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Historically, marketing investments have been treated as a near-luxury—or
sometimes an afterthought—among a majority of solution providers and resellers.
In some respect it’s understandable; most in the business come straight out of
the technology expert pool, engineers with an entrepreneurial zeal who over
time got fairly accomplished at sales activities. But marketing? That’s
remained a weak spot for many.

Unfortunately, that’s a huge problem because effective marketing is one of
the essential pillars to any successful business—even more so during a
difficult economy and as the complexity and sophistication of this industry
continue to grow.

So you can imagine my encouragement at a spirited conversation in one of the
discussion groups at this week’s CompTIA Breakaway event in Las
Vegas. The array of channel partners in this room
clearly took marketing seriously, many having implemented innovative campaigns
in the past year to try to outsmart the recession. All were looking for even
more creative ideas to drive lead generation, increase brand awareness and
continue to win net-new customers while getting deeper penetration into
existing accounts.

Some of what they are doing just makes plain sense. Regional events for
potential and existing customers that showcase their company capabilities and
culture, but steer clear of a sales pitch, have been effective. Also popular
are regularly scheduled (monthly) “lunch-and-learns” for small groups of
customers to air their concerns and ideas—again sans sales pitch.

But there were more creative ideas introduced. One solution provider has
placed nearly all of his advertising buy dollars into local cable TV stations,
customizing the ads depending on the region. The cost is startlingly minimal,
he revealed, and the return on investment worth it.

But no outlet is being dissected, analyzed and gamed for marketing purposes
more now than social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter. These
solution providers leveraged these tools not so much for branding or promotion,
but instead to create communities of customers tied together by the solution
provider’s business. Newsletters, bulletins—communications of all sorts—are
being funneled out in this way.

Hand in hand with the attention to social media is the whole notion of
search engine optimization. Funny, SEO wasn’t something anybody talked about
much even five years ago. Now even the smallest VAR
with a Website is conjuring ways to grab the attention of the Google algorithm
and use that as a competitive marketing advantage for their business.

This all marks a refreshing change. For years, too many solution providers
have hitched their branding wagon to their key technology vendor partners, and
that’s a marketing mistake, especially for those doing managed services. In the
MSP world, reputation is everything. If end customers are going to sign a
long-term contract for you take over their IT operations and run things
remotely, foremost on their mind will NOT be what tier you’ve achieved in the
Cisco partner program. Rather, they want to evaluate what your capabilities
are, hear what past customers are saying about you and, frankly, ask themselves
whether they’ve ever heard of your company before. So it’s crucial to establish
a strong market identity independent of your key vendors and put your own
investments into marketing activities.

The group at CompTIA this week, they got it.