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VAR marketing 101

Eight expert tips help VARs build their IT services business.

VARs that want to win new customers and better serve their current clients need to focus not only on the latest and greatest technology, but also on continually selling themselves and their expertise. The sales and marketing effort goes beyond Twitter accounts. It means building customer relationships and learning about their business problems up close and personal.

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Here's what to do:

VAR marketing tip #1: Go where the customers are

The small businesses that are targeted by many VARs can be hard to find, let alone reach.

"They're not going to the big technology shows. They're too busy running their own businesses and doing what they have to do. You have to be pretty crafty to get their attention," said Jason Harrison, president of Harrison Technology Consulting, Nashville, N.C.

One way to get his business and services in front of busy SMB customers is to go where they already are, he said. "For customer-facing type things, pretty much it's local or regional face-to-face efforts, maybe tied in with local chamber of commerce events or something along those lines," Harrison said. "We offer free technology talks to chambers of commerce and other business organizations. Usually the talks are on the latest and greatest things available for SMB customers."

VAR marketing tip #2: Work on VAR, not vendor, branding

While many VARs brandish vendor alliances and certifications, they should remember that they -- not the vendor -- are the secret sauce.

"It comes back to … making sure that you're marketing to these issues and not selling a product, not selling tools. Most people don't care about brands. If it works and solves a problem, that's all that matters. It's really a shift that you need to make in your mindset."

More than anything, he said, let your customers and potential customers see you as knowledgeable by dealing with their IT problems head-on.

"You have to build yourself up as an expert," Harrison said.

VAR marketing tip #3: Reach out, but pick the right medium

"We don't advertise. We don't even do an ad in the Yellow Pages. We have very specific demographics. We do research and send out [detailed information] portfolios to companies that we think might work with us. Email often gets overlooked because of the deluge," Harrison said.

Targeted mailings work, as does inviting potential customers to short case study presentations on IT topics or services, he said.

"That kind of stuff really seems to get people's attention," said Harrison. "We usually get a fairly decent response rate to those. Out of 10 or 15 [invitations], we'll probably get at least half to at least to talk with us. Out of those seven or so respondents, we might get two paying clients. And it's all because we target it. That's the key thing, knowing the types of customers who will pay you what you are looking to earn and who have the problems that you definitely can solve."

VAR marketing tip #4: Get local

Amy Abrams, general manager of Database Solutions Inc., a systems integrator in King of Prussia, Pa., said it's important to know what's going on in your own back yard.

She scans local newspapers for items about new businesses starting up in her area or current businesses expanding. She recently saw a story about a local bank branch that was opening, so she called and introduced herself. "Have I gotten anywhere yet with them? No, but that was only two days ago."

Much of the company's marketing, even after 30 years in business, is still word of mouth, Abrams said. "Direct contact is critical to me. I prefer the traditional rather than new social media," she said. "I don't think that contracts make for relationships. I think that people make for relationships. When you're selling a service, which is an intangible, they've got to believe in you."

VAR marketing tip #5: Social networking ain't the end-all and be-all

It may seem counterintuitive in the age of Twitter, but there's a downside to social networking.

Many VARs, including Abrams, are wary of social media sites like LinkedIn. Sure, a VAR can use it to prospect new clients or find and woo new employees from another VAR. But, be aware that the same tool can be wielded by rival VARs.

For Abrams, it's important to be "very high touch" with clients and prospective clients. VARs have to spend time to build a foundation for the customer relationship -- and that takes more than online networking sites.

VAR marketing tip #6: Hit the conference circuit

Trade shows and conferences always need expert panelists and speakers and many VARs see them as a great venue to showcase their brand.

Carl Mazzanti, vice president of network strategies for eMazzanti Technologies in Hoboken, N.J., uses his speaking engagements market his company.

Sometimes the gigs can be hard to get, but the return on that effort is high, Mazzanti said. "Anybody at the event would like a speaking engagement. You're clearly the expert because you're speaking at the event. You'll be more successful than just having a table at the event."

VAR marketing tip #7: Get specialized

It's very hard to be good at everything. Most VARs know that it's far better to focus.

"Be the best at the few things that you do and let everyone know about it," Mazzanti said.

And don't keep that specialization or news quiet. Mazzanti issues press releases to the local media and trade press.

Also critical, he said, is to take time for marketing your business every week.

"My lesson learned is that there's never enough time to market the business," he said.

VAR marketing tip #8: Use social networking to augment other efforts

Mazzanti spends about 20% of his week getting his company's messages out not only via press releases but on Twitter and Facebook posts as well.

"It's a customer touch," he said. "From the marketing perspective, the more you can touch a customer, then you have their mindshare. Dedicate the time. It takes time to build a plan, execute it over 12 months or two years and to keep refining it."

About the author
Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. Follow him on Twitter@TechManTalking.

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