Successful channel marketing doesn’t just happen. It takes planning, resources and a sustained effort. Channel marketing is more complex than other marketing efforts because you must simultaneously market to your partners – often through multiple layers of distribution – and through your partners to end customers. However, the rewards for your redoubled efforts are much greater since channel partners that are successfully activated become force multipliers that can bring in new customers.

Getting Started on Your Channel Partner Marketing Plan

The first steps toward a successful channel marketing program begin well before the marketing starts, with foundational channel program investments, including:

  • C-Suite Commitment: Any channel veteran can tell you that nothing has hampered company success in the channel more than wishy-washy executive teams that flip-flop on their channel commitments. For some companies – especially big brands – that’s meant entering, leaving and reentering the channel altogether. Such boomerang behavior ceases when channel-friendly firms rack up revenue gains, often at the incumbents’ expense. For other firms, vacillating has been more subtle, such as limited commitments to partner enablement and marketing. We’ve said it before, and we’re saying it here again – there is no better way to build lucrative, long-term relationships with channel partners than to help them grow their businesses.Taking the time to spell out the virtues of partner enablement to get C-Suite buy-in upfront can help you secure the commitment and resources you need to develop channel enablement best practices.
  • Rock-Solid Onboarding: You need to include partner marketing in your onboarding process. There’s no doubt about that. However, the best partner marketing plan in the world won’t matter if the rest of your channel partner onboarding program fails to deliver – particularly since partners’ first impressions influence your potential for repeat business.

Equip Yourself with the Right Channel Partner Marketing Tools

The cornerstone of effective channel marketing is content. But, following the pandemic, the bar for content marketing is higher. According to new research from Content Marketing Institute,  it’s no longer enough to create content that can help customers find us through search engine optimization (SEO); we must also create content experiences that boost engagement throughout the customer lifecycle – from awareness and evaluation to purchase and advocacy. And channel marketers must pull double duty, executing campaigns to engage both partners and partners’ customers. To deliver on this tall order, channel marketers need a veritable war chest of marketing tools.

  • Develop a Strong Company and Channel Brand. To-channel marketing has two primary objectives: The first is to sign up partners, and the second – and often the more difficult to achieve – is to motivate partners to sell your solutions. To do this, channel marketers must avail themselves of all content marketing vehicles (see list below) to establish thought leadership, generate interest and maintain mindshare. While partners may have a reputation for being coin-operated or aligning with the highest bidder, savvy ones look for partner programs with strong marketing support (an area where they tend to be weak). They also will tell you that one of the most important things vendors can do to strengthen their channel is build their company’s own brand, making it easier for partners to sell their solutions to end customers. Content is key to both company and channel branding initiatives.
  • Create Brandable Content. Through-channel content is similar to what you would develop for your direct marketing efforts. The primary difference is that all physical and digital assets are designed to be branded or co-branded by your partners. Best-in-class channel marketing programs go further than simply leaving room for partners to slap on their logo and web address; 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
  • Automate Digital/Social Campaigns. To ensure consistent and persistent marketing messaging, automate your to- and through-channel campaigns. Using a tool like ZiftONE, channel marketers can automate campaigns for partners. They can also build turnkey nurture campaigns and workflows that partners can activate to communicate with their end customers and prospects via email. Marketers can also boost their brands (and yours) by automating co-branded posts to social channels.
  • Build a Content Factory. To generate all this content, you need to build a well-oiled channel marketing content factory, including:
    • An experienced content development team consisting of in-house, freelance, or agency talent with a range of skill sets, including marketing, writing, and design, research and long-form content development, industry and solutions knowledge, and channel expertise.
    • A full-featured channel marketing management software platform to help you manage and scale your partner relationships as you grow.
  • Offer Agency-level Assistance. Increasingly, channel marketers are supplementing their content factories with an ecosystem of marketing agencies that can assist partners with executing through-channel campaigns. Some vendors are simplifying agency-partner collaboration with directories like ZiftONE’s Services Marketplace. In some cases, vendors are funding agency assistance in whole or part through MDF or other reward programs. This approach not only bridges the marketing talent gap at many partner organizations but also ensures partners align with agencies with capabilities that are pre-screened and vendor-approved.

7 Steps to Build Your Channel Partner Marketing Program

To help you build (or update) your channel marketing program, we returned to our all-star panel of channel marketing gurus to identify seven key steps you can take to set yourself up for success. Collectively, our panelists are responsible for billions of dollars in channel partner revenue development. They didn’t disappoint, delivering candid, actionable advice you can put to work right away.

Step 1: Lead Channel Marketing Programs with Purpose

Khali HendersonChannel partners aren’t just independent salespeople. They’re businesses in their own right, with their own objectives and challenges. If your targeting is on point, you’re recruiting and working with partners that solve problems or create efficiencies for end customers that can benefit from your solutions. Your approach to those partners needs to be driven with the same attention to purpose that underpins your core value proposition for end customers.

“A channel partner, for all practical purposes, is a power customer that brings you revenue,” says Khali Henderson, Senior Partner for channel marketing firm BuzzTheory. “You can create considerable value and consistency by formally establishing why you’re doing business in the channel, the problems you aim to solve and opportunities you aim to create for your partners, just as you do for your end customers.”

