B-to-B marketers start socializing

Just three weeks after top technology distributor Ingram Micro launched a social networking platform for its top resellers this past October, 100 out of 400 people had already set up their own profiles.

“These are not people that have MySpace pages,” admits Kirk Robinson, VP of North American channel marketing at the Santa Ana, CA-based company, which offers IT products from approximately 1,300 suppliers to nearly 159,000 resellers worldwide. But, he adds, these are customers who see value in social networks — because today’s businesses want ways to communicate  more effectively and efficiently.

“Social networking tools become much more important in the business world and we want to be out in the front of that,” Robinson explains.

By opening up the lines of communication between Ingram and its customers and among customers themselves, he says, the company expects the initiative to improve brand loyalty and boost sales. 

Ingram Micro’s resellers are divided into four specialized communities, each with its own, company-
hosted bi-annual conferences for networking and education as well as chapter meetings. Since its customers also sell IT solutions from other vendors, the firm needs to be front of resellers’ minds year-round, and it hit upon social networking as the best solution. The company launched social networking sites for each of its reseller communities and timed the launches to coincide with their fall conferences. This enabled Ingram Micro to introduce the new service to as many customers as possible at once. E-mails also alerted customers to the launch.

Each of the four social networking sites feature detailed member profiles and allow users to search for, create and maintain contact lists; host topical groups; and participate in online discussions. Resellers can also maintain their own blogs as well as rate and review content.  In addition, dynamic banner ads are posted throughout the site.

An effective relationship builder

Ingram Micro expects the platform to supplement its reseller conferences by enabling users to learn from other resellers and keep up to date on industry happenings. In addition, the company believes it will provide a way for resellers to more effectively and efficiently partner with their peers — something many find beneficial if they offer complementary services.

B-to-b social networking sites are uniquely able to foster these connections, because they focus on a narrower audience than in the business-to-consumer space, says Mike Walsh, CEO at San Francisco-based Leverage Software, which worked with Ingram Micro on its platform.

“That makes [social networking sites] more effective at developing relationships,” he adds.

These platforms can also be an effective new customer acquisition strategy. For example, Walsh says, Salesforce.com, an on-demand CRM solutions provider, invites prospects into its social network. So far, it has seen a higher conversion rate with this method, compared to the company’s use of e-mail and AdWords.

“Prospects are converted within the community because customers answer questions and describe their own experiences,” he explains.

Wikis, or Web sites that allow users to add and edit content collectively, are another popular social media platform finding its way into the b-to-b space. For example, as part of a $300-million integrated marketing campaign behind digital print, Hewlett-Packard recently launched a wiki for small businesses that allows customers to collaborate on print projects across the globe, access tips and on printing and contribute their own project ideas.

By allowing customers to contribute content, Hewlett Packard is also opening up is sales process, said Ben Elowitz, CEO at Seattle’s Wetpaint, the wiki hosting service that created the HP wiki. “Customer-generated content is more valuable to prospects,” he says.

Built-in support mechanism

Social media platforms, Elowitz adds, also allow customers to provide technical support to one another. “Companies can save money by getting customers to support one another instead of getting help from a call center,” he explains.

Ingram Micro views its social networking platform as a foundation to improve its customer outreach through a variety of means. Robinson compares social media’s relevance in the b-to-b space to instant messaging. When the latter was introduced, some companies feared employees would chat with friends. But, says Robinson, others discovered that instant messaging was an efficient way to keep the lines of business communication open.

“The same thing is happening with social networking,” he says.

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