Focus, focus, focus.
That’s the message from experts to resellers marketing their businesses in these fiercely competitive times.
“There are a lot of things that people do (in marketing) that hurt them, and end up costing them money,” said Toronto marketing consultant Michael Hepworth. “There’s probably more BS about marketing than about any other part of business. Yet it’s very logical, very straightforward.”
“It’s not the method, it’s the focus that counts,” added Jacob Stoller, principal of Stoller Strategies, a Toronto-based IT consulting firm. “Not only being perceived as experts, but as being able to deliver.”
Paul Kerr, president of Scalar Decisions, a Toronto systems integrator, agrees. “What doesn’t work any more is broad scale, wide-market initiatives, like postcard mailers, or mailers of any sort,” he said. “We have typically found recently that if you want to crack a new account, you need to offer something compelling.”
Seminars are a popular marketing tool, for example, but they must be the right kind.
“People like to deal with issues, not just products,” said Elisabeth Vanderveldt, vice-president of business development for Conamex International, a Montreal solutions provider. “You can present a seminar on a solution, featuring two or three products. It works for us; people come up right away (after the seminar) and ask how they can implement it.”
But Kevin Hollis, vice-president of business development at BAASS Business Solutions, a computer and consulting firm with three offices in Southern Ontario, cautioned that “generic seminars don’t work any more, at least in Toronto. If you have a niche topic, or if you’re delivering education, they may work, but not if they just flog a product.”
Kerr agrees, and has taken his focus a step farther. “We have been appealing to technical decision makers through non-marketing-based, pure technically-based small group lunch and learn events. One or two have failed, but that is a good leading indicator to invest less in that area, or to rework our message. They provide a good feedback loop.”
Sometimes, however, seminar failure can simply be traced to poor timing. Nothing close to Grand Prix week is likely to succeed in Montreal, for example, said Greg Rokos, president and CEO of ESI Information Technologies, which has offices in Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto.
Marketing success depends on the vendor, too, Kerr noted. “You can do more events with a partner-friendly vendor. It’s harder to do marketing with Sun. It’s easier to do with HP.”
Partner-friendly vendors are a factor. Said Rokos, “A rule of thumb is, the more a manufacturer relies on the channel, the better the tools it provides. We can develop a whole marketing campaign with Microsoft’s tools overnight, and it looks sharp.”
Hollis praised his primary partner, the Sage Group. “They encourage us to use our co-op funds,” he said, “and remind us if they’re going to expire.”
Sage partners can even, for a fixed fee, rent a tradeshow package, including a booth and a quantity of literature, that is delivered to the site and picked up afterwards.
“For me, the big change is that (Microsoft) go to markets used to be to be product based,” said Vandervelt. But to get through to the market today, resellers have to use solutions-based selling.
“In May, we were set up to do a SQL Server 2005 seminar, but it takes on a completely different tone when you say: ‘Add Business Scorecard Manager and you can get access to KPI (key performance indicators) from every corner of your organization and with SharePoint you can get alerted when key indicators change.’ It sends a completely different message to your audience. One client alone turned around (after that seminar) and ordered training for all three products.”
Creative use of co-op marketing funds is also essential. “It’s a pendulum that swings back and forth every couple of years,” said Kerr.
“Over the past twelve months, we’ve seen a major move away from spending a lot of partner development funds. There’s been less money available, and it’s been tougher to get. You have to have something compelling to offer these manufacturers to get the money to go out and market to the industry.”
For example, he has just done a highly-targeted campaign in partnership with Network Appliance and distributor Avnet to acquire new NetApp clients, sending film canisters containing a DVD and personalized materials asking the prospect for the opportunity to meet, in return for a portable DVD player. “A portable DVD player will probably cost $150 at Best Buy,” he noted. “But once you have the chance to meet with (the prospect) for an hour, then it’s your opportunity to offer up something compelling that allows it to move to the next stage. Those types of directed, high-value pieces have worked very, very well for us.”
Rokos uses a slightly different twist, with promotions such as offering customers who enroll in a training course by the end of August an iPod Nano on completion. “It creates a bit of a buzz,” he said.
“At some times of year there’s an overflow of events. And at quarter-end, it’s tougher to get people away from their offices, so we’re giving them something that shows our appreciation.”
As for old favourites like golf tournaments, Kerr finds they don’t draw the way they used to. “They take too long; people are too busy,” he noted.
ESI has hosted tournaments for the past twelve years, as customer appreciation events, but Rokos is also reviewing their relevance. He’s not giving up on customer events entirely, though. “People do business with people they trust and like,” he said. “It’s important to create a level of comfort and trust so that a customer will tell you about a problem and you have a chance to fix it.”
Personal relationships are especially important for smaller companies. Where companies like ESI, BAASS and Scalar are large enough to afford six-digit marketing budgets (including vendor co-marketing funds), Conamex, and Toronto’s Intellect Computer Source have more modest resources.
Intellect’s operations manager, Shawn Aghdassi, has no set marketing budget and mainly uses brochures to generate leads. He concentrates on growing business with existing customers. “We create a connection, and build up a relationship,” he said. “That’s how it works for us. If you provide good service (the customer) will stay with you forever.”
Customer satisfaction is a powerful marketing tool for Conamex’s Vanderveldt, too. In a Microsoft customer satisfaction survey, Conamex scored 100 per cent in loyalty, and 196 out of 200 overall. “You take stuff like that to prospective customers when you’re trying to get their attention,” Vandervelt said, “and believe me, it gets their attention.”
Remember Web sites
Don’t forget your Web site, VARs add. “One of the first things a prospective customer does when he hears who you are is Google you,” said Kerr.
“Your Web site is their first impression. We try to put the essence of Scalar on the Web site, and refresh it every four or five months – it’s the cheapest form of advertising.” He also makes use of Google Adwords and relies on its analytics to profile visitors.
“In the past, we invested considerable time in flyers and brochures,” said ESI’s Rokos. “Now we put a lot more money into the Web site. Customers want instant, up-to-date information. We’re spending a lot more money on information that customers can download.” And like Kerr, he’s also using Google Adwords.
It’s paying off. ESI recently launched an English ITIL-based hosted helpdesk Web site, and has enquiries from as far away as Botswana and Switzerland.
“The sales cycle is much quicker,” he noted. “A prospect will look at the Web site, and by the end of the day he’s a customer.”
“The industry is in a long, painful transition right now,” said Stoller. “VARs that focus will survive. You have to have the courage to say what you are not; it takes a strong sense of purpose to make that happen.”