Friday, December 2, 2016

The 10-Part Formula for Winning in Today's Channel

A large number of channel programs get stuck in the exact same place. After countless hours of planning, building and executing a robust set of partnering strategies and mechanics, channel chiefs miss some very important steps in their go-to-market activities.

Having observed hundreds of channel programs and comparing their success in the marketplace, I have come to a couple of simple conclusions:

1. Some vendors win because their product wins. 

Many of the successful vendors that you see headlining shows today were in the right place at the right time with the right amount of innovation. Read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell for a fascinating look at what might have happened if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were born 5 years later.

When your product wins, building a channel is easier with thousands of partners lining up to get in on the action.

2. Other vendors win because they understand how to influence the channel.

This is much more difficult and the subject of this blog.

We all know that the channel is highly-decentralized - by specialty, geography, industry focus, customer segment, business model, and a myriad of other things. What smart channel chiefs understand is that influencing this large group of disparate people involves a wide array of tactics, and a ton of manual labor.

It is important to note that the channel is rarely fooled twice. There have been many examples of vendors becoming highly visible and not backing it up with the product, program, pricing, place, promotion and internal channel religion to make it sustainable. Assuming your ducks are in a row, it is time to execute the 10-part formula.

The formula boils down to a very simple concept. Partners are made up of people who, like all of us, need to feel part of something. There are over 600,000 technology partner companies worldwide, with millions of professionals working at them, who all need to connect, learn and engage to be the best they can be. (Want to know more about the size of the channel? Read here.)

Gartner reports that peer networking, associations and communities are the highest ranked ways that small and medium businesses learn, form opinions, and in the end, make decisions. However, these peer to peer connections are not made under some huge global umbrella organization. This is the crux of the problem I started with above - and a large reason that many channel programs under-deliver today.

What if you were able to sit down with millions of partners individually and ask them the following:

- What do you read?
- Who do you follow?
- What events do you attend? listen to? watch?
- How do you make vendor decisions?

The answers would probably surprise you - there are hundreds of sources of influence in the channel and they tend to have a very loyal and engaged subset of followers. (Want to learn more about marketing to a decentralized channel? Read here.)


1. Industry Media

In the technology and telecom space, there are 16 sizable media companies around the world who have been quick to recognize the communities trend, and have formed powerful offerings under their trusted brands. Looking at their advertising guides, you will quickly notice that unique readers are high among all of them.

Simply put, partners don't have the time to read a stack of magazines or a bunch of newsletters - they tend to choose only one brand to follow. How does this align with your media strategy?

2. Associations

There are numerous associations, both generic as well as hyper-focused. Surprisingly, the largest association in the world (by far) doesn't even reach 5% of the intended audience. Looking at your product portfolio, are you aligned with the macro and micro based communities where your partners are engaging?

3. Analysts

Depending on the size and maturity of partner channel you are recruiting, analyst firms can have a major impact on whether you are considered for your product category. Research by firms such as Gartner, IDC, Forrester, SiriusDecisions, and ZS Associates tend to carry a lot of weight as the size of partner grows.

There are hundreds of mid and smaller sized analysts that carry weight as channel consultants that also have power in making vendor decisions. Are you spending enough time building relationships (and getting into the right quadrant) in the analyst community?

4. Distributors

Depending on your product category, making the commitment to broadline or niche distribution will be important. From an influence perspective, especially in North America, the distributors have out-sized reach and marketing budgets to drive partner influence. Many small and midsized partners use distribution almost exclusively for learning and community.

5. Vendor communities

Several companies have built impressive communities that serve their ecosystem. For example, in the managed services world, companies such as ConnectWise and Autotask have built large and loyal followings of partners that they offer others opportunities to market through. There are many more examples ranging from SaaS ecosystems such as Salesforce Dreamforce to traditional vendors such as HP, Dell, Cisco and Lenovo.

6. Peer Groups

Many partners that I have worked with swear by peer groups. The ability to engage with like-minded folks and solve problems in a very human-centric way is a huge benefit for them. There are larger, more formal peer groups run by companies such as HTG, Taylor and TruMethods. In most cases, these peer groups try to avoid outside influence but do have sponsorships for events available. In some cases, vendors can actually participate.

7. Bloggers / Thought Leaders / Consultants

This is a broad group, but one that is important in breaking into several partners. I created a list recently on the Top 100 most visible people in the channel and many of these individuals ranked high on the list. Because they tend to be very visible, they have influence on a large number of partners across many of the communities mentioned here.

8. Tradeshows

There are over 150 channel-related technology tradeshows in the US alone each year. The majority of channel professionals will only attend 1 or 2 events so understanding your target partner and having a healthy tradeshow calendar is a must. I have written extensively on winning at tradeshows - including this infographic.

9. Social

Being on social means more than having company Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest accounts. There are some vendors currently winning this medium, with very socially-minded channel managers engaging at a personal level on these platforms. There are thousands of partners engaged, with real business being conducted by "people they like".

10. Shadow Channels

Having written about this for the past 6 months, I would be remiss if I didn't mention it here as a major influence. With 72% of technology decisions now being made by line of business professionals, other types of partners such as consultants, integrators, ISVs, industry-based professional services firms, born-in-the-cloud, and startups are all disrupting what traditional channels look like.  (Want to learn more about the rise of Shadow Channels? Read here.)

The shadow channel is currently the wild-west, but the professionals do need to connect, learn, and engage like everyone else. The question, as it applies to your business, is which of these types of partners are important and how do they answer the who/what/where questions asked above?