Five Channel Partner Enablement Trends for 2016

With cloud migration and softening economic growth, the channel partner landscape remains under pressure. Some partners are positioning to thrive; others are struggling to survive.

November 4, 2015 // Chris Kenton
channel partner enablement landscape

Are vendors or partners responsible for driving net new growth?

It’s shaping up to be another disruptive year in the channel for 2016. With cloud migration and softening economic growth, the channel partner? enablement? landscape remains under pressure. Some partners are positioning to thrive: distributors are developing solutions, resellers are adding new services, upstarts are creating new cloud-based offerings. Others are struggling to survive, trying to figure out business models that will keep the lights on, much less fuel net new growth.

One question cuts to the core of channel risk in 2016: Who are you depending on to drive net new revenue growth? Too many vendors point at partners saying “They’re closest to their customer, they know what to do,” at the same time too many partners point at vendors saying “They have all the marketing resources and expertise, they know what we should do.” That gap is only widening, and it won’t be filled with traditional MDF programs.

One question cuts to the core of channel risk in 2016: Who are you depending on to drive net new revenue growth?

Whether you’re a vendor or a partner, understanding partner enablement imperatives for 2016 is essential. Vendors need to understand the new challenges partners face in order to help them succeed, or else risk declining channel revenues. For their part, partners need to bring new attitudes and skills to the game to address challenges vendors can’t help them fix.

1. Differentiation is Fundamental to Partner Success

Thousands of partners across the globe are struggling with the same challenges wrought by cloud migration—and responding in the same ways. As partners wake up to eroding revenue on hardware sales and grasp for solutions, everyone reaches first for the low hanging fruit, and then they discover the need to differentiate. Not everyone can be their market’s leading provider of network security, or mobility, or hybrid cloud solutions, because it all looks the same to buyers.

As partners discover the stark reality of marketing imperatives like positioning, segmentation and differentiation, they need support from vendor MDF programs. How? More customizable options in campaigns and programs. Partners want to tell their story—why they’re excited about their vendor’s products—not the same story every other partner is telling about that vendor. Content and social syndication that looks the same for every partner doesn’t help the partner stand out from the crowd, and doesn’t help the vendor stand out from other vendors pushing the same programs.

2. Marketing Innovation Helps Vendors Rise Above the Crowd

As one partner told me, “I get 10 campaign offers from different vendors every week, and it’s pretty much all the same old stuff. Push this email campaign. Run this telemarketing program. I couldn’t push 10 campaigns if I wanted to, and I certainly don’t want to push the same stuff day in and day out.”

As this partner sees it, vendors are blindly pushing programs without taking the time to understand what partners really need—they don’t just need to blast vendor messaging, they need to compete and differentiate from other partners. How? By offering training and programs that help partners learn how to market more effectively. To paraphrase an old parable, give a partner a message and they’ll shout it for a day, teach a partner how to message and they’ll spin stories for a lifetime. If you’re worried an investment in helping partners market more effectively could be used to benefit other vendors too, get over it. Partners know which vendors are helping them grow their business, and just turning up the volume on canned campaigns won’t buy you any loyalty.

channel partner enablement landscape

3. “Easy” May Not Mean What You Think

The one mantra I hear from channel marketers all the time is that partners want MDF programs to be “easy”. Partners are short-staffed in marketing, and don’t have time to customize campaigns. So the universal solution seems to be canned campaigns that don’t require any effort from the partner. Canned email campaigns and social syndication that allows partners to be automatic sock-puppets for whatever the vendor posts are perfect examples. But when I talk to leading partners, that assumption drives them crazy, and leads to inboxes full of campaign offers that all look exactly the same.

“Easy” to a good partner means the vendor has done the heavy lifting on research and strategy, not just thought up a snappy slogan for another email blast.

What good partners mean by “easy” is that the details have been thought through. They want programs with a well-defined business case—how is the partner going to make money? They want programs with a well planned Go To Market strategy—how is the partner going to drive customer engagement? What are the case studies? What are the marketing assets? What are the strategic messages the partner can adapt to make their own? “Easy” to a good partner means the vendor has thought through the details and done the heavy lifting on research and strategy, not just thought up a snappy slogan for yet another email blast the partner is expected to push without thinking.

4. Marketing to Buyers Outside of IT

One of the tectonic shifts that is challenging partners with cloud migration is that business decision making for technology is moving outside IT. Business managers can increasingly procure cloud-based solutions without IT integration or support, meaning that partners have to engage decision makers they’ve never had to talk to before. When you’re used to selling speeds and feeds to CTOs and sys admins, and now you have to sell business benefits to people from sales, marketing and operations, it can be a difficult transition.

Vendors can support partners by providing more than just canned campaigns and content, with more market intelligence and business decision-making insights for the markets they serve.

