June 2009 Feature

Social Media and Channel Management

What you need to know before you ‘sign on’

Channel Management Insights speaks with Mike Dubrall, Managing Director of Gilwell Group.

Today, many companies are venturing into the realm of social media and setting up profiles on sites like LinkedIn and Twitter. And they’re wise to do it. Although these media began to appear on the scene a scant five years ago, 75 percent of Americans now use them to communicate with each other, according to Forrester Research.

Already, large and small companies alike are beginning to realize the business potential these outlets provide. Lithium Technologies, for instance, reports 62 percent of marketers using social media say it has helped them close business.

But building a presence on the Internet requires more than joining a site and waiting for people to find you. It takes doing the right research, finding the right site(s), posting the right comments and more.

To find out how to do these things, Channel Management Insights recently spoke with Mike Dubrall, managing director of Gilwell Group, a Silicon Valley Internet research and consulting company. Here’s what he says about using social media.

CMI: What criteria should companies employ to determine which of the social media to use to help their channel marketing efforts?

Dubrall: You have to figure out where your customers hang out in social media. Most are on several sites, so do your research. Talk to your customers to discover where they are and how often they go there. Also, find out where their company profiles are. Go to social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, SlideShare, Twitter or YouTube, and type in the names of their companies. Look at the results, including the number of their people there. And figure out who your customers are. Do they have user names like “gorilla 123” in Facebook and something else on YouTube? The point is this research must be methodically done.

CMI: Do the criteria vary according to industry?

Dubrall: Some industries have different cost structures and use computers more or less than other industries. For instance, if you currently do face-to-face selling, communication with customers may cost you $400 an hour. But communicating through a social medium like Facebook may cost as little as 40 cents. But customers in one industry might be more open to social media than others.

It’s important to remember no one industry is isolated from change; every industry is being impacted. And as younger people come into the market in greater numbers, they will change the way things are done.

CMI: Who should handle the transition to social media?

Dubrall: Right now, sales and marketing often aren’t on the same page with social media, and most companies haven’t figured out how to use social media strategically. Some companies just look at the top sites and advertise accordingly or do a Google ad campaign. But using social media isn’t about advertising. It’s about how to communicate up and down the chain — how to share information more effectively with customers.
Marketing needs to put together the research information, and track who reads what, to figure out where customer companies are and how many people from each company are on what site. They should use all this information to create social media maps — descriptions of sites and prioritization for having a company presence.

CMI: How can companies implement these social media to leverage their Web 2.0 tools?

Dubrall: This varies. First, you have to recognize the need to change. Then, talk to your customers and see what they want you to do. You can’t be too far ahead of or behind them. You also don’t want your competition to get ahead of you.

Customers already need to get help with problems, so if they can go to an online community, throw out questions and get rapid responses, they see this as a big plus. For example, in the Sprint online community that Lithium manages, you can search a problem and probably find people who have already answered it. Or you can ask a question and get 10 answers in a few minutes.

Buying behaviors are changing, so how you deal with customers has to change, and if you don’t have a good 2.0 infrastructure, you’re in trouble. You don’t have to have a perfect alignment, but you do have to be responsive.

For instance, when resellers sell to customers, they may not know the answer to every question, but they’re expected to find answers quickly. If they can’t, customers aren’t interested in buying. That’s the best reason for a reseller to set up an online community for customers. If people are happy in your community, they’re not going anywhere. Say, “We’re creating this community, and we want you to be part of it.”

CMI: Crawl/walk/run. What are the best practices for finding a starting point?

Dubrall: Many companies are stifling innovation and making it more difficult for customers. For example, some have confidentiality clauses stating their people can’t post or say anything at all. On the other hand, some large corporations don’t regulate who can participate online or what they can post. Look at what happened to Domino’s recently because it didn’t have a policy on these.

When you’re starting out, decide how you want to use social media, as well as your rules and norms. Determine what the proper use is, who your customers are and how you should interact with them. Your company reputation has to be extended in social media, and this requires corporate guidance.

CMI: Is there value to partnering in social media programs with a channel partner?

Dubrall: Customer satisfaction levels improve since they appreciate reseller collaboration to meet their needs. Through social media, you also drive your partners’ customer support and help them keep their communication costs down. Plus, you sell more if you’re part of a discussion of your products. If you’re not online, you’re losing out on a major sales opportunity. But if you are online, you get an accurate snapshot of how the world views you, and you have a means to deal with it.

CMI: How long should companies expect to wait before they begin to see results?

Dubrall: The length of time to get enough people in the community to have an interesting group — that’s when you see a payback. Twitter is like the world’s biggest cocktail party, and who doesn’t want to be there?

CMI: What do you see in the future for social media and channel marketing?

Dubrall: We’re going to continue to see more automated relationships. Many customers will be people you’ve never met, and the market will become more international, with a greater focus on expertise than geography. Product sales will be associated less with resellers and more with vendors. Resellers will earn more revenue based on services, and their marketing departments will transition to solution sales.

Resellers looking for money for nothing, without talking with vendors or communicating with customers, will be at a huge disadvantage, while vendors with efficient, automated value chains will have a huge advantage. In essence, your online reputation and participation will be critical determinants of your success.

 

MDubrallMike Dubrall, managing director of Gilwell Group, has more than 25 years of technology marketing and sales experience with InfoMentis, Channel Enablers, Technology Channels Group, Sybase and NCR in various executive channel roles. He founded the Technology Channels Group in 1996, specializing in high-tech consulting and training to improve partnering results for high-tech clients.

Dubrall has extensively researched the development of current and future channel relationships and has authored numerous articles and reports, including the Partner Manager Census, Channel Loyalty Report, and Technology Channels Group’s annual Internet and Channels Report. Most recently, he led the InfoMentis Worldwide Channel Practice and the Channel Enablers North American Consulting practice, providing distribution consulting, partnering workshops and channel program reviews (audits) to clients on three continents.