. . . Ok, maybe not so "live" because it is now late in the evening on the day of the conference, but I'd like to share a few insights I gathered about the state of business-to-business (B2B) digital marketing today.

BtoB magazine's one-day event features frank conversational discussion from top B2B brands (mostly tech ones like Cisco Systems, Intel, SAP, VMware, Tellabs, and IBM) in moderated panel format. Digital lead generation/pipeline augmentation, social selling, agency trends, building B2B community, developing engaging content, and mobile marketing filled out the agenda.

This was my second year at the event, and the highlight again was the social media awards. Featuring 10 categories ranging from integrated campaign, to Twitter, mobile, and Pinterest, BtoB singles out top performers in social marketing. It also unveils tech and nontech people's-choice awards as voted on by subscribers.

You can find the full list here, and I hope BtoB will publish the scripted descriptions in a future edition because all honorees were interesting and unique and offer B2B marketers a look into how to use social to advance business. Heartfelt congratulations to all award winners — well deserved!

Looking over the list, here are a few observations you can take away about the state of social marketing in B2B:

  1. B2B lags behind business-to-consumer (B2C) in scope, impact, and creativity. Not to take anything away from award winners; there is plenty of great work here. But when taken together, you just don't see the big reach/influence numbers, eye-popping creative, or sheer exuberant engagement with B2B social marketing that you do with programs focused on consumers. Money and resources are clear limiting factors — B2C outspends B2B by leaps and bounds. I can't help but feel that the specificity of B2B audiences — and differences in social behavior and expectations while on the job — will likely cause this gap to remain for longer than B2B marketers would like to admit.
  2. Integrated programs rule. BtoB magazine needs to rethink its award categories. Focusing on specific social tactics like LinkedIn, Facebook, viral video, corporate blogging, and mobile reinforce the notion that social is a "channel" and not a new way of engaging with customers. It's no surprise that award recipients in both integrated campaign categories — runner-up Deltek for tech and winner Aon for nontech — also won the people's-choice awards in their respective categories. Social just makes more sense when used with other tactics to engage potential buyers and customers in discussion about what your brand can offer their business.
  3. B2B social use is wildly diverse. Social marketing is a bit of misnomer here, since award winners featured activity around corporate citizenship (Aon, GE, and UBM DeusM) and training and support (Dell, Cisco, and VMware) that fall outside of the brand awareness, consideration, and demand creation charters of mainstream marketing. I believe that this reflects B2B's ongoing struggle with figuring out how social fits into this new age of digitally savvy customers and the changing nature of the business contract between B2B buyers and sellers.
  4. BtoB needs to broaden the field of participants. Oh, boy. I don't know how to make this point without sounding catty, but here goes: The folks we saw today are starting to look a little familiar. I mean, when Cisco gets the nod in three out of 10 categories two years in a row, don't you think it's time to see someone new? I was most intrigued by the Hobart (with gyro) iPad app that enabled sales to demo bulky machinery virtually, Dun & Bradstreet's "Ed Ahead" featuring its CEO with a bunch of third graders, and Sourcefire's "Breakdown of a Fake AV Scammer" reality point-of-view video. I think there are a bunch of B2B companies using social in similar ways with great results, but they are too busy — or unaware — to get involved in submission and voting. Well, maybe they should . . . 
  5. B2B marketers still struggle with explaining the value of engaging in social activity for business purposes. Award descriptions were rife with metrics like followers, views, and impressions. You know, the kinds of measures that keep marketing in the make-it-pretty department. I give a hats off to Hobart for generating 300 leads with its iPad app and Intel for boosting its HealthIT community with 1,200 more members through weightier blog topics. These are the kinds of results the whole business can care about.

If you attended the conference or followed along online or at Twitter #BtoBLive, feel free to chime in with a comment or two about what caught your fancy.