Engaging customers online helped build BT's network security brand in U.S.

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Question: How do you establish a marketing dialogue with a smallish, specialized market largely influenced by thought-leaders and solutions?

Answer: Become a thought leader and offer solutions.

That was the simple process embraced by BT North America, the New York-based arm of U.K. communications service provider BT Group, when it set out earlier this year to expand its presence in the U.S. network security market.

Because of the uniqueness of the market, and the decision-makers who inhabit it, the company decided to use social media as a key marketing outreach.

“We had expanded significantly in North America over the past several years through acquisitions and wanted to open up a dialogue with our customers, to let them know we had acquired this enhanced capability in the security space,” said Jean Foster, VP-marketing, BT Americas.

Foster admitted that exploiting social media was “pretty much an experiment for BT.” But she also pointed out that the network security arena is relatively small, consisting of corporate chief security officers who tend to read similar trade publications and follow well-recognized industry gurus.

Social media, Foster thought, would be the perfect way to reach this homogeneous group.

BT's goals included building its network-security brand with its customer base, both directly and through influencers, and equipping the BT sales team with the knowledge and training to sell to and engage with BT customers. The company also wanted to help establish its green and sustainability credentials with its customers, a quality for which it is well-known in Europe.

Networking formed the core of the program. The company asked its own security experts and salespeople to beef up their LinkedIn profiles, to make sure they were as well-known as possible and connected within the relatively intimate world of network security.

To help make its networking more dynamic, the company turned to Twitter, nominally a forum-cum-blog site—questions and replies are typically very short—and functioning almost like an instant-messaging service within self-defined interest groups.

Here, BT thought leaders set up Twitter communities, posed questions or floated ideas on the fly, and received (and shared) quick answers in reply.

As for blogs, the company already had a few thought leaders doing their own thing on security subjects, led by chief security technology officer Bruce Schneier. Schneier already was well-known in the space, with his own blog ( and several books, (“Applied Cryptography” (Wiley, 1996) on secret codes, and “Secrets and Lies” (Wiley, 2004) on computer and network security, to his credit.

Foster set up another blog fronted by a member of her marketing team, who screened and presented commentary from the security community.

“If an issue was raised by someone in the community, we could tap into our own people as needed,” Foster said.

On the sustainability front, the company established yet another blog ( headed up by Kevin Moss, director-BT Americas and the company's head of corporate social responsibility.

Integration with the sales teams was key to exploiting the value of social media, Foster said.

“Social media was something new and exciting for them,” Foster said. “We did presentations, and asked sales to use Twitter dialogues as reasons to contact their customers. But we also asked them to get their customers involved in the dialogue as well.”

BT North America's social media campaign was a matter of “quality over quantity,” according to Foster. No more than about 160 bloggers and responders are following the network security and sustainability blogs today, she said, but within that group are a fair number of customers and influencers.

In addition, the network security buzz has inspired decent media coverage, including one interview with BusinessWeek.

“It's hard so far to link our social media campaign with sales, because our lead time is substantial,” Foster said. “For us, it's more about opening up opportunities. But it did create dialogue and open doors with customers, and I do expect to get more leads from it.”

Foster is quick to point out that the company is treading lightly in social media because of the danger of “over-branding”—too much promotion in this rigorously independent world that can damage the company's credibility.

“For us, it's narrowcast marketing,” Foster said. “It wouldn't make sense to do a broad-brushed approach, because it would be hard to compete with AT&T and Verizon Wireless. My goal is to go after the decision-makers. Because of that, I think for BT the social tools will grow in importance.”

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