What is Social Selling Anyway?

Social selling has been a tool in the salesperson’s arsenal since the early years of LinkedIn, nearly two decades ago. Since then, it has evolved to take place anywhere your customers are, whether that’s Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, or even TikTok.

But does everyone understand what they mean by it?

Ultimately, social selling is a digital version of what every good salesperson should be doing in the real world anyway. Connecting with people, demonstrating their knowledge, being a human first, and a sales representative second.

As Philip Calvert, author of LinkedIn Lead Generation Secrets and founder of the LinkedIn Health Check, says:

“People buy people, but will they buy you?  Social media marketing has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with technique.”

Chris Grant, Head of Sales at Babelquest, goes as far as to say that:

“There is no such thing as social selling! What happens is actually social engagement, we use social to start a conversation but any selling comes later, once the conversation is underway – that’s why all the muppets that connect and send a sales pitch straight away fail.”

Timothy Hughes, Co-Founder and CEO of Digital Leadership Associates, echoes this advice:

“In the world of sales and marketing it’s conversations that create sales.”

Sounds great, but how can the average salesperson manage to engage at scale with their prospects whilst hitting their targets?

Automation and mass messaging might seem like great time savers, but they are rarely effective as a community-building tactic.

According to Richard South, Head of BD at Flourish, putting the time in is worth it:

“Of course, it depends how high up the chain you’re targeting and the value of what you’re selling but in my view a well-crafted, thoughtful approach to a handful of targets is much more effective than blandly spamming dozens or hundreds of people and just changing something like your reference clients when ‘targeting’ them.

Taking a bit of time and care also make the work less of a grind; you can input some real skill, experience and thoughtfulness into the process, allowing you to inject some of your personality and take some professional pride from what can otherwise be a bit of mechanical process.”

Can a salesperson be successful today without social selling?

With Covid-19 halting traditional sales in 2020, and most countries enforcing some version of a lockdown, even the most traditional-minded salesperson has had to adapt their approach. 

LinkedIn saw a surge of engagement on its platform since March, with a 50% monthly usage increase.

Many people in sales increased their activity online to make up for the lack of face-to-face opportunities to network. Rather than boosting a process, virtual selling became the only pathway to a sale.

In a recent survey of managing directors and salespeople to inform a new edition of his book Brilliant Selling, presentation coach Jeremy Cassell noticed some common struggles.

“Many of those surveyed found adapting to virtual social selling a challenge.

From not being able to gauge body language, to the technology not working properly (poor connection, customers struggling to use it).

Customers are easily distracted and not necessarily working in an environment in which they excel.

Training to adapt to this new order has been minimal, with most people surveyed learning as they go rather than receiving structured support from their company.”

“On the other hand,” he says, “a small but significant number of them found that some customers were happier to engage since lockdown than before, owing to having more time on their hands. But you have to initiate it to the same high standard you would have if it were face to face. Pre-suasion, adding real value in interactions and following up are all equally critical if you are going to make the most from the virtual world.’’

Think long-term in your strategy

There is an opportunity then, to make headway with your customers by reaching out on social and creating engaging content.
But it’s not about short-term gains as Tom Sorensen, CEO of an executive search boutique firm, has found:

I see many social selling professionals get off to a good start and write interesting pieces two to three times (at best).

Then they disappear for months but suddenly come back with a few more stories.

One Story = No Story. It’s not a sprint, social selling is a marathon.”

So how can you stand out when social selling?

With 700 million active users on LinkedIn, many of which will be competing for the same clients as you, how do you stand out from the crowd?

I asked various professionals for their best tips to cut through the noise.

1. Ask questions

”The best way to get people’s attention in any crowd is to ask a question that they will enjoy answering. So if you know who you want to be noticed by and you know why it is in their interest to connect with you and you have a really good question to ask them, you are all set.” – Clive Miller, CEO at SalesSense.

2. Don’t be afraid to go negative

In order to stand out, you need to be unusual. For that, let’s define the “usual” first.

The usual is fake niceness, caring, and other fluff that’s there only for relationship building.

So you have to be different – be blatantly honest, offensively direct, ask uncomfortable questions, and provide uneasy answers.” – Tal Paperin, Head of Global Success, KSW Solutions.

3. Personal stories are worth their weight

“Always back up your statements with personal experience.

Everyone can google a topic and come up with something insightful to say, but if you can back up your claims with your own life and work experience (and pitch your product along the way), you’ll have more success with social selling.” – Adam Hempenstall, CEO and Founder of Better Proposals.

4. Use humour when social selling

“It all starts with sharing laughter.

Humour emphatically domesticates the whole selling process making it more informal.

This means rather than the typical bluffness that follows a cold call with the recipient hanging up on you, he sees you as more of a buddy.

Who really rejects a nice slice of laughter?

To hit it right via this tactic, I always start with a touching joke that connects with my prospect.

People think it is a waste of time, but once your prospects can share a second of genuine laughter with you, he is already halfway through the door SOLD.

Why? Because trust is automatically triggered in gigantic quantities.” – Michael D. Brown, Director of Fresh Results Institute.

5. Cultivate the art of reciprocity

“The best way to receive sales is to give.

When you’ve established yourself as someone who has contributed to the lives of 100 prospects, your sales pipeline will also be full.

How do you execute this?

One way is to send a LinkedIn message or email suggesting three ways you can help them.

It may look like reviewing their product, sending your best ideas of this year, or introducing them to a mutual connection.

You can also end the outreach with a fourth option, for them to tell you what they want.

Doing this will create a wealth of relationships that will trickle down to more sales in your future.” – Brian Robben, CEO at Robben Media.

6. Go niche or go home

“If you’re sharing a video, your thumbnail has to pop!

How? I experiment with brighter colors and also leverage vertical videos (even on LinkedIn) to take up more real estate. 

I’ve also noticed that going niche will help you stand out. For example, my most-watched video podcast interview, to date, focuses solely on marketing strategies for the telecom industry.”  -Joe Escobedo, CEO Esco Media.

7. Go bespoke when social selling

“We need to stop thinking of the people we engage with on social as prospects – as soon as we flip it and think about them as people, any engagement becomes much more human.

Use personalised video messages, with tools such as Vidyard you can really stand out from the crowd”. – Chris Grant, Head of Sales at Babelquest.


It’s not too late for anyone to get into the social selling game, but if they want to stand out, they will need to come up with a unique strategy that makes sense for them as individuals.

It’s time to loosen the metaphorical tie: humour, personal stories, these are all things that have been proven to work on social media, enabling others to relate to you. 

The surest path moves away from automation efforts and towards building individual relationships. Mass generic connection requests followed by sales pitches just aren’t going to cut it anymore (have they ever?).

So, get ready to go deep or fade in the background. 

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