By: S. Nick D’Alessio, Retail Industry Specialist, Brother Mobile Solutions
Providing current and accurate digital information about products, software, services, pricing and support are table stake requirements in today’s competitive IT market. Savvy retail CIOs and IT managers do their research online when planning equipment and software upgrades, long before they ever reach out to resellers and managed service providers for quotes on projects. Peer reviews, technical support, training videos, and product information on social media channels must be part of any reseller’s marketing strategy to stay front of mind and develop online relationships with existing, and potential customers. An active social media strategy is a cost-effective way to engage digitally with customers. After all, the digital transformation that retailers are trying to execute should be reflected in the digital engagement abilities of their VAR!
Social Platforms Have Been Around for a Long Time
Communicating with family, friends, businesses and governments across long distances has been around for centuries, from ancient Rome’s relay runners, the old west’s Pony Express, to the invention of the telegraph and telephone in the 1800s. Access to the Internet in the late 80s gave way to email and interest groups on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Usenet News Groups, and then platforms like CompuServe and America Online, that paved the way for online forums and the eCommerce revolution lead by a computer company named Dell, and an online book purveyor called Amazon. Cell phones eventually gave way to email devices like BlackBerrys, and then came the smartphones. With the perfect convergence of Internet ubiquity and the build-out of cellphone data networks, people now have mobile access to limitless information in the palm of their hands.
Today’s websites and mobile apps are not curators of static data, but of real-time information exchange from news, company information, peer reviews, tech support, and more. It’s how companies, groups, and individuals meet, interact, and forge relationships. For this reason, social networks have become a critical element in any successful company’s integrated marketing and communications plan. For retail resellers and software developers, social media is one of the most cost-effective ways to find, engage, and support business relationships. Erik Qualman, author of the renowned book Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business so aptly stated, “The ROI of social media is that in five years your company will still exist.”
Social Media: It Will Happen With or Without You
The reality is that whether or not you chose to actively develop and participate in a social network strategy, there are already conversations happening in your business segment, about products and services, and your brand, that directly affect your business and your competitors. The degree to which you participate will directly affect your visibility, value, and success as a technology solution provider to retailers.
Social network platforms are not all the same, and they serve very different purposes. Microblog platforms, such as Twitter and its counterpart in China, Wiebo, provide short bursts (or Tweets) of information messages to a group of subscribers (or “followers”). Initially, Twitter messages were limited to 140 characters, which was driven by the limit on SMS (Simple Message System) texts. In September 2017, Twitter expanded the length of tweets from 140 to 280 characters in English and other select languages. Twitter is a “one-to-many” platform. So, if you have something to say and you want your subscribers to know about it immediately, Twitter is the way to go. For retail VARs, this could be a product announcement, a sales promotion, or other time-sensitive information that can provide a link back to your company website for more information.
Social networking sites provide a persistent online presence where interested people or groups can virtually congregate to exchange information, share content such as pictures, video, thoughts, and other information. The two most prominent social networking sites in the USA today are Facebook and LinkedIn, but there are many others with even Google playing a significant role. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the “many-to-many” networks that retail VARs and ISVs should leverage for their marketing strategies.
Since its debut in 2007, Facebook has developed into a framework of application interfaces used to commercialize and connect users with common interests. Businesses, as well as individuals, leverage Facebook to provide opinions, media such as photos and video, product information, peer recommendations and more! It didn’t take long for many companies, such as Dell to use the platform to engage with and support their customers. In fact, in 2010, Dell provided more technical support via the Facebook user community than their tech support phone line. Other companies soon followed by leveraging Facebook to listen to the voice of the customer and provide a launch point for ordering products and technical support. Although the Facebook application supports many types of functions, retail VARs need not over-complicate their strategy by trying to do too much. The important thing is to have a Facebook page with active content and proactive monitoring to engage with customers. Even LinkedIn has a Facebook page!
LinkedIn, like Facebook, is a social networking site. Originally launched in 2003 as a platform for business professionals to connect, build, and grow their professional network, it soon evolved to provide a platform for job searches and resumes. In June of 2016, Microsoft purchased LinkedIn and has been slowly transitioning the company to more than just a job board and professional Rolodex. Press releases, company profiles, public profiles of individuals, and job postings are key attributes that draw users to LinkedIn. The minimum age for a LinkedIn user account is now 16, so establishing a personal profile is not just for seasoned professionals. More simply stated, LinkedIn is where individuals and companies can be found. Retail VARs are no exception. All your salespeople should have LinkedIn profiles.
