Using Social Media to Market VAR Business

By Chris Talbot

Social media marketing may simply be a new technology attached to an old marketing method (word of mouth), but using it effectively can improve relations with existing customers and – over time – generate net new business for VARs. Social media experts offer some tips as to how to do just that.

As an extension of word-of-mouth advertising, social media marketing offers VARs the opportunity to connect and interact with existing customers while also opening up the possibility to gain net new business from their efforts. However, increasing business from social media efforts only works if they're done right.

According to Sue Sutcliffe, a web consultant and founder of aWEBthatWORKS, the reason to use social media for marketing purposes is obvious. The only thing it costs is time, and the exposure that businesses can get from being active in online social communities will have a long-term benefit in terms of increased sales and better communication between customers.

Marketers need to go where their potential customers are, and that could mean Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn (or any number of other social media websites). The demographics are different for each site, and understanding which is best is one of the first things VARs need to do when forming their social media marketing strategy, said Laura Lake, founder of Laura Lake Consulting and author of Consumer Behavior For Dummies.

"I think the biggest thing when you're looking at social media marketing is finding which platform works best for your market, because not all platforms serve the same audiences. They serve very different audiences," Lake said.

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Once VARs have identified their goals, they need to decide on the platform of choice. Facebook is more about relationships and attracts a younger crowd, but the largest user base at 400 million active users. Twitter's largest growing demographic is the 35 to 45 year old age category, but it can be a noisy place, Lake said. LinkedIn is the most professional of the three and is best for business-to-business transactions.

The key to using social media in an overall marketing strategy (because it should never be the only part of a strategy) is the interaction and community nature of the platform. Sutcliffe noted that no matter what a business is selling, the person has to be sold before the product or service within social media.

Unlike more static forms of marketing (such as newspaper advertisements or direct mailings), social media marketing is not about broadcasting the message or going for the hard sell, Lake said. It's about interaction and engagement. It's about having conversations with people who might be interested in their products. Being likable via social media is going to put a provider of IT products or services at the forefront of a potential customer's mind if they've had good experiences through social media interactions, she said.

Both Lake and Sutcliffe said that it works, but both noted that it takes time. Creating a Twitter feed isn't going to rake in customers the next day.

South Shore Computer Repair of Middleboro, Ma. kicked off its Twitter feed in February 2009 and created its Facebook fan page about six months ago. Both were launched as an experiment, but over time, the family-run business has seen its number of followers and fans increase. According to John Neely, owner of South Shore Computer Repair, his business has so far found two or three new clients through Twitter and one through Facebook (that he's aware of).

Although the first few people to connect on Twitter and Facebook were friends and family members, the numbers grew to include existing customers. The Twitter feed (which automatically posts to the Facebook fan page) is updated at least twice a day, but the content being made available is far from being a hard sell. Neely posts content and links of interest to customers.

Neely didn't have any goals with social media marketing, but it has generated some new business so far. With only three or four new clients finding South Shore Computer Repair through social media, though, it's obvious it takes time to build up new business.

Lake said it takes three to six months to start generating any new business from social media marketing, but if the efforts come across as one big advertisement, then VARs shouldn't count on those efforts being successful. A rule of thumb Lake uses when she posts to her social media feeds is that she only makes one post about her business for every eight posts that have nothing to do with her services. She said it's a formula that has been successful.

David Theriault, owner of 4K Solutions of Midland, Georgia, is a newcomer to the social media world. He just recently launched his Facebook fan page  after hearing from a friend how she increased her boutique business revenue by $25,000 per month by creating and maintaining a Facebook fan page. It's still too early for Theriault to have that kind of success (his page has only been active for a little more than a week), but after hearing his friend's story, he said he had to try it out.

Success in social media marketing is based on communication, Sutcliffe said. It increases exposure because it's not only followers and fans that are seeing a business' content, but also anybody who could potentially see that content retweeted or passed along.

"Put the customer in the spotlight and get them talking. Do whatever you need to do to get them talking," Sutcliffe suggested.

Social media marketing is an element of a marketing strategy that doesn't cost anything but time, Lake said. Additionally, it's something that can begin with only 30 minutes of time per day, including posting, reading, researching and responding to others' posts.


This article was originally published on 2010-06-04