Top 10 ways vendors can be seen and heard in the channel

Channel managers are forever fighting for airtime with partners and failing spectacularly. But do they know the major sources of influence?

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 managers 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.

Firstly, 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.

Take the time to read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell for a fascinating look at what might have happened if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were both born five years later.

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

Likewise, other vendors win because they understand how to influence the channel, but this is much more difficult.

The channel is highly-decentralised, whether that be by specialty, geography, industry focus, customer segment, business model or myriad of other things.

What smart channel managers understand is that influencing this large group of disparate people involves a wide array of tactics, and a tonne of manual labour.

It is important to note that the channel is rarely fooled twice however.

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’s 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.

According to analyst firm Gartner, 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 organisation. 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.

Top 10 major sources of influence

1 - Industry Media

In the technology and telecom space, there are 16 sizeable media companies around the world - including ARN in Australia and Reseller News in New Zealand - who have been quick to recognise 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.

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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 five per cent 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 Forrester, Gartner, IDC, 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 broad-line or niche distribution will be important.

From an influence perspective, the distributors have out-sized reach and marketing budgets to drive partner influence. Many small and mid-sized 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. 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 hundreds of technology trade-shows each year. The majority of channel professionals will only attend one or two events so understanding your target partner and having a healthy trade-show calendar is a must.

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

This is a major influence. With 72 per cent 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 start-ups are all disrupting what traditional channels look like.

(Want to learn more about the rise of Shadow Channels? Check out my keynote speech at EDGE 2017)

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?

Jay McBain is principal analyst of global channels at Forrester, specialising in research and advisory for global channels, alliances, and partnerships. McBain focuses on B2B marketing in the age of the customer; understanding and navigating the complexity of multiple routes to market; ensuring contextual and relevant content to accelerate the indirect sales process; and describing the technology infrastructure to build and support channel relationships.