What does music on Friday have to do with social selling? Well, quite a lot according to Oliver S. Bauer, who manages the social selling activities of Allianz Global Investors in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. We spoke to him about Networking 4.0, the touchpoint puzzle, the measurability factor and, of course, music. This interview was conducted by Markus Hill, Finanzplatz Frankfurt. (This interview was initially published in German on 5 October 2022).
Hill: Oliver, you’ve been working in financial services since the late 1980s and have held a number of positions in product and marketing departments at various asset management firms in the financial centre of Frankfurt since the mid-90s. What is it about Frankfurt that ties you to the city and how did you get involved in financial services in the first place?
Bauer: Actually, I am a genuine “Frankfurter Bubb” – Frankfurt born and bred. We initially lived in Rödelheim and then moved to Bornheim, both districts of the city, where I grew up and went to school. And I didn’t leave Frankfurt proper until I was in my mid-30s.
Even though my dad wasn’t trained as a banker, he worked as the head of the administration department of a bank. Sometimes he had to work on weekends, too, and I was occasionally allowed to tag along. His office was at ADCA-Bank (not to be confused with ADAC, the German automobile club), which was located in a villa at Lindenstrasse 27. That building used to hold a great deal of fascination for me at the time, with its long corridors, creaking parquet floors and huge French doors. It even had a pneumatic tube mailing system. It was the epitome of a traditional bank. What I didn’t know at the time, though, was that the building had had a very chequered history. For instance, it was the headquarters of the Gestapo from 1940 to 1945, a fact that would probably have terrified me back then. My mum also worked at a bank, as the PA – which was simply called a „secretary“ in those days – to the head of trading/securities at Frankfurter Volksbank. So, you can see that I came into contact with banking at an early age. In year 6 at school, I was in charge of the class petty cash and in year 9 I completed a work experience placement at the Volksbank. Basically, it was pretty clear even then that „this lad’s going into banking“.
Hill: And you have always remained loyal to Frankfurt, at least professionally…
Bauer: Yes, with the exception of a stint in what were then known as the „new states“ – the former GDR – for Deutsche Bank from 1991 to 1993. But otherwise, I have always worked in Frankfurt. Looking back, perhaps it wasn’t necessarily advantageous career-wise; then again, Frankfurt has always been an ideal place to combine family, friends and work. It’s a city I have always enjoyed being in.
Hill: Product development, product management and marketing are three areas that stand out on your CV – all quite familiar, traditional job descriptions. But the job you’re doing today, as a „Social Selling Programme Manager“, sounds somewhat unorthodox. How did you come to land this role?
Bauer: It started back in early 2015 when one of my bosses asked me if I would be interested in launching a pilot project for social selling. My initial reaction was one of wide-eyed puzzlement – „social what?“. I said to him „I’m neither a techie nor a digital native. Alright, I like my iPhone, but that alone surely doesn’t qualify me for this?“, to which he replied: „Well, social selling is not primarily a technology project. It’s about people, marketing and sales, relationship management, processes, understanding the industry and the big picture. But it’s also about having an eye for detail and dealing with regulatory and legal issues. You have to be able to inspire and persuade people. It’s about arousing their curiosity and playing the long game – and that’s why you’re the right man for the job!“ It took some time before I really grasped what he meant and that’s how I got into social selling. In fact, there are not that many of „us“ in Frankfurt’s financial centre nor in our sector yet. Maybe that’s why the term „social selling“ still strikes some people as a bit exotic. So, although we were ahead of the curve when we started more than 7 years ago, meanwhile I get the impression that there is a growing number of „us“ in the industry!
Hill: What does your job involve? Advertising on social media?