As partners confront the markets and try to drive net new revenue with new solutions, they need support in broadening their view of business needs beyond IT. How? Vendors can support partners by providing more than just canned campaigns and content, with more market intelligence and business decision-making insights for the markets they serve. The way we address this at SocialRep is by providing marketers with a continuous feed of market intelligence that helps partners understand the broader environment they’re selling into. A partner selling network security into the retail market, for example, today needs to understand the broader environment of retail security, which includes payment systems, fraud detection, and even physical security like networked cameras. These broader issues may not be core to partner’s solution, but they are to the buyer’s decision making, and partners need support in seeing the whole picture.

5. Expanding Marketing Beyond the Marketing Department

Another significant shift gaining steam among partners is a growing investment in marketing capabilities. I’ve heard many channel marketers dismiss partner marketing teams as amateur and ineffective, because that’s long been the case among sales-focused distributors and resellers. But partners large and small have come face-to-face with the reality of market pressures, and many partners—the ones you want on your channel team—are making significant investments in marketing staff and resources. One of the exciting aspects of this shift is that partners aren’t stuck in the same ruts as businesses that have been marketing for decades, and they’re willing to try things that often come saddled with political baggage at other companies.

partners aren’t stuck in the same ruts as businesses that have been marketing for decades, and they’re willing to try things that often come saddled with political baggage at other companies.

One of the areas where this is most promising is the distribution of marketing tasks, particularly with respect to social media. Partners with small marketing teams have few hangups about extending social media responsibilities beyond their marketing department. They’re happy to have a sociable engineer engage for the brand on Twitter, or to have sales people building brand awareness and cadence on LinkedIn. They don’t think of this as a potentially dangerous dilution of messaging control, they think of it as everyone pulling their weight. It’s a perfect attitude for social media, because the truth is, buying decision makers don’t want to read campaign content from corporate social media mavens—they want real dialog with their peers.

teamworkThe way we address this at SocialRep is by training and supporting what we call Social Media A-Teams—cross-functional partner teams that collaborate on social media strategy, and divide and conquer to engage more effectively online. Marketing functions as the team leader, establishing a content calendar, defining objectives, rules of engagement, and helping team members understand good communications skills and techniques. Weekly team meetings provide an opportunity for the team to compare notes and adjust tactics, and everyone begins to get a better understanding of how different business functions can help tell the partner’s story.

Conclusion

There are certainly more trends we could add to the mix—there’s a lot of disruption shaking up the channel. But these are the ones we see at the core of channel strategy and partner enablement for the coming year. If I had to boil it down to one insight and recommendation it would be this: canned campaigns and automation to make it easy for partners to push a button and forget it may give you the impression of “amplifying” your brand, and may even give you some volume metrics (follows, likes, retweets) that look good to your boss in the short run. But real enablement means helping your partners develop more effective marketing skills in a rapidly changing environment.

As plenty of research shows, for most vendors 80% of channel revenue is driven by 20% of their partners. Think about which partners your investments in automation and canned campaigns really serve? Are you helping the 20% be more effective? Are you growing the 20%? Or are you investing in the 80% of partners happy to live off MDF checks in return for pressing a button to be your sock puppet?


  • November 5, 2015

    This article is terrific. Great ideas and thoughts – now the hard part is implementation adn getting partner buy-in

    • Chris Kenton
      November 5, 2015

      Thanks for the feedback, Mike. You’re right, the devil is in the details. I will say, though, that our experience with partners is that they will jump at programs that teach them how to fish over programs that just give them a handful of marketing qualified fish. They just better be programs that really deliver some solid fishing tips and tricks….

  • November 5, 2015

    Chris – your article is spot-on! Partners most definitely need help on differentiation. But doing it in a manner that is meaningful to its prospects – not just a list of awards the vendor has showered upon them. And on the issue of marketing beyond IT, partners need to learn the language of the industries they are serving (situational fluency.)

    All great insights.

    • Chris Kenton
      November 5, 2015

      Thank you, Bob. The good news is I see a lot of partners embracing the challenge–partners that have been sales-driven for decades now recognizing the importance and value of good marketing. That doesn’t solve the problem of defining exactly ~what~ good marketing is, and that’s definitely a challenge. But the commonly held belief that partners don’t want to do any heavy lifting is out of date. They don’t have a choice. The question is whether they recognize it or not, and that becomes a litmus test for good partners. If your partners really are saying they don’t want to do any marketing, they just want to push the auto-pilot button, you may have the wrong partners….

    • February 29, 2016

      Excellent article, and worth repeating and reminding regularly. I am continually amazed at the need for the repetition of these points because they are not new, dating back easily one to two generations. Yet, few companies have grasped the importance, and impact on the bottom line for the channels, channel partners and the manufacturers.

      In my own practice, we have been preaching this for many years, and, as you note, (because of the need for this article), the concepts and recommended practices have been falling on deaf ears.

      One element is that many marketing people do not understand how to work with business partners e.g. what they want, need, and how they can help the partner, etc. There is problem of turnover of personnel within the manufacturer’s staff – in that, often, those individuals dealing with partners don’t remain long enough in the job.

      The observations by readers on this article are very relevant as well.

      Save this article and run it again next year.

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