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Is Indian IT Channel Ready For Social Media?

Biswajit.HD

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Social media marketing is fast becoming the biggest opportunity for businesses to reach customers in India. Yet despite the hype surrounding social media (SM) and the fact that by virtue of being in the IT trade most channel partners are tech-savvy, they have not been able to make best use of this cost-effective route to enhance their business. This looks likely to change. With vendors and potential customers making faster progress in using SM tools, the IT channel is now thinking of embracing SM to boost its image, connect with customers, hire staff and grow revenue.



However, plotting a strategy has not been easy for most partners as many believe that the market is still in its infancy. “Though I am fairly active on Facebook and Orkut, I have not planned any strategy for my company as yet because the market we address is very niche, very regional,” says Francis Lazar, CEO of Absolute Infotech, a software reseller and systems integrator based in Bengaluru.

There are others who subscribe to the view that their customer base is not yet ready. “We are aware that corporates are into SM. However, our customer base is largely education and government, and there’s no impact of the SM there, especially in the government space where a certain amount of secrecy and formality is expected,” explains Akhil Ranjan Jha, CEO of Comprehensive Consultancy Services, Kolkata.

Some of the smaller resellers, especially in the retail segment, point out that since the vendors they represent do a good job, they do not see much of a role for themselves in Internet presence or SM-based promotions.

Others differ. “If you are into marketing or promotion, you must not ignore SM at all. Today, it’s definitely the cheapest and most cost-effective way to address your customers irrespective of your business or target audience,” says Subbu Jois, CEO of 360 Buzz Ads, Bengaluru.

Look at the statistics. With 800 million netizens, if Facebook were a country it would have been the third most-populated. Nielsen Media Research says there are around 140 million Internet users in India and they represent virtually 90 percent of Indian consumer power. Facebook represents 40 million of these users, and on an average they spend not less than 16 hours a week on the SM network. By comparison, average TV viewing is estimated to be around 14 hours a week for the average Indian.

According to a company press release, LinkedIn—which has 110 million users globally including 10 million from India—is the biggest business-related social network. Comscore Media Matrix says that as of April 2011, Twitter, the micro-blogging platform, has 220 million users of whom four million are from India.

“For any business, being visible in front of customers is of paramount importance. We are comfortable with all types of media including print, TV, Web and below-the-line activities. Since our potential customers also spend a number of hours on SM networks we have to be visible there too. This is true not only for a brand like Netgear but also for our partners,” stresses Atul Jain, the MD of Netgear India.

According to studies conducted by AMI Partners, one out of two SMBs is showing activity on SM networks and is using the Internet to grow its business. “We have found that, cutting across segments, SMBs in India are adopting SM tools to reach customers. Today they are using SM for reaching information to their customers, tomorrow we expect them to reach their suppliers through these tools. It’s therefore imperative for IT channel partners to adopt SM if they want to keep pace with their customers,” opines Neha Jalan, Senior Associate, AMI Partners India.

Several partners do understand the need, some have already taken steps to use SM tools, and many are contemplating an SM strategy.

For instance, Mumbai-based Orient Technologies has been promoting the use of SM tools internally so that key executives can explore opportunities and grow the business. “We are using conventional media like print, but believe that customers come through word-of-mouth publicity and references. We have internally used Facebook and LinkedIn to connect with customers and suppliers,” says Umang Vyas, Pre-Sales Consultant & Head for Networking Projects at Orient.

Others feel they may have missed the bus. “We regret that we have not really taken any steps in this direction, and are late to the party. Though I am personally on Facebook and LinkedIn, I have not been active, nor have we tried promoting our company [through these sites],” says AL Srinath, CEO of Shell Networks, Hyderabad.

Curiously, while they successfully sell best-of-breed technologies, many Indian systems integrators do not have a functional Website or one that’s regularly updated. Admitting that it’s paradoxical, Srinath explains, “We have discussed this issue among peers, and the common view is that all of us have been so involved with our daily transactions that we have not paid enough attention to important issues such as having a presentable Website to keep customers, peers and vendors informed about our latest activities. In fact, a couple of times, potential customers and vendors have also pointed this out to us.”

For the past 2-3 years vendors have been betting heavily on SM and making considerable investments in it. Most of the leading PC vendors have dedicated teams in India looking into SM activities; they especially focus on reputation management, and use SM tools for surveys and product promotions.

