As blogs and social networking sites grow in popularity, IT solution providers are finding these Web 2.0 sites increasingly useful to promote their businesses and generate sales.
There's no one right way to go about embracing Web 2.0. You could spend a few minutes a day posting messages on Twitter and see just as much value as someone who spends hours writing blogs and updating Facebook and LinkedIn pages. But the bottom line is, as more IT consumers use these sites in the process of making purchase decisions, solution providers need to start paying attention.
"People can find ways to reach their market without blogging or Twittering, but I think it's a big advantage," said John Powers, CEO of Digipede Technologies, an independent software vendor (ISV) in Oakland, Calif. "It depends on the market, but you've got to go where your customers are."
Like many technologies, Web 2.0 began as a consumer phenomenon and is now being applied to a variety of business uses. Companies are setting up internal blogs, wikis and social networking sites to foster communication and collaboration among employees, but it's the use of public Web 2.0 sites that holds even more promise for solution providers.
A big part of the appeal is the mass audience these technologies provide. Facebook, the personal social networking site of choice for many solution providers, boats 90 million members worldwide. LinkedIn, a social networking site geared toward professionals, claims 25 million members. And even Twitter, a burgeoning service that lets members communicate via short text messages sent through the Web or from mobile devices, has more than 1.2 million members, according to Twitter directory TwitDir.
Blogging: The gateway to Web 2.0
Still, solution providers usually get their first taste of Web 2.0 sites by blogging. Powers started his blog, Powers Unfiltered, in 2006. The blog features Digipede news, commentary on other IT happenings and the occasional update on his personal life, such as the solar panels he had installed on the roof of his house.
Powers and others have cited the book Naked Conversations, by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, as an inspiration to start blogging.
"I bought their argument that if you have something to say, this is a good way to say it," Powers said. "And I felt like it was a good way to get more conversational with the market -- not just our customers or potential customers, but everybody who has an opinion on the market."
SMBLive, a broadband services provider in Reston, Va., runs two external blogs, Broadband Evolved and 5Conversations.
"We invested the time and energy on day one, creating a blog on a separate domain that would give us a platform to talk publicly about issues that we think are relevant," CEO and co-founder Matt Howard said.
By giving a blog a separate domain, instead of hosting it on a corporate website, readers view it as a place to go for information and discussion -- not as part of a marketing or public relations campaign, Howard said.
"There is an element of reality to it," he said.
But blogging can accomplish the same goals as marketing and PR -- mainly, attracting customers. Regular readers will come to recognize the company behind the blog as a trusted advisor and turn to that company when they need to make a purchase.
That's a common occurrence at The EBS Group, a Lenexa, Kan.-based Oracle partner where several executives write blogs.
"We are regularly getting what I would call inquiries from something that one of my guys has written," said CEO and managing partner Scott Jenkins, who recently launched his own blog, Solution Savvy. "A couple of times a month we're getting an inquiry that I don't think we would have gotten before."
Social networking builds connections
Another Web 2.0 technology that presents marketing opportunities for solution providers is social networking. Dave Sobel, CEO of Evolve Technologies in Fairfax, Va., originally joined Facebook for personal reasons, but he saw an opportunity when he realized that more than half of his "friends" -- contacts who can share information through the site -- were professional acquaintances.
Now, Sobel uses Facebook to let his friends know what projects he's working on and what conferences he's traveling to. That has opened several new doors, like the time he posted that he was working on a virtualization project. Minutes later, he received a message from an old college friend who saw the post; the friend wanted to let Sobel know that he's now a project manager for Hyper-V, Microsoft's new virtualization hypervisor.
Sobel also writes a blog, Evolutionary Business Thoughts, and posts on Twitter. Being visible on Web 2.0 sites has helped him form new business partnerships and close sales more easily than he could in the past, he said.
"I view it as a marketing effort," he said. "What other activity can I get that much discussion and penetration from out of 10 minutes of effort?"
Get linked in with customers
At BrightPlanIT, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based systems integrator, every employee is encouraged to join LinkedIn and participate in its online community. The site's "answer" feature, which lets users ask and answer each other's business-related questions, has been particularly valuable, CEO Alan "Skip" Gould said.
"The value of answering a technical question, if you're a consultant, and getting visibility is huge," he said. "It's not marketing in the traditional sense of marketing."
BrightPlanIT has signed four or five new customers thanks to Gould's reconnecting on LinkedIn with people he knew at past jobs. Mutual business partners have also referred new customers.
"It's driven business our way," Gould said. "I'm active on some other sites, but LinkedIn is the only one that I've seen results from."
Gould said he spends a few hours a week updating his LinkedIn page with company news, his current projects and his travel schedule. When he goes to face-to-face meetings, people already know about him and what he's been up to, so it's easier to focus on making a sale, he said.
LinkedIn also lets users recommend each other's work, which is changing the way customers choose who to do business with. John Head, enterprise collaboration director with the PSC Group in Schaumburg, Ill., said a recent customer checked his references on LinkedIn before even approaching him to do business.
"It's making the sales process more about your past work and less about how good you are on a phone call," he said.
Does Twitter have business value?
One of the most popular emerging Web 2.0 sites is Twitter, which offers a new communication style with its 140-character limit on messages, or "tweets" as they're called. That limit -- along with the proliferation of mundane tweets like "eating a turkey sandwich" -- has some solution providers questioning Twitter's business value.
"If something catches my eye, I make sure to respond," Sobel said. "But I can't say that I've Twittered something and a sale came through."
Digipede has made some new business contacts through Twitter, but nothing with customers, Powers said.
"It's not a channel I'm comfortable doing a commercial relationship through yet," he said. "It's much more about finding new opportunities. … We've never made a sale over Twitter, and I'm not expecting that we'd do so."
Another problem is that any Twitter user can follow any other user, unlike on Facebook or LinkedIn, where people actually have some real-world connection.
"I have people following me on Twitter, and I have no clue who they are," Howard said. "The fact that someone follows you on Twitter doesn't make them a contact. … It's not where I build relationships."
But some solution providers have found business value in Twitter. Head has more than 200 followers on Twitter, and prospective customers have contacted him about his tweets on Lotus.
"After LinkedIn, I probably drive more business out of Twitter than out of anything else [in terms of Web 2.0]," Head said.
The future of Web 2.0
Despite the growing popularity of Web 2.0 sites, solution providers agree that the technologies should supplement, not replace, tried-and-true sales and marketing practices.
"I still do more networking in the real world than I do online, and I get far more business from that than I've ever got online," Head said.
Most solution providers are just scratching the surface of Web 2.0 sites' utility in promoting their businesses. And they're constantly looking for new ways to apply Web 2.0. Sobel, for example, said he'd love it if he could sync his Facebook contacts -- which his friends update in real time -- with his Microsoft Outlook contacts. That way, he'd never have to worry about updating a person's new email address or phone number, making it easier to spread the word about his company.
And at The EBS Group, Jenkins said he is considering a more formal lead-generation program through the company's blogs, as well as consulting customers on how they can use Web 2.0 sites in their own businesses.
"As this younger generation grows up, that's how they're going to be connected," he said. "It's just coming into the businesses. It's very early."