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To find business, you must go where the clients are. And solution providers are starting to find clients in what was formerly the domain of teenagers, college students and hobbyists—social networking sites.

Powered by Web 2.0 technology, the sites contain tools that encourage the sharing of information, including forums, user communities, blogs and wikis. As such, they are becoming must-haves for the channel. To leverage the people-meeting power of Web 2.0, solution providers are participating in online communities, even creating profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn and Plaxo.

"We have made a significant commitment to investing in the Web and to utilizing it to attract traffic and convert that traffic to customers by using rich media to establish credibility and drawing them into conversation," says Paul Goldman, CEO at ITMethods, a solution provider serving small and midsize businesses. "We are embracing these tools and embedding them into our business processes."

Depending on how they are used, wikis, blogs and user communities serve as vehicles for gathering business intelligence, sharing technical information and even communicating back to vendors with product improvement suggestions. Seeing the potential of these tools, IT vendors such as Cisco Systems and Autotask, are leveraging them for marketing purposes to manage certain partner programs and facilitate knowledge sharing.

Business Networking

As an initial foray into Web 2.0, many solution providers favor mainstream business networking sites such as LinkedIn or Plaxo, which offer ease of use and a broad user base, but lack a technology focus. To start, solution providers typically connect with long-lost contacts in the business world and potentially make them customers.

"It’s great," says Marcial Velez, CEO of Xperteks Computer Consultancy. "Colleagues and customers from a long time ago are popping up on LinkedIn. They see what I am doing, and often I can start offering them solutions. It’s very helpful."

Avalon Computing has also turned old contacts into new business. The company hooked up with the Gerson Lehrman Group, which bills itself as a "network of experts," through LinkedIn and became part of its Advisory Council network. As a result, says owner Charlie Redmond, Avalon has landed several consulting gigs that paid $250 per hour.

Redmond also hired a fraternity brother from three decades earlier as a technical documentation writer, with great success. "I find people that I might never run across again if we were back in the telephone age," he says.

Framework IT, a technology consulting firm, is banking on Web 2.0 tools to help launch a business continuity and planning application it plans to deliver as software as a service (SAAS).

"These tools are a good resource for keeping track of people," says Pete Heles, founder and senior partner at the company. Heles uses both LinkedIn and Plaxo, and is also a member of an Indiana-state network of business professionals. "Having spent time on Cisco Systems’ and Citrix Systems’ boards, I have a lot of people who know who I am and who will help us advance our product."

Business networking tools also provide a wealth of business intelligence about competitors and potential customers. "I am working to find C-level executives in different companies, and when I do any type of presentations I look for information on LinkedIn," says Velez, who has used the site for about two years and has upgraded to a paid membership. "It is very helpful to say that I noticed they worked somewhere else or that, based on their business, they might have some specific type of challenge."

Some solution providers find Web 2.0 tools so helpful that they are starting to require, or at least encourage, employees to use them. Heles urges employees and his company’s board of advisers to leverage social networking. "The bulk of my folks, including three employees and seven advisers, have 50 or more connections on LinkedIn, and a couple have more than 500."

Let’s Be Friends

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace are less popular with solution providers than LinkedIn or Plaxo, though they, too, can be useful.

"Facebook is in my wait-and-see area," says Anne Stanton, director of the CRM practice for solution provider The Rand Group, LLC. "I’ve used some of the add-in tools in an experimental way, such as voice mail and phone conferencing, as well as signed up for some of the business groups. But I’m not sure that in the long run it’s going to work out that MySpace will ever be a real business tool."

At first glance, the sites seem to be the domain of those looking for social relationships—and many solution providers hesitate to adopt a social tool for business purposes. "I don’t want to bother clients with Facebook," says Oli Thordarson, CEO of solution provider Alvaka Networks. "I don’t want to bug them incessantly with things they don’t care about."

