Everywhere I look, some high-tech vendor is engineering the design of a private social network especially for its channel partners.
While the overwhelming adoption of networks like LinkedIn or Facebook is doubtless the reason for this enthusiasm, there still really is very little much information about how businesses are using social networks for classic business-to-business interactions.
I should disclose that I’ve been thinking about this in the context of some work I’ve been doing for the worldwide channels group at Cisco Systems. But the move by IBM to establish its own social network with PartnerWorld Communities AND the impending launch of a similar mechanism by Microsoft have got me thinking a lot about this particular issue. This whole conversation reminds me of the huge push behind partner portals a few years back, as high-tech vendors (rightly so) looked at ways of improving communications to and with their channel partners. I ask anyone reading this: How fruitful were those investments?
While I am a huge fan of social networks and other social media applications, such as the micro-blogging service Twitter, I hope these vendors have the patience and persistence to make these investments in closed channel communities worthwhile. Here’s some context for my concern.
- A recent study by Forrester Research (“The Social Technographics of Business Buyers,” Feb. 20, 2009) shows the use of blogs, social networks and other so-called social technology decreases “on the job.” So, for now, participation in closed channel social networks is likely to be limited. The survey base included 1,217 people in IT buying and recommendation roles across North America and Europe.
- As to who actually uses social networks, penetration in the United States is about 35 percent. It’s lower in Europe and higher in some Asia Pacific countries, such as Korea, according to some separate data from Forrester Research.
- Here’s the clincher for me though: Right now, Forrester Research reveals that 42 percent of U.S. online adults juggle at least two social network identities; and 63 percent also participate in some sort of discussion forum.
I don’t know about you, but considering the time that social networking takes, something has got to give and I’m betting it’s not the Facebook account. The vendors who are building these networks need to remember the following:
- It takes MONTHS for a following to develop, which means you need to appoint credible subject matter experts who will spend months nurturing the network with great content and helping guide conversations.
- Anecdotally speaking, many VARs and IT solution providers tell me they’re not all that eager to share marketing or sales tips that could help their competitors. There, I’ve said it. HOWEVER, interestingly enough, systems engineers and support personnel have little problem sharing tidbits that can help make everyone’s job a little easier.
- Mobility is a big deal. When you’re out at client sites or prospective client sites selling for most of the day, you’re less likely to spend time catching up on social network conversations.
- VARs and resellers have more than one vendor vying for their time online. Why is your social network the most relevant one for them? Is it because you help them market or sell the entire solution rather than a point product?
Here’s how I think closed social business networks could be VERY useful for a high-tech company hoping to forge closer ties to its channel partners:
- They could be used to create a way for your channel account managers and field teams to interact more seamlessly with partners in their geography. Why limit the “closed” network to your partners? In fact you shouldn’t. This might be a great way for them to be more in touch with teams across your company, to stay in closer step with deals that are in the works or be alerted about local activity that might be of mutual interest.
- Systems engineers could contribute real-world insight into real-world problems. In some cases, social business networks are already being used as a collaboration tool for product development. As a real example, I’ll point you to the case of Chordiant Software, which uses a platform from Jive.
- Success stories (and therefore best practices information) can be shared by your channel marketing team, especially in the form of video. In the brief experiments I’ve done with some of SWOT’s clients, I’ve found that the right video (in the form of a partner testimonial) usually gets more attention than written version of same.
- By adding the right information widgets in the form of RSS feeds, you can all stay on top of competitive threats or developments.
With certainty, I can say that every high-tech vendor SHOULD be evaluating a social networking or broader social media strategy. But I definitely wouldn’t advise them all to build their own platform. Your team might be better served applying some of the concepts I’ve mentioned above to a group on LinkedIn. Personally, I believe Facebook will have a hard time overcoming its roots as something focused on personal connections. I refrain from adding professional contacts there myself, unless I’ve met them at a conference or they’ve been good enough to read stuff that I write (like this!)
If you want to chat more about social networks and B2B social media strategy, I welcome your outreach. I can be reached at this e-mail, or you can find me on both Facebook and LinkedIn.