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Many marketing executives at IT service companies will tell you that marketing strategy development is a lot more complicated than it used to be.
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As IT service providers make plans to prioritize their marketing efforts in 2017, they are finding that not only has the explosion of social media created more channels to broadcast their message, but some say the variety of platforms being offered has complicated their decision to find the right place to air their message effectively.
The growing use of YouTube, Facebook and other social media marketing outlets, along with the rising importance of blogs, content marketing, case studies and webinars have joined the more traditional marketing approaches such as networking at trade shows, lunch and learns, telemarketing campaigns and direct mail outreach as formidable ways to reach new clients.
"I am seeing the best-of-breed service providers using a combination of everything to get their marketing message across," said Stuart Crawford, CEO at Ulistic LP, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based marketing firm that represents managed service providers (MSPs). "Companies are using lunch and learns, virtual seminars, trade show and speaking engagements with executives in various vertical sectors, but they are also getting engaged on social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to get their message across."
Crawford's observations reflect the findings of The CMO Survey's research which found that spending on social media has more than tripled, from 3.5% to 11.7% of marketing budgets from 2009 to 2016.
One company that has made the decision to use social media marketing platforms as the main delivery mechanism for its communications strategy this year is Foursys Ltd., an IT security services company based in the United Kingdom. Still, Andy Wool, marketing manager at Foursys, told SearchITChannel that his company will continue to invest in traditional activities that have yielded results in previous years, such as events, webinars and outbound marketing.
"In 2017 we'll be spending equal amounts of resources, and more than we have ever invested before, on content marketing, specifically video, search engine optimization and paid content promotion across social platforms," Wool said. "YouTube is now the second largest search engine in the world and we plan on utilizing that platform in the coming 12 months."
Tech change affects marketing strategy development
While companies are deciding what tools they'll use to get their message across, marketing executives also have to contend with the dynamics that come with the introduction of new technology and the trickle-down impact that forces channel companies to offer new products and services to stay competitive. This, in turn, affects how they'll market themselves for future growth.
Whether they are providing platforms for the internet of things market, offering cybersecurity offerings in the age of ransomware, scouting for potential clients looking for artificial intelligence solutions, hoping to win new customers with cloud computing or exploring blockchain technology, convincing clients that their company is the best IT service provider to do the job can be a tough sell in a crowded market.
Andy Woolmarketing manager, Foursys Ltd.
For many IT providers that offer a variety of technologies, developing a message that clearly states how all the products and services being offered will work to solve a customer's business needs adds another layer of complexity to marketing strategy development.
"The biggest challenge a value-added reseller faces is the breadth of products they have available to market," Wool said. "They could literally send a marketing message a day and that still won't be enough to cover all areas of service. Devising a VAR marketing strategy that's most optimal for the goals of the business and minimizes opportunity cost is a challenge even the most experienced channel marketer will struggle with -- unless they're very specialized."
Taking the long view: Educational marketing
The ability to convey what an IT provider can offer has given rise to what Crawford describes as educational marketing, which calls for IT service companies to educate the business community on how to cost effectively implement technology, how the technology will align with their business goals and what they can expect the return on investment to be in the months after a technology implementation is completed.
"It's not a sales approach, it's an educational approach and that takes longer," Crawford explained. "Sometimes it takes three to six to eight months for a business to understand how the technology will improve their operations. The immature managed service company will throw in the towel long before they start realizing the true benefit of an effective educational marketing strategy because their patience runs out or they just run out of cash."
For Stanley Louissaint, president of Fluid Designs Inc., who is also the sole marketing executive at the IT service provider based in Union, N.J., the top item on the agenda this year is face-to-face networking events and speaking engagements, which will allow him to convey his message to smaller audiences.
But there's also a social media component to Fluid Designs' marketing strategy development effort. This year, Louissaint said he'll continue to use Facebook's advertising platform, which can locate companies in the vertical markets he wants to reach, identify the names of executives he wants to connect with and geographically locate businesses that are in close proximity to his office.
"With Facebook you can drill down and select the audience you want to target and that gives you the ability to control how your marketing dollars are spent because you are not casting a wide net," Louissaint said. "Facebook also provides helpful metrics. For example, if somebody views or clicks on my Facebook ad that activity is tracked."
The MDF challenge
Louissaint added that looking for an easy way to market his company is important and one of the reasons why he hasn't approached manufacturers for market development funds (MDF). He added that while securing MDF should be helpful in supporting marketing strategy development, the process required to secure these funds take a lot of time and effort and the money is tied to a set of requirements that may not always be beneficial to his company.
"Having to go out there and find marketing development funds takes a lot of work," Louissaint said. "Another problem is once you find MDF dollars you discover a lot of manufacturers have limitations on what you can do. They don't necessarily support every marketing idea you have to use those funds."
Crawford, who once ran an MSP, said scouting for MDF dollars often means that in order to demonstrate that you can sell their technology, vendors want to see that your company's IT staff possesses the technical skills to understand the applications and services vendors offer.
"That's a challenge for a lot of smaller MSPs that just don't have a sales volume," Crawford said. "Another hurdle is that many vendors want you to be an advocate for them and commit to saying that you won't sell any other solution but theirs. A lot of vendors have reservations that they are going to distribute marketing funds to solution providers and then they're going to shift that money to assist with implementing another solution."
Partner marketing: Strategy development may tap many channels
As IT service providers seek the best way to fund their marketing plans, and drive an effective marketing message, one thing is constant -- all the marketing channels are not going away, Crawford said.
"Different people respond to different messages that are presented in different ways," Crawford said. "Marketing has to be painted with a very broad brush to hit all the senses. Some people like to read, some people like to visualize and some people like to hear your voice. But at the end of the day, no matter what tools you use to convey your message, effective marketing still involves talking to the client about how to achieve their business objectives and business targets and that hasn't changed."
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