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How much channel business ultimately will be conducted through social networking Web sites remains to be seen, but at least one company isn’t waiting to find out. MaintenanceNet, which manages warranties and service contracts for solution providers, has launched a site called Selling Services Social network,

Site membership comes from channel companies and vendors, with the goal of connecting sales and marketing professionals to make connections, share know-how and suggest improvements on how maintenance contracts and warranties are designed and handled.

“The site provides education and knowledge into what is happening in the industry and how the market is maturing,” said Kelly Crothers, MaintenanceNet’s director of marketing. “It also provides a forum for members to discuss their challenges, what has worked and not worked with their warranty and service management programs.”

MaintenanceNet, which has partnerships with vendors, distributors and solution providers, is the latest company to jump on the social networking bandwagon.

Vendors such as Cisco, Citrix and Autotask have been introducing tools that leverage social networking and other Web 2.0 technology to communicate with partners, manage programs or help run the business. Distributor Ingram Micro last fall launched the Zone, a site with four distinct areas for solution providers in the distributor’s VentureTech Network, GovEd Alliance, SMB Alliance and SystemArchiTECHS networks.

About 1,100 solution providers have become members of the Zone, according to Kirk Robinson, vice president of channel marketing at Ingram Micro.

“The majority of our communities are using the Zone to interact with each other, discuss industry happenings, gather information and share best practices across the board,” Robinson said. “From technology to business strategies and marketing tactics, everything is up for discussion.”

So as communication and information-sharing tools, the value of social network sites appears undisputed at this point.

But the question that comes up is whether any business actually takes place through the sites. For instance, are solution providers finding new clients through participation in social networking sites? Plenty of them are adding profiles to the most popular sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Plaxo.

One provider, the Lloyd Group in New York, has completed at least one deal as a result of a Facebook referral. Jane Cage, one of the owners of Heartland Solutions, a solution provider with offices in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, said she is pursuing an opportunity from a referral through LinkedIn. With the outcome of the opportunity anything but assured at this point, Cage admits she remains undecided about the business potential of social networking sites.

As a member of Ingram Micro’s Zone, however, Cage says social networking sites are useful for communication, connecting and planning gatherings. She also sees a potential for recruiting employees through sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Cage has some concerns about the kind of information people share through their social networking site profiles. For instance, if an employee’s profile contains personal information about drinking and partying, she wonders if that is an image she wants associated with her company.

Because of the open nature of Facebook, LinkedIn and similar sites, the content members share is varied and wide-ranging, not necessarily conforming with a business’ policies. But IT vendor and distributor sites are more focused and, therefore, potentially more palatable from a business point of view.

Robinson says he is pleased with participation in the Zone and with how members are using it.

“The Zone hosts hundreds of VAR profiles, live chats and guest blogs from industry influencers, manufacturer channel chiefs, Ingram folks and of course community members," he said. “It’s really taken on a virtual life of its own that’s proving to be extremely valuable to us and, more importantly, our partners."

MaintenanceNet’s Crothers says she expects the company’s site to have a real effect on how vendors managed warranties and maintenance contracts, and how solution providers use them. This will be as a result of feedback shared through the site, whose members include representatives of such vendors as Fujitsu, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco, she says.

“This feedback is valuable for future improvements,” she says. “We have no real concrete indication yet, since the site was just launched, but we have written some blog posts that are very generic, providing feedback on what we have seen in the market and process improvements, and we know from some of our customers that they have implemented these process improvements. As of now, MaintenanceNet’s Selling Services site has 17 members, while a related LinkedIn group has 77 members."