Ken Kowal is one of a small but growing number of logistics professionals wired into social media.
Prior to joining Landis Co., a small Reading, Pa.-based third-party logistics provider, where he is director of new business development, Kowal founded FillShip.com, a company specializing in e-commerce fulfillment. As a small startup logistics company, FillShip needed to be noticed, and Kowal honed in on social media as the best way to make it happen.
For a time, customers typing in the phrase “order fulfillment” on Google were directed to FillShip as the second or third link, despite its small size and the big budgets of 3PL competitors.
Landis eventually acquired FillShip and hired Kowal largely on the basis of his expertise at search engine optimization. He now manages Landis’s blog, which functions as a kind of virtual white paper, to educate potential customers about fulfillment, shipping, warehousing and distribution without directly marketing the company by name.
Most of the blog’s users hold sales and marketing positions with 3PLs.
In addition to the blog, Kowal manages a group on LinkedIn called “social media for logistics.”
“I had never seen anything on LinkedIn on supply chain and logistics,” he said. “The idea is to have a repository of information and to get people to engage in dialogue.”
As marketing tools, search engine optimization and popular social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have been great for Landis. Since Kowal joined the company, those tools have generated the vast majority of the company’s new business by driving traffic to the company’s Web site.
That Kowal was able to get his company ranked so high on Google underscores the leveling of the playing field social media provides. “As a small business founder, I was looking for the most bang for the buck when it came to marketing and networking,” he said.
Logistics providers big and small are making their first forays into social media, using various platforms for advertising, marketing, hiring, recruiting, brand management, business process improvement and peer-to-peer idea sharing.
Even so, social media is highly underutilized in the logistics industry, with one of the lowest penetration rates among industry groups, said Jim Love, CEO of Toronto-based Chelsea Consulting. “It’s a very practical industry, closer to the rock face and more resistant to new things,” he said.
Logistics companies have been deceived by a “build it and they will come” mindset when it comes to blogs and other online forums. Love likens it to an empty restaurant; no one will enter unless they see other patrons inside. “It takes a long time to build up readership,” he said. “You have to invest, and be there reliably with good information.”
Love finds it amazing that more logistics companies aren’t using Wikis, which are basically online documents edited by users. The Wiki protocol is the best tool for creating online documents, while e-mails are the worst, yet we all use the latter and rarely the former.
“What would you give for a procedures manual that is always up to date, that never has to be updated because it’s constantly updated by the people who use it in real time?” Love asked.
Use of social media in the logistics industry will increase with the proliferation of mobile technologies such as tablets and smartphones, because it’s a highly mobile industry. It’s also important to remember that the social media landscape will be completely different in five years than it is today.
The 3PL industry is definitely in the early innings of the social media game, said Tom Nightingale, chief marketing officer for Con-way Multimodal, a division of $4.3 billion transportation giant Con-way. The industry is still waiting for a breakthrough moment as it assesses how to fully leverage the new technologies.
“We have a lot to learn about how to use it on a scale basis,” Nightingale said. “The beauty is that because the cost of entry is so low, people are able to experiment.”
Con-way executives and IT leaders recently convened an enterprisewide meeting in Portland, Ore., to develop a comprehensive strategy for investing in and supporting digital technologies. The company formed a Technology Standards Committee to explore digital marketing and evaluate existing and emerging social media platforms and mobile applications.
One of the key takeaways from the initial meeting was that annual reviews wouldn’t suffice. Digital strategies must be reviewed constantly, given the frenetic pace of change in digital and communications technologies.
Con-way began its foray into social media about a year ago by launching TweetLoad, which keeps drivers apprised of freight loads on which they can bid through Twitter. Carriers registered with Con-way Multimodal, which previously could bid on available loads through LINK, the company’s Web-based load board, now can access load posts through “tweets,” Twitter feeds updated every 15 minutes.
Once they sign onto Twitter, drivers can follow the posts for any length of time without having to re-log in. Although anyone can follow the Tweets, only carriers who are registered partners with Con-way’s third-party capacity network can bid on loads.
“Twitter is particularly appropriate given that we were targeting the mobile work force,” said Tyler Ellison, president of Con-way Multimodal.