These foundational principles help crystallize operational and marketing objectives, making it easier to scale while maintaining core values and consistently rewarding partner performance.


Step 2: Map Your Channel Marketing Communications

In the same way that direct marketing targets various buyer personas, channel marketing must target a range of decision-makers, too. The difference is that these decision-makers may be part of one or more organizations that make up your distribution channel. Mapping them is essential for effective communications.

Tamara PrazakBe sure to identify:

  • To-channel marketing points. In the simplest of scenarios, channel marketers need only target partners directly, but often, there’s also a distributor they must convince and convert first to gain access to selling partners. And the distributor often remains the gatekeeper, governing all future communications to their partners. In many cases, vendor communications are not only screened but “pay to play,” putting speed bumps on your path to partner engagement. Once connected with a partner, getting mindshare may not be straightforward but involve communications with different stakeholders, such as owners and sellers, etc. (See organizational roles below.)
  • Through-channel marketing points. At best, selling through partners to end customers is two steps, but it can be more if there are distributors in the mix. Complicating this marketing motion is that channel marketers often need to pair through-channel campaigns with to-channel messaging about objectives, promotions and sales incentives. Establishing these essential communications and experience points helps you with content strategy, of course, but also enables you to prepare to measure the right outcomes from the right activities. “For channel market-to activities, we measure partner enrollment and engagement,” says Tamara Prazak, National Channel Director for secure access solutions provider Appgate. “For channel market-through efforts, we measure leads, opportunities and bookings.”Heather Margolis
  • Partner types. In many cases, your channel program won’t comprise a homogenous group. A classic example is referring partners versus selling partners. At a minimum, their “hot buttons” are different – one wants to passively throw leads over the fence while the other wants to actively sell your solution. In another more complex example from the tech space, there may be many types of partners, including sales agents, value-added resellers, white-label resellers, systems integrators and managed services providers, etc. – all of which may sell your solution but for different reasons with different compensation models and different pre- and post-sales responsibilities up to and including installation, billing and customer care. In this scenario, both recruitment and enablement marketing materials must be tailored to match their go-to-market models.
  • Organizational roles. “First, figure out your partner types,” says Heather Margolis, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Founder of channel demand-gen platform, Spark Your Channel. “Then ensure that in your communications, you have some roles-based communication.” Messaging that may convince an owner to sign on as a partner may not be the same messaging required to motivate sales reps to introduce your solutions to their customers.
  • Specialization. Your partners may come to the table with expertise in health care, financial or other industries. Or they may focus on multinational enterprises or small and medium businesses (SMBs). Capitalize on their specializations by tailoring your messaging to vertical or horizontal needs. Even when your partners or solutions are more broadly focused, tailored marketing can boost results. “Customizing campaign language, use cases and positioning of your products for a specific vertical or company size can make your marketing more relatable, drive more engagement and, ultimately, more conversions for you and your partners,” says  Heather Tenuto, Chief Revenue Officer for enterprise channel management platform provider Zift Solutions.

Heather TenutoStep 3: Allocate Your Channel Marketing Spend

In marketing, the term “different strokes for different folks” comes into play everywhere — even when it comes to budgeting. Prioritization can vary dramatically from company to company.

“It really depends on the individual company,” says Maeve Naughton, President and Owner of MKN Consulting Group. “Some companies that I’ve worked with … put all the money into the MDF program, so they can help partners track the success and results of trade shows, email campaigns, or webinars… More mature channel programs may want to develop technology resources and services for partners.” 

And sometimes, companies make multivariable calculations. “We take a lot of different things into account when assigning marketing budget,” says Karen Levy Newnam, Senior Director, Americas Channel Marketing for cloud infrastructure provider Nutanix. “[These include] contribution of segment/geo/partners to the overall business, historical partner engagement, managed partner status, sales leadership big bets, quality of the plan, marketing/sales plan alignment , etc.”

The takeaway from these experts – whose sentiments were reflected throughout our panel – dovetails with our own long experiences in partner enablement. There’s no single “right way” to budget and prioritize channel program spend, and it likely will change over time. The key is to incentivize the outcomes you want and then market and enable those outcomes effectively.

Maeve NaughtonStep 4: Develop Your Channel Marketing Assets

As we noted earlier, nothing impacts your campaigns more than effective content. Successful ads have great content. Videos that convert have solid scripts. Landing page conversions? Yeah… it’s all about the content. Whatever content you create has to move the needle. That means your content team needs to understand your technology, channels, verticals, to-channel and through-channel marketing, and how to effectively (and affordably) franchise content throughout that ecosystem.

As to which types of content you need? That will vary — as will the performance of that content — depending on your markets and partners.

For example, Sylvia Judkins, Channel Marketing Operations Manager at Intermedia Cloud Communications, says for her partners, the biggest draws are the downloadable single-sheet flyers. “A lot of our partners want to easily grab a piece of content, brand it and shoot it out,” she says.  

