It seems that you can't turn a corner these days without hearing something about social media or Web 2.0. Recently, vendors and channel partners alike have been catching on to this trend, with large vendors such as Cisco and Oracle implementing social networking sites to communicate with their channel partners. While some pundits claim that you can't get by in business today without using social media, many partners are hesitant to jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon.
Social media offers an interactive model for partners and customers -- especially SMBs
Social media is changing the way vendors communicate with partners and the way partners communicate with customers. Partners have always been innovative in finding new ways to communicate with customers, according to Jim Moffat, a U.K.-based sales channels consultant to IT and telecom vendors. Social media is just the next step.
"All technology vendors have used one-to-many and many-to-many online media for decades, starting off with bulletin boards, newsletters, newsgroups, then Web forums, webinars and, in the past five years, blogs and most recently, tweets," Moffat said. "The people that frequently answered questions in partner and support forums were among the first to adopt blogs, then Twitter, as a more efficient way of getting the company line out, broadcasting on a hot topic or obviating duplicate questions. Partners were among the first to use RSS feeds as a way of keeping tabs on those vendor evangelists or experts."
Being on top of the latest Web 2.0 technology is part of the value-add that partners offer customers, Moffat said. VARs, system integrators and consultants need to stay one step ahead of their clients in order to maintain their credibility.
"Being up on gadgetry supports the notion the partner must be in the know, well connected and adding value to the client by saving time, costs and reducing risk," he said.
Social networking also provides more opportunities for reaching small business partners and customers in a way that is more scalable than traditional information flow methods, according to Mark Sochan, CEO of Partnerpedia, a social networking portal for channel partners.
Social media options for partners
Partners, like vendors, customers and even college students, have a wide array of social media technologies available to them, whether they want to connect with their vendors or with customers.
Partnerpedia is an online portal for partner-to-partner networking. The site began as a portal for transferring information downstream from vendors to partners to end customers, but it evolved into the partner-to-partner portal because Partnerpedia executives "saw an opportunity to complement [its partner portals] with the latest in social media that augmented a new way of communication" for partners large and small, according to Sochan. "We think the value of Partnerpedia grows exponentially with the diversity of partners that are in the ecosystem," he said.
Partnerpedia offers two platforms: a free, open community and a privately branded online community for vendor partner networks, which starts at less than $1,000 per month, a price that Sochan described as "pretty much the cost of a conference you might exhibit at."
Nathan Greenlee, co-founder and principal at (aTs) al33t solutions -- a small, Denver-based provider of IT on-demand for SMBs and Partnerpedia Open Community user -- said his company uses the site for collaboration and to save time. "I don't have to go blind into trade shows or networking events anymore. I can see who's going, what they do, etc. The old way was to go to some lunch or dinner event and hope you met the right people. Now, you can both qualify and network online. That saves a ton of time."
Greenlee said that his company had also experienced strong ROI from social networking. "In the case of Partnerpedia, we spent very little time there and have two very strong partners that we are moving forward on projects with. We found like-minded partners there with little to zero effort. So that was impressive. We will definitely spend more time on that particular site."
Many other partners look to more general social networking sites, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, for collaboration and lead generation.
Eric Gold, regional sales director at Computer Aided Technology, a Chicago-based provider of product lifecycle management software, said his company uses Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as a company blog, to showcase its expertise across the country. "What we truly use social media for is to reach more of the global audience. Regionally we're good, but globally there's a much larger pond to swim in, and that's really where the leads have been generous."
"My sales reps use LinkedIn pretty religiously," said Zane Belyea, vice president of Frontier Technologies, a Wilmington, Del.-based integrator. "LinkedIn gives us information and lets us build some rapport directly with CEO/CFO/CIO-level individuals. We also take part in some of the forums through LinkedIn, such as the CIO forum, which generates opportunities and contacts for us."
Logos, a Cisco partner in Westlake, Ohio, uses LinkedIn frequently for networking with its clients, getting introductions to new clients, and finding information on businesses of potential clients. "We're definitely advanced users," said David Ito, Logos' product development manager. "We're embracing a lot of Web 2.0."
How to get ROI out of social media and Web 2.0
Not everyone is in agreement about how to use social media, especially in a down economy.
"LinkedIn can boost the image of a very small partner by appearing to be the center of a large network," Moffat said, "and can provide some assurance should an individual change jobs."
But partners shouldn't spend too much time on a site like LinkedIn looking for new customers, he said. "A salesperson in this economy needs to be spending time with [existing] customers rather than trying to find new customers."
Moffat said partners would need to "deepen relationships with their existing customers [by having] much richer conversations" than LinkedIn could facilitate.
Ito said Moffat is missing the point. "Anyone who puts the time in to learn how to use LinkedIn has an advantage over just using it for connections. It's not just saying, 'Hey, link in with me.' That's what everyone was doing a year ago. But now we're using it a lot to dive into the organizations and prospects and trying to shorten the relationship gap that happens with our clients and our prospects. It's about trying to deepen the relationships we already have."
Is there such a thing as using too many social networking platforms?
Small channel partners, which have limited resources, have a broad range of social networking options to choose from, including general-purpose sites like LinkedIn, lesser-known (but channel-specific) sites like Partnerpedia, and specialized vendor-specific sites like Cisco Partner Connect. It may be necessary to choose one or two services rather than maintaining multiple profiles across many sites.
Partnerpedia is trying to counter this by playing well with other social media platforms. "We see a lot of value in having seamless integration to have what's posted in Partnerpedia to be sent out via API hooks to social media," said Sam Liu, director of marketing at Partnerpedia.
Sochan said that Partnerpedia can be beneficial to partners even if they participate in vendor communities because it provides a cross-vendor, open community platform. "Partnerpedia will be open to all vendors' ecosystems. A lot of VARS and resellers are managing six or more vendor relationships. It becomes cumbersome to have different usernames and passwords and manage multiple communities."
For now, Ito said, his company isn't looking to use any new social media platforms. "I don't know if we'd ever stop what we're doing and go try another tool. The communities we deal with are already on LinkedIn, so I think that it's a favored one right now."
Greenlee said it's best to stick with the site you are using rather than spreading out into newer sites. "The more you participate, the more goodwill you build up," he said. "Also, smart sites give value, discounts, and preference to members. Just as with in-person networking, you have to be smart where you spend your time and money."
Social media: Present and future of channel marketing?
Regardless of what platform channel partners choose or the amount of investment they make, social media platforms may be an inescapable part of the future of channel marketing.
"Our attitude is, they're here to stay," Greenlee said. "Don't embrace them at your own peril. As collaboration tools and as platforms to market companies, they are the present and the future."