Bauer: No, that’s the job of some of my other co-workers. To be honest, the answer to that question is not as easy as it seems. That could have something to do with my job title itself, which can often be misleading. It’s exactly the opposite of your question. In fact, social media marketing and social selling are like apples and oranges: many people sometimes just hear or read the word „social“ and then it’s saved under „something to do with social media“. Which is not totally wrong, as it does involve social networks. But it’s nothing to do with social media marketing or corporate communications, and it’s not predominantly about publishing content, either. Obviously, that’s also part of it, but not at the heart of social selling. Lastly, it’s not a question of using the company’s own channels, but rather those of the individual members of staff.
Hill: I see, this seems to be a key distinction. So, in other words it’s more about networking?
Bauer: One definition goes like this: Social selling is a strategy of leveraging social media to establish and expand a network and use it to gather information, foster and strengthen trusted relationships and gain influence. In that way, it enables you to forge a robust, personal brand and, ultimately, do a better job. On first reading, this sounds complicated. But let’s be honest here, if you break it down into its constituent parts, is it not simply what decent salespeople with a long-term mindset have always been good at? Networking, relationship management and influencing people on a personal level? I think that you can do everything, or let’s say almost everything, that you can do in the physical world on or with the help of a social network, too. It even enables you to do a bit more sometimes. In any case, it lets you do it very efficiently and in a slightly different way.
A piece in the touchpoint puzzle!”
Bauer: However, the fact is that there are also limits and we have to de-mystify social selling, as it is not the holy grail either. Rather than replacing many things, at least not yet, it complements them. In future, people will still get together in person, at meetings, at events or for lunch. At the end of the day, social selling is another piece in the overall touchpoint puzzle with existing and potentially new clients. Asset management has always been a people business and will largely stay that way for the foreseeable future. But it would be foolish to believe that our industry – of all industries – is the only one in which digitisation will not have an impact on B2B sales. That’s why sales and marketing, especially in the wholesale segment but also in institutional sales, have to adjust to it. At the same time, social selling has the potential to save jobs. Or to put it a little less bluntly: sales staff who are not proficient in social networking will likely have a harder time of it in the future. Incidentally, it can also be a lot of fun once you understand how it works.
Hill: So you have become a social seller, too?
Bauer: Strictly speaking, no. Obviously, I use many of the elements of social selling myself. But my primary role is to lead the programme and I currently manage more than 160 colleagues in the EMEA region, practically around the clock, in sales and marketing as well as other in areas of our business, so that they are able to use all the facets that LinkedIn provides efficiently and within the scope of our guidelines and code of conduct. Sometimes, my role can be quite challenging in the sense that I play the part of a coach and a motivator while simultaneously acting as a kind of social media policeman. It’s also important to note that nobody in our organisation is obliged to participate in the programme – it’s entirely voluntary. In addition, my job also entails populating a content library with posts that have been coordinated with co-workers in Frankfurt, Munich, London, Paris, Milan and Madrid, purchasing suitable software tools and drawing up guidelines. On top of that, many aspects of my work involve interacting with a variety of different marketing disciplines.
Hill: What KPIs do you use? How do you measure your success as a company?
Bauer: I had a funny feeling you would ask that and, in a way, it’s become one of my favourite questions. Nowadays, everything has to be measured, weighed up and evaluated… that’s the power of data, I suppose. And it makes absolute sense in many cases, although I’m more a fan of being „data informed“ than „data driven“ in our B2B business. I am rock solid in my conviction that if you start trying to measure social sellers, it can very quickly take you in the wrong direction and end up by creating entirely the wrong incentives. If I may, I would like to mention three aspects in this respect:
Firstly, we are dealing with people’s personal, private profiles. There is no disputing the fact that social selling blends the professional and the private. By implication, it is clear that if someone engages in social selling as an employee of a company, it must always be voluntary and based on an intrinsic interest. Furthermore, a desire to control and measure personal profiles and activities, and ultimately your staff, is easier said than done. It depends on having clear rules and boundaries as well as complete transparency, which in turn means that a social selling programme requires a certain degree of sensitivity. That said, those participating also benefit from it themselves in terms of their own personal brand. It’s really a classic win-win situation.
