Q&A with Chris Kenton: How Can Channel Partners Navigate the Digital Marketing Landscape?

Since the emergence of the digital world, marketing has become a whole new ballgame. Social media, online advertising and content marketing are just some of the concepts that business owners are expected to be proficient in today. The buyer's journey has changed, we've heard, but what does that mean? And what are overwhelmed SMBs supposed to do about it?

Kris Blackmon, Head of Channel Communities

July 6, 2016

11 Min Read
Q&A with Chris Kenton: How Can Channel Partners Navigate the Digital Marketing Landscape?

Since the emergence of the digital world, marketing has become a whole new ballgame. Social media, online advertising and content marketing are just some of the concepts that business owners are expected to be proficient in today. The buyer's journey has changed, we've heard, but what does that mean? And what are overwhelmed SMBs supposed to do about it?

The VAR Guy sat down with Chris Kenton, Founder & CEO of SocialRep, to discuss what channel partners need to know about the digital marketing landscape.

The VAR Guy: How has the buyer journey changed, and what’s the channel’s challenge in adapting?

Chris Kenton: The biggest change in the buyer's journey is that the buyer now knows everything the sales rep used to hold back for the sales call. They know your selling points. They know your weaknesses. They know your competition. They know marketing is a one-sided story, and they don't want to hear it. They want objective information that helps them make smarter purchase decisions, and most of that doesn't come from your sales rep—it comes from Google, LinkedIn, Spiceworks, Quora and a wealth of resources where buyers can connect with their peers to get the inside scoop. So the buyer is getting better informed, earlier in the decision making process, and if you try to engage them with sales pitches at that stage of getting informed, you're wasting your time. You have to figure out how to become part of the buyer's circle much earlier in the sales cycle, which means being willing and able to inform the buyer as objectively as possible and not trying to rush the sale.  

TVG: What’s the biggest mistake SMBs make when trying to leverage social media?

CK: They almost always start out treating social as a megaphone—you know, "amplify your brand!". Hey, look at me! Check out my latest product announcement! Read my new blog post! Download my white paper! Visit my booth!  That's all about the seller and offers nothing to the buyer. Our platform metrics show clearly that kind of approach doesn't drive engagement. What drives engagement is sharing insights, sharing information, sharing ideas, and doing your best to inform your market community about things where you have a shared interest. Our metrics show that when you spend between 75-90% of your time informing your followers about what's important to them—technology trends, operational imperatives, regulatory issues, customer challenges—then you drive engagement, and the remaining 10-25% of the time you can share promotional information and it seems much more authentic. "Hey, you're listening to me about the latest trends in network security, check out our latest white paper where we'll go into greater depth on the details." That's a far more effective approach than just "Download my stuff!" 24/7. 

TVG: Have businesses lost sight of the “social” side of social media?

CK: I think a lot of businesses have—they just see social as another medium to play the digital marketing math game, and it comes across exactly the same way: spam. There are ways to play that game with social for commodity consumer products, but it's not going to get you any traction in IT Channel where buyers have serious challenges to solve and a lot more scrutiny on their spend. Social is for engaging buyers, not hammering them and hoping 0.25% Like your posts. Social is for consultative selling online. 

But a lot of businesses do get it, and I think the number is rapidly growing. A big driver is the rapid rise of millennial buyers who simply don't respond to the old transactional, hard-sell approach. Companies like HP are dedicating themselves to inbound. I know Cisco has a similar philosophy, and Verizon too. These are big companies, not voices in the wilderness. They know they have to build better relationships with customers, and those relationships are built on trust. Trust only happens with communication, and that first impression these days is more often than not online, via social. Sure, a lot of companies will still try to automate social, and create "nurturing" campaigns that can talk "socially" to end-users spam filters, and then they can show meaningless metrics of likes and retweets and follows. But the proof will be in the revenue, and if you're a marketer and all you can talk about is "amplifying your brand voice" you're going to lose sales to competitors that can inform and engage their prospects online. 

TVG: How can partners engage LOB buyers via social?

CK: By getting a lot smarter about the challenges those buyer's face. As more business shifts to the cloud, one of the big challenges for partners is that their buyers have changed. They're no longer just selling speeds and feeds to geeks, now they have to talk intelligently to business stakeholders about the problems they face, and that's often a big leap. You need SMEs who can inform LOB buyers in a way that is credible and not sales-focused. If you help them understand their problems and the alternative solutions in a way that is reasonably objective and not predatory, the conversation will turn to your offer when the buyer is ready. If you try to rush an LOB buyer to the close when they're early in the decision making process, they won't engage. That's where social's ability to cast a wide net really helps—not everyone is ready to buy when they find your content online. They're learning, they're digesting, they're weighing how it fits their problem. Make sure you have content that hits each part of the buyer's journey, and let them set the pace. But you have to be active and engaging, otherwise you fall off the radar.

That, BTW, is why we built our Social Media Center. The idea isn't to make it easy for partners to generate more noise with canned tweets to blindly share. The idea is to feed partners with a constant stream of industry content and intelligence to elevate a "Social SME". The partner still has to show up with a brain and choose what to share and what to say about it. But that's the only way to keep the "social" in social media. You have to be smart about what you automate. You can automate content collection so you have a wealth of ideas to pick and choose from to share and make your own with your own analysis and insight. But you can't automate content creation. You can't automate relationships. You have to show up a member of the market community you serve, not a bot. 

