Originally Published: February 22, 2022

  • Without a tie-in to overarching goals, channel marketing typically takes a spray-and-pray approach to marketing in partner programs.
  • To drive better performance, channel leaders should consider three deployment options; through-partner and for-partner marketing.
  • Gaining the right balance along all three options ensures successful engagement and execution of channel demand programs.

What is Channel Marketing?

Channel marketing encompasses marketing to partners in the indirect sales channel.

Technology companies leverage channel distribution strategies for software, IT services, telecom services and more. It’s become so prominent in the industry that marketing through these distributors, agents, resellers and consultants is referred to as “the channel.”

Marketing in the channel is more complicated than direct marketing because you need to communicate your value proposition not just to the end customer, but to, through and for your sales channels as well.

Over time, channel marketing leaders typically take a trial-and-error approach, looking for some combination of brand awareness, through-partner marketing and supplier-led marketing that yields the highest results.

While companies refer to these terms differently at times, they can be viewed through three lenses: 

  1. Programs to drive brand awareness and engagement with partners.
  2. Partner-led demand programs that partners execute on behalf of their suppliers.
  3. Supplier-led marketing programs that help prospects connect with partners; these can be simply referred to as “to-partner,” “through-partner,” and “for-partner” marketing. 

This article will define these three delivery options and make suggestions along the way on timing, duration and key examples. I’ll also explain how having the right balance can yield the highest results.

Plus, here are 11 channel marketing best practices that can help engage partners and keep your program top of mind.


To-Partner Marketing

The first of the three delivery options, to-partner marketing is when suppliers create marketing programs, treating partners like leads, to drive partner awareness or engagement in a specific activity.

Oftentimes referred to as to-channel marketing, this marketing delivery option 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 can have several layers, such as distributors and technology services brokerages (TSBs) as well as their networks of resellers or subagents.

In this first option, vendors may want to drive awareness for a specific activity they would like partners to engage in. For example, this could be deal registration or a reminder of an upcoming training program or event they would like partners to attend.

To-partner marketing has two primary objectives:

  • Objective one: Sign up partners
  • Objective two: Motivate partners to sell your solutions

To do this, channel marketers must use all content marketing vehicles at their disposal to establish thought leadership, generate interest and maintain mindshare.

Smart partners engage with partner programs that have strong marketing support to shore up this side of their business. One of the most important things providers can do to increase their indirect sales pipeline is build their company’s own brand, making it easier for partners to sell their solutions to end customers.

Key Examples of To-Partner Marketing

To-partner marketing activities might include all the communication required to get partners to attend a webinar, where they can learn about a supplier’s new portal.

Rather than taking a one-and-done approach, a supplier could send partners a timed three-part email cadence:

  • Email one: Announces the webinar and why the partner should attend
  • Email two: Reminds the partner to register for the webinar
  • Email three: Final message, sent after the webinar, that could take them to a resource page where they download on-demand recordings of the webinar

Even the webinar itself, which may provide a demo of the portal, can be considered a vital element of a to-partner marketing tactic as it can contain key messages, guiding partners through best practices or activities the supplier would like them to engage in.

Other to-partner marketing examples might consist of:

  • Newsletters sent to partners apprising them of new developments in the partner program
  • Marketing events – both live and virtual – to raise partner awareness for new offerings
  • Announcements for new training or certification programs

Timing and Duration of To-Partner Marketing

It’s critical to align the timing of to-partner tactics with the call to action (CTA) you want partners to execute.

For example, if it’s a webinar you’re asking partners to join, then ensure you’re inviting them three weeks out, just like you would a customer. If it’s a more immediate task, like asking partners via email to make sure they complete their profiles on the partner portal, take a more immediate approach by providing a link to an FAQ or guided tour so they can quickly act on your requests.

Longer, multi-touch to-partner marketing campaigns can be used to reinforce new program benefits, like deal registration or new offerings. In these cases, the campaigns should last as long as you want your partners to be made aware of the new offering – no need to sound like a broken record if the message has already been received.

Through-Partner Marketing

This second delivery option is sometimes referred to as partner-led marketing. It’s used to generate demand through partners by offering them tools, programs and campaigns they can use to reach new prospects or existing customers.

Sometimes referred to as through-channel marketing, this marketing delivery option means marketing your products and services to end customers through your sales channels. This might include some to-channel elements (such as 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.

Often fueled by market development funds (MDF), through-partner marketing includes digital marketing programs, such as social selling or content marketing programs, which can be fully developed or customized by the partner with a message or CTA of their own.

Regardless, the objectives of these programs are to ensure partners can execute targeted marketing programs and upload their customer lists if needed, but not necessarily to make them expert marketers.

Key Examples of Through-Partner Marketing

Digital events fall into this category and are becoming more relevant to partners post-pandemic, having eclipsed live events. These programs contain all the elements needed for the partner to advertise, execute and follow up on a digital event regardless of geography. Key ingredients include a strong mailing list, registration and resource pages, and follow-up email campaigns to nurture leads.

Another example partners favor is “Social Selling” programs that allow them to syndicate content through their social accounts, like LinkedIn, and reach contacts within their network. This is a popular tactic with channel marketers who want to tap into a partner’s network of prospects and customers. Key to this program’s success is the ability to curate social content on a regular basis, then later link this content to inbound landing pages and follow-up offers. Channel marketers can automate campaigns such as these for partners using partner relationship management (PRM) software platforms, like ZiftONETM.

