While some companies have struggled to react, others have enjoyed swift growth by deftly adapting to the new global it landscape. Enhanced marketing efforts are a natural result of this expansion, and many of the solution providers recognized on the 2017 Fast Growth 150 -- CRN's annual ranking of the fastest-growing solution providers, technology integrators, IT consultants and strategic service providers in North America -- are putting more emphasis on marketing as they look to continue feeding revenue growth.
CRN caught up with executives at four companies on the Fast Growth 150, which is ranked by two-year growth rate and requires gross sales of at least $1 million, to discuss their respective marketing philosophies, how their strategies have changed over time and the success they've achieved.
Though their general outlooks differed, sometimes significantly, all four solution providers find themselves facing the near-universal challenge of tracking ROI back to marketing-related activities.
Jessica Garrett, vice president of marketing at Atlanta-based VeriStor Systems (No. 54 on the Fast Growth 150), was hired specifically because of her digital marketing expertise. She said she has seen thousands of new digital marketing tools become available over the past few years, and noted the tremendous difficulty associated with stitching several different resources together to demonstrate ROI.
"Marketing is changing," Garrett said. "There's such a shift that's happened over the last five years or so. The traditional way of doing marketing is not enough anymore."
The issue goes beyond charting impressions or how many leads a campaign generated. To prove their effectiveness, marketing teams are often expected to show how they affected an opportunity that resulted in deal closure. Showing the direct impact of digital marketing isn't easy, Garrett said, because winning any deal is a collaborative effort influenced by sales, effectiveness of technology and customer preference, among other factors.
The question exists even at the more basic levels of marketing activity. How does a company determine and compare the business values of two different white papers?
For Garrett, the answer partly involves the use of digital tools that can estimate the weighted contribution of marketing to a given sale, based on when a prospect interacted with it in the buyer's journey.
But there's no silver bullet when it comes to tracking tools. She believes marketers still need to pair ROI-measuring solutions with a wide array of other tools, such as Wistia, which tracks time of engagement for video content. Being able to differentiate a prospect that watches five seconds worth of video from a prospect that watches two full videos, Garrett said, can be huge.
She added that her team has tripled the number of digital marketing tools it uses since she joined VeriStor nearly a year ago. The company's digital marketing spending has increased from zero to 30 percent of the overall marketing budget during that same period.
"The thing about digital marketing is we're having to figure all this out because none of us went to school for this. We didn't hear about these tools in Marketing 101," said Garrett. "We're all learning this from each other, and from online resources. You have got to be connected. You have got to talk to peers. I want to know what tools they're using and how they're using it. It's like a patchwork quilt."
Of course, opinions on the degree to which a solution provider should leverage digital marketing strategies vary throughout the channel. Josh Krasnegor, who leads marketing efforts in conjunction with the 12-person sales team at Epic Machines (No. 22 on the Fast Growth 150), sees digital marketing's lack of in-person interaction as a potential drawback -- particularly when it comes to the ubiquitous use of social media for marketing.
That's not to imply that Krasnegor completely disregards digital marketing. Epic Machines utilizes a fairly even ratio of digital and traditional marketing tactics, in some cases incorporating elements of digital strategy into events.
The key, he said, is an effective mix of the two that gives customers and prospects the chance to hear a solution provider's "story" alongside content and social media messaging.
"A lot of times it's hard to gain that trust just through digital," Krasnegor said. "In person, the salespeople have that opportunity to really get to know who you are, ask questions, and it's less ‘sales-y.' There's a relationship between doing outbound campaigns but also making sure you're balanced to have in-person activity. When it comes down to it, it's about humanizing marketing."
Garrett similarly centers VeriStor's strategy around integrated campaigns that combine elements of digital and traditional marketing strategies. For instance, a multi-month period might feature a trade show, a webinar and an event with email, content and social media efforts interspersed -- all centered around a cohesive message.
"Not just doing something that's a one-two touch," Garrett said. "Doing something that's a six-month conversation."
Both she and Krasnegor see the need for marketers to become fully embedded with their company's sales teams.
Krasnegor's sales-focused marketing philosophy has helped generate notable return for San Francisco-based Epic Machines. According to CEO David Gottesman, partner marketing campaigns and events -- combined with the indirect influence of better sales partnerships and associated leads -- have played a big role in the company's revenue growth.
Epic Machines, a cloud and data center solution provider, has also enjoyed a 25 percent year-over-year marketing budget increase with key vendor partners, with support particularly expanding around its security practice. Krasnegor mentioned a series of security-focused road shows that partly fueled that growth in vendor support, based on the ROI tracking metrics it employs.
"It's a snowball kind of thing," he said. "You have to be careful of saying ‘yes' to everything. Then it's hard to execute and deliver. You've got to pick the right areas and the right partners to work with."
For many partners, road shows and events remain the tried-and-true avenue for demand generation.
Winslow Technology Group, No. 78 on the Fast Growth 150, leverages social media, email campaigns and content marketing to an extent. But the bulk of its marketing success derives from CTO-led lunch-and-learn events catered toward IT pros.
"We do one a month and we have found a huge return on revenue generated from those events," said Lori Wilkins, marketing manager at Winslow Technology Group. "We think that's probably due to inviting technical-only people."
When it comes to Winslow Technology Group's digital marketing endeavors, reliance on large vendor partners like Dell for support has helped the 35-person company expand the reach of its messaging. A retweet or mention of Winslow Technology Group on Dell's main or partner Twitter accounts, for example, not only adds to their social media following, but also improves credibility in front of thousands of potential customers. LinkedIn offers Wilkins an ideal outlet to share a blog post from her CTO, for example, and then use its analytics to track engagement.
Wilkins wants Winslow Technology Group to leverage more automated reports moving forward so that the company can pinpoint specific marketing opportunities more quickly and effectively, and she continues to make improving the website a priority. Still, events remain the favorite tactic, with Wilkins hoping to double the number of events the company holds now.
Dell EMC storage solution provider Davenport Group, No. 118 on the Fast Growth 150, likewise places events near the top of its marketing priority list, hosting an average of about six in-person events and two webinars per quarter.
As the St. Paul, Minn-based company has grown, however, leadership expects digital marketing to receive heightened attention over the next 12 months. The focus on its events-based marketing efforts, meanwhile, will shift more toward a quality-over-quantity approach.
Being a Dell EMC provider, of course, means a partner's marketing success is influenced by how well it adapts to the vendor's Partner Marketing Institute. Davenport Group has gained a level of comfort with the new channel program, Sales Vice President Matt Johnson said, and as a result has been able to improve the quality and planning of its events.
"We feel real comfortable with the program and the ins and outs of it," Johnson said. "We're still learning pieces and parts of the program. In terms of how the funding works and how to calculate the funding for events, we're feeling really good about that."