Social Media in Channel Management?

While I’ve been skeptical about the role of social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, etc.) in channel management, lately my view has been, well, “evolving.” Today’s news that Microsoft just paid $1.2B for Yammer (the “Facebook for businesses”) just deepens my curiosity. I still believe that the best way for a manufacturer to interact with its channel partners is through its field sales managers — augmented by e-mails, a partner portal/website, a partner conference, etc. These methods generally allow you to control the conversation and deal with critiques or problems privately. However, my view is evolving for four reasons. First, the methods I just praised aren’t effective for all manufacturers. Second, social media itself has evolved and is creating better avenues for engaging with channel partners. Third, I’ve been struck by how much younger employees of channel partners use their cell phones, tablets and the social media that these devices enable. Lastly, “controlling” the conversation can limit new ideas and allow problems to fester.

Hundreds of social media applications exist. Most have no or very little applicability to channel management. However, in my evolving view several social media applications deserve attention. Arguably, the most important are blogs written by the manufacturers’ employees. Channel executives may read the blog of a vendor’s sales VP. The channel’s salespeople may be more interested in a blog from a vendor’s product manager. The channel’s sales engineer might read a blog from his counterpart at the vendor. Independent blogs are another venue for informed conversation. While the blog post itself might be important, much of the relevance of a blog in channel management comes from the “back and forth” in the subsequent thread of comments. After blogs, LinkedIn is probably the next most viable social media option for channel communication. While I personally find Twitter a bit overwhelming (you can nevertheless follow me at @bobsegal), it’s my third choice of social media for channels. I haven’t used Yammer, but it seems like it might be a viable application for channels too.

Here are some ways you might consider using social media in your channel management efforts:

• Search for potential new partners – for example via geographic, keyword searches on LinkedIn
• Take the pulse of your channel by creating a partner “group” for your company on LinkedIn
• Create deeper links by encouraging your partners to “follow” specific employees in your company on Twitter. Your sales manager might “tweet” about an upcoming training session. Your product manager might “tweet” about a new product introduction. A channel marketing manager might “tweet” about changes to various partner programs
• Share news with partners. You can set up a general Twitter channel feed and/or specific feeds for key partners. You can also “live blog” and/or record speeches at your annual partner conference. 98% of partner employees do not attend your conference! So consider sharing information via blogs and/or “YouTube”
• Collect competitive intelligence. Use “alerts” and keyword searches to see what competitors are doing in their channel programs. Applications like Google Alerts or HootSuite provide these services
• Verify the quality of your partners’ pipelines. For example, use LinkedIn to see if your partners are really calling on all of the key players at big accounts
• Conduct partner training via YouTube or SlideShare

I hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend social media because I’m still not convinced that it represents a significant improvement over traditional methods. However, as a first step, I would recommend surveying various employees at your partners to ask if they use social media for business purposes, how often, and via which specific sites or applications. If you do decide to step into the social media pool, I would then recommend that you appoint a social media manager with experience using these tools. Please let me know if social media is working for you (or not), and what plans you have for it in the future. In the meantime, if you want a broader view of channel management consider coming to our Professional Sales Channel Management workshop.

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