subsidiary changes for salespeople. For example, it’s less necessary to “dress for success” by owning several gray suits, white shirts, and red ties–de rigeur when I started. But back then, it was nearly unthinkable to ask a salesperson for evidence of his or her writing skills.

    Today, hiring a salesperson who doesn’t write well would be a likely mistake. The right suit is less important. This is just one of many artifacts of the changes that new technologies bring. But they haven’t obviated the importance of personal selling.

  2. Andrew,

    Thank you for taking the time to read my post and commenting on it. I’m honored.

    You make an excellent point about encountering instead of adopting new technology. The RFID example you’ve given, makes it very clear. You are absolutely right about writing skills vs. “dress for success.” In today’s inbound marketing, it is far more important to write right than to own power suits and ties.

    Best regards,

  3. Loosely translated: The more things change…the more they remain the same.

    Sales and marketing have always been at odds with one another; technology continues to nudge them together as the lines between ‘traditional sales’ roles and ‘upstart’ marketing roles blur. Who really owns prospecting these days? Sales? Or marketing? In most industries, it seems to have migrated to the marketing domain. In industrial marketing – especially in heavy industry – if it’s moving toward marketing, it’s doing so kicking, screaming, and clawing its way there.

    Social media may be the great interrupter in this process: tapping the shoulders of industrial leaders to pay more attention to marketing over their more traditional ‘order taking’ passivity. Let’s be honest, a lot of industrial sales wasn’t sales at all. It was order taking at its best. The world has changed. Some manufacturers are learning this the hard way. So are their sales leaders.

    Andrew’s comment about sales people having to know how to spell is right on the money, especially as CRM systems with integrated email and, now, open-for-all-to-see social media have entered the picture. What’s more important: manufacturers awakening to taking real ownership of their brand…down to the very messages that get shared across ALL channels. That’s a big river to cross for most companies — not just manufacturers. But social media is making it more evident than ever that it’s time to start paddling…

    For what it’s worth, here’s a post that might be of interest. It’s titled: “Hey Manufacturing. Stop Whining. Start Marketing.” http://www.theemarketingblog.com/hey-manufacturing-stop-whining-start-marketing/


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