How would you make Barnes Distribution more social?

How would you make Barnes Distribution more social?

How would you make Barnes Distribution more social?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.

Barnes Distribution: How to make them more social?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.

Online Video

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 startĀ  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.

11 thoughts on “How would you make Barnes Distribution more social?

  1. You should have disclosed that you once worked for the company – I guess you couldn’t make changes or make these suggestions while you were there? I hope you got permission to use their logo on your blog.

    There already is a way for employees – including sales people – to interact using the company’s intranet. But since you don’t work there any more you wouldn’t know about it. No business wants people talking about their day to day business issues – or proprietary matters – in an open forum like Facebook or Twitter. It makes good sense for the company to keep this kind of interaction in a closed environment. MRO distribution is a competitive business and publlic forums are no place to go over private business issues.

    Sure it is easy for your weed wacker retailer to make a video – I bet they only have a few products. Try to make videos when you carry a few HUNDRED THOUSAND products with various uses. The fact that Grainger doesn’t do it either should have been a clue to you that it’s not something that is always worth the time and cost.

    It’s important to note that companies like Grainger and Fastenal got big during the years that there wasn’t anything remotely like Facebook and Twitter. BD is a relationship based business but that doens’t mean that the social interaction has to take place on Facebook and Twitter, there is something to be said for the value of real face to face contact.

    • Hmmmm…where to begin. Fair point on the disclosure. I’ll take you up on that: I’ve updated the post and my About page — nothing to hide but felt it was a moot point. I didn’t make or influence any marketing decisions at Barnes while there, and I don’t today, nor do I benefit from any at this point. And unlike your unmoderated, unedited comment, it’s not an anonymous post either — I’m fine sticking my name on it. Regarding the post, however…it has nothing to do with internal communications or employee relations (did you actually read the post?). It has to do with what efforts a company — any company, really — makes to connect with CUSTOMERS and PROSPECTS using freely available, increasingly popular, social networking and sharing tools. That’s it. And MRO distribution isn’t any more competitive than Aramark vs. Cintas (former employers), or T-Mobile vs. Verizon vs. AT&T, or Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola. Those companies have as much, if not more, at stake than Barnes Distribution. And it’s exactly BECAUSE Barnes is a relationship-based business that it should evaluate new ways it can connect with customers and users of its products. That’s what makes Barnes great — it works from a relationship foundation. But the company has a chance to engage in a way they haven’t before — as an organization — in order to solidify those relationships even more. And regarding videos, surely you can appreciate that HAVING ACCESS to a few hundred thousand products doesn’t obligate you to create a few hundred thousand videos. Customers would obviously not expect that. Five well-meaning, educational videos beats zero.

  2. I think Barnes’ business model is limited. I feel there is a certain percentage of the market for VMI. Fastenal didn’t grow fast by VMI alone ( which I feel Fastenal doesn’t even come close to VMI the way Barnes does it), they grew by putting stores up all over the country and the business came to them in a sense. Basically, the only marketing Barnes does is through it sales force. So, Barnes is pretty much relying on sales reps to penetrate the marketplace to get the word out. Most sales reps are in their “comfort zone ” and do not do much prospecting IMO. By the way, I have been with Barnes Distribution for over 20 years as a sales rep. I like your ideas on putting videos on Youtube for customers to seek out answers or see product demonstrations. I also agree that Barnes needs to find new avenues to connect with their customers other than just the sales force. There are other ways to build relationships with customers besides relying on your sales reps. Barnes’ always preaches it’s “Value Added Services” that it brings to the table, so the Youtube idea could be another extension of that. I have a had a great career so far at Barnes and think it has been a great company to work for, but I feel Barnes has relied too heavily on the VMI model and hasn’t had the vision to make itself grow other than through acquisitions. This could be a start.

    • Thanks for the comments. I appreciate your take as a 20-year veteran. “A start” is a good way to look at it. Social media isn’t going to rescue a company or neutralize all of a company’s ills. It’s just one way to engage customers in a new way.

      Your comments about comfort zones is a real issue, too, though it’s not just a Barnes thing. So many companies rely on a field sales force to do it all for them — market, sell, deliver the bad news, etc. And they do it because there’s no company-to-customer relationship. The relationships are almost entirely the property of those salespeople. Missed opportunities…

  3. Brandon,
    As you can see from the post the mindset of alot of salespeople is it won’t work.
    I started with Barnes,Bowman at that time, in 1979. I think the real problem with Barnes and other companys similar to them is the amount you have to sell now for the same earnings you could achieve 20 years ago. I sold close to $300,000.00 in 1988 at 20.2 % comm. and that comm. was close to the average. Now to make 60 thousand you will have to sell close to 550 to 600 thousand and make quota. On top of that exspenses have risen. Now you have to have a cell phone, high speed internet and close to three times the cost for fuel plus the price of cars and insurance. Selling 550 thousand at lower prices also takes much longer to put the order away. Without help 600 thousand in straight VMI business is about all one person can handle and you are working 70 hours to achieve that.

    • Maldrine,

      Thanks for commenting. However, none of that has anything to do with this post or what social media is all about. I understand your plight, but this isn’t really the right place for it. There may be a Yahoo group or someplace for you to talk about these things with co-workers.

  4. Brandon,

    You’re making some really good points here. But it goes back to the heart of the question for many organizations – “what am I, why am I here”? You take the angle of the folks at Barnes being the expert, the go-to people for anything related to nuts, bolts, wires and whatever else you mentioned in your post. The trusted advisor.

    But if you ask Barnes senior management, what do they say? Do they look at the company like that? Looking at the “about” page, I think the answer is no.

    Many senior corporate people still don’t really “get” social media beyond reconnecting with high-school classmates and looking at pictures of their grandkids online – let alone how it can help, no – how successful social media engagement is *critical* for their business. They have simply defined their organization and its purpose differently. Point is – if you can’t really envision it, you can’t really build it.


    • Jan, my old friend, thanks for checking in. And you’re absolutely right — you don’t shoot then aim. And any sort of organizational effort to reach out has to have that level of buy-in.

  5. Everything here ties back into 2 issues.
    1st is bottom line profit. While MSC and Fastenal have expanded over the years, gaining more market share, Barnes has consolidated locations, (SSG’s, store fronts and warehouses) and relied on it’s field sales people and field management to retain, penetrate and add new customers and new business.
    Product training for a variety of MRO product is available on the company Webb site. Right or wrong, company sponsored Social networking VIA utube and other outlets may reduce the need for direct CSR interface and could even have an adverse effect by customers using it to support purchases from competitors.
    Secondly is bottom line profit. The workhorse of the company is the field sales rep. The constant erosion of the (senior) commissioned sales reps (due to earnings and reductions in commissions) is creating an influx of new (salaried) employees from the most current generation with little or no experience in the MRO field. I could go on and on but you have to consider that if the priority is not to keep your reps earnings at a scale commensurate with their responsibilities and expenses, how much importance can one expect to be placed on Social networking?
    You have some good ideas and when Barnes hires you back to implement them, please remember these comments. Regards, ABC-

  6. Brandon, would you be honest enough with us readers to say if you are conducting a survey for Barnes on this topic or are looking for some type of re-employment with the results of the research?
    I just couldn’t imagine your interest in this without return benefit. Thanks for letting us know.

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