As the digital transformation to smart mobile devices continues, so does the consumption of video media. According to Cisco, video will account for 82 percent of all Internet data traffic by 2022, up from 75 percent in 2017. Technology advancements in cloud storage technology have fueled the growth of YouTube and other video content aggregation sites. Unlimited data plans on cell phones have finally freed us from the data limitation of sharing and consuming rich video content. YouTube video sharing has become so pervasive that the website’s name has now become a verb in the modern vernacular. Have you “YouTubed” the product support video on the setup and troubleshooting procedures for your new device?
All the social media sites — Twitter, Facebook and, LinkedIn — have not wasted time jumping on the YouTube bandwagon and all support uploading videos to posts. Furthermore, all major hardware manufacturers, including my employer Brother Mobile Solutions, have YouTube channels that produce content on product information, support, and how-to videos. Retail VARs and service providers should do likewise. Video consumption has become one of the most popular ways of researching and solving problems. From home improvement do-it-yourself projects to how to set up your network mobile printer, video is one of the most cost-effective ways to engage with your subscribers and support customers. These videos do not need to be Hollywood production quality either. Modern mobile device video capture and video editing software can do a pretty good job. The more you do it, the better you become at it!
Where Can You Start?
It should be obvious by now that having a social media network strategy is not an option, but a critical part of any retail solution reseller’s marketing and support plan. There are two types of social media campaigns – paid and free. While paid targeted campaign programs executed via LinkedIn and Facebook can be very effective I’ve chosen to focus on three fundamental pillars of a social media strategy that don’t cost money, but could cost your business if you don’t do them correctly:
- Be active.
- Be genuine.
- Be responsive.
At a minimum, you should set up official company Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts, with accompanying pages. These pages should accurately represent your company’s brand image and share the company ethos. The initial content need not be overly produced but should give your subscribers, followers, and customers a clear view of the company goals, and who you are. If you don’t know where to begin, you may want to consider hiring someone to lead the company’s social marketing strategy. It should be stated upfront that the whole notion around social marketing is ongoing and actively engaging with your customers. Perhaps in the early days, managing the social network channels is not a full-time job. However, it will take several hours a week of monitoring and managing to stay engaged. Many organizations assign a social network savvy person or persons on the marketing or support team to be the social champion(s). This person must have a friendly customer-facing online demeanor. Terse and/or rude responses when engaging with the social community is not a good thing — enough said.
Content is king. Providing ongoing and updated information to show your social community that your organization is delivering useful information will grow new followers and keep existing ones coming back. Propping up a social networking presence and not providing ongoing useful information that is engaging is one of the biggest mistakes companies make. It is an ongoing effort that takes time. Have I mentioned that this takes many hours per week to stay engaged and responsive?
One of the great things in social networks is the ability to digitally engage with many people to help one another. Peer reviews, crowd-sourced support, and meaningful access directly to company executives, and representatives provide, in many respects, the most immediate and open engagement with companies. That said, hiding behind the digital keyboard can allow deception, false claims, and other misrepresentations of the truth. Therefore, it is extremely important for official company communication to be identified as such.
Users and community members that are associated with the corporate organization need to clearly identify themselves and their affiliation for total transparency. For example, a product review coming from an actual end customer carries much more weight than a corporate employee who promotes their product as superior by giving it a 4-star rating. In an era of false news, in part circulated via social networks, honesty and transparency are more important now than ever before. VARs should ensure that users who are affiliated with the company clearly identify themselves, either by an obvious user ID (VAR_Customer_Support_Dude) or stating such. “Hi, I’m Jim, a support technician with Super VAR, tell me what issue you are having, and I will help find an answer.” Lurking or secret spies that pretend to be fellow customers, that falsely provide positive reviews or ratings to artificially shift opinion, ultimately promote disingenuous feelings and lack of trust. That will burn a VARs credibility.
Last and most important of the three pillars is being responsive to the community and individuals, especially those who post questions or make comments. After all, you are representing your company brand, and in some cases, defending the company’s reputation.
Being responsive is not the same as being active. You can post tons of videos and make a lot of announcements. Responsiveness, however, means engaging with customers and community members directly, answering questions (honestly), and being timely in your communications. No one likes to be put on hold on the phone, and no one who has posted a question or a concern wants to be ignored or wait weeks for a response. Part of the draw with social networks is the expectation of immediacy.
Hence, executing an effective social media presence takes time. Have I mentioned (again) that this takes many hours per week to stay engaged and be responsive?
Digitally transforming the reseller business is more than just selling mobile devices to your customers. It’s providing a digital platform(s) for your customers, or potential customers, to engage, research, and consume information. It’s how business gets done. Whether or not you choose to implement a social network presence, doesn’t change the fact that there are conversations about your company, your brand, and your solutions and services happening already. You need to be part of the conversation in order to ensure the future success of your business.
The digital transformation continues. Watch this social media post by clicking on this link to YouTube.