A channel marketing professional’s life can be very busy, but the niche nature of the business often means there are few people who truly understand the unique challenges or have the opportunity to celebrate the successes.
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At a recent Toronto gathering sponsored by the Canadian Channel Chiefs Council (C4), a dozen channel marketing leaders gathered in the company of fellow professionals who understood the unique nuances of marketing to, through and with partners and eagerly shared stories about the issues keeping them up at night.
Jennifer Villers, Canadian marketing lead with Ingram Micro and sponsor of the get-together, said one of the fundamental differences between channel marketing and traditional brand marketing is the nature of the partnerships that are created. In traditional brand marketing, your competitors are usually the enemy. In the channel, where marketing is through, to, and with partners, you have to think about other players success at the same time as yours.
Partners’ success is critical, pointed out the Canadian marketing lead for a multinational tech conglomerate. “Without partners, we can’t scale. It’s how we breathe as a company. It’s how we grow.”
So how do you attract a partner? For Rose Marcello, partner marketing manager at VMware, it’s about finding partners who can help in areas that are not already covered and then selling them the corporate story “in a way that’s understandable and complements their story.”
For Eaton Electric Canada, the approach is slightly different.
“We start from scratch and figure out what they want from us,” said Umesh Patel, Eaton’s director of marketing. “It’s an ongoing challenge and there’s a natural inclination to want more, but we are trying to slow it down and make sure we optimize the partner relationships we have, rather than always pushing for new ones.”
The channel marketing lead for an enterprise software firm said he understands the temptation to recruit lots of partners and have their logos on your website as a sign of credibility, but it’s a mistake.
“Less is more. When we focused on recruitment for recruitment’s sake, we recruited failed partners two times faster than great partners,” he said. “A lot of failed partnerships is bad for future recruiting. Partners talk and your reputation can be damaged if potential partners keep hearing the same stories of disappointment over and over again.”
It’s not how many you have, it’s what you do with them, suggested another marketer with a channel stalwart. “When we onboard them, it’s not about numbers, it’s about finding partners in areas you can’t touch or you are not already interested in. It’s about extending reach.”
One channel marketer admitted that in a previous job, there wasn’t a lot of priority put on developing seasoned partnerships, so they went for the low-hanging fruit.
“We didn’t understand what made them tick. It ended up wasting a lot of time and resources. Now we spend time really getting to know our partners and how we can work with them to grow into a higher level of partner.”
Are we training our partners on the right things?
Once you’ve signed on a partner, how do you make sure they know how to represent you properly? asked C4 President Corinne Sharp. The responses around the table were as diverse as the companies seated around it, and many suggested that smaller partners need to be treated differently than larger ones.
Education using brochures, case studies and blogs immediately jumped to mind for some, but many of the marketers with access to significant resources acknowledged they have large libraries of brochures and digital material for partners that go virtually untouched.
The representatives of the bigger players said in ideal circumstances they train the partners’ sales teams, not just in their products, but how to find business even when they don’t have a brand. “When you spend time teaching demand gen, you’ll have a partner for life.”
Partner relationships often start with a technical contact, added the channel marketer for another software company. The partners often have great technical capabilities, but they may have limited ability to maximize sales.
“We can help make them better at selling their product or service (and ours), but unfortunately we don’t train them about negotiations and it’s a missed opportunity. “
To certify or not to certify, that was the question
Some of the players at the table had mature certification programs as a way to enable partners. They were built of the assumption that if a partner is going to spend dozens if not hundreds of hours learning about the company and products for certification purposes, they’ll be a better partner. But the support for that thesis was not universal.
“You need to put yourself in your partners’ shoes. Sometimes the best partners aren’t the ones with the best certifications,” said the marketer for a national tech firm. “How does your certification equate to real revenue? If someone is going to pull people out of their operations for weeks or months, it has to have a value equal to the lost opportunity cost of the time.”
Another marketer said certification is only valuable when the information is relevant and something that will be used in the market.
“We are great at creating medal partner programs (Gold, Silver, Bronze) that channel partners hate. There’s too much “I ticked all the boxes” and not enough on how to conduct business. Certification programs need more customization and opportunities for input.”
One channel marketer advocated companies might follow the lead of Xerox that has gamified its certification program to catch the attention of the next generation of channel partners. It is strong on social media and offers incentives like tickets to concerts.
While a relatively new channel leader asked if certification could be a measure of a partner’s commitment, a seasoned leader suggested that providing a marketing plan with a clear value proposition was far more useful than offering certification.
Lunch and learns were generally viewed as useful events, as were technical briefings.
Natalie Benitah, channel chief at Microsoft Canada, said educating partners was its key issue.
“Our partners are doing a great job, but they’re not scaling fast enough. Our challenge is finding a partner leader willing to grow and take risks. Someone who can find a balance between a traditional approach and a growth mindset.”
The marketing lead with the software firm agreed risk is a concern but reminded colleagues that for many small vendors it’s all about cash flow. “If they try to scale, they are firing people if they make a mistake.”
And even when everyone has bought into the partnership model, the marketers agreed most parties don’t want to anyone calling leads but themselves.
As the conversation wound down, one vendor who’d been quiet throughout most of the discussion wondered aloud if a focus on online certifications, digital offerings and “analytics-based everything” had taken “people” out of the equation. He said a golf tournament -long abandoned by the other marketers at the table – was working for his team, providing critical face-to-face time.
The marketing lead with a software firm said it had been years since he’d attended a golf tournament but was open to the possibility the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.
“Creating a memorable experience for partners is key. It can’t be a 100 per cent digital experience. ”
Fawn Annan, chair of the Canadian Channel Chiefs Council, said the discussion showed that a new channel marketing division of C4 makes sense.