ChannelWeek Experts: To Boost Partner Engagement, It’s Time to Go Digital, Get Personal Too

Maximizing partner engagement — an impossible dream for many channel program leaders – was given master-class treatment in the series of online presentation made during ChannelWeek at the end of August.

The webcast series, hosted by Channel Marketer Report and its sister publication Demand Gen Report, offered deep-dive insights into why partner engagement remains so challenging, how evolving market trends are creating opportunities for improvement, and what actions should be taken to capture and retain partner attention.

Without a doubt, the partner landscape is swiftly evolving along with the changes to the B2B buyer’s journey. As Jay McBain, Forrester’s Principal Analyst — Channels, Partnerships & Ecosystems, noted, 68% of buyers research products and services online before ever contacting a vendor.

As a result, many vendors are transitioning their channel programs to engage buyers even before they start shopping. The new ‘trifurcating’ partner model, said McBain, now includes the influence channel, the transactional channel, and the retention channel.

The ecosystems these different partners populate are different from traditional indirect channels, said McBain, in that they are untethered to the financial transaction and focused more on intrafirm value creation, access and attachment for external networks and partner innovation.

Nonetheless, driving engagement with all of them requires a ‘human’ touch. Vendors need to “dial up the empathy,” said McBain, acknowledge partners concerns, and assure them that their success is a priority. It’s important that vendors put agile processes in place, recognizing that ‘set-it-forget-it’ communications plans will not be effective. Instead, vendors need to listen and respond, holding onto a long-term vision to inform difficult decisions.

And as ecosystems expand, vendors need to ensure ongoing engagement and consistency by coordinating across disciplines such as marketing, service, and support.

Know The New Kids In Town

During her presentation, Janet Schijns, CEO of the consulting firm, JS Group, shared a list of reasons why vendors should be rethinking how they engage with partners. For example, because more than 40% of channel owners are expected to retire by 2024 – and during the same period, millennials will account for 75% of channel staff – channel leaders will need to adopt modern digital engagement strategies.

Janet Schijns, CEO, JS Group

Channel leaders are going to experience greater competition for the highest performing partners. At the same time, they will need to develop better strategies for capturing the attention of the vast majority of partners companies, most with fewer than 100 employees, many with 10 or fewer staff.

These smaller partners, explained Schijns, will be especially important in winning the business of companies in rural and suburban areas which are expected to lead post-COVID-19 recovery growth.

First and foremast, she advised, channel leaders should need to rethink their partner tiering programs, especially those that prioritize revenue as the most critical measure. Traditional partner tiers “are not viable for these times,” she said. Instead vendors should look at models that define and reward partners points for specializing in a solution, having a brand awareness that drives business to them, marketing prowess that drives demand, and an overall competency that boosts customer success.

To capture their attention and win their loyalty, vendors need to engage these partners with MDF programs that aid in digital transformation and support social selling programs. They must help partners become proficient with remote sales practices, giving them skills and tools necessary to effectively engage customers virtually.

Because “marketing beats sales, every single time,” said Schijns, vendors must help partners understand and be available to meet buyers on their digital journeys. Offering marketing concierge services, especially to partners with deep technical skills but limited marketing capabilities, will be critical to driving deeper partner engagement.

Make It Personal

To more effectively engage partners, vendors need to take a closer look at the people who work for their partners, said Claudio Ayub, Chief Strategy Office, Perks WW Channel. During his ChannelWeek presentation, Ayub stressed that companies have often failed to consider the individuals working within partner organizations, trying to engage them with one-size-fits-all programs.

Claudio Ayub, Chief Strategy Office, Perks WW Channel

To better engage the people who perform critical tasks within partner organizations – sales, marketing, engineering, etc – vendors need to deliver the same quality digital and personalized experiences being presented to them by other B2B and consumer brands.

For maximum impact, vendors need to understand that personalization “is the act of delivering the right message to the right person at the right time in a scalable way across a variety of channels — video, text, mobile, email, direct mail, and telephone,” said Ayub.

The platforms vendors use must have the full context of each user — eligibility, geo location, localization, preferred method of engagement — in order to “fully understand who you are trying to influence in order to gain engagement.”

“Most important,” Ayub said, “you must understand their preferred method of engagement. This is the only way you are going to get to meaningful conversations with partners.”

Providing partners with consumer-like digital experiences is critical, he stressed. For example, he noted that for partner sales reps “the experience has to be visual; they are not going to read a thing.” Graphic depiction of their performance are required “to really win their loyalty.”