Secondly, I am absolutely certain that relationship management, or the quality of relationships, cannot be truly measured from the outside. In many cases, the people you hang out with on a Friday night are not your best friends, but possibly someone in another country who could be with me in 24 hours if I needed them. To put it another way: the really important things happen „under the bonnet“ and can only be measured by an organisation to a very limited degree.
Hill: … and thirdly?
Bauer: Thirdly, from a company’s perspective, it would (theoretically) make almost no difference to me whether a salesperson or an account manager works their way through a phone book, attends a different trade fair or convention every week, has a business lunch every day or spends their whole time on LinkedIn. It’s like in football – what counts is what happens on the pitch. Having said that, as a company you should be forward-thinking and actively ensure that your sales organisation is modern and agile and has the right tools for the job. Ultimately, that is what gives you a competitive advantage. Or, indeed, a disadvantage if you ignore it.
A reckless strategy!”
For instance, Gen Z, like any new generation, behaves very differently and has an influence on older generations as well. That is one good reason why ignoring the possibilities that social networks offer can almost be described as a reckless strategy. It is also an investment in a company’s future.
Hill: So social selling has no specific targets?
Bauer: Not at all, don’t get me wrong. Every individual social seller should have clearly defined tasks and objectives, that is, secondary targets that are conducive to achieving their overall goals. In other words, a classic goal pyramid. For some sellers, this could mean expanding their network to include current and future decision-makers or other key players. For some, it may simply be a case of conducting research and finding new leads. For others, it might be publishing and commenting every day. It is worth mentioning here that commenting on posts can be a much more effective means of participating on social networks. Partly with an eye to underlying algorithms, I would recommend commenting on 5 to 10 posts by other users for each post that you publish. But there is no definitive right or wrong way to do it and there are many diverse strategies in between. And yes, you can and should also set yourself quantitative goals: how many new decision-makers have I found? How many people have I done a favour for? How many constructive discussions have I taken part in this week? When planning and contemplating these questions, I try to help each social seller establish their own individual profile and then develop specific agendas and set priorities that are best suited to their own personality, target group, market and underlying sales objectives. But we should not be under any illusions here: in the long run, apart from indicators on customer satisfaction, or rather customer loyalty, the success of sales activities is primarily measured in terms of P&L performance and social selling must never be an end in itself.
Hill: Is social selling essentially limited to sales?
Bauer: Well, to start with, the main tool we’re working with is LinkedIn, which is a business platform. In my profile, I’m not identified as „Oliver S. Bauer, Eintracht Frankfurt fan“, but as „Oliver S. Bauer, Social Selling Programme Manager at Allianz Global Investors“. In other words, as an employee of a company in a particular role. But that doesn’t mean, by the way, that I don’t sometimes post football-related content or interact with it – especially since the beautiful game is more of a business nowadays than ever before. My point is, though, that everyone, whether intentionally or not, starts out as a brand ambassador or brand representative, because the quality of a profile and all of a person’s activities reflect on the company to a greater or lesser extent. Naturally, this goes hand in hand with considerable responsibility, which some people forget. Anyway, back to the original question. Even though everyone represents a brand, not just their own but also the company’s, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily social sellers. But in principle anyone can become one. Depending on the role, it may be more accurate in some cases to describe them as corporate influencers.
Hill: Now it’s getting complicated…
Bauer: No, it’s not at all. Perhaps it would help in addressing the question to divide a company’s workforce into different groups, such as official spokespersons or CXOs and the managing directors. More broadly, you can also add various figureheads for certain issues or people like chief economists, who the public might already be familiar with from other media. The second group is effectively the extended arm of the first group: the contact persons for the media and the press. They are often, but not always, very active on social media channels, both on behalf of the company and privately. The third group are members of staff working in sales, marketing and, in some cases, customer service – that is to say, the group for whom social selling was once „invented“. Nowadays, there are two further categories that are becoming increasingly relevant in complementing this third group: on the one hand, these include specialists in a variety of functions and „content creators“ for specific topics who may or may not be in a client-facing role; and, on the other hand, co-workers who simply „have something to say“ and enjoy navigating social media.
