In 2013, content marketing, social media and mobility all came into focus as priority investments for businesses and their channel networks.
Improved channel communication, collaboration and visibility were key goals for many businesses, while still optimizing end-user engagement and sales results.
Although the channel marketing universe saw extreme evolution in 2013, the next year will hold even more change.
To efficiently identify top trends and expectations for 2014, we asked executives from leading agencies, consultancies, and even solution providers to share their insights on channel sales and marketing trends.
Executives were was asked to answer the following question:
“How do you believe channel marketing will shift and/or evolve during 2014 and why?”
(Responses are listed in alphabetical order by company name)
Since I initially shared my thoughts on the keys to social media success with Channel Marketer Report, I have become increasingly aware of the need for a social media conversion engine. I have been monitoring and keeping an eye on this issue throughout 2013. What I have observed is that while B2B demand generation experts are trying to move towards this model, most B2B organizations are still struggling to define the parameters and find the right conversion mechanisms in social media.
Experienced B2B lead generation experts know that it takes more than just having a large fan base on your Facebook page or hundreds of connections joining your LinkedIn Group. The concern in 2013 moved towards how to measure these social networks. The intent was to track and monitor whether or not there was measurable ROI.
As measurement becomes a significant goal, the social conversion engine comes into play. B2B marketers need to realize and remember that we cannot rely on the numbers alone. There is a definite and strong need to convert all of this “noise” into real leads. The problem is, you simply cannot straight out ask for the “buy” on social media. However, what I am pointing out as a “problem” is also the biggest opportunity — the opportunity to nurture and grow relationships.
I see the trend in 2014 shifting towards a heightened focus on ROI, or what I have called a social media conversion machine. Marketers will need to figure out how best to measure and, more importantly, how to convert.
Here are some other significant trends I am convinced will emerge strongly in 2014:
Consumers continue to flock online in greater numbers than ever before to research products and services prior to making a purchase. But conversion doesn’t happen on the first touch. In fact, the average consumer engages with more than 10 media forms before making a purchase decision.
In 2014, successful channel marketers will allocate a substantial percentage of their channel investment to managing digital efforts for their channel partners, from the national brand. Conversely, national brands will rely on channel partners to do what they do best: Traditional advertising.
Thus, national brands will manage the local web sites, local pay-per-click advertising and email campaigns, whereas the channel members will manage local events and traditional media such as print and direct mail. Balihoo has observed this trend among our customers, and national brands taking this approach are having the greatest success.
Here are a few key channel trends we’re seeing on the way for 2014:
1. A major front in the partner engagement wars by top channels for 2014 will be heavy investment in user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) for their online partner portal, training and incentives management environments. Vendors are learning that they’ve got to make it as easy, fast and rewarding as possible for partners to get in and out of their online portals, or else partners just won’t use them.
2. The rise of through-partner marketing agencies (TPMAs) like Zift Solutions, Elastic Digital, Averetek, etc., will accelerate. Unfortunately, the fact remains that the majority of resellers and solution providers are brilliant technical and relationship people, but just aren’t great at marketing — or properly representing a vendor brand. Who would you rather see conduct marketing efforts for a partner you just sent $50,000 in MDF to: An agency with a deep understanding of integrated lead generation, social strategy and brand management, or the fresh-out-of-college nephew of the reseller firm’s president?
3. Vendor-centric partner social communities are another phenomenon picking up a lot of steam in the channel. Many top channel vendors are plunking down considerable investment dollars in them right now. These environments are of course different in nature from social syndication solutions, which compile and deliver sanctioned content in primarily one direction: from the vendor, to and through partners, to prospects and end-users. Rather, communities are about vendors enabling organic, two-way dialogs to pop up between any members of a channel community — be they vendors or partners — that others can learn from. Recent studies have shown that these types of communities are getting strong receptions from channel partners/resellers. Vendors and distributors are finding that they can reduce the load on their channel account managers and channel marketing staff by providing environments where partners can help support each other with advice and mentoring. Salesforce.com’s recent product push in this direction has definitely been a major driver here, but other Partner Relationship Management vendors like Relayware also are bringing great approaches to this that are more channel-friendly and plug and play.
