You’ve probably heard the term ‘social selling’ in some capacity. Maybe you sat up a little straighter, thinking you ‘get it’ or maybe you nodded your head in silence when your manager told you to optimize your strategy. Social selling gets thrown around in a lot of meetings but like many evolving trends and roles in the workplace (remember when influencer marketing was a newcomer?), it’s often misunderstood. But social selling is here to stay, and it’s core to your business operations and ultimately, your company’s success.

To do it well, you have to have a deep understanding of how it works — and accept that it’s not ‘owned’ by one department in your organization. In fact, social selling is — much like a lot of successful business initiatives — a team effort.

Let’s debunk the myths and clear up any confusion around what exactly is social selling — and why we need to clearly and simply define it in the first place.

What they’re saying

You’ve probably heard a lot of definitions of social selling. Here are just a few:

If you’re confused, don’t worry, you’re not the only one.

Is it marketing or selling?

A lot of people think that social marketing and social selling is interchangeable but the distinction is an important one if you are to understand how to optimize your strategies (both for social marketing and social selling).

Unlike social marketing, social selling is aimed at cultivating one-on-one relationships vs. broadcasting to many. And while Wikipedia will tell you that social selling is primarily aimed at sales professionals in your organization as opposed to your marketing department, folks like Symantec’s Sr. Director of Digital Marketing, Charlie Treadwell, would argue that it actually applies to anyone in your organization who has one-on-one communication with a prospective customer.

Of course, this group includes marketing. That’s where the real confusion sets in.

Treadwell says social selling is “about providing information, connecting, discussing and creating trust in a way that builds relationships and shared value” ¬†— something marketing and sales frequently do well, together. Sales has the relationships and the expertise in ‘selling’ but marketing is often at the frontlines of the brand value proposition, the story, and the tools needed to measure and optimize these interactions.

It might be called social but it’s actually pretty personal

Part of the reason there’s so much disagreement around what social selling is and who owns it lies in the name itself, a misnomer, many would argue. Social selling is in some ways neither social nor selling — at least not on the surface.

Social selling isn’t about closing the deal, even though that’s certainly a goal of your sales organization. Nor is it about every conversation happening on a social network — or even online. Even though, of course, many of the conversations you have with your customers have long been happening in the social sphere.

In an interview with Inc., social selling expert ¬†Mario Martinez Jr. advises that “your goal is to take every online conversation to offline.” By definition, social selling isn’t conventional selling — it sits at the intersection of sales, marketing, online, and offline worlds. At its core though, it’s aimed at delivering value to a potential contact, influencer, and customer in the right place, at the right time through personal relationships.

Here’s how Kissmetrics defines social selling, at a glance:

Social selling is:

  • Endorsing a customer on LinkedIn.
  • Running LinkedIn searches for outbound targets
  • Liking a client’s Facebook post.
  • Sharing the company’s latest blog post on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+.
  • Studying prospects on LinkedIn and Twitter before a meeting.
  • Following key accounts on Twitter.
  • Retweeting a client.

Social selling is not:

  • Delivering the hard sell on LinkedIn.
  • Closing deals on Twitter.
  • A replacement for talking to prospects.
  • A magic bullet for making quota.

LinkedIn’s 4 pillars of social selling

LinkedIn, a company that is undeniably at the forefront of the social selling movement, recommends that all professionals involved in social selling adhere to the following 4 pillars:

  1. Create a strong professional brand to increase your visibility to your desired contacts and build trust in your industry.
  2. Don’t just blanket the world with your pitch. Instead, focus on the best prospects for your industry, and your goals.
  3. Establish yourself as a subject matter expert / thought leader to show that you’re an informer, not a me-former. Regularly share interesting industry content, engage with stories shared in your field, and limit how much you promote yourself over others.
  4. Start with genuine conversation. If your prospects feel like they’re immediately being sold to, they’ll be less likely to want to build a relationship with you. Remember: the selling comes after the social in social selling.

It’s all about the 2 Cs

Regardless of what you’ve heard about social selling, it really boils down to two things: connections and content. Personal branding expert Dan Schawbel told Forbes that “social selling success is comprised of both making new connections and sharing great content. You start by identifying your target audience and connecting with their network of influencers.”

And he’s not talking about overly-promotional branded content that you’ll often find blanketing your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter feeds. He’s referring to content that makes sales people great storytellers that add value to their personal connections.

Who owns social selling in an organization?

Ultimately, it makes the most sense for your sales team to ‘own’ social selling from a distribution perspective — these are the people who have forged personal relationships with prospects and customers and who are likely maintaining those relationships. But increasingly, your marketing team will likely play a supporting role. The marketers in your organization can help craft messaging that will resonate and feed your sales team quality content (both branded and non-branded) that they can then share one-on-one with their connections.

With all these complex definitions floating out there, it’s no wonder there’s so much confusion about what social selling is in practice. The next time it comes up in conversation, remember these three simple things:

  1. Social selling is personal: one-on-one vs. one-to-many.
  2. It’s about building trusting, long-term relationships, not making ‘the sell.’
  3. It’s about leveraging the tools, technologies, and people at your organization to deliver value to your customers.

Most importantly, it’s neither social or selling.