TVG: What’s the difference between social marketing and social selling?

The same as the difference between marketing and selling: marketing should fill the funnel with qualified leads, sales should be converting those leads into revenue. In social, it's all about really knowing your buyer's journey. When your buyer is trying to understand their problem and weigh the alternative solutions, that's when social marketing can help inform them in a way that is not trying to jump ahead to the sale—that just erodes trust, it shows you're just interested in a transaction rather than building a customer relationship.  Social Selling is appropriate later in the journey, when the buyer knows what solution they're going to go with, and they're zeroing in on a provider and a price. If your sales people are trying to swim upstream to engage buyers before they're ready with a sales message, you're just pushing the buyer away. Does anyone really think people will be more likely to act on spam if they get it in their LinkedIn mailbox rather than email? 

[T]he Social Rep [is] a counterpart to the Sales Rep. The Social Rep builds market relationships by serving as a "Social SME" in the marketplace. They curate great content. They share insights and they inform decision makers with timely, relevant, and reasonably objective information. They become part of the customer community they serve, because they have a genuine shared interest in the trends and issues at play in the market. When they build trust with buyers, buyers will reach out on their own when they're ready to buy and they need more information about what's offered. That's the opportunity for hand off to the Sales Rep. It's not passive. You're not sharing information forever and hoping some day someone raises their hand. The game of social marketing is learning how to inform, how to be timely and relevant, and how to drive immediacy in a way that is authentic and demonstrates you're part of the market community, and not just a value-mining transactional seller chumming the market.  

TVG: What can small partners do to increase the support and enablement funds they receive from vendors?

CK: Show up. Be smart. Know what solutions you're ready to sell, and which solutions are important to the vendor. If you're selling—not just promoting, but selling—what's strategic for the vendor, you will get support.  Too many partners are flailing with their positioning and market focus, they want to be all things to all people, and that's of little use to the vendor, because the vast majority of partners in that mold are not driving results. 

We've worked with hundreds of partners around the world over the years, and here's an example of what we see all to often. A partner has been in business for a long time, and now their market is disrupted. Business is moving to the cloud and they're trying to adjust. You know the drill—trying to shift to solutions and services more than just hardware, trying to find recurring revenue, engaging new decision-makers, investing in marketing—it's a big hill to climb. So we'll meet with a partner one month, and they're gung ho about healthcare. They've got a prospect in the pipeline that's a huge deal, and they see dollar signs across their territory. Full speed ahead. The next month we meet with them again, and the deal went south. Now healthcare seems too hard. Too much competition. So they're off in a new direction. Education! Lots of money on the eRate tree! Full speed ahead! We see this over and over, and there's really only two roads out of that cut de sac. The partner eventually folds, or they realize they need to make a strategic investment in marketing. Step back and figure out a solutions approach that has an addressable market you can reach, and a set of capabilities you can fulfill profitably. Do the homework before running off in a new direction, and you'll look a lot smarter to your customers and your vendors. 

TVG: What about content marketing? Are white papers really effective anymore? Where should partners be placing their emphasis?

CK: White papers, webinars, events, blog posts. They're all effective if you pack value into your content. That's the hard part. That's why there are actually, you know, college degrees for communications. If you're just regurgitating your sales brochure into a white paper wrapper, then don't complain when it doesn't move the needle. It's not the format, it's the content. Good content is hard, but it's not a mystery: stop trying to package up what you want to sell in a prettier box, and start answering the questions that are keeping your customers up at night. If you do that, it doesn't matter whether you're posting on Twitter or a stone tablet, prospects will seek you out and find you. 

TVG: What’s the #1 piece of advice you would give to partners when it comes to digital marketing?

CK: If you don't really love what you do, if you don't get up in the morning thinking about how to help your customers, the road ahead is only going to get harder. Social is not a trend, it's a systemic shift. It's success isn't built on shiny new technology, it's built on Darwinian economics—I'm much smarter spending my money when I can find out what my peers can tell me about your products than if I trust your marketing spin. Unless you're selling consumer commodities, we've reached the point of terminal efficiency with transactional selling. Cold calling, spamming, "amplifying" and "nurturing" may get you your fractional margin on marketing investment, but it's not going to grow your business, much less transform it for the cloud. So if you don't love what you do, don't bother with social and start working on divestment. If you do love what you do, then just start going out and finding where the conversations are going on online that you and your customers care about. Don't dive into the conversations to sell. Dive into the conversations to inform your community and let the questions come to you. Like everything of value, it takes time. Start now. 

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About the Author(s)

Kris Blackmon

Head of Channel Communities, Zift Solutions

Kris Blackmon is head of channel communities at Zift Solutions. She previously worked as chief channel officer at JS Group, and as senior content director at Informa Tech and project director of the MSP 501er Community. Blackmon is chair of CompTIA's Channel Development Advisory Council and operates KB Consulting. You may follow her on LinkedIn and @zift on X.

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