Facebook is one of the most popular Web 2.0 sites, with more than 70 million active users (those who have visited the site within 30 days). However, business activities don’t even make the "Top 10" of the two dozen categories for Facebook’s 23,160 applications, according to a May 2008 report by FlowingData. Recently, the site made changes to become more businessfriendly, allowing users to segregate business from social contacts.

LinkedIn, by comparison, claims 22 million users, with a million more joining each month. Clearly, it is perceived as useful for business: Every Fortune 500 Company has C-level representation on the site, which has drawn 600,000 small business users as well, the company says. Technology questions are the first most popular category, with sales and marketing queries coming in second.

Some technology-heavy hitters, including Apple’s Steve Jobs and Oracle’s Larry Ellison, as well as high-tech vendors Oracle, IBM, Cisco and Microsoft maintain pages on these social networking sites.

"Jim Glass [CRM senior site manager] of Microsoft’s CRM Group is a pretty active Facebook user, and I get value out of him posting," says Stanton. "One thing I like about Facebook is that it pushes down to e-mail so I see alerts coming through if there’s something new."

At the Forum

Despite their popularity, LinkedIn and Plaxo aren’t the only choices for solution providers. Technology or vendor-focused online communities abound, and naturally, they attract plenty of channel users. Stanton is partial to PartnerCompete, a private, invitation-only wiki environment for top-tier Microsoft Dynamics partners with a $500 year membership fee.

"It is an environment where peers can share information on their competitors but not about each other," Stanton says. "It’s a very useful thing when I am in the middle of a hot deal and I’m facing a competitive product. The ability to jump into the forum and get direct-field knowledge about that other product and any of its weaknesses is pretty valuable. It does help us win deals."

Technical forums may do little to bring in new customers, but they play a vital role in keeping customers happy. "We use all kinds of tech forums when we identify problems and want to find out if someone else has solved it," says Velez, who uses a site called Expert Exchange LLC.

Autotask, which makes business management software for channel companies, has an online forum that encourages discussions about the vendor’s technology to resolve issues and discuss improvements. The vendor has even changed its process for adding features or making improvements as a result of user forum participation, according to Bob Vogel, the company’s chief marketing officer.

Users access the forum from a button on the Autotask software’s management area, as opposed to having to log on to a browser, which Vogel says encourages participation.

As the Autotask example illustrates, technical forums are useful for both technicians and management—but for different reasons. "There is a difference between how an owner/manager at a solution provider uses these tools, compared to an integrator/technical person," says Karen O’Brien, a partner in charge of interactive services at research firm Crimson Consulting Group. The owner/manager is looking for insights, best practices, new contacts and ways of making money. The technical/integrator is looking for answers to technical questions."

The forums are great for quick answers to technical questions. "There’s not an enterprise application that isn’t being discussed on these big online technical communities, such as Information Technology Toolbox and Experts Exchange LLC," says O’Brien. "It’s becoming so prevalent that we’re seeing some vendors get into the conversation, too, if their products aren’t being profiled in the best light."

Blogs, wikis and other technical sites where solution providers can post thoughts or opinions serve as a vehicle for executives to position themselves and their companies as experts. Alvaka’s Thordarson says he used Wikipedia in the early days of managed services to share information reflecting his opinions. "Now," he adds. "We use wikis internally and externally to our customers for information lookup on knowledge-base-type stuff."

Solution providers should encourage their engineers to participate in the overall corporate effort to use online tools for branding and promotion, says Andrew Sage, vice president of worldwide channels marketing at Cisco.

"By participating in blogs and forums, the technical person can influence users," he says. "The technical person can go out and be a voice of authority in those forums and market the company in that way."

Three months ago, Alvaka launched a wiki-style knowledge base for its customers. "The content is created automatically on the fly as service requests are completed, and it is totally searchable," Thordarson says. The database has been mostly used by inside technical staff, but Thordarson says he hopes customers will start leveraging soon.

Partnership Power

Loath to be left out of any trend, vendors are jumping into the Web 2.0 bandwagon. Cisco, for instance, has created Partner Space, a site allowing solution providers to build a virtual trade- show booth where customers can meet and learn about solution providers.