„Whatever you do,
avoid a cacophony of voices!“
As I previously hinted at, there is indeed a debate over whether a person can be called a social seller or a so-called corporate influencer, which is something of a trendy label in the social media scene at the moment. The boundaries between them are not always clear cut, although the dividing line is usually marked by those with immediate responsibility for sales. Regardless, the key point is that a company must ensure all of these activities are well organised. If not, it results in a cacophony of voices and, in the worst-case scenario, can have a negative impact on a brand’s reputation. So, when we talk about publishing within the context of social media – which, just to recap again, encompasses a whole spectrum of other aspects – it is absolutely vital to define it within a content or distribution strategy and to implement it as an essential constituent part of that strategy. When that is done in a smart and intelligent way, it becomes an efficient and cost-effective element in a company’s marketing and communications toolbox. There is another important aspect I would like to point out in this regard as well. Management of these activities, and I would deliberately include monitoring in this as well, has a particularly significant role to play – not least in financial services and asset management. We are a highly regulated industry and that obviously means there is a need for adherence to a strict framework, which I briefly touched on earlier.
Hill: Monitoring?! So you monitor your co-workers? That sounds like stalking.
Bauer: No, that would be outrageous. Apart from the fact that I neither have the time nor inclination to do so, it would also be completely irrelevant. Moreover, it would not do justice to the whole topic. I always put it this way: I consider myself the first line of defence on behalf of Compliance. In other words, I keep an eye on what social sellers are doing. Using technological support, I selectively view posts and if I find one that does not comply with our guidelines or regulatory requirements, which is extremely rare, I get in touch with the poster and we talk about it. Our co-workers tend to be grateful and pleased about the fact that they are not simply left to their own devices and that there is someone supporting them. Because these kinds of incidents don’t happen on purpose, they are genuinely unintentional.
Hill: Just to return to the category of social sellers. Would this also be a suitable role for fund managers? Most of them have something to say and could create content. If they enjoy it, it would be a perfect fit, wouldn’t it?
Bauer: That’s a fair question. On the face of it, it would seem an obvious choice, particularly since professional clients invariably prefer having direct contact with this group of people. But that is precisely where problems can sometimes arise. The job of a fund manager has always been a delicate balancing act. Their primary task is to manage funds and to achieve the best possible performance. As a consequence, they are the people who the public and the professional media is most interested in. As long as the funds perform well, everything is hunky-dory. But the pendulum can swing the other way and that’s why I’m very hesitant when it comes to portfolio managers publishing content themselves. But, as we discussed earlier on, the possibilities of social media are extremely diverse. Fund managers establish a network of expertise from the private sector and academia, exchange ideas and views and sometimes manage to break out of their bubbles and come up with completely novel ideas and insights. So, whereas I feel that fund managers should be very selective and defensive in creating content or publishing frequently, it’s a different story when it comes to analysts or product specialists who have a kind of intermediary role. While they are firmly embedded within portfolio management, they also normally have a good instinct for and connections to sales partners and institutional investors. This has the potential to create a winning team on social media, particularly in combination with classic sales staff.
Hill: You regularly post to LinkedIn on Friday afternoons yourself with the hashtag #FridayNightListeners and I’ve been eagerly following your posts for a few months now. What exactly is that about? After all, it’s got nothing to do with business content, or has it?
