Channel Execs Push to Close Partner Marketing Skills Gap

As Forrester Research reported earlier this year, companies are expected to make significant investments in their partner marketing technology, pushing sales of through-channel marketing automation solutions to $1.2 billion through 2023.

But to ensure that their teams know how to optimize these tools, companies are making additional investments to build teams with sharper channel management and marketing skills.

Maria Chien, Service Director for Channel Marketing Strategies, SiriusDecisions

As Maria Chien, Service Director for Channel Marketing Strategies at SiriusDecisions, noted in an interview with Demand Gen Report, CMOs are determined to have more highly skilled channel staff on their teams. When asked about which specific skillsets they plan to enable or enhance within the next two years, partner enablement — especially with regards to marketing — was near the top of the list.

“Partner enablement is going to be a competitive differentiator for organizations,” said Chien. Channel programs that prioritize best-practice partner enablement will “not only drive preference for their offering, but also more mindshare and wallet share with those partners effectively outperforming their peer set. I really believe it’s going to be a game changer.”

A recent study by the Channel Institute found similar results. When reviewing candidates for channel-related positions, respondents said they wanted to see clear knowledge of how channels work, the channel landscape and excellent skills in joint business planning. Channel leaders are clearly raising the bar on the profession, recognizing that the subtleties associated with channel management require skills that “can only be acquired through a combination of formal channel training and experience, as opposed to the more ad-hoc learning approaches of the past,” Mike Kelly, the institute’s executive director, told CMR.

Channel Marketing Degrees In Short Supply

Finding candidates whose channel skills have been honed by formal training education programs may not be easy, channel executives lament. “There is no curriculum in universities that talks about channel or indirect marketing,” said Michelle Chiantera, Cisco’s VP of Global Partner and Commercial Marketing.

Michelle Chiantera, VP of Global Partner and Commercial Marketing, Cisco

“I think that is fundamentally a challenge because people are coming out of universities without a foundational understanding of what an indirect selling model looks like,” she continued.

Cisco is working with schools that it typically recruits from to offer channel-related courses, added Chiantera. “I think it needs to start with some of these universities.”

Until more universities begin to fill that education gap, other organizations are stepping up to the blackboard. Earlier this year, the Channel Institute announced certification courses for channel management and marketing to help fill the education and training gap, explained Kelly. In his experience as a managing partner at Ridge Consulting, a company that provides business and marketing training and consulting to technology resellers worldwide, Kelly discovered that many people assigned to channel marketing roles at vendors had no formal training in the profession.

“They’d have gone through training in-house and they may have gone to a two-day course with a consulting practice, but there was no standardized curriculum that could apply to most or all business with indirect sales organizations,” he said.

If channel management and channel marketing training was available, it was generally on an ad hoc basis. This was especially true for new entrants to the profession who often come from end-user sales or marketing. Often, according to Kelly, “they are thrown in at the deep end of the channel management and partner marketing pool or put through an employer’s own training academy that rarely focuses on industry-wide best practices.” This ultimately results in a major skills and knowledge gap in the channel industry, he added.

The Channel Institute certificate courses are reviewed and validated by its vendor-independent Industry Advisory Council, which is comprised of technology leaders such as Oracle, Cisco, HP, Microsoft, SAP, IBM, HubSpot and others.

The aim of the Channel Institute is to bring a more formal, standardized structure to learning for channel business professionals. In particular, the institute focuses on the vastly under-served segment of those that are relatively new to the profession. The Certificate in Channel Marketing is also promoted to those charged with marketing at technology reseller companies, helping them understand vendor-independent global best practices in co-marketing.

“There’s definitely a need for education in general as to how channel programs function and what the most efficient and effective ways to align marketing with your partners within the channel program are,” said Iliyana Stareva, Global Partner Program Manager at HubSpot, and a member of the Channel Institute’s industry advisory council.

“Like anything that’s channel related, with marketing, you are relying on an intermediary to pretty much do almost everything with you,” she said. “And every partner program has a different span of control with the partners. Some enable them fully, others go to market together. So, it’s certainly a different level of skill.”

Thomas Jensen, Head of Worldwide Channel Sales Strategy at HP, agreed. “The channel is really a complicated sales and marketing road,” he said. “Hence, it needs a different skill set, both from a business acumen and business planning perspective but definitely also in terms of understanding the discipline that you’re responsible for.”

Channel Teams Elect To Train Their Own

HP, like many other companies, is taking it upon itself to improve its employees’ channel management and marketing skills. “We’ve been working very closely with my colleague in channel marketing over the past couple of years to ensure that we focus on channel marketing skills, as well as both direct and channel sales skills,” said Jensen.

A digital marketing academy at SAP, which was originally created to educate partners on how to market and sell, is now open to employees as well, according to Meaghan Sullivan, Head of General Business and Global Channels. “We now offer a digital channel academy internally to help our employees gather more information on what it takes to excel at channel marketing,” she said.

Meaghan Sullivan, Head of General Business and Global Channels, SAP

SAP is striving to ensure channel proficiency through the entire company, explained Sullivan. For example, “We’re embarking on a journey right now where we’re going deep into our content teams, educating them on what the channel means to the company, what makes it tick, what makes it unique, how partners feel.”

The expectation is that the company’s global content teams will consider at inception how its output can be used to support channel marketing efforts. “I just find that if you get a broader mindset within the company of what the channel is — why we go to market through the channel and how fast that revenue engine is for us — we’re top-of-mind at the outset of content creation.” As a result, channel teams can avoid time-consuming and expensive efforts to repurpose content, Sullivan said.

A report by the Digital Clarity Group says it’s a good idea to ensure marketers have opportunities to glean knowledge from different organizations or departments. For example, according to its 2018 report on content management technologies, 89% of content professionals tend to be mostly or entirely in the same business unit. “While the advantage of content creators all sitting physically or virtually together is that they can easily share best practices about content-specific competencies like storytelling or design, they miss out on gaining a deeper understanding of the audience of customers, prospects and partners that are the ultimate content consumers,” according to the report.

At some companies, channel teams are creating programs to help internal teams expand their expertise. For example, IT security company ESET’s demand generation team has been recruited to up-skill the channel staff on a range of best-practices.

“I think back to the day when marketing in the channel was a lot more relationship driven and a one-on-one conversation,” said Hope McCluskey, Director of Partner Marketing and Events for ESET. “Now you have to be able to pull that marketing science in and understand what it takes to communicate to really move the channel itself. We’re constantly working closely with our demand gen team to learn the skills that they’re utilizing to drive leads and how we can apply them to recruiting partners.”

Third Parties Filling Channel Skill Gap

The lack of channel marketing expertise is also reflected in Forrester’s forecast of the growth in channel-related marketing services. In the same report about the surge in sales of through-channel marketing automation technology, Forrester reported that related services offered by channel technology companies will climb to $1.3 billion annually by 2023. The broader through-channel marketing automation market will include thousands of marketing digital agencies that will grow to generate an additional $2 billion of services over the same time.

Heather Margolis, CEO and Founder of Channel Maven Consulting, is seeing an uptick in requests for channel marketing support services. “One of the things we’re being asked to do more is manage marketing services. Our clients are saying ‘We have this marketing automation tool, but we need your team and people — humans — to help our partners learn how to use them better.’”

Lack of skills is sometimes the problem, she said. “But a lot of it’s about bandwidth.”