Partners’ desire for fast sales means fewer take advantage of email nurture campaigns spanning weeks or months. “Nurture campaigns work well for a subset of partners but require commitment and time,” Judkins says. “They can yield great results, but in today’s world, people are looking for quick results, which impacts the percentage of partners that engage with nurture campaigns. 

Sylvia JudkinsIn contrast, David Portnowitz, Chief Marketing Officer for communications and collaboration provider Star2Star, says campaigns outperform individual deliverables for his partners. “Anything that we can develop for our partners that is more of a full campaign has worked better than one-off content,” he says. “We’ve had success with unique gifting campaigns. Ultimately, it’s got to be holistic.”

Even when you have top-tier content teams at your disposal, strategic alignment with partner and buyer journeys is vital. You need to deliver the right asset at the right time and circumstance. “It is more how each type of collateral is being used that has determined success,” notes Nutanix’s Levy Newnam. “Different types of collateral are effective at different phases of the buyer’s journey. Ultimately our data shows this as well as the importance of how the resulting leads are nurtured.”

Karen Levy NewnamStep 5: Deploy Your Channel Marketing Assets (and Keep it Simple)

At deployment time, channel program management software can be your best friend. “You’ve got to fill a library as fast as you can,” says Star2Star’s Portnowitz. “Assuming you have a platform like Zift to help you, you’ve got to have the people and content in place. You can adapt from there.”

It’s also essential to make it simple for partners to work with you, Portnowitz adds. “What doesn’t work well is putting stuff in [your library] and telling Mr. and Mrs. Partner that it’s ‘in here’ and ‘go get it.’ You have got to make it easy for the partner, handhold them through that process, talk to them about how other partners use that process and make it successful.”

John Macario, Senior Vice President of Enterprise and Channel Marketing for communications solutions and networking provider Ribbon Communications, also advocates warming up the partner experience as much as possible. “Be nice to your partners,” he advises. “Despite all this automation, we’re talking to human beings. You need to build relationships; this is not transactional. If you’re in tech, you need to have relationships with your partners and you need to focus on the efforts of your colleagues, your peers, and your superiors.”

John MacarioIntermedia’s Judkins agrees. “We really make it easy for a partner to do business with us – from the channel program itself… to an entire team of sales, tech and marketing support, ready and eager to help a partner be successful,” she says.

Step 6: Test, Refine, Repeat Your Channel Marketing Programs

Measurement and refinement of your programs are essential to maximizing ROI. “We use a full cross-section of metrics to measure success and provide a roadmap,” says Natascha Lee, Director of Global Channel and Partner Marketing for TIBCO Software. For her firm, metrics include:

  • Partner ecosystem coverage
  • Maturity and readiness
  • Partner activity and participation in key programs
  • Marketing-qualified leads (MQLs)
  • Sales-qualified leads (SQLs)
  • Opportunities
  • Pipeline stages
  • Product pillar focus and mix
  • New logo vs. Upsell
  • Certifications
  • Customer and partner satisfaction

Andra Hedden“The key is to take data snapshots on a regular basis to measure the growth in each of these key areas, as well as to compare the indirect business to your direct business,” Lee advises. “This way, you can pinpoint trending by partner, partner type as well as find hidden correlations that can be leveraged to increase partner success.”

Andra Hedden, Chief Marketing Officer and Owner of Marketopia, has advice on taking the development of channel marketing programs one step further. “The ultimate next step in any forward-thinking partner program is the last mile – actually generating leads for your partners as a value of your program. We help many vendors do just that – we help to generate not only marketing qualified leads (MQLs) for their partners, but sales qualified leads (SQLs – appointments) as well.”

David PortnowitzBridging the gap between sales and marketing is essential to ongoing refinement. “As a vendor, it’s important to always be thinking about how to help the partner scale to grow. One way to do this is to take the burden off of them to generate their own leads and let them focus on closing and servicing the business vs finding it. Helping partners generate qualified leads through your program is a huge value add and will differentiate your program from the rest.”

That collaboration extends to partners, of course, who are high-value sales arms. So, in addition to your quantitative evaluations, be sure to solicit partner feedback. They can give you qualitative assessments that can help you refine your materials or help you identify assets that deliver better than their stats might reveal.

Natascha LeeStep 7: Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment with Channel Marketing

A common theme in our discussions with channel marketing leaders is the need for creativity, innovation and experimentation. “I’m a big fan of let’s just try it,” says Star2Star’s Portnowitz. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll pivot and move on.”

“The best marketers are focused on becoming better marketers,” says BuzzTheory’s Henderson. “They’re always learning and trying new things – not just in creative and campaigns but in process and delivery as well. So, even when you’re leading the pack, there’s always opportunity for innovation and improvement in an ecosystem as complex as the channel.” 

That intricacy is what attracts many top marketers to the channel to begin with. “You have to love the complexity of the channel,” says TIBCO’s Lee. “It’s like 3-D chess –  every decision has layers and layers.”

Taking our info to go? Here are our 7 steps on creating a channel partner marketing program to increase pipeline.


Have anything you want to add? Sound off in the comments below.