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IBM turns an open ear to the 'Voice of the Business Partner'

IBM's new ad campaign encourages channel partners in the small and medium-sized business market to give feedback via an interactive online forum.

IBM launched a channel-focused marketing blitz this week encouraging midmarket partners to take part in an interactive online forum called the Voice of the Business Partner.

Central to the campaign is a series of ads with a "call to action" for partners to use IBM's Web 2.0-inspired Voice of the Business Partner forum. IBM wants partners to begin "dialoging" with the company and each other about ways to expand and stabilize their presence in the small and medium-sized business (SMB) market -- or what the company calls the midmarket.

The company decided to go to partners "with a listening message" so that executives could understand exactly what the channel needs to grow in this market segment, said Karstin Bodell, IBM vice president of channel marketing for North America.

Targeting the SMB market has been at "the core of [IBM's] corporate mantra" for the last five years, Bodell said. The SMB market is the fastest growing segment for IBM and for many vendors industry-wide. And,

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since IBM's strength has historically been in its big-iron, enterprise (and typically expensive) technology roots, the company has had its work cut out for it. Indeed, IBM, like Oracle and other enterprise players, has had to play catchup in this market where Microsoft and Dell have been strong for years.

For that reason, IBM announced this year that it would spend $1 billion on marketing to SMB customers. But the company also realized that helping SMB channel partners is an important method of reaching customers.

"We know you [the partners] are the trusted advisors in the midmarket, so we are getting to the clients through the channel," Bodell said.

The Voice of the Business Partner campaign is focused on partners "that naturally serve the midmarket because they tend to be smaller and more local," as well as larger solution providers that now understand they need to target smaller companies in order to grow, she said.

The goal is for the company to pose "open-ended questions" that will spur strategic conversation. The first question IBM posed on the Voice of the Business Partner forum was: "What can we do to help you profitably grow your business?"

In answer to that, Mark Taylor, vice president and general manager of Arrow Enterprise Computing Solutions, an Alpharetta, Ga.-based distributor that works with IBM, said partners need to have a portfolio that's right for midsized companies, which IBM provides. Partners also need "effective demand generation techniques," making it easier to find new clients and get appointments with decision makers. In addition, they need a clear understanding of what kinds of midmarket customers are in their areas and in which industries these enterprises can most easily be found.

Taylor said IBM is on the right path with its SMB channel push.

"We created a midmarket group within our distribution business focused on helping resellers do more business with midsized enterprises," Taylor said. "There is an alignment between our strategy and IBM's strategy." Taylor added that he was happy to see IBM "pulling the partner in" on a major investment in attracting new customers.

In September, IBM will move on to another question on the Voice of the Business Partner forum, but this time, partners will decide on the question. Bodell said it's hard to predict what questions the partners will choose, but she wouldn't be surprised if at least one of them focused on cloud computing and where partners play in that market segment. That question is pressing industry-wide.

The campaign -- which is supported by IBM's hardware, software, services and financing units -- will continue into next year.

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