"Cisco has facilitated our creation of a virtual space where we can establish our key messaging and load content and rich media to offer to customers," says Goldman. "It’s about driving more and more interactions with customers. Although it’s still early, I believe we absolutely will get traffic from it."

The caveat, of course, is that the tool is only as good as the solution provider’s willingness to create and maintain fresh and interesting content for customers, adds Goldman.

To close the gap, ITMethods is consulting with journalists and media professionals to help the company articulate and deliver its corporate messaging. "We are in the middle of creating that, but it’s not a core competency for most solution providers," he says. "It’s about quality and the richness of your content and how you engage your target audience."

More than 500 registered partners have signed up for the free Partner Space service since it launched in January, says Sage. "Our partners can create online chats and forums, and they can staff the booth so that they can be present online. They can link anywhere else as well," says Sage. "Customers can connect to these booths directly from Cisco’s partner locator, which is a big benefit since 150,000 customers search each month."

Web 2.0 is also drawing attention from distributors. In October 2007, Ingram Micro launched the Zone, a social networking site that lets providers search for each other based on certifications, areas of expertise, geography and other profile fields. In addition, solution providers can post blogs and participate in online chats—another opportunity to strut their knowledge.

Potential Pitfalls

But Web 2.0 tools aren’t without drawbacks. If not careful, solution providers say, users can spend too much time on them—or get pulled into activities that aren’t directly related to finding new business or serving existing customers.

"Business networking tools can be a huge time waster, but it’s still early in the game," says Goldman. "You have to understand how folks are using these tools both in and outside the office, and then work to attract and be more transparent to those people."

Early adopters also face a myriad of potential tools and very few clear ideas of which will win out in the end. Many solution providers, then, are tempted to maintain a presence on multiple sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, and then realize that measuring the relative benefits of each can be difficult, if not impossible.

Avalon Computer’s Redmond maintains profiles on both LinkedIn and Plaxo, but wonders why he needs both. "It drives me crazy, because almost everyone is on both of them, and you eventually have to decide which one to use, and I haven’t decided yet."

Jane Cage, one of the owners of solution provider Heartland Solutions, which has offices in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, has profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn. She has doubts about how much business the sites will ultimately produce, but says they can be used for employee recruitment.

Cage has some misgivings, though. Because people are so free with sharing personal details on their profiles, Cage wonders if an employee’s profile that mentions habitual drinking and partying might hurt the image of the person’s employer.

Getting Strategic

To avoid drowning in Web 2.0 tools, solution providers have to choose strategically which forums, sites, and applications will give them the most traction. "By picking just one or two communities or sites, solution providers can get closer to the problems customers are experiencing and get direct access to potential customers," says O’Brien.

A good way to pare down the possibilities is to ask existing customers which Web 2.0 sites they use, she adds.

If you’re going to use these tools, solution providers need to brand themselves properly on them, says Sage. "As with any marketing strategy, this has many tactics. You have to work with an agency that helps you optimize search engine presence. It’s important to show up and participate, share opinions and, given the opportunity, provide a call to action for potential customers."

It also helps professionals do the writing and marketing for the site, says Sage.

Finally, solution providers should close the Web 2.0 loop by making sure that whatever information source they drive potential customers to, be it a corporate Web site or a virtual-trade show booth, they should take advantage of as much media as possible, such as video, to provide fresh, rich content, says Sage.

Spanlink Communications is integrating video into its Web site as a way to get customers’ attention, with Cisco’s help. Prospective customers visiting the Web site automatically launch a short video of the company’s co-founder and CEO, Brett Shockley, juggling and talking about the complexity of business communications today and how unified communications technology can address those concerns.

This is just one approach of many. With Web 2.0 tools within easy reach of solution providers, the only limit on how to take advantage of them may well be their own imaginations.

Hailey Lynne McKeefry (, a partner in Professional Ink (, has been writing about technology and the channel for 20 years.