Almost two years ago now, the idea came up from my management team that I go on a social media course. Perhaps they just wanted to get me off the premises, but it got me started trying to talk to our customers through Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Probably the most valuable insight I gained on the course was that nobody really knows what they are doing on these networks so the best thing is just to make it up as you go along.
I started on Facebook, which may seem an odd place to start as Widget UK sells exclusively to retailers and resellers not to consumers.
But we already had a group for past and present staff members on Facebook which I was able to migrate into a company page. Any page with more than twenty-five followers gets allocated its own web address, which in turn made it easier to promote the new page through our monthly email shot to customers. I found very few other channel businesses on Facebook, but creating the page just seemed to flow and as time has gone by we have developed a core following of over 100 people, mostly employees, ex-employees, or staff from our customers and vendors. I add content once or twice a week which pops up in their news stream and keeps them informed about the business and its product in a more informal way than the classic email newsletter.
But of course, not everyone on Facebook is there for business. Many students from round the world clearly think it is a laugh to follow a UK distribution business. Sometimes we get two or three joining from the same university on a Friday night. One lad from Indonesia who followed recently listed his occupation as being manager of Liverpool FC. ‘Likes' from these jokers do help persuade Facebook that Widget is a brand of interest, but when I am feeling uncharitable I go around and unfriend a few.
LinkedIn automatically creates a page for any company whose employees are on the network. To my surprise I found that Widget's LinkedIn page already had 80 followers. The benefit of LinkedIn followers is that you can look at their full profiles and work out what they do. The disadvantage is that if you log on one day and notice that the number of followers has gone up, LinkedIn does not show you who the new ones are.
Looking around at the company pages of other distributors, it is clear that our competitors are only slowly working out what to do with their LinkedIn page too.
The largest distributors in the UK such as Ingram Micro seem to have provided some basic company information, but otherwise are still viewing LinkedIn as a recruitment platform, and the rest of the information they provide relates to job vacancies.
Varlink, a distributor of hand-held data reading products based near York, has the best page I found from the channel. 26 of its employees are on LinkedIn - which must be nearly all of them - and their products page lists the principal product groups they distribute, along with email details for the salesperson responsible for that range. I congratulated Mike Pullon, the owner of Varlink, and copied everything he had done.
Many people - and this view has been aired in the Widget office - believe that using Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn is not real work and real sales come from a proactive sales force getting in touch with customers.
While I would not for a moment discourage our sales force from getting out there in front of customers, channel sales is a people business, and the people within channel partners are on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Our job is to reach customers by whatever method they deem acceptable, which includes social media as well as by phone or by email.
Mark Needham is founder and chairman of consumer electronics distributor Widget UK Ltd. Widget is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/widgetuk, on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/company/widget-uk-ltd and on Twitter as @widget.
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