As IBM Reaches Out to Business Partners, Will They Reach Back to IBM?

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A new marketing initiative hopes to stimulate a dialogue with Business Partners and ultimately strengthen ways that IBM can support increased sales to the SMB market.


IBM has announced it will spend $1 billion this year on marketing to small and medium businesses (SMBs), and when you're spending that kind of money, you want to make sure you get the message right.


IBM has in many ways abandoned small business as unprofitable, leaving the territory to Dell, HP, and Microsoft. Given its success with larger companies, one has to conclude that IBM at some point threw up its hands and decided it just didn't understand the needs of the SMB market and couldn't afford the handholding--or didn't want to make the investment--necessary to keep these customers happy.


One has to look with some nostalgia at the aggressive Olympics marketing of Lenovo, which acquired IBM's line of ThinkPad laptops. Lenovo could have employed the IBM brand for several more years in marketing its laptops with the great IBM keyboards and familiar little red pointer sticks, but it chose to use the Olympics as the jumping-off point to break free of the IBM name and promote itself. Lenovo, by the way, makes much larger computers than just laptops and delivered a super-computer to the Chinese to help with forecasting the weather during the Olympics, a role that IBM had announced earlier it would fill.


IBM essentially abandoned the desktop to other PC makers and, in the process, lost valuable contacts with smaller companies. One can never forget the battle between Windows and OS/2, a technically better operating system in many people's opinions. What happened? Why has IBM been so successful with larger companies and so apparently unsuccessful with smaller firms?


The company wants to find out the answer to that question once and for all, and it is relying on its Business Partners to provide their collective wisdom before getting back into the fray. In conjunction with PartnerWorld, IBM has launched a marketing campaign to solicit feedback from Business Partners on how it can help them grow their businesses in the SMB market. At the same time, it will be reaching out to other technology vendors who might not be so happy with the support they are getting from their present affiliate suppliers or partners.


In addition to direct mail and online banners, IBM has launched a print ad campaign in the channel magazines that is intended to drive readers to a Web site called the Voice of the Business Partner. Here, BPs can express their needs to Big Blue in the form of answers to questions posed by a series of short, but highly targeted, surveys.


"We're doing the advertising to reach our current Business Partners, but we also know once you run it in a magazine, there will be other partners out there that work with other companies and [who will] see our advertising and will say, 'Hey, I didn't know IBM did that--I'm curious,'" says Chris MacLaughlin, PartnerWorld vice president of marketing.


MacLaughlin says that attracting new Business Partners has always been a secondary role (or at least effect) of PartnerWorld, so being receptive to potential new BPs is nothing new. However, because of the intense push IBM is now making into the SMB market, the time is now "right" to reach a broader audience with a significant push in advertising.


Business Partners already have had an opportunity to participate in the first survey, and results are being tabulated for posting on the Web site. The survey was relatively painless as surveys go--since it was short--and it did ask several provocative questions. After probing whether or not you offer value-added services, the survey form adjusts to your answer. I replied "No," and the next question was "Why not?" It then gives you a list of reasons that others have cited and asks you to select five. You could say there is "no customer demand," that you have "conflicts "with the vendor, admit that you had "never thought about it," or perhaps you lack the "in-house development and delivery expertise." The down-to-earth choices even include my favorite, "selling services is too complicated."


As someone who has created and distributed surveys in a former life, I was impressed by this one. The way it adjusts the follow-on questions based on answers to the previous ones gives you the feeling that it's intuitive and not just throwing a bunch of questions out there that don't apply to your circumstances.


There are a couple of different entry points to the Voice of the Business Partner site and the surveys. Viewers might see the gatefold ad, link to the site from an online banner, access it through the PartnerWorld site, or access it after receiving an email from IBM.


One purpose of the surveys is to help IBM target its advertising with messages that will effectively support Business Partner sales activities. Another purpose is to identify sticky areas impeding Business Partner success in growing revenues, areas where IBM may very likely be able to help either through training or perhaps by altering and improving its processes and procedures.


"We're actually asking Business Partners to comment on what do they want to see in the ads," says MacLaughlin. "It's an interesting opportunity for IBM to hear back from the Partners because there is so much we can help them with," she says. "But we could use some coaching from the Partners to tell us what they want to know--and when."


One thing Business Partners won't see on the site are specific comments from other Business Partners delivered as comments in a forum. While there are repeat opportunities to input unique comments not provided for in the survey questionnaire, other visitors won't have the opportunity to see them.


"About a year and a half ago, we had a version of a jam session," says MacLaughlin. "It lasted quite a while and invited Partners to make comments and suggestions and respond to each others' postings. We got a lot of great comments." One thing that organizers noticed, however, is that many people read the posted comments, but many failed to post anything themselves. In the current survey format, respondents are guided through a series of probing questions to make it easier to express how they feel, and their replies are reported only in the aggregate, so there is no risk to expressing themselves.


The new campaign also hopefully will stimulate Business Partners to catch up on the extensive training and certification opportunities that PartnerWorld offers, MacLaughlin says. With the introduction of new technologies to the mid-market, such as PowerVM virtualization, VOIP, and the initiatives for converting to energy-efficient data centers, IBM realizes that thousands of Business Partners and their employees and associates will need training and certification.


The certification section of the PartnerWorld Web site is one of the most frequently visited, MacLaughlin says. If Business Partners can get free or reduced-cost training from IBM that they would otherwise have to pay for, it translates into a significant value-add. "If they can come and take advantage of what we offer, they find that a great value to them.... Our Partners are very interested in growing their businesses, and they need to educate their team members, so we're glad to help," she says.


IBM plans to track how well the marketing effort to Business Partners is working by monitoring response to the print and online advertising. One aspect it hopes will enhance participation is the feature built into the campaign whereby participants can influence what topics are surveyed (IBM calls it a "forum" since tabulated results are fed back to participants). Among the current choices are marketing programs and incentives; networking and collaborations with other Business Partners; IBM sales leads referrals; engaging with business decision-makers; customer financing; IBM's hardware, software, and services offerings for the mid-market; and uncovering new business opportunities.


Given the breadth and depth of these topics and the flexibility with which IBM is approaching this initiative, we believe the Voice of the Business Partner Web site will become a robust venue for Business Partners to express their needs. If it does and Business Partners participate, the more important question then becomes, what is IBM going to do about addressing their expressed needs?