When discussing the notion of a third platform -- a computing model that will revolutionize the way we work, similar to the PC (the second platform) or mainframe (the first platform) -- tech analysts and vendors bandy about several disruptive technologies. One of those is social media. Social media is introducing new challenges within organizations, and those challenges translate into lucrative business opportunities for IT channel companies.
"I don't know that the channel has built a tremendous amount of traction in this space, but there is a lot of opportunity," said Carolyn April, director of industry analysis at CompTIA."This is definitely a new frontier for the channel, but it fits nicely around some of the other practices they have right now, so it's a natural fit. I don't see [social media] as something that orbits other offerings, but integrates nicely with what they are already doing."
On the IT side, companies are having problems with the integration piece: gathering transactional and interactional master data for our customers.
principal research analyst, Gartner
While a cottage industry has developed around social media marketing, value-added resellers (VARs), systems integrators and solution providers are in a unique position to capitalize on some of the challenges their customers face. "The channel's differentiator is that they already own the customer in many regards around the other solutions that they sell. That is a big advantage," April said.
Solution providers have opportunities in particular around social media integration and professional services.
Social media integration
Social media offers a couple of business opportunities for IT channel companies. According to April, "Integration comes up as the No. 1 opportunity. It's really the sweet spot for the channel to operate. I don't think of the integration with the social media platform as being different from any other integration they work on."
Jenny Sussin, principal research analyst for Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, agreed. "On the IT side, companies are having problems with the integration piece: gathering transactional and interactional master data for our customers. We know who they are. We know the last time they posted. But it's [separate] from our legacy systems. That's one of the problems that needs to be solved, and there needs to be some standard way to solve it, and there isn't right now," she said. "That's customer challenge No. 1, and if someone can solve that, they're well off."
Sussin explained that there is much greater competition around social media strategy than there is around social media integration.
April agreed. "The market's not saturated at all, so if you want to make the investment to skill up in this area, you have a great opportunity to make a lot of money as an early adopter."
Professional services and social media
Social media also offers channel companies an opportunity to deliver professional services. "There's an opportunity for resellers to educate [their clients] on how they can expand their marketing and sales scope relatively cheaply by using these new channels," said Paul Gillin, author and principal at Framingham, Mass.-based Paul Gillin Communications, a social media firm specializing in training and strategy.
"There are other companies that are competing to do training for smaller companies, but VARs have a unique opportunity because they already have a relationship with the company. They generally know the business well, and they know the people. They're not just gonna parachute in with a training course and disappear. The VAR wants to help them succeed. There's a trust equation there that few other partners enjoy," Gillin said.
Professional services can extend even deeper to address the business processes associated with social media. "As a resource that affects privacy and security, social media is a policy and process issue that end users are not prepared to manage on their own," said Ryan Morris, principal consultant at Boulder, Colo.-based Morris Management Partners. Social media is a natural next step for companies that have experience designing communication systems or security policies for them, he said.
"Social media is supposed to be natural and organic. It requires either the trust that nobody is ever going to say something silly, or careful access controls and policies that can be communicated to everybody," Morris said. IT channel companies can help establish the policies, rules and restrictions for social media communications, and the manner in which they are tracked and monitored.
"This is the next step into professional services, where it's not about plugging in devices but designing process around technology. Not only is it necessary from an end user's perspective, but it is a significantly higher-margin type of service arrangement for the channel. This is the kind of stuff that engages beyond the IT department on a senior executive level, and you can charge for a service that turns out to be business process design," Morris said. "The work is different, so it does some require some rethinking and retraining to how we deal with customers in the channel," he added. "But the level of effort is worth it when you think of how many customers need it and the billable hours. They're not single-margin-type engagements like commoditized technical engagements."
Getting up to speed on social media
Of course, before you can cash in on these business opportunities, you need some training, and that will take some time and money. "Facebook, Twitter, they don't have a channel presence that they work with, so they don't offer training. You'll need to find a third party. There are plenty of training companies out there. It just depends really on how the channel decides to take advantage of it. Training's more of an investment rather than a benefit that they would get from the traditional vendors," April explained.
Part of the learning experience should include using social media for your own marketing efforts. "The reality is if they get to be an expert at using it internally, those same best practices can be applied to what the customer is going to use it for: beefing up marketing, lead gen, providing training over YouTube. That same blueprint they can translate into what they can do for a customer," April said.
Not only does this give you hands-on experience with the technology, it enables you to market your social media services by demonstrating your expertise. "Credibility is important. If you don't practice yourself what you're teaching, then it undermines its credibility," Gillin said. "The technology channel, for the most part, is still unsophisticated in its own use of social media, so those channel companies that move first are going to have an edge. They have a chance to move well past their competitors," he said.