Three words: Content, content, content. Whether communicating to your partners or enabling your partners to communicate to end-customers, content is more important than ever to engage your audience. Think about your own exposure to information. How many of your news stories, event updates, or mindless time wasting are you drawn to through a video, image or headline? The goal in 2014 will be to create the exact right content to educate, engage and enable your partners.
Type: Video is by far the hottest form of content in the channel and beyond. Think of video when you’re creating content to communicate to your partners and when you’re helping partners create content to market to their end-customers. Videos don’t have to be super professionally produced. A simple wireless camera or even a smartphone or tablet will do. Other interesting content for the channel this year comes in the form of an E-book (yes, we’re still talking about E-books), infographics and Flipboards. Don’t forget about campaign materials. Campaigns In-a-Box saw a bit of an overhaul in late 2013 — or at least ours did. Our new Campaign In-a-Box 3.0 has more social material, and less of the “email for email’s sake” elements.
Voice: It’s less about the professional format of the content and more about the value driven from that content. Are you talking about how great your solutions or partner programs are all the time? That gets really old, really fast. Partners want to hear more about how you can help them to grow their business, what they should be doing to drive more demand and what their customers’ concerns are going to be in 2014. On the flip side, if you’re creating content to market through your partners, the end-customers don’t want to hear about solutions 24/7. They want to understand how your partners can solve their current challenges and what new challenges they will face in coming months.
Execution: Once the content is ready to launch, it’s more important than ever that you’re using the right vehicles to get the content to your intended audience(s). That means email, newsletters, blogs, web sites, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest (still a question mark here), Google+, direct mail (oh yeah, it’s back) and live events. You need to post that content however your audience is going to want to receive it.
The bottom line is you need to be producing the type of content you are producing, you need to listen to what your partners are asking for and what their end-customers are going to be most receptive to going forward. But that isn’t just a trend for 2014…that will always be the case.
More manufacturers and services providers are entering the channel and having to differentiate themselves to capture mindshare from channel resellers, managed service providers and value-added resellers. In this competitive landscape, providing more targeted resources to help the channel reach the end-user is essential. Automated programs that allow a high level of customization are key.
A channel reseller should be able to select a campaign and personalize it to embed their distinct value proposition within the campaign, and make it look unique enough from another reseller that chooses the same campaign.
Large manufacturers are moving to simplify programs, but the channel is looking for the ability to distinguish itself in a highly saturated competitive landscape.
In 2014, I expect to see more tools under development that offer customization and personalization. There are essentially two levels of resellers in the channel — those that are looking for turnkey marketing campaigns because they do not have marketing resources, and those that are looking for marketing assets that they can incorporate using in-house or agency resources.
Turnkey resellers are looking for email automation that allows them to not only insert their logo, but also be able to have a way to insert their differentiated value proposition to the end-user. They are also looking for syndicated web content that helps bolster the content on their web site to keep eyeballs on their property, rather than having them be diverted to the manufacturer site.
Resellers that have in-house teams or utilize an agency are looking for a pick-and-choose asset gallery. These resellers are looking for creative assets, copy blocks and content that can be utilized in their own in-house programs for email campaigns, digital and print advertising.
As manufacturers vie to gain mindshare from resellers, 2014 will be a year of driving towards more personalized and customized campaigns.
There are four major trends we see in the coming year — each with their own set of ramifications. Following is a breakdown of each:
The year of sales enablement. Marketers are realizing that their MDF programs have been more focused on business process management than marketing optimization. As a result, there will be a greater push for marketers to achieve a more predictable marketing outcome from their MDF investment. To achieve predictable outcomes, many marketers will move to more comprehensive solutions that extend beyond just marketing automation to include campaign marketplace utilizing pre-packaged marketing plays from third party agencies, along with marketing concierge services. Marketing enablement as a concept, however, will extend to pre-sales enablement overall, with more of a focus on sales and marketing certifications. Also, progressive channel marketers will reward partners for performing appropriate pre-sales behaviors — not just post-sales incentives.
Individual programs move out of their silos! To date, most channel marketers have looked at their programs in isolation (MDF, SPIF Programs, Rebates, etc.), each designed to motivate different behaviors across the sales process. The trend, however, is to understand how each program contributes to the lead-to-opportunity-to-sales process. Clearly, this holistic approach is the best way for channel marketers to understand the impact of their MDF investment on sales outcome, as well as how well post-sales rewards directly impact their partners’ growth and loyalty. Beyond simple reporting, analytics play an important role in uncovering trends and how program relationships impact the overall sales cycle and partner performance.
