Cisco To Partners: Use Social Media -- You Can Bet Your Competitors Are

Solution providers that don't embrace social media as part of their broader marketing and sales efforts risk losing business to competitors that do, according to Edison Peres, senior vice president of worldwide channels at Cisco.

"I'm still a little scared personally of social media," Peres joked during his welcome address at Cisco's Marketing Velocity event, taking place this week in Cannes, France. "But if you're not in the digital world, positioned properly, you are not going to be seen as a forward-looking company."

The importance of partners integrating social media into their marketing initiatives was one of several key themes presented by the Cisco channel team during this week's Velocity event, which is aimed at helping Cisco partners build out more effective marketing organizations.

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Karen Walker, senior vice president of marketing at Cisco, also took to the stage at Velocity to stress how important social media has become in the business-to-business space. Citing a Google study, Walker said a massive 80 percent of customers today prefer to connect with a brand through Facebook before ultimately making a purchase, while only 42 percent of marketers recognize Facebook as being an integral piece to their marketing campaigns.

"There might be a little bit of disconnect there," Walker told the crowd.

In the business-to-business space, specifically, Walker noted that in 2007, 65 percent of technology or solution buyers looked at a company's online presence -- either through the company's own website, its social media presence or a combination of the two -- before deciding to make a purchase. Today, that number has shot up to 93 percent.

"So what that means is you have to really rethink how your sales and marketing partnerships are changing, and what we have to do to encourage our teams along this journey," Walker said.

Abby Favali, director of marketing at Network Dynamics, an Oldsmar, Fla.-based solution provider, said this year's Velocity event really underscores how crucial it is for her company to build up a social media presence.

"Social media is huge for me," Favali said. "I joined this company in November and they never had a marketing department. They created the role for me, and they had done virtually nothing with social media. We are invisible [without social media] and I know that."

Favali said the first step for her will be fine-tuning Network Dynamics' branding and defining a concrete message to send to its customers, before taking the full social media plunge.

"I want to make sure before we get out there that we are making the right impression," Favali said. "I feel really strongly about that. So now, the question is what is our brand's promise, and to make sure I'm redefining what our message is. I know we ultimately have a great message; it's just making sure we're all on the same page."

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Tom Van Guyt, senior marketing manager at BT Benelux, the Belgium-based arm of global solution provider BT, said BT already has started investing heavily in social media, namely through its own blog that also integrates content from LinkedIn, YouTube and Facebook.

"We started an evangelist program in the Benelux [branch] within BT two years ago called 'Let's Talk,' " Van Guyt said. "It's our own blog, and has become the blog for the whole of [BT] Europe."

BT's next step, Van Guyt said, is leveraging its blog as an inbound marketing tool, from which it can find and qualify leads. "Let's Talk," Van Guyt continued, is part of BT's overall strategy to shift its marketing dollars from traditional above-the-line marketing campaigns to building out BT's online presence, making sure its brand is optimized for Google searches.

"Above-the-line marketing is completely dead," Van Guyt said. "We realized that already. All the money that was spent above the line is now focused on reputation management."

In addition to social media, the need for solution providers to break down the barriers between their marketing and sales organizations is a major theme being highlighted at Velocity. More specifically, Cisco's Walker stressed the importance of partners' making marketing more accountable for pipeline planning, meeting revenue goals and other items that have been traditionally and narrowly associated with sales organizations.

"Marketing needs to be an accountable partner with sales. It also has to be accountable for revenue numbers," Walker said. "[Marketing is] your agent for growth."

This year's Cisco Marketing Velocity event is the seventh in Cisco's history, drawing in more than 200 Cisco partners from 44 countries.