About 190 drivers are using TweetLoad, and they are able to view hundreds of bid loads every day.
Social media augments, rather than replaces, other Internet technologies. Con-way maintains the load board on its Web site, and the information can be faxed or e-mailed to drivers. “Drivers can pull information as opposed to having it pushed,” Nightingale said.
The benefits of TweetLoad have yet to be quantified in terms of a bottom line, but the company is getting great anecdotal feedback.
In December 2009, TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson Worldwide, rolled out TMC Connect, a social media site described by the company as the first in the industry designed specifically for clients to interact. TMC provides supply chain expertise and transportation management technology.
The site was launched in response to customer demand. At almost every customer review meeting, the clients would all want to know the same thing, which is what the other clients were doing, said Jordan Kass, TMC’s executive director.
It’s natural that customers would want information from within their common community. Minneapolis-based C.H. Robinson is the world’s fifth-biggest 3PL by revenue and has more than 36,000 customers worldwide, including many Fortune 1000 companies.
Kass likens TMC Connect to an online think tank. Senior-level supply chain professionals, transportation executives and industry experts use the site by contributing content and engaging in discussions. Areas of keen interest to site users include cost savings, lean inventories, emerging technologies, improved on-time performance and reducing carbon emissions.
“Our clients have always asked us about best practices with other shippers, and they’ve always wanted insight into emerging technologies, legislative issues and optimization practices,” Kass said.
For now, the site functions as more of a one-way street than Kass would like. People love to read the research, case studies and other posted content, but it’s clear that for whatever reason, many logistics folks have not fully embraced two-way conversations over the Internet.
“It’s not where we want it to be,” Kass said.
TMC Connect is a secured site, but the company’s blog is open to the public. Instead of aggregating industry updates and data from other sources, the blog presents information about best practices and business process improvement from within and outside the company.
“We surprise ourselves sometimes with how much we have to say,” Kass said.
The company views TMC Connect and the blog not necessarily as revenue producers, but as providing a valuable, in-demand service to customers. As a marketing tool, TMC Connect has intrinsic value; the level of transparency provided by customer-to-customer online forums speaks to the company’s confidence in its performance.
Like any new 3PL technology, TMC Connect was rolled out gradually, starting with preconfigured topic forums. Building online communities is a relatively new phenomenon in the 3PL universes. To foster engagement among clients, C.H. Robinson holds annual meetings at which customers meet face-to-face to discuss best practices, business process improvements and other topics of common interest.
The value of TMC Connect and the blog will grow as Robinson continues to develop rich content. Kass hopes it will eventually evolve into a permanent database of contributions — discussions, commentary, opinions and practical advice — about core supply chain processes and best practices.
“You rarely get to talk to peers in that way,” Kass said. “We want it to be a community of innovation.”
Memphis, Tenn.-based 3PL CTSI-Global recently redesigned its Web site with connections to social media platforms a prominent feature.
The blog was designed to tap into a vibrant blogging and social media landscape, said Marly M.C. Hazen, the company’s Webmaster.
“With social media, there are so many more opportunities for collaboration, transparency and getting new points of view,” she said. “One of the strengths is that anyone can participate.”
Hazen hopes the blog will give the company an opportunity not just to share stories, but also to do its own investigations to foster discussions about industry trends. It plans to use social media as a marketing tool to build brand awareness and position the company as an industry thought leader.
As the blog evolves, Hazen wants to address specific client questions and include more videos, graphics and original research. She also wants to get other parts of the company involved, such as client services and other departments that deal directly with customers.
“This is where the world is headed in marketing,” she said. “You can’t just broadcast to an audience. You have to have a continuing conversation.”
Susan Shey Dvonch, a partner at Seal Beach, Calif., executive recruiting firm Shey-Harding Associates said at least 90 percent of job seekers are on LinkedIn, the world’s largest online professional network. Shey-Harding recruits executives for major shipping companies and other transportation and logistics providers.
A few years ago, people were reluctant to post on LinkedIn. “Now you look archaic if you don’t,” she said.
Contact David Biederman at email@example.com.