Achieving partner loyalty without throwing more money at channel marketers: Partner engagement and loyalty have always been a main goal for most channel marketers. However, the partner universe has shrunk over the past few years due to the recessionary economy and an onslaught of acquisitions. Forrester estimates that there are now nearly 35% fewer partners than in the pre-recession period. Here’s the shocker: Vendors are no longer in the driver’s seat when establishing their partner relationships, due to a buyers’ market and a power shift to the channel side. Therefore, the competition is on for greater mindshare and share-of-wallet among the best partners. One way to win this competition is to throw more money at your channel partner, and no doubt many will choose this option. But this will show diminishing returns in the long run. Alternatively, successful vendors will focus on Ease of Doing Business (EODB) as the primary strategy. To improve their EODB standings, marketers will have to consolidate systems, revamp their business processes and streamline their engagement models. While this will be difficult for some — especially for the larger marketers — in the end, the focus on EODB will be a better investment than simply making incentive and reward programs richer.
Business model transformation: hybridization becomes the new norm. In recent years, there has been a lot of focus on the impact of the cloud for technology channels and marketers, so this on its own is not new. However, the world is not simply separated into traditional versus cloud resellers. In reality, hybrids are growing out of the cloud as the predominant business model. As predicted, born-in-the-cloud resellers will fare well, but while the successful (remaining) traditional resellers are playing catch-up, they aren’t ignoring their existing transactional business, either. Channel marketers will have to watch this carefully, as hybridization will impact the design and structure of their current channel programs, as partner segments won’t be as clearly defined as they once were.
The upcoming year will offer new areas for companies to evolve in channel marketing. Long-held best practices, combined with new ideas and innovation, will create the most successful marketing strategies. Here are four areas in which we expect the most change:
Mobility: The mobile industry is booming and will continue to do so. More people are visiting online portals via mobile phones or tablets, and in some cases, the experience is less than user-friendly. In response, businesses will start transitioning their content to mobile web sites and into apps — for phones and tablets — and away from a traditional portal for PCs in order to increase ease and convenience. In the channel, speed and accessibility are crucial for partners who are on-the-go with customers, and don’t have the time to log on to an online portal from a PC or the inclination to search through portals that are laden with seemingly limitless detail.
Social Media: Social media is a great tool for businesses that want to reach out and engage with people in real time. It provides the opportunity to not only share information, but to give new and potential customers a glimpse of the people behind the brand. This creates a more personalized experience, which in turn helps to develop strong, trusting relationships. Social media continues to grow as a strategic component of doing business and engaging with customers, and will continue to change the traditional “rules” of channel marketing. In fields like security, which has rapid developments and regular breaking news, the immediacy and ability to tailor content by selecting specific individual accounts is also a real advantage over other sources and platforms.
Content Shifts: “Clouds” are facing tough times, as the sensitive data stored in these facilities is becoming increasingly more attractive to cybercriminals. Additionally, mobile malware continues to grow in number and sophistication, which becomes a real threat as companies become more mobile. As threats evolve, channel marketing content will need to focus on promoting solutions that address a customer’s desire to protect their data — specifically within these two platforms — in an easy, cost-effective way. Additionally, content will need to cater to partners, particularly partners who are on-the-go. Videos, podcasts and small snippets of information that can be quickly read and shared will replace text-heavy and lengthy documents.
Prospecting New Customers: In a rapidly changing market, traditional forms of marketing aren’t cutting it anymore. Businesses need innovative marketing strategies to help them find more customers. From email and analytics, to lead management and more, marketing automation software essentially has everything a channel marketer needs; but most importantly, it has lead nurturing tools. Lead nurturing is becoming the new generation of channel marketing, allowing vendors to work with partners to enable them to “nurture” customers through the lead generation process, from information gathering to preliminary engagement, to ready to talk about solutions. Furthermore, the emergence of such software will give us a new differentiator in the market: Sophistication in abilities to do targeted online marketing to those ready to consume content and hear messaging.
The upcoming year will be an interesting time in the IT industry. Solution providers who demonstrate flexibility and willingness to re-write traditional “rules” will have the most success in 2014.