Bauer: To be honest, it’s nothing special, but thanks for mentioning it. I’ve been publishing these posts every Friday at 5pm since the autumn of 2019 and they always start with „Dear #FridayNightListeners“. In essence, they are based on a song, often from the 80s, which I write something about. But the post itself is not usually about the song per se and I’m not doing some kind of music review. Instead, the title of the song or the artist(s) provide the general context for the actual issue that I want to raise that week. Sometimes it’s a personal anecdote, but it’s usually about topical social or economic news and developments in Germany and the wider world. Sometimes it’s about sport, but I might also discuss marketing or social media. By extension, then, it’s actually very much about business – indirectly and often outside of my own bubble. The posts are about issues that I want to share my own reflections on that are occasionally thought-provoking or sometimes just intended as entertainment. And quite honestly, nobody wants to be confronted with highly polished corporate content all the time. There is a good reason why it’s called a „social“ network. That also leaves space for cat content on LinkedIn, but let’s leave that for a second interview.
Hill: Are you also musically talented yourself?
Bauer: Seriously? Not in the slightest! I’m a total dud in that respect, I’m strictly a consumer. It’s similar to wine – for me, it’s either „I like it“ or „I don’t like it“. But 20 or 30 years ago I used to be pretty savvy when it came to hi-fi systems. The following comparison springs to mind, a discussion among us nerds back then that’s cropping up again today when it comes to digital marketing tools. In those days, the question was whether to have one single system or the best brand for every piece of equipment. And that’s the question we have to answer today. The key thing here is: how important is the interplay between the various components, or how important will it be in the long run? Is that just theoretical or is it really like that in practice? At the end of the day, it comes down to the quality of the speakers anyway, which ought to make up half the budget of a music system. Translated to the social selling world: you can pick the best tools and the best systems and publish the best content. But if your communication is not in tune with the times, you lose effect, clarity and brilliance.
Hill: What has been your most successful post so far?
Bauer: Oh, that’s not the point. How do you define success? Achieving maximum reach? Wrong KPI! It all started out as an experiment. But having since published around 150 posts, a loyal community has emerged who really do look forward to interacting on a regular basis, sometimes more, sometimes less. And not all the communication takes place in public; I often receive private messages about a post, too.
„It’s not about reaching as many people as possible,
but the right people!“
But we shouldn’t kid ourselves: 5pm on Fridays is not exactly the best time to publish lengthy posts of around 3,000 characters. Just as with social selling, though, it’s not about reaching as many people as possible but the right people with the right content. Essentially, every social seller acts as a sort of mini community manager. There’s a good analogy to fishing: casting large trawl nets and returning to harbour the next morning with whole load of by-catch is not what social selling is all about; targeted fishing is much more akin to a sustainable social selling philosophy.
Aside from the added benefit of the series enabling me to „play“ and try out new things, it „forces“ me to create new content every week. This has a disciplining effect and, hopefully, also helps me to improve my English writing skills.
What drives me is a desire to provide a little bit of joy in people’s lives, which I hopefully succeed in doing. When the war in Ukraine erupted, I felt that music posts like that weren’t really appropriate, so I took a break. But then some people wrote to me and encouraged me to carry on, „keep going, what you do is important“. That kind of feedback means much more to me than a thousand „likes“. For many people, the series has meanwhile become a sort of signal that it’s (almost) time to finish work and go home for the weekend.
Hill: That’s a nice cue, as we’re about to call it a day here, too! Oliver, many thanks for your fascinating insights! And as you have told me today, you are happy to share your knowledge on marketing issues and social selling. So, to our readers: feel free to contact Oliver on LinkedIn if you like. Oh, and one final question: what’s on the playlist this Friday?
Bauer: Yes, absolutely, I am always delighted to establish new and interesting contacts and exchange ideas. And as to your question, that’s something I won’t divulge! But, nomen est omen – it’s got something to do with our city, the „sound of Frankfurt“. Stay tuned! [Editorial notice: The song indicated here refers to the 7 October 2022 edition of #FridayNightListeners, which was posted immediately after publication of this interview. (https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6984165509923504130/)]
You can view Oliver Bauer’s LinkedIn profile by clicking this link: https://www.linkedin.com/in/oliversbauer/