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IT distribution companies should consider a content marketing strategy in order to stand out from their channel peers and attract new customers.

The cold, drab world of B2B doesn’t have a reputation for scintillating marketing campaigns, and it’s probably no surprise to hear that IT channel businesses are not always great at marketing either.

After all, there’s not always much incentive to invest in the activity of drumming up new business when as a traditional hardware distributor, your main business strengths and competitive advantage lie in the proficiency of your operations and logistics functions. Barriers to entry, long-standing contracts and client relationships, as well as routine repeat business haven’t always helped in incentivizing marketing for distribution businesses.

The channel on average is “very, very bad at sales and marketing,” says Terry Hedden, CEO of IT sales and marketing company Marketopia, in an article published on the TechTarget website. “They are good at selling to existing customers — but bad at selling to other customers.” 

However, as the surrounding business environment has evolved away from ‘lift and shift’ hardware and in the direction of cloud, managed services provision and electronic software download (ESD), so the emphasis on traditional logistical skills has shifted somewhat. 

In order to move with the times, channel businesses are needing to acquire digital skills. In addition to changing products, cloud, direct vendor engagement, smaller margins and increased competition are all putting the squeeze on the channel, and forcing intermediaries to pay more attention to their own marketing in an attempt to find more business and win new customers.

In addition to changing products, cloud, direct vendor engagement, smaller margins and increased competition are all putting the squeeze on the channel.

So where to start?

One of the more recent forms of marketing which has been widely touted as holding great promise is that of content marketing. This type of marketing involves the creation and sharing of online material (such as videos, blogs, and social media posts) that does not explicitly promote a brand but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services.

Basically, instead of forcing your products on consumers via targeted or non-targeted advertising (known as a push strategy), content marketing’s intention is to engage consumers, and create a natural interest in and connection with the content (pull strategy).

And there is no better example of this than the phenomenon known as ‘going viral’.

A hugely popular piece of content such as a viral video, in addition to being clever and quick-witted, no doubt tickles every marketer’s curiosity as to what exactly it is that makes them so successful and spread like wildfire. After all, isn’t it every business’ dream to see the kind of coverage and exposure that a great viral video can provide?

Many businesses have successfully deployed viral videos to elevate their brand. Perhaps you’re familiar with Volvo Truck’s epic split with Jean-Claude van Damme. Or Air New Zealand’s Hobbit-related safety video.

Yet what makes them work so well, and hit people’s sweet spots so that they want to share the videos with everyone they know? What is the big secret that these brands share?

According to Ogilvy & Mather Advertising London’s social media director, James Whatley, “you may as well read an instruction manual on how to win the lottery. Yes, you might pick up a few tips, but any major success will be purely accidental” he says.

He goes on to add that “viral hits ride the zeitgeist, they capture the imagination, but they also have significant investment behind them to ensure that enough eyes turn into enough clicks and enough shares.”

It seems that there is consensus amongst creatives and agency executives that there needs to be rock-solid media planning, distribution and public relations strategy to give a good video the best chance of going viral. However, this all needs to be built on the essential groundwork of creating the best possible content in the first place.

It would also appear that ‘going viral’ shouldn’t be the starting goal of a campaign, due to the rather hit-and-miss nature and unpredictability of these videos.

The aim should be powerful, timely storytelling that reaches as wide an audience as possible.

Rather, the aim should be powerful, timely storytelling that reaches as wide an audience as possible, and this can be delivered by smaller pieces of ‘microcontent’ – such as videos, photos, polls, games and quizzes – that do not cost as much to make and can therefore be produced at greater volume says Kate Cooper, managing director at social media agency Bloom Worldwide.

There’s hope for the less experienced marketer too. Today’s modern media landscape is a great leveler of playing fields, and social media branding experts agree that no brand should be intimidated by the megabucks budgets and sky-high production values of big-brand viral campaigns. There is still huge value to be gained from more modest attempts to engage with online audiences, as long as they’re timely, relevant and compelling.

That’s encouraging news for ICT distribution businesses which aren’t experienced in the dark arts of marketing, and which may not feel they have the skills or budget to stand out in the crowded channel environment. Their competitors are probably not marketing experts either, and a large budget is not always a requirement to make a piece of truly relevant and resonant content.

Going viral can be a double-edged sword however. In the same way that brands and companies can bring a lot of positive attention to themselves via good content, the same applies for content which shines a negative light on the business.

It’s this virology of social media which makes it such a tricky tool for business to use in its marketing mix. Bad experiences can spread through word-of-mouth as fast as good ones, and businesses can find themselves doing PR crisis management before they’ve had mid-morning tea.

Nevertheless, content marketing remains a solid option for those ICT channel businesses wanting to establish themselves as authorities in their respective industries, stand out from the crowd and attract new customers. It should also be bolstered by including other traditional marketing elements such as emailing and advertising.

It’s a brave new marketing world out there. Channel businesses should not be afraid to get stuck in, create great content and learn as they go.