Through-channel content is similar to what your company would develop for direct marketing initiatives. The primary difference is that all physical and digital assets are typically designed to be branded or co-branded by your partners. Top channel marketing programs go further than just allowing partners to add their logo and website; they enable partners to customize channel marketing collateral with their own messaging that promotes their value proposition as well as your products. Examples of brandable content include:

  • Flyers and data sheets
  • Battlecards
  • Blogs
  • Case studies
  • eBooks
  • White papers
  • Presentations
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • Webinars
  • Events
  • Digital campaigns
  • Social campaigns

Timing and Duration of Through-Partner Marketing

Ensure adoption with partners for any through-partner marketing effort by letting them know what’s in it for them and how they can participate.

Precede the actual marketing activity, like executing their first campaign, with a brief webinar you can use to invite targeted partners and track those that attend, then reach out to them immediately afterward to execute the next step, using a partner concierge if necessary. The actual demand gen programs themselves should have a cadence in terms of touches, email drops, etc., that will support the target buyers’ journey. This should last as long as necessary, which is typically determined through marketing planning that factor in the buying process, average selling price (ASP), method of buying (committee, consensus or transactional) and type of demand (new concept, new paradigm or established market).

This process will describe the campaign and assets to reach the target buyer, whether a transactional purchase under $15,000 ASP (think broken router) that requires a one-touch inbound search engine optimization (SEO) campaign or a multi-touch nurturing program that could last for months for an enterprise computer software (SW) purchase involving multiple decision makers.

For-Partner Marketing

The third deployment option, for-partner marketing, is used when the supplier is delivering a marketing program or deploying a tool on their website, like a partner locator, directly to the prospect for the benefit of a partner.

Key Examples of For-Partner Marketing

In the website prospecting example mentioned above, a lead is sent to the partner when a prospect requests to connect with a partner who can help them. Here, the supplier delivers the assets directly to the customer on their website and any resulting inquiries will be passed on to a specific partner.

Another example could include a competitive marketing program, where the supplier is trying to steal market share from a competitor by targeting a list of prospects and connecting them with a partner who can facilitate a try-and-buy offer. In this example, it’s better for the supplier to drive the competitive message since the partner often plays the role of a trusted advisor, and it wouldn’t work well if they were seen as biased.

Timing and Duration of For-Partner Marketing

These types of programs should not be overused, lest they create a dependency on suppliers to find leads for partners. Instead, they’re typically used as “silver-bullet” campaigns that are targeted and used within a limited timeframe in support of an offer, such as a financial incentive offered in Q4 or competitive win-back program lasting 30-90 days.

Tools, like the partner locator or online configurator that can help a customer learn more about solutions and where to find them, could last longer but should be periodically audited for effectiveness.

Achieving the Right Balance in Marketing Efforts

There are two ways to look at the collective use of To-Through-For partner marketing. One way is to think about the three options individually, to determine if your organization is employing too much of one option over the other.

Sometimes channel marketing leaders will complain that they’re doing too much for partners, handing them leads from their website with little agreement to follow up with them in a timely manner. In this case, the supplier may be looking to shift the activities from for-partner to through-partner as in the example below:

Or you might hear them say they spend too much on messaging partners in newsletters, emails, events, etc., with little insight or ROI on whether their communications resonate with partners. In this case, they may want to spend less time over-communicating and more time getting partners to take the next step.

You might be wondering, “What is the right balance?” Well, there’s good news and there’s not-so-good news…

The Not-So-Good News About Balancing Marketing

The not-so-good news is that all partner programs may differ in the types of partners they support, so no one model works for everyone.

A reseller program may require a hefty amount of to-partner marketing to remind smaller resellers to engage.

An alliance program between two suppliers that also includes direct sellers and respective channel partners could require a completely different distribution of activities.

The Good News About Balancing Marketing

You aren’t alone. Most programs already track their spend in these areas. For example, if your company is working with MSPs, it wouldn’t be hard to find the right balance for those types of partners. You need to benchmark how suppliers, master resellers, agencies and other channel providers engage with these types of partners.

A good rule of thumb that works with most partners who resell third-party products and their services is to spend most of the effort on through-partner activities, mainly because they are revenue-generating and can show ROI.

Next, consider what it takes to effectively communicate with partners on these activities with at least a 25-30 percent investment in to-partner marketing. Why? Because if you don’t, most suppliers report that the engagement for the through-partner drops below 15 percent without a steady use of awareness programs reminding the partner – what’s available, what’s in it for them, how they can engage and where and when to get started.

The final delivery option – for-partner – should be limited to specific tools or programs to help customers connect with partners, like a partner locator or a specific campaign, such as a financial offer made to customers directly and later fulfilled by a partner.

Best Practices: To-Through-For- Partner Marketing Investment

Again, these are limited programs and should not, on average, take up more than 10-15 percent of overall channel marketing investment unless you are uniquely required. This distribution is illustrated in the table below:

We’d like to hear from you!

Want to gauge your own investment against other channel marketing programs? We’re surveying channel suppliers online at this link. 

Please join others in submitting your distribution and the types of partners you support by filling out the survey. Once you do, we’ll provide you with an approximate benchmark of your channel marketing investment compared to others supporting similar partner types.

We look forward to hearing from you!