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Ah, channel partners—you gotta love ’em. They bring your company business on a pay-for-performance basis. They give you access to accounts that your direct team usually can’t reach. They can also accelerate your revenue growth faster than any other engine. But, like all valuable relationships, you have to nurture them to keep them warm and productive—no small feat when your competitors shower them with promises of fat incentives and partnership nirvana.

Fortunately, channel partners are businesspeople. This means that most of them (the ones you want to invest in, at least) will evaluate the full package and choose long-term partnerships with providers they can rely on rather than short-term financial incentives. That said, incentives and earnings matter—partners are in business to make money, after all—but delivering a high-value package that partners can rely on over the long haul can help you stave off irrational bidders and would-be poachers.

This stiff competition is why it’s vital to nail down channel partner onboarding best practices. You want to make a positive impression on your new partners as they form important opinions about working with you. It’s also why you need best practices in place to ensure that you’re engaging partners on their terms in order to earn their mindshare.

What is Channel Marketing, Anyway?

Channel marketing for our purposes means marketing to partners in the indirect sales channel. Traditionally, channel partners were the distributors of manufacturers’ equipment. Today, many companies leverage channel distribution strategies for software, IT services, telecom services and more. It’s become so prominent in the tech space that marketing through these distributors, agents, resellers, consultants and the like is simply called “the channel.”

Marketing in the channel often includes cross-channel marketing, but it’s much more complex than that because you need to communicate your value proposition not just to the end customer, as with direct marketing, but to and through your sales channels as well. And you also have to communicate value just for your sales partners.

From 10,000 feet, channel marketing is usually discussed in two forms— to channel and through channel:

  • To-channel marketing usually means recruiting and engaging sales partners in your partnership with them—why they should work with you, benefits of working with you, how you can help them attract and serve their customers, and so on. To-channel marketing sometimes has multiple layers—e.g., distributors and master agencies as well as their networks of resellers or subagents.
  • Through-channel marketing means marketing your products and services to end customers through your sales channels. This might include some to-channel elements (e.g., what partners get for selling that product) as well as sales-enablement training and materials your sales partners use to recruit and close end customer revenue.

Sales partners highly value effective through-channel marketing because it can help them close business. We’ve said it before, and it’s worth repeating: There’s no better way to build partner loyalty – which keeps you top-of-mind and your partners generating revenue – than helping your partners grow their businesses.

To do this well, you need to equip your sales partners with everything you’d arm your direct salesforce with— plus knowledge, institutional support and programs that help your partners’ businesses. All in, you’re addressing the needs of three parties at once: yours, your partner’s, and your partner’s customer. Aligning the needs of all three in a way that’s repeatable and scalable requires two key elements— a channel marketing management (CMM) platform and a channel partner marketing strategy.

What to Consider When Building a Channel Partner Marketing Strategy

Channel marketing plans are complex and varied, depending on business, product and industry. The pain points they need to address, however, are nearly universal. For product, service and platform providers, those include:

  • Low partner engagement
  • Abandoned campaigns
  • MDF left on the table
  • Ineffective campaigns
  • Lack of measurement/visibility

For sales partners, the pain points your channel partner marketing strategy should address include:

  • Ineffective campaigns (yes, some of these are the same for both parties— business partners sometimes feast and famine together!)
  • Unused market development funds (MDF)
  • Measurement challenges
  • Qualifying, scoring and working leads effectively
  • Communicating solutions-oriented value to end customers
  • Confident and authoritative representation of product and service differentiators
  • Delivering quality, professional marketing information to end customers

Setting the Foundation for Successful Channel Partner Marketing

Simply providing and customizing marketing collateral for your partners isn’t enough. That’s just the price of entry. Groundwork across your entire organization can help your channel marketing program succeed. Consider these tips:

  • Set the stage for marketing success early by introducing marketing support in your partner onboarding process.
  • Establish regular cross-channel communications (e.g., web, text, email, events, etc.) to engage your partners on their terms.
  • Make marketing enablement core to your overall partner enablement strategy.
  • Incorporate partner marketing needs when developing product- and vertical-training programs.
  • Build campaign and lead-conversion measurement capabilities into your partner marketing models upfront so you can quickly identify and replicate best practices.

11 Channel Marketing Best Practices from Channel Leaders

We interviewed channel experts to identify best practices in channel marketing that you can use to jumpstart or refine your partner marketing efforts. We uncovered 11 essential practices in that process.

  1. Look at Both Leading and Lagging Indicators to Measure Success of Channel Marketing
  2. Pick a Measurement, Any Measurement for Channel Marketing
  3. Take a Revenue Marketing Approach to Channel Marketing
  4. Build Content Partners Can Customize for Marketing Automation
  5. Include Partner Performance in Your Channel Marketing Measurements
  6. Always Seek Improvement in Your Channel Marketing
  7. Evaluate “To” and “Through” Channel Marketing on Their Own Merits
  8. Bake Engagement into Your Channel Marketing Programs
  9. Offer Marketing Services or Consulting to Your Partners
  10. Feed Your Channel Marketing Programs with Feedback
  11. Ask Partners for Their Plans

Best Practice 1: Look at Both Leading and Lagging Indicators to Measure Success of Channel Marketing

Break out the macro-level factors that matter most to your program’s success—your pool of active partners, new partners, engaged partners, channel revenue, etc.—and leverage them as the foundations for your practice management. This way, your underlying programs and tactics will be oriented toward your goals, and you can better assess where and when to budget your resources.

