Sony designing site to help its distributors

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While other companies are using their Web sites to cut out the middle-men by selling direct, a Sony Corp. group is setting up a site designed to support its distributor-reseller network.

Sony's Computer Components & Peripherals Group plans to leverage the customer-focused Web site, expected to be online by Sept. 1, to build brand awareness, increase customer loyalty and generate sales leads for its distribution channels while reducing marketing costs.

The group manufactures data storage products, including CD drives, tape drives, magnetic-optical drives and DVD drives. Its customers include original equipment manufacturers, system integrators and product distributors.

Site specifics

Sony is "using the Web site to improve the level of service to its various channel partners. They have an elaborate, complex system of distribution. We'll take the Web site and support all different customer segments online," says Gregg Fisher, account director at New York-based Nicholson NY, which recently was selected to create the site.

Nicholson is an interactive agency with such clients as IBM Corp., New York Daily News and Thomas Register.

In setting up the site, the group is taking into account the varied needs of its customers. For example, systems integrators want Sony products but are most concerned with compatibility, so they require technical information and compatibility charts for engineers.

A distributor, on the other hand, needs sales and marketing information and reseller support, while a customer wants information about drives and how to use them.

"In storage, there is so much technological innovation and so much confusion about the technology," Mr. Fisher says. "There are questions about how to anticipate the storage needs of a company and storage demand.

"Distributors want to know which company will work to support them the best."

Easy access

The site will offer customers easy access to information and product data specific to their needs -- pricing, market information, reseller support, complex engineering and compatibility data, and easy-to-understand product descriptions for end users.

Areas within the site will be tailored to each customer segment. Customers will be able to specify their needs and obtain product and distributor information without going through reams of technical data.

However, the group has no plans to use the Internet for direct sales.

"We are a channel marketing group," says Karen Willett, marketing communications manager for the group. "Our relationships and partnerships are so important, and this Web site will enhance our ability to work with our customers. We want to service and support these customers, and we can do that more and more over the Internet."

Knowing your audience

Previously, the Sony group's Web site and collateral were product focused and tried to speak to many customer segments at the same time. Telemarketing was costly and was the chief source of lead generation.

Now, however, a key part of the online strategy is the "idea of needs-based navigation: Taking the human intelligence of a salesperson and have it online," Mr. Fisher says.

"Rather than having a brochure for a mass audience, we'll have a place where the end user can come to the site and articulate their needs and concerns -- `I have a 350-~[person] organization; here are my storage needs, and here is what I need to solve' -- and then provide

them with the product information that fits their needs," he says. "There is a built-in functionality in the site that we will develop that allows that online."

The Web site makes sense from a cost-savings standpoint. Brochures, collateral, mailings and volumes of technical data can be eliminated or reduced, he says.

"The best part is Sony gets a qualified lead, and then Sony gives the lead to the distribution network," Mr. Fisher says. "They want to keep the sanctity of the distributor network. They've built up this network of relationships, and the dollars are there. They don't want to mess up this elaborate system that is in place, the infrastructure."

Customer loyalty is key

Building brand awareness and customer loyalty online is key, and is fueled in part by changes in the original-equipment manufacturer business.

"We are finding in the technology of the industry that OEMs used to go get the pieces they needed and build what they build, and they did not want the products known," Ms. Willett says. "Then Intel changed all that.

"Now OEMs and [value-added resellers] and integrators say they want people to know they are using Sony components in their systems. That branding is happening more. OEM relationships are very important to everyone in the industry, and we want to support our OEMs."

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