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IT software buyers look online for advice: survey

Business people contemplating technology purchases today rely heavily on online forums, communities and blogs to do their research. Most purchasers use mobile devices, and a growing number get information - and recommendations - through social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

So if you're marketing to business customers, you'd do well to pay attention to digital media and mobile, concludes a recent survey by Softchoice Corp. of Toronto. But remember that not everyone has access.

The North America-wide technology distributor wanted more specific information on its customers' research habits, says Joel Marans, marketing design and delivery manager at Softchoice. Unable to find existing data, Softchoice did its own survey and received responses from 1,444 employees from more than 1,200 companies of all sizes from across Canada and the U.S.

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Twenty-seven per cent of respondents named user forums and communities as their primary means of research, and 21 per cent named blogs, while a quarter said they rely most on IT publications and 14 per cent cited research firms.

That shows technology marketers must be community minded, says Mr. Marans. A key is to offer information that helps people "when they're having challenges."

The best way to get involved with customers and prospects in online communities is to help them address their "pain points," agrees Tim Hickernell, a Chicago-based analyst with Info-Tech Research Group of London, Ont.

And, Mr. Hickernell says, businesses should respond when people discuss problems or ask questions related to their products.

Online communities can spread negative comments about a company fast, notes Alan K'necht, a Toronto online marketing consultant and author of The Last Original Idea: A Cynic's View of Internet Marketing. "No longer can you be complacent, saying 'this is one noisy customer, they're not important to me."

Businesses can combat the negative by making sure the messages they want to convey are online and ranked high by search engines, he says -- and by paying attention to customer service.

Softchoice also asked its customers about access to social networking tools at work, and found that while 37 per cent have unlimited access, 34 per cent have none at all. The rest have limited access.

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So, Softchoice concludes: "Don't assume access is ubiquitous." Put all your marketing eggs in the social network basket and you risk missing about a third of your target market entirely.

It's not that social networks don't play a significant role - "social networks have already signed up over half the Internet audience and already are one of the largest components of online hours," notes consulting firm Deloitte in its 2011 Technology, Media and Telecommunications predictions - just that they aren't the whole answer.

Is it really news that marketers shouldn't rely too much on one channel?

"I thought that was all just common wisdom," Mr. Hickernell observes. Mr. Marans says it is - except that in the excitement over new media, some may be forgetting it.

"The notion (of using multiple channels) has sort of gone by the wayside," he says.

Softchoice found people in small to medium businesses are more likely to have access to social networks than their counterparts in larger enterprises. That's partly because larger operations have more need to manage traffic on their networks, Mr. Marans says. Not surprisingly, senior people are less often subject to access restrictions.

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A similar pattern showed up in who uses mobile devices to do research. More than half of directors and executives responding to the survey said they had researched IT on their mobile devices. Percentages for less senior people were in the low 40s.

Mr. Hickernell sees it as a shift in the way busy executives use travel time for research - from reading in-flight magazines to trolling for information on their BlackBerrys and iPhones.

Marketers need to make sure their websites, blogs and other online marketing are readily accessible from mobile devices, Mr. Marans says - and that marketing e-mails are tailored to mobile screens too.

And they must remember the different capabilities of the devices. For instance, notes Mr. K'necht, Apple Inc. doesn't support Flash, a widely used graphics technology, on its popular iPhone and iPad.

Many mobile users prefer custom software or "apps" to visiting conventional websites on their mobile phones, Mr. K'necht adds, so businesses should consider creating apps for customers to do things like ordering and checking order status.

But one tricky problem, Mr. Hickernell notes, is how to ensure people don't lose track of information they find on a mobile device while away from the office. In the days of in-flight magazines, "you used to either steal the magazine or rip the page out," he says. Mobile content needs some form of "offline bookmarking" to help people find items of interest again.

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