Tamara Prazak“For channel marketing market-through efforts, we measure the success of our channel marketing efforts by looking at both leading indicators like leads and opportunities and lagging indicators like bookings,” says Tamara Prazak, National Channel Director for secure access solutions provider AppGate. “Holistically, we are tracking where we’re investing channel marketing dollars and determining if those investments match and accelerate partner production and then adjusting how we invest accordingly.”

John Macario, Senior Vice President of Enterprise and Channel Marketing for communications solutions and networking provider Ribbon Communications, agrees. He recommends aligning goals with local, in-market support to drive results. “If our partners are succeeding, that means we’re succeeding,” Macario says. “To make our partners successful, we’ve got to help drive business to them. [When operating in different countries, there’s the] coordination with the local channel managers and local enterprise sellers to figure out what’s going to play in their market. I want to measure success by how many dollars are coming out of the channel. That’s the best means to do it.”

 

John MacarioBest Practice 2: Pick a Measurement, Any Measurement for Channel Marketing

Always measure, even when line-item or campaign-level return on investment (ROI) is challenging, so you can establish baselines and pursue improvements in relative performance.

Marketing ROI is easier to establish in some activities and settings than others. This isn’t news. However, if you estimate lifetime value for a typical end customer for the software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution you’re promoting via pay-per-click (PPC), for example, you can back your way into a reasonable ROI estimate that can stand up to some pokes and prodding.

Directly tying complex marketing campaigns to revenue with precision has long been a challenge for businesses everywhere. How many conversions would have happened without it? If you included an earned media component, how much did that move the needle? Did your marketing effort help with customer retention? Is the C-Suite satisfied with your methodologies for answering these questions? We’ll stop there…you know how the circular arguments (or firing squad!) can go. 

The channel is not exempt from some of these challenges. Sometimes ROI is (relatively) easy to establish, as in this example: We spent X on a booth, travel and presence at a new trade show and netted Y new partners for projected revenue of Z. Other times, it’s not as straightforward as in this example: The trade show we attended is mature and we’re there to keep existing partners engaged. But that doesn’t mean you can’t establish metrics to determine how some components perform within larger campaigns.

Sylvia Judkins“We measure a number of things in regards to channel marketing,” says Sylvia Judkins, Channel Marketing Operations Manager at Intermedia Cloud Communications. “One, partner adoption of the content/assets we create for them. Two, partner metrics in their lead-generating activities, so primarily email metrics and leads generated. (These first two are hard to track if you do not have a PRM available for the partners to leverage.)  Lastly, the hardest of them all, is tying a marketing campaign directly to partner revenue. This is the holy grail. I have yet to find the magic solution with true 1:1 mapping.”

Best Practice 3: Take a Revenue Marketing Approach to Channel Marketing

We sometimes talk in the channel about unused MDF as a lost opportunity for partners and suppliers alike. But that’s not the only missed opportunity—especially when you have developed professional-level, high-performing content assets. Taking the time to customize and spin those assets throughout your sales organization—including your channel partners—can maximize your potential ROI for each content piece. Over time, that adds up to significant boosts in marketing performance.

Khali Henderson“Those of us in the channel were revenue marketers before revenue marketing was a thing,” says Khali Henderson, Senior Partner of channel marketing firm BuzzTheory. “When done right and fueled by the right content, channel marketing is like revenue marketing on steroids. Map out your marketing and media efforts and ‘channelize’ them for partner consumption. You’ll gain partner mind share, pick up revenue opportunities you might otherwise overlook, and in so doing further underwrite your branding and other ‘soft’ marketing activities with hard marketing that makes the C-Suite happy.”

Best Practice 4: Build Content Partners Can Customize for Marketing Automation

Satisfaction with marketing automation efforts is notoriously low across all industries and segments. But that’s less about the merits of marketing automation engines themselves than it is the content that goes into them. When you have good content available, putting it to work in automation routines can benefit you and your partners.

Natascha Lee“Almost all of our marketing and sales materials are available to partners, and a subset is available to partners to co-logo via our Launchpad (exclusive Partner-marketing automation tool), which is seeing partner response rates north of 10%,” says Natascha Lee, Director of Global Channel and Partner Marketing for TIBCO Software. “They can co-logo key high-performing campaign assets (including emails, landing pages, whitepapers, etc.) that have already been designed and proven successful.”

Best Practice 5: Include Partner Performance in Your Channel Marketing Measurements

Not all partners perform equally. Factoring individual partner performance into your assessments can help you better understand how your programs perform and which partners merit continued attention and investment.