As SiriusDecisions looks toward the year ahead, we have identified three key critical planning assumptions for channel marketers. In 2014, we will see an increased focus on ROI, which means that channel programs will be held accountable for market development fund distribution and results metrics. As many channel marketers repeat investments every year in efforts to recruit, enable and encourage partners to sell more, let’s examine three major initiatives for rethinking channel marketing.
1. TECHNOLOGY: MAP AND CMM INTEGRATION
Although a small number of suppliers are still using their own marketing automation platforms (MAPs) to create leads for their partners, many others are encouraging partner-led marketing by implementing channel marketing and management (CMM) platforms, which are easier for partners to use. Unfortunately, many CMM platforms do not offer out-of-the-box integration with MAPs and can’t offer the visibility that suppliers require.
Key to the successful integration of MAPs and CMM applications is the definition of MAP data fields (e.g. campaign source) to feed into the CMM application. Loading this data into the CMM application can help partners identify lead follow-up actions, but fewer than 10% of suppliers currently have this capability. When passing data in the other direction, from the CMM platform to the MAP, channel marketers should establish a standard reporting format and key performance indicators to collect from partners as they provide updates on leads. This ensures that lead conversion rates at the bottom of the channel demand waterfall can be accurately represented.
2. MEASUREMENT: MDF LEADING INDICATORS
Two years ago, our research showed that between $5 billion and $7 billion in MDF was being wasted or unaccounted for in channel incentive programs; suppliers and incentive platform vendors now report that this range has doubled. Although the need to track channel program ROI is not new, during the next 12 months, many suppliers will improve their measurement and tracking of MDF spend, utilization and results.
Instead of guessing at the results of a partner marketing activity, leading suppliers are creating MDF-funded partner programs with predictable outcomes (e.g. social syndication plays that generate 25 new inquiries) and measuring participation in training and deal registration programs as early indicators of partner adoption before enlisting partners in MDF-supported demand programs. If participation is low, suppliers may promote MDF incentives to raise partner awareness and reward them for engaging.
3. ENABLEMENT: PARTNER MARKETING CERTIFICATION
Channel leaders often cite new product launches, geographic expansion and new partners as reasons to ramp up their enablement programs over the next year. However, enablement teams also should move beyond product and sales training to design marketing certification courses that can impact a partner’s ability to drive demand.
Leading suppliers base their partner marketing curricula on core marketing concepts and resources. Teach partners how to position products and solutions based on the type of demand they are trying to generate (new concept, new paradigm, or established market). Explain how partner marketing activities should align to the buyer’s journey, including objection-handling strategies that marketing — if present within the partner organization — can share with sales. Also, teach partners how to find and use assets within the supplier’s marketing portal in order to drive better awareness and adoption for these tools.
Channel leaders recognize that they must find new ways to increase the productivity of their partner programs. Our planning assumptions for 2014 exemplify this overall trend of outside-the-box thinking. Depending on the organization’s needs and priorities, a channel leader’s willingness to innovate might translate into an investment in new technology to optimize interactions with partners; improving programs with better interlock; applying new metrics for tracking and improving channel relationships; or offering marketing certification courses to partners.
Above all, I see an acceleration of the trends in both B2B2B and B2B2C marketing that asserted themselves in 2013 — automation, pre-configuration of complete programs and wider utilization of managed service providers.
In 2014, we won’t see so much of a shift, but instead, a further maturation of channel marketing consistent with the maturation of marketing technology in general. What you will see is more distributed organizations offering opt-in marketing programs to their channel partners that require less active management from partners, and overall, better automation. A narrower range of options of marketing programs that are preconfigured and complete in terms of planning, management, execution and traceability will simplify decision making for channel partners. Managed service providers in the form of local marketing experts assigned to partner networks will become more common; the experts will regularly contact with channel partners via scheduled reporting calls, individual assessments, etc.
Obviously, channel marketing will continue to become more digitally oriented, although finding the ideal mix of online and offline traditional marketing will have no standard formula. Continued interest in moving towards a Co-pay model as opposed to a Reimbursement model will occur as Co-pay eventually becomes the norm.
Lastly, it remains and will continue to remain for the foreseeable future, that the top 10% of channel partners truly understand the value of local marketing and put the resources — both budget and bodies — into the planning. The rest are either exploring and want to do something, or are lost and looking for major assistance. There is a vast opportunity to provide scalable, lower-cost marketing solutions that allow these lower-budget clients to dip their collective toe into local marketing without making a big commitment.
