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The answer is a resounding, “yes!”  Just as with other networks, business networks are a means to connect people.  They bring buyers and sellers together to transact electronically, making business-to-business shopping as easy as the shopping experiences that we expect in our personal lives.  As such, there are several arguments for why you should consider business networks when mapping out your customer engagement strategy.

It’s where the buyers are.

Before you dismiss the idea as not being relevant for your industry, consider the fact that companies already on the network prefer to buy all sorts of things using the network.  At Ariba LIVE in Rome, I heard a speaker from Hawesko, a distributor of wine and champagne to both consumers and businesses, talk about how they won the business of a financial services company with a 500,000 EUR annual spend on wine by providing a catalog for branches of the firm to order bottles via the Ariba Network.  Hawesko views the Ariba Network as their B2B eCommerce channel and they treat it in a way similar to how they treat the Web for their consumer business.  While at Ariba LIVE I met sellers from businesses ranging from advertising agencies to mining supplies.

It’s another, more targeted, channel.

Ariba Discovery allows sellers to publish a company profile and market themselves directly to buyers on the Ariba Network interested in the products or services they offer, and then field requests for quotes or other types of inquiries.  This strikes me as very similar to the way that consumer brands use social media – creating profiles that allow consumers to learn about the brand, and interact with company representatives.  This doesn’t replace a great website, but rather augments it.

It cannot be an afterthought.

If you want to connect with customers via the business network, it cannot be an afterthought.  Listening to speakers from companies like Blue Marble Media and Delta Multimedia Services at Ariba LIVE in Las Vegas, it is clear that your presence on the network must be a well thought out part of your overall sales and marketing strategy.  Your profile needs to be up-to-date, well-articulated, and aligned with your overall marketing plan.  The classification of your goods or services needs to be well thought out, and the content and collateral published there must be regularly updated in the same way you would update a website.

It needs to be orchestrated with other channels.

While buyers may approach you via the network, they will certainly expect a multi-channel response that may include email, telephone, or even in-person visits.  Having a plan for responding to inquiries quickly and efficiently is paramount, as in many cases the buyers are using the network because they are looking for a fast turnaround.  As a part of your engagement strategy, you should consider equipping your sellers with tools to rapidly inform themselves about the buyer, collaborate across the business to formulate a quote or response, and track multi-channel interactions with a buyer.

To net it out, a business network can be an excellent lead source if managed correctly as a part of your broader customer engagement strategy.  But, to work optimally, it requires the attention of both marketers and sales people, and it needs to be supported by seamless, cross-departmental processes.  So, the next time you are sitting down to evaluate your customer engagement strategy, don’t forget the business network.