“One way [of measuring channel success] is to see how many deals are closing that are coming through the channel,” says Maeve Naughton, president and owner of MKN Consulting Group. “Another way is to see how many general opportunities are coming in. This will give you a good idea of what your channel partners are capable of. It’s important to measure the success of your channel by looking at the amount of channel partners you have and see how many are actually bringing deals in. If partners aren’t doing anything, they’re draining your resources and aren’t being a strategic part of your company.”

Maeve NaughtonLook at your new partners across the length of your sales cycle—say, six months—to see how many are closing deals or have legitimate options in the pipeline, she advises, which gives insight into your program’s performance over time as well. “You can look at how many channel partners are staying with you and are actively engaged in the partner program,” she says.

Best Practice 6: Always Seek Improvement in Your Channel Marketing

There may be 101 ways to debate ROI and revenue contributions from any individual marketing effort but establishing baselines for measurement (see “pick a measurement, any measurement” above) empowers you to establish cycles of continuous improvement.

Heather Margolis, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Founder of channel demand-gen platform Spark Your Channel, says that baseline engagement metrics can help you improve and identify potential issues that you need to address. “Have the partners’ revenue increased? Are they leveraging your demand gen content or downloading your eBooks? Are they attending your webinars? Are they talking about you on social media? You need to be always improving. If you see a big dip all of a sudden, you need to go back and see why partners aren’t engaging.”

Heather MargolisBest Practice 7: Evaluate “To” and “Through” Channel Marketing on Their Own Merits

“[When] we look at success for channel marketing, there’s a couple of ways we engage that,” says David Portnowitz, Chief Marketing Officer for communications and collaboration provider Star2Star.  “We look at the through-side and [the] to-side.

“When you’re looking at the to-partner side, you’re trying to drive leads and MQLs and then work them pretty hard from a marketing and sales perspective. [We’re] also looking at cost per lead, what that partner generated over its lifespan, why the partner did or didn’t come to us.

David Portnowitz“From a through-partner standpoint, it’s really about engagement and satisfaction levels. Looking at why some partners are more successful than others. Looking at what campaigns they’re running through our platform. How many leads? How many partners are active on our platform? All of those kinds of things we’re looking at on a monthly and quarterly basis. The success metrics run across the board there.”

Best Practice 8: Bake Engagement into Your Channel Marketing Programs

One way to ensure partner engagement is to build it directly into your programs. Such planning can include training, feedback and special accommodations in both to- and through-channel marketing.

“We consistently drive engagement through to-partner marketing, enablement and relationship building,” says Karen Levy Newnam, Senior Director, Americas Channel Marketing for cloud infrastructure provider Nutanix. “Because engagement is key to partner allegiance, we have created specific initiatives to keep partners active, curious and hungry for more.” These include:

  • Programs that bundle marketing campaigns with product training to increase lead follow-up effectiveness.
  • To-partner marketing designed to drive thought leadership and bolster partner affinity.
  • Risk-matrix driven to-partner communications.
  • Sales- and marketing-focused Partner Advisory Councils.
  • Quarterly feedback surveys designed to enhance partner marketing processes and support.
  • Executive sponsorship of key partners.

Karen Levy NewnamBest Practice 9: Offer Marketing Services or Consulting to Your Partners

One of the challenges in through-channel marketing is that many partners are inexperienced or understaffed in marketing, so assets and campaigns don’t get used as they should. Increasingly, vendors are looking at ways to provide hands-on marketing services to help their partners.

“Some vendors are offering their partners marketing training or consultations while others are deploying campaigns on their partners’ behalf,” said BuzzTheory’s Henderson. “The obvious challenge with this approach is cost to the vendor. So, some vendors are getting creative and using these services as a perk for achieving revenue goals. Of course, that’s a chicken-and-egg scenario requiring revenue before marketing, so others are looking at offering services for a fee or shared cost and other models that require partners to indicate commitment to a go-to-market plan.”

 

Best Practice 10: Feed Your Channel Marketing Programs with Feedback

Nobody knows what your partners need more than your partners do. Ask them.

Andra Hedden

“Always be thinking partner-first,” says Andra Hedden, Chief Marketing Officer and Owner of marketing firm Marketopia. “But, in order to do that, you need to actually listen to the partners and what they need to succeed. Then, add value in those ways. A lot of vendors try to be partner-first, but you actually need to find out what partner-first means for your partners. It’s not always the same for every vendor.”

Best Practice 11: Ask Partners for Their Plans

Mike Coleman

Partnerships are two-way streets. When your partners want support for marketing initiatives built around your products, you can challenge them to develop plans you can review and sign off on. They’ll have more skin in the game and will be driven to perform better to keep those opportunities open in the future, and you can step up and deliver on your partner’s terms, not just yours.

“I’m a big fan of ‘give-get,’” says Mike Coleman, North American Channel Chief for cloud communications solutions provider Avaya. “We’re going to give you these resources in exchange for a plan, and we’re going to get ROI back that will be a win-win.”

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