In 2014, channel marketers will have more automation options — to accomplish more with limited resources — and will also have access to hard data into how to optimize the partner community. That means the real challenge will be in knowing how to use these new tools and insights to craft a modern strategy that exceeds the channel marketing goals for the year.
We will see the following trends in 2014:
Channel marketing in 2014 will continue to evolve in four key areas:
Increased integration with CRM: Now that most companies have a CRM strategy in place, they are looking for opportunities to automate other areas of their business. For the more than 65% of companies that sell through an indirect channel, this is a must have. Visibility into partner pipelines via deal registration is no longer enough. Companies need integration of key metrics like POS data, MDF and co-op spending, and support to truly manage partner relationships and to obtain a greater understanding of partner performance and ROI.
Elevated adoption of partner marketing enablement: Once the basics of the PRM system are in place, enabling partners to create their own demand is the next crucial step. Companies are going to take advantage of technologies like partner marketplaces, which allow end-users to find the partner that is best for them, while allowing partners to control and manage their listings to attract the right end-users. Additionally, implementation of technologies like content syndication, microsites, on-demand and co-branded collateral, and automated demand generation programs will continue to better enable partners to increase sales.
Heightened use of mobile-enabled partner portals: Most partners today are spending a lot of time in the field. Companies can no longer assume that partners will be interfacing with them via a PC. We foresee an increased deployment of portals that are mobile enabled, or that offer a mobile app option, to better serve the needs of today’s partner.
Expanded replacement of homegrown PRM in favor of commercially available PRM systems: Companies are going to increasingly abandon homegrown PRM systems in favor of commercially available options. Homegrown systems have become too costly to produce and maintain, especially when compared to commercial PRM systems that now offer a variety of features at a comparatively lower price point. Moreover, the out-of-the-box availability of integrations with the major CRM vendors, along with the ability to stay on the feature upgrade path of major PRM companies, will provide additional incentives for making a move.
In the coming year, it is imperative for vendors and their reseller partners to improve communication, exchange knowledge, and expand services and solutions to effectively get to market. When it comes to marketing, specifically demand generation, the ability to execute is the most critical component in the channel relationship.
Vendors should consider these three important strategies to meet and exceed channel growth expectations:
Actively support partner initiatives that complement corporate objectives. Channel marketing should align with and support partner initiatives that complement corporate objectives. Vendors typically have the market research and insights into market trends and growth opportunities, which is information the channel craves. By doing the research and crafting the go-to-market messaging, vendors fuel their channel with content and deliverables to amplify within their demand generation.
Don’t passively wait for partners to “rise to the occasion.” Ineffective use of market development funding (MDF), often 25% unused, is a major gripe of channel marketing departments. Vendors are all too familiar with well-intentioned partners who cannot execute either due to lack of resources or demands of their “regular job” competing for time.
Vendors and partners need to own up to the reality of the lead time required to close a deal. If, like Zebra, a large and complex solution requires three to six months to close, then all marketing that will identify and affect that sale needs to be executed and in process in the first half of the year. The inability to execute or procrastination with marketing programs results in the inability to drive sales in the same year. This, in turn, negatively contributes to the perception of the resellers who often rank marketing support as the least valuable offering of their vendors. Demand generation requires coordination and a sense of urgency by the vendor and their reseller partners.
Proactively combat the under-utilization of MDF funding: Vendors have the greatest influence over how their MDF is used by the channel and can improve effectiveness with two key tactics:
Channel marketing is valued more and experiences greater results when the vendor designs a marketing program aligned to incorporate objectives and the realities of their sales cycle. Reseller partners will appreciate these enhancements, especially the messaging content and menu nature of a marketplace to shop for services.
I see the following critical trends emerging or evolving in 2014:
Alicia Fiorletta is Senior Editor for Channel Marketer Report. Working closely with industry analysts and experts, Alicia reports on the latest news, technologies, case studies and trends coming to forefront in the channel marketing world. With a focus on emerging marketing strategies, including social, mobile and content for demand, Alicia hones in on new ways for organizations to market to and through their partner networks. Through her work with G3 Communications, Alicia also acts as Associate Editor for Retail TouchPoints, a digital publishing network focused on the customer-facing area of the retail industry.