Partners Are Listening

Vendors may discover that partners, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are paying more attention to the support they provide. “Partners who may not have paid any attention to your messages about improving their social selling or prospecting skills are starting to ask more questions about them,” said Heather K. Margolis, CEO and founder of Channel Maven Consulting and Spark Your Channel.

As partner leaders seek information and support that will help them sustain their business, vendors should amp up “their 3-E initiatives to educate, engage, and enable. Think about things that will help you partners,” she said. “Don’t set the bar so high that they can’t do it – let them dip their toe and see the benefits of the marketing activities you’re recommending.”

Vendors should enable partner to use the tools that work for them. “Enable partners to share emails through their systems. Make it easy for them to promote views of your videos in a way that looks like an endorsement of your brand.”

Providing partners with attention getting content will ultimately boost their own engagement with marketing activities, said Margolis. Considering that the majority of people who influence a B2B purchase are under the age of 39, it’s critical that vendors prioritize interactive or multi-media content. “Keep it short: 5 to 7 minute videos. The messaging needs to be consultative or relationship building – not always about selling.”

Vendors should also be prepared to provide an extra-helping of support to drive engagement. “It’s more important than ever they have a support system,” said Margolis. “Channel partner demand gen skills are a few years behind the curve than industry best practices.” Providing marketing support is especially valuable when the partners have no internal marketing staff, requiring messages to be shared through sales teams.

Why Automating Systems Matter

The increasing breadth and complexity of channel ecosystems has the potential to complicate partner engagement, insisted Chanan Greenberg, senior vice president and general manager at Model N. Reading a quote from Forrester’s McBain, Greenberg kicked off his data-illuminated presentation saying, “The future of channel partner programs and ecosystems will be anchored on automation, flexibility, scalability and self-service. The effective use of technology tools is no longer optional – ecosystems don’t run on spreadsheets.”

Chanan Greenberg, Senior Vice President, General Manager, Model N

Greenberg made a strong case for boosting partner engagement by automating channel programs. Technology supported programs minimize the friction that discourages partner activity, it speeds payments, reimbursements and incentives to boost partner satisfaction, and it can enable program accuracy and efficiency that ensure a healthier bottom line for the vendors.

For example, on average vendors overpay 10% on their incentives. Not only would automating incentive process result in a significant boost on profits, the accelerated awarding of them would enhance relations with partners always eager to get paid on time.

Automating channel processes is critical to “boosting engagement to drive performance all at the expense of the competition,” said Greenberg. Robust solutions – especially channel data management tools – can empower channel programs to accelerate deal cycles and improve first call effectiveness and align programs to strategic priorities that drive partner sales.

Equally important, automated and properly synchronized systems delivering data to powerful data management solutions can ensure that channel manager have the right information at the right time to make timely decisions. Greenberg noted that many channel leaders complain that they are making decision based on data that is often only 70 to 80% accurate.

The ability to evaluate performance on demand with access to data that is just shy of being 100% accurate can enable programs to ensure their programs boost partner engagement and retention.

Optimizing Virtual Meetings

Two ChannelWeek sessions addressed tactics for helping vendors and partners optimize virtual events. Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, in-person meetings were critical to many vendors’ partner engagement programs – as well as partner out-reach to prospects.

The rapid adoption of virtual meeting tools for business and personal use is making it necessary for marketing to be judicious about their use of them to avoid “webinar fatigue,” said Cheri Keith, head of marketing at ON24. “Remember, there are human beings on the other side of our marketing.”

It’s also important that channel marketers begin to use these tools more purposefully to ensure intended outcomes. If some of their initial use was a knee-jerk reaction to no longer being able to hold in-person meetings, Keith said, channel marketers now need to consider how virtual meetings support their overall and longer-term partner communications programs.

While digital marketing tools and virtual meeting capabilities may be new to channel professionals, Keith stressed that adhering to basic marketing principles will boost engagement. Channel marketers need to take a partner centric approach to content and messaging and ensure that they are delivered in alignment with the partner journey.

During their presentation, Mark Kilens, VP of content and community at Drift, and his colleague Janna Erickson, director of events, reviewed how vendors can collaborate with their partners to optimize virtual events. With only six weeks to plan and implement, Drift and under 20 partners hosted 8,000 registrants at it RevGrowth Virtual Summit this past April.

The success of the program hinged on selecting partners with similar rapport and professionalism. Lead sharing agreements were well documented, including follow-up rules and timetables. All partners were enlisted in pre-event promotion activities, which was facilitated by providing pre-written posts.

Offering speaking opportunities to partners drives engagement. To boost the comfort level of speakers – especially those new to making virtual presentation – Kilens and Erickson recommended that sessions be recorded. They also offered a detailed list of speaker best practices to prepare presenting partners.