Even consumer and SOHO brands have been fairly keen to use SM to their advantage. “At Belkin India we have been replicating our global best practices with a local flavor. In India we have a dedicated agency to manage our activity on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn,” says Mohit Anand, MD, Belkin India. The company has used Facebook extensively in the recent past to run schemes that are very localized. It has an Indian icon (named Bahadur Sherpa) which is being promoted through Facebook. The company has also run schemes for reaching 50,000 customers in India, and offered an exclusive photo-shoot opportunity with its brand ambassador, actress Amrita Rao. Anand says that the plan is to get another 50,000 customers to connect over the next three months; the company intends to offer freebies (such as film tickets) to reach these customers. “We have also used SM to effectively communicate our schemes to channel partners,” Anand adds. “We are using LinkedIn to connect with specific groups, communicate through white papers, share Web trends, run surveys and so on. We also have 5,000+ Twitter followers, and the number is growing.”

Western Digital is another vendor that has been heavily investing in SM, and has been using both Facebook and Twitter. “Sometimes customers approach us with RMA requests on our Facebook or Twitter page, and these are addressed on a priority basis. Over Facebook, we have now started directly connecting local resellers with customers who are looking to buy a WD product in smaller towns,” says Sushil Bandi, Country Manager, Western Digital India.

Intel, which has been funding qualified Intel Inside partners to use their Websites for promotions using Google Ads, has been investing heavily in SM to educate both partners and customers. Comments Sandeep Aurora, Director of Marketing, Intel South Asia, “Over the years SM has gone from being an exploration platform to an engagement platform. Most important is the monitoring or listening to what’s being said about Intel and our industry, bringing feedback inside the company, and using the listening model to help us respond when and where appropriate.”

While SM seems to be the right fit for mass consumer-oriented brands, even enterprise vendors are taking SM seriously. “We have been using Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook primarily to take feedback from our channel community,” says Douglas Smith, Vice-president, Global Partner Strategy & Operations, VMware. “Apart from technical queries, we are able to use the feedback to roll out new initiatives.”

Meanwhile, Jain feels that Netgear’s cost of support to both enterprises and consumers has come down because some customers actively involved in SM solve each other’s problems online.

Apart from creating an identity and promoting it, partners have been using social marketing tools for recruitment. Hemant Chabria, Director of Chabria Infotech, who has over 500 connects on LinkedIn and over 5,000 friends on Facebook, says that he has used LinkedIn multiple times to recruit. “We had several cases where we needed talent for specific instances and short periods of time based on client demands at locations where we do not have a direct presence. In such instances, LinkedIn has been very useful.”

Connecting with vendors is another purpose for which SM tools have been useful. “We had a query on a unified communications solution, and needed to connect two vendors overseas. Using LinkedIn, and then setting up a video chat, helped us connect,” Chabria informs. Adds Vyas of Orient, “For the data center business we needed to connect with civil and electrical contractors, and we had to rely on SM tools for the same.”

Peer-to-peer engagement has been another practice that has helped partners. “I have set two sets of agenda. One is to build a brand for myself, the other for TechGyan. Because of my involvement with the Microsoft Partner Network over LinkedIn and Facebook I have managed to do both. Potential customers and peers recognize you and recommend you based on your involvement in the community,” says Suresh Ramani, the CEO of TechGyan, Mumbai.

Active participation in online clubs and forums on Facebook and LinkedIn also helps. “We are members of over a dozen online forums on security and information management issues. We closed a couple of DLP deals, and used the success stories and discussions with customers to attract others and convinced them to see us face-to-face,” says Vishal Bindra, Founder & CEO, ACPL Systems, New Delhi.

Ramani says that while the enthusiasm generated through SM is contagious, it’s very difficult to measure precise results. “I have generated about four leads which are driven by my SM activity for sure, and we are closing two. But beyond this there are several intangible benefits which cannot be measured.”

While many agree with Ramani, some point out that customers are increasingly using SM to decide on purchase decisions. “The questions customers ask us every day about our products, the comparisons made with other products, and the advice on how they can make the most of a product point to how they are increasingly relying on online opinions—whether the brands’ or their social peers’—before making a purchase decision. We even have customer testimonials that they bought our products because of our SM engagements,” says Bandi of Western Digital. He cautions resellers not to stay away from SM just because they are scared of increased transparency. He says that since LFRs and large retailers are directly hitting customers, it’s imperative that channel partners also use SM.

Vendors are emphatic that partners must jump into SM and start connecting with customers online. “Those resellers who wish to engage with online users must first start at the grassroots and figure out the medium before they finalize their engagement strategy. Once they’ve decided how they’d like to leverage the medium they should pilot a few different initiatives to see what works best for them,” recommends Aurora.

The writing on the Facebook wall is clear: SM marketing is something that no partner—irrespective of size, focus or strategy—should miss.

source : crn
 
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