Selling through partners and distributors is a well-proven model of growing the business for B2B companies. However, many companies struggle to determine and operationalise campaigns to keep those partners active and productive. Dr Marcelo Castro, founder, and CEO of MarketLogic, BBN’s partner agency in the USA and Latin America, shares his experience in channel partner marketing from supporting clients like Citrix and Adobe.
Onboarding sets the tone for the journey
In partner marketing, there’s a lot of preparation work to get right, from campaign content planning to soft skill training to enable the partner to grow and improve.
After the Covid pandemic hit, clients became more selective about which partners participated in their programs. It’s no longer one-size-fits-all but rather understanding which partners have the proper certifications and that they’re committed to investing on the technical side and the business side. Another by-product of COVID is that clients are more willing to invest in local content. Previously the strategy was localising content from global to try and leverage those assets. But now, we see more and more clients willing to invest in local digital experiences in regional case studies. So, content is playing a bigger role right now in partner marketing, something that wasn’t happening before.
Another thing we’re seeing is enablement going beyond technical enablement and including training partners on best practices in sales and marketing. Some of these distributors or resellers don’t understand modern marketing, and it’s sometimes hard to talk to them about a digital plan if they don’t have that expertise, so there’s more funding going to training partners beyond their technical expertise. And lastly, in terms of incentives, we see clients rewarding performance or sales and specific behaviours. So, if you execute a campaign, you get a reward, or you get upgraded based on your sales and how much you support the partner marketing program.
Last Mile Marketing – The fight for channel partner mindshare
At MarketLogic, we borrow a concept from the logistics industry. The idea of the ‘last mile’. We believe that partner marketing is last-mile marketing. The partner is in front of the end-user and the local market, so it’s no longer a regional strategy implemented thousands of miles away; instead, it’s something more tangible. Partners appreciate the vendor investing in getting their hands dirty, thinking of specific opportunities, and customising the content to a particular client or industry. It is essential to have a regional strategy and invest in their particular success to keep the partner engaged. Understand what partners want to say, that this is not something that is a one-size-fits-all but rather an integration of the client’s message with what the partner wants to say. The best way of showing partners your commitment is by demonstrating your investment. Prove you are willing to get granular, for example, start talking about how you can improve their website and improve their database.
Each year, millions of dollars are poured into Market Development Funds (MDF). We need to engage partners better and encourage them to run co-branded marketing campaigns and use the MDF effectively.
Because partners have limited resources and their budgets are usually low, they need the agency to do everything on their behalf. We have something called ‘SMASH’, which stands for Sales and Marketing Achievement through Sustainable Habits. We’re trying to build a program that develops over time; it’s not a one-off type of deal but rather something that we can grow as results come in. Partners need to get a return on the investment on any MDF that they invest in, so we believe this approach helps achieve that.
In the SMASH program, we take care of the basics like content, digital assets and amplification. However, we also get into the granular side of having a partner specialist, facing the partner, working on specific opportunities, uploading into Salesforce, tying the client with a partner. That’s how we see the role. And when the partners know that we are part of their success and that we are also their voice within the client and vice versa, that’s when we start earning their trust. So, it does require all these soft skills that you cannot scale with an additional server, but they are essential because we are talking about human relationships at the end of the day. You can’t just switch on a platform and expect that partner marketing will shine; technology doesn’t solve everything.
Common pitfalls to avoid for channel partner marketing
In channel marketing campaigns, you have three actors. You have the client, the reseller, and the agency. There are different pitfalls for each in this type of program. From the partner perspective, sometimes expectations are not set correctly before the project start, so the partner jumps into the program thinking, “Okay, I’m going to invest $5,000, and I expect X amount in revenue.” So, I think the agency needs to do much work to educate the partner to understand that each campaign has two components. One is to create awareness, to develop a proper messaging for the partner. And the second is demand generation that we can measure and use to support the program’s continuation. We are very conscious and true believers that generating demand for the partner is key to this program. It’s the only way that these programs can survive over time.
I also think that partners need to understand that an awareness component is essential, particularly now when the end client is so elusive; they’re not in the office and are distracted by other conversations. So, we compete for a minimal attention span, and the partner needs to invest in that. It’s important to set those expectations before jumping into the program.
The second issue is understanding that one-size-does-not-fit-all; some think they can carpet the whole region with one set of assets or the same program for any partner. The database situation is something that is getting harder and harder. Sometimes our clients invest MDF funds with partners that don’t have a proper database or have a minimal database that is outdated. Sometimes we expect more than the partner can deliver, so it’s essential to be very selective on which partners will be part of each program. And before scaling up, you need to be successful with a selected number of partners. The data is one thing, but the story is much more powerful when you show that five partners are very successful using your co-branded campaign. Then getting other partners onboarded and excited is much easier than trying to start with 200 partners at a time. The strategy goes from the top down, but the success comes from the bottom up. And it’s the combination of all those minor successes that make the program.
Making every MDF dollar count
Avoid the temptation of replicating what is working for one client and use it for another. Every client has a particular audience, and even though they might be in the same industry, their decision-makers are a bit different. So, even though we can leverage knowledge from previous experiences, it’s never a copy and paste type of situation.
The agency needs to lead the planning to ensure that every dollar is effective. We’re trying to execute a regional campaign, but we have local clients in every partner. Clients have their issues and limitations, so we must be very nimble, flexible, and try to have the resources to hold hands with each partner individually; that’s a great challenge for any agency. The pace of cash flow is also crucial because it usually goes at a slower rate than the business side of things on the procurement side. So, we must also ensure that we have a way to back the program as the cash flow comes our way; that is critical when running an extensive program.
On the partner side, set clear expectations and understand what the agency needs to deliver regarding campaign performance and appointment setting, understanding that is the ultimate rule of engagement at the end of the day.
Three final tips
For the channel partner:
Be patient and understand that any sales process requires time in the same way that it will take six months for one of your salespeople to be successful. It will take six months for your agency to be successful. So, any digital experience or any demand generation campaign will require some time, so patience, I would say, is critical.
For the agency:
Take every client as an individual and every partner as one of your clients, rather than part of a pool. We must be genuinely involved, one partner at a time.
For the vendor:
There’s much potential within your partner ecosystem. Sometimes we fall into the self-fulfilling prophecy that we invest only in the partners that have already been successful in the past. So, we keep on supporting those same few partners, and we don’t invest enough in those that maybe haven’t reached that potential yet, but they’re there, and they’re willing to grow. So have your core partners but invest in identifying new partners that could make the difference in the future.
If you would like to listen to the original podcast that this article is taken from then go to your favourite podcast channel:
About the author
Dr Marcelo Castro’s professional and academic experience has allowed him to learn from industry leaders such as Apple, Adobe & MasterCard. These experiences have allowed him to develop and execute effective marketing strategies across dynamic and complex business contexts.
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