What B2B Publishers Don’t Get: You Can’t Own the Conversation

Although there may be a few exceptions, Stephen Saunders got it right this week  when he wrote on Folio:‘s web site that most B2B publishers are miserable failures at social networking.  He argues that you can’t build and maintain an online business community unless you produce lots of your own content to support it.

There’s some truth to that, as I’ll suggest. But he omits the bigger point. B2B networks usually fail because publishers expect to control them. Publishers have a product focus, and to them, a social network is just another product. They don’t realize that social networking is instead a conversation. And you can’t own a conversation.

Saunders draws a distinction between consumer and business networking. Consumer networks on any subject can pretty much take off by themselves, he argues, because there will be a “large potential audience of enthusiasts who will be interested in plopping themselves on your site and talking.”

By contrast, business networks, which generally focus on narrow topics of interest, will likely appeal to only a comparatively small group of people:

“But things are rather different if your site is about VOIP-based integrated multimedia applications designed to run over DSL last mile networks. First, there are only 300 people in the U.S. who know about said topic. Second, they are probably not interested in talking to other people about this subject on a public Web site.”

Though he doesn’t say this explicitly, his argument is that in smaller networks you need some kind of catalyst to get the conversation going. In the consumer network, there will be enough motivated people to provide content that others can respond to. But in the B2B network, the publisher has to provide that content, and lots of it:

“What is the answer? It’s quite simple. And it’s the same answer to pretty much all questions in business publishing. (No, not alcohol.) It’s content. In order to convince important people to talk about important things you need to lure them to your social network, and keep them pinned there, with large amounts of proprietary information. Produced by, like, editors and stuff.”

But, Saunders says, publishers don’t want to pay for the editors they need: “In our industry, money talks, and copy walks.”

I won’t argue with him on this point. You can’t be part of the conversation if you don’t contribute to it, and that means producing content.

But the bigger problem lies with the attitude of most publishers toward the social networks they want to build. It’s an attitude reflected in Saunders’s argument that you need to “lure” people to your community and “keep them pinned there.” This is the language of control, and that doesn’t build communities, it kills them.

As Jeff Jarvis has argued for years, you can’t own communities, and you can’t build them; you can only enable them. Being a responsive and generous participant in the conversation (i.e., producing lots of copy) is an important part of enabling a community. But if you expect to be in charge of that community, it ain’t gonna happen.