A division of Barnes Group Inc., with a history dating back to 1857, Barnes Distribution has been around the block a few times. They’re our first contestant in my “How would you make this company more social?” series.
The company provides a vendor managed inventory service for maintenance, repair, operating and production supplies. Think nuts. Bolts. Wire. Hydraulic hose. Chemicals. Electrical components. Small, but important parts that keep machinery and vehicles moving, reducing downtime. They stock over 55,000 parts across multiple distribution centers in the U.S. and Canada. So far, so good.
But the purpose of this series is to pick out a few social media opportunities for old-school companies…and maybe give you a few thoughts for your own business. So let’s get there.
Challenge number one for Barnes Distribution is that their business model is at odds with the Web. Yikes. Rather than you finding your own parts online and ordering them on your own to manage your budget carefully, a trained technical sales specialist is assigned to your account to help you manage your inventory levels. The way this helps your business is you spend little to no time worrying about running out of parts that cost pennies, ensuring you have what you need when you need it. Barnes pioneered this concept of vendor managed inventory in industrial supply.
There’s value in that service — high value — but you pay a hefty premium for that value.
Challenge number two is that Barnes has been overshadowed over the last two decades by faster-growing companies such as Grainger, Fastenal, MSC, and others. Company P&L performance, as a result, has lagged. They’re not the industry flagship they used to be.
While the purpose of these “More Social” posts is not to pick apart company strategic decisions from the past, highlighting the challenges sets the stage for how important it is for some of these companies to act more boldly and creatively to engage new and prospective customers.
The good news is that despite these two significant challenges, the marketing opportunities abound through social media for Barnes Distribution. Let’s look at just a couple real-world opportunities for them to engage customers and seize more brand recognition and customer loyalty through social media.
Barnes product users are knowledgeable, tenured maintenance experts. Generally speaking, they know what they’re doing. But technology evolves. Long-standing subject-matter experts retire. And with safety (and legal) concerns ever-present, there is a need to ensure customers are using the right parts for their maintenance and repair work.
That said, how about a Barnes Distribution YouTube channel with an endless supply of grassroots, three-minute videos teaching users how to select and use the right parts? Need just a little clarification on Grade 5 vs. Grade 8 fasteners or when you should go with plated vs. non-plated? Barnes teaches it on YouTube. Need help selecting the right hydraulic hose for the job? Learn the STAMP method from a Barnes expert on their channel. Do I really need that split-lock washer, or is there a better, safer, stronger way to fasten? Barnes has the answer in under one minute, thirty seconds. All for free, of course.
Except they don’t.
Search “barnes distribution” at YouTube and you’ll get a big nothing. (For that matter, search “grainger” — the multi-billion-dollar behemoth in industrial supplies — and you won’t get much either.)
There’s a missed opportunity to create customer and brand loyalty based on either product features OR expertise. If a small company can produce an adequate 2:34 video teaching me how to reload the string on my weed eater, why can’t a $300MM organization? This is a minimal-cost marketing effort just sitting there, waiting to be pounced on. Barnes constantly sells its expertise — its the juice that makes vendor managed inventory go. But alas…
Connecting with Users One by One
So let’s assume for just a minute that there’s not a single maintenance manager in the United States or Canada who’s on Twitter. I doubt it, but let’s say that’s the case because it’s a bit tougher to find those types of folks there. Do you think you can say the same for Facebook? A full year ago Facebook gained nearly 800,000 users in the U.S. alone who were male and aged 45-65. I can’t say this with statistics backing me up, only experience, but that’s the sweet spot for the typical U.S. maintenance manager.
There are already over 2,400 people who “like” the “Auto Repair” page at Facebook as of this writing.
So while Twitter is often held-up as a killer channel for coupon distribution, insider deals, and quick-hitting networking for savvy retail marketers, Facebook could be a little bit of that and more for Barnes Distribution. Why not start up a casual group to let customers interact? Why not check-in with those 2,400 to hold a contest, offering a free set of tools? Why not adding a few clever Facebook pages with those sarcastic-yet-popular sayings that people love to “like”?
Why not poll your customers and share ideas with them at the very site they frequent to upload and share photos of their children and grandchildren and play disturbingly long sessions of Farmville?
Why not talk directly to, and engage, users as an organization, not just through those in-the-field product specialists?
Beyond Facebook, why not create a truly worthwhile group on LinkedIn where customers and industry experts alike can actually interact — asking and answering each others’ real questions — rather than simply take part in someone else’s efforts at recruiting your employees? For that matter, why not start your own job board at the Barnes web site, where customers could post free ads for skilled maintenance specialists?
And about those online videos I mentioned a minute ago? Why not a knowledgebase, or even a blog, that over time becomes the go-to resource for the industry? “ANSI” and “DIN” and “SAE” and “Bowmalloy” and “100R2 hose” and and the 14,000 varieties of Loctite and all sorts of other product jargon and acronyms I could put in quotation marks could be defined in one place, by the industry experts — Barnes Distribution.
Social media is about engaging customers and communicating with them in an authentic, one-to-one way. It’s as guerrilla marketing as it gets. Low-cost, high impact, highly persuasive, and the biggest demands early on are time and consistency.
Barnes Distribution, in all its ancient glory, could regain its industry leadership position as the experts in technical product expertise while also establishing itself as the most customer-engaged, customer-focused organization in the MRO industry, with even the most modest social media strategy and time investment. Its an opportunity just waiting to be seized. And it will be at some point…by someone.
UPDATE: The comment below, albeit anonymous, makes a fair point. My LinkedIn profile is publicly available to anyone who Googles me, but I should have disclosed that I worked for Barnes Distribution previously. I’ve added that to my About page. I did not work in marketing, nor even at the corporate office in Cleveland. I didn’t have input on marketing strategy or communications. In fact, the company did not have a specific leader in charge of marketing for the last year or so I worked there.
They’re a good company with whom I had a great run and loved the people I worked with…and I want nothing but success for them, hence the post. But I have no influence at or interest in the company any longer. I simply see an opportunity.