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Crafting your channel marketing plan in the cloud and social era

The Internet, cloud and social media have fundamentally changed how channel partners should try to get and keep customers.

The channel marketing plan is the bane of many channel partners. They have them but often don't like creating them nor do most stay abreast of the most effective marketing strategies. At a Tech Select Partner Conference business-building session recently held in Orlando, Florida, Marketing: Truth, Hype or Trend, partners got some pointers about marketing in 2014.

The channel marketing discussion starts with the Internet. The Web took everything traditional marketers were doing well and turned it on its head, fundamentally changing how channel partners should try to acquire and retain customers.

Ginger Clay, marketing advisor with 4-Profit, a technology-focused advisory services company based in South Salem, New York that works exclusively with channel-centric solution providers, manufacturers and distributors, kicked off the session with some perspective on how marketing in the channel has changed in recent years.

First off, the buyers are educated, Clay said. By the time they get to a partner, they've already checked out that partner, shopped around for pricing and looked at peer reviews. In other words, they already have a good idea of what they're looking for.

"By the time they call you, they no longer need a sales team to make a buying decision," she said.

In addition, there are a few other factors at play, Clay said: Subscription-based and cloud-based computing is driving sales from from Capex to Opex budgets, and -- increasingly -- buyers want to try products before they buy them.

What does that mean to a partner's sales team? A lot.

Partners should offer educational events rather than promotional events, and seminars rather than sales presentations.

"It means that if the customer does buy, they don't have to buy a thousand licenses of, say, Office 365; they can try five. And, you have to deliver on what you say you'll do or they'll go and find someone else," Clay said.

Social engagement is also an important factor because customers use it to share what's on their mind and what they like, and, more importantly, for shopping for best practices and for people to help them make a better buying decision. And, social engagement must be in real time, when it matters to the customer.

There's also a demand for relevancy of both content -- the what -- and context -- the when. "That's the piece that's making it so difficult for marketing professionals. Not only do I give you what you want, but now I have to give it to you when you want it," Clay said.

One final factor is that the maxim "perception is reality" holds true among buyers. This makes it critical that partners maintain social connections and communication with customers to keep perceptions on target.

What does this new reality mean for your channel marketing plan?

It means a number of things, according to Clay. For example, sales engagements with a prospect or client will happen on their terms and timing and only on topics that are relevant to them; data is out there and partners can use it to understand what customers want; social is an influencer; and marketing matters before and after the sale.

Clay went on to talk about "digital DNA." Digital DNA gives marketing people real-time information about the customer and what they're buying, how often and when.

Digital DNA helps marketers understand the buyer's journey and how they make buying decisions. Digital DNA is important for a partner's marketing process.

"Now, buyers aren't coming to us as leads, they're coming to us as shoppers," Clay said. Partners now have to make shoppers aware of them, convert them to website visitors and then create leads out of those visits.

Toward that goal, Clay said, it's important to understand the difference between hype, trends and truths of the new marketing paradigm. She gave some examples, such as:

The hype: The traditional sales model is dead.
The trend: Partners used to qualify customers. Today, the customer qualifies partners.
The truth: The role of marketing today is to slow down and educate the customer regarding everything they "hear" on the Internet.

More specifically, partners should offer educational events rather than promotional events, and seminars rather than sales presentations.

The hype: Social media drives lead generation.
The trend: A lot of B2B companies say they're using -- or are going to use -- social media. A percentage of those companies do use it, but most don't know if they're good at it
The truth: Search engines and social media apps don't buy products or services; people do. Partnering is still a people-centric business, and content is the engine that drives communication.

"Content is the name of the game," Clay said.

Clay suggested ways to produce content that fits this new dynamic: Turn marketing into useful information by, for instance, creating buyers guides, and break up content into many small pieces for increased user engagement opportunities.

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