Channel marketing during Covid-19: What’s the vendor strategy?

Leaders from Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, Cisco, LogRhythm, Sophos, Veeam and VMware outline key marketing challenges related to Covid-19, while documenting examples of best practice and revamped engagement strategies in 2020
Top row (L-R): Qu Fan (VMware); Nicki Dewhurst (Sophos) and Budi Santoso (Cisco) / Bottom row (L-R): Joanne Wong (LogRhythm); Alistair MacIntyre-Currie (Veeam) and Jocelyn Tan (Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise)

Top row (L-R): Qu Fan (VMware); Nicki Dewhurst (