Rethinking Social Media in Channel Marketing

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Facebook and Twitter changed the way people communicate and maintain relationships. Social networks are now beginning to change the way businesses evaluate products and make purchasing decisions. The shift will make “social specialists” a necessity in vendor and solution provider organizations.

People keep up with family and friends on Facebook. Professionals share ideas and news through Twitter. And, increasingly, social networks are becoming the place where IT pros research products and services before purchasing.

Case in point is a recent thread in the Spiceworks security community forum. A user posted a simiple question: Which unified threat management appliance vendor is better, Fortinet or SonicWall? The response was overwhelming and one-sided. SonicWall users raced to endorse their brand of choice and praise its UTM’s performance. They were equally critical of Fortinet in terms of price and performance.

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Fortinet – directly and through users – was absent from the conversation. Only a relative handful of users rose to Fortinet’s defense.

The exchange got me thinking: Will the rise of social media as a business tool make having a social media engagement specialist a necessity among vendors and solution providers? It’s more than probable.

The magic of social media is that no one really controls the origin or flow of conversations. People are free to exchange ideas, experiences and insights on any topic. The technology industry has long sought to leverage social tools as a means for replacing technical support; users would self-police problems through social exchanges.

Users, on the other hand, are using these tools to talk about products and vendors. Many IT professionals and, increasingly, solution providers are engaging in social forums on their brand and product preference, as well as the problems they have with certain vendors. All of these conversations fall far outside the control of vendors, which have always sought to keep tight reins on their communications and brand integrity.

In the Spiceworks community forums, where more than 65,000 IT service providers and 1.7 million end users often congregate, conversations range from how to use features in the Spiceworks platform to operational issues between branch offices of companies. It’s equally common for users to probe the quality of products and services and the experiences of users with different vendors.

Spiceworks advocates to vendors the need to engage with its community, to participate in the discussion. It’s not a matter of counter-messaging or controlling a conversation, as marketers and communication pros have often sought to do in the past. Rather, it’s about honest engagement in the conversation, candor in communications and learning from the interaction. In the social context, credibility and integrity are integral to success.

Failure to engage in the social conversation could mean two things: Vendors and solution providers will remain oblivious to the factors and actors influencing purchasing decisions, and the subsequently lose opportunities to competitors for net-new sales.

This isn’t a Spiceworks or Facebook issue, either. Channel conversations are happening all across the social media spectrum. Channel partners are active in LinkedIn forums and on vendors' own open posting boards. Serial entrepreneur Bob Godgart is expected to take the wraps of his new channel social network, ChannelEyes, next month. Already, the site is garnering strong interest among vendors, industry associations and solution providers.

Imagine this: ChannelEyes opens and becomes a center for channel conversation and interaction. Solution providers use its features to learn about channel programs, promotions and initiatives – its intended purposes. But they will also have the opportunity to share in vendor experiences and performance. Failure to engage in those discussions will lead to loss of credibility and business.

Solution providers, too, will need to take these social media issues into consideration. On a local and regional level, end users are engaging in social and professional forums to find suppliers and contractors to help with technology needs. The forums often have the same impact as LinkedIn, Spiceworks or ChannelEyes in the purchase consideration process.

All of this is adding up to a rethinking of the role of communications in the social era. Vendors and solution providers will need to rethink not only where they engage with their partners and customers, but how they engage. It’s the “how” that reflects upon credibility, integrity and, ultimately, business success.

* * *

Lawrence M. Walsh is CEO and president of The 2112 Group, a technology business advisory service that specializes in optimizing indirect channels and partner relationships. He’s also the executive director of the Channel Vanguard Council. He is the former publisher of Channel Insider and editor of VARBusiness Magazine. You can reach him at lmwalsh@the2112group.com.

On Twitter:
Larry Walsh: @lmwalsh2112 | Channelnomics: @channelnomics

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