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IT channel sales and marketing strategy for the digital era

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Thought leadership content marketing: How the IT channel can benefit

Channel partners use thought leadership content marketing strategies to get in front of potential customers and build credibility within the industry.

Stanley Louissaint, a contributor of technology-related pieces to the New Jersey Law Journal, recently received a letter in the mail from one of the publication's attorney readers. In the letter, the attorney asked Louissaint to elaborate further on one of his articles about data retention policies and answer a number of technical questions he had. The attorney also asked Louissaint, who is also president of Fluid Designs, an IT services provider based in Union, N.J., if his company did IT work for small law firms, because he just so happened to be looking for help.

A customer relationship grew from there, beginning with the article that Louissaint had contributed to New Jersey Law Journal. "That [prospect] could be a 60-grand-a-year contract, so the writing was worth it," he said.

Thought leadership content marketing is one of the many marketing approaches that Fluid Designs and other channel partners, such as managed service providers and resellers, are using to adapt to buying behavior today. The method helps to establish a solution provider's authority in the industry and ultimately generate leads. While channel partners can outsource the content, many partners choose to create the content themselves, publishing it on company blogs, in newsletters or in industry publications. Partners can stumble, however, if they fail to address the right audiences with the right topics at the right stage of their IT decision-making process.

"For new business, there's nothing better for attracting a buyer than to establish thought leadership with them. How you create that thought leadership [requires you to] figure out what the tactics are that the buyer responds to in the early stages of the buyer's journey," said Laz Gonzalez, group service director of channel strategies at SiriusDecisions. "Is it a case study that's going to convince them? Is it some kind of blog that they're going to read?"

Thought leadership content marketing

Laz GonzalezLaz Gonzalez

To get the most out of thought leadership content marketing, channel partners should understand inbound marketing and how its approaches differ from traditional marketing.

Gonzalez noted that in the old days of sales and marketing, the seller was in control -- as opposed to the buyer. "There was a sales cycle, and [the seller] would try to navigate the buyer through sales cycle and offer presentations, take them out to lunch … get to that next step," he said. "You would always hear, 'Where are you in the sales cycle?'"

The buyer was dependent on the seller for information and by following the sales cycle would learn the difference between sellers' offerings.

"But today, because the Web is now playing a bigger role in educating the buyer, buyers have much more access to information," he said. The seller is no longer seeing an alignment between the sales cycle and the buyer's motions.

Gonzalez asserted that channel partners must now instead align their sales and marketing strategy to the buyer's journey, the process that buyers typically now follow when making purchases. For business-to-business buyers of IT, the journey generally consists of three stages.

In the first stage, the buyer becomes aware of its business/technology needs and of the offerings that currently exist on the market. The buyer entertains the idea of change, commits to changing and begins to do research, he explained.

The buyer then moves into the consideration/selection stage, where the buyer does side-by-side comparisons of the different options. It won't be until this selection stage that the buyer is going to reach out to the seller and ask for a demonstration, Gonzalez noted. At this point, also, more people from the customer organization get involved in the decision-making process. Key figures within the organization will look to secure internal buy-in about the choice.

Finally, the buyer reaches the validation stage, where the buyer must justify its decision internally. This is when the buyer uses ROI calculators and the like, he said. This stage leads to the IT decision.

In thought leadership content marketing, while different types of content may address each stage and buyer in different ways, the first stage is most critical and where you should focus your efforts, according to Gonzalez. Buyers in this early stage are at their most receptive to the information they uncover as they research online.

He noted that thought leadership can play an important role later beyond that first stage. For example, if your company is focused on cost savings for a client, you might target the justification stage with thought leadership.

Creating your thought leadership content

Creating thought leadership marketing content is something that anybody can do, whether you write it yourself or hire a copywriter, Louissaint said. He has been writing and blogging on a variety of topics since 2013, around the same time he joined the ASCII Group and saw an opportunity to contribute his expertise on a range of topics. Once he started publishing, it opened doors to more writing opportunities.

Staying abreast of things is part of the game, and I think whether you realize it or not, doing that helps to give you content.
Stanley Louissaintpresident, Fluid Design

Louissaint currently writes about one piece per month. His pieces are published in a number of different places, including IT industry publications like SearchITChannel.com and law publications such as the New Jersey Law Review. He also syndicates his articles in his company's blog and monthly newsletter.

He begins the writing process by identifying a topic depending on what audience he's writing for. For example, the topic he chooses will differ if he's writing for peers in the IT channel versus lawyers in the legal services vertical. Once he understands who the audience is, he said, he can then identify what people are struggling with and trying to learn about in the space.

Stanley LouissaintStanley Louissaint

Coming up with a topic is the most challenging part of the process for Louissaint, but he has found that ideas will develop as a result of regularly taking in new industry-related information to keep up to date in his business. "For all I know, my thoughts are an amalgam of everyone else's information that I've amassed and thrown my own input into," he said. "Staying abreast of things is part of the game, and I think whether you realize it or not, doing that helps to give you content."

After settling on an idea for an article, it's simply a matter of sitting down and writing. "Once you wrap your head around a topic, you commit to it and go in and do what you need to do," he said. "I am a little bit of a procrastinator, so it might be the day before [a deadline] that I finally … can sit down and bang this thing out in an hour and a half [or] two hours, depending on what the word count is."

He then works on revisions with editors from the publication he's writing for, generally in two drafts. For editing pieces he publishes independently on Fluid Design's blog or newsletter, he would like to use someone on staff as a proofreader. He is also considering finding another blogger in a different industry to exchange and edit blog pieces with.

The benefits of creating thought leadership content are "almost intangible," he said, and you never know what opportunities might come out it. At the top of the intangible benefits, though, is credibility, Louissaint said.

Credibility is not only established through your online presence, voice and expertise on a subject, but through acceptance and validation from your peers. "Your peers have to accept you before [clients] will. [Clients] don't know what we do. They don't know how we do it. So when they see [your peers] shaking your hand and telling you did a good job … that helps tell them, 'Hey, this guy does know what he's talking about. He is an authority.'"

Next Steps

Read about digital marketing techniques for channel partners.

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This was last published in January 2016

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Essential Guide

IT channel sales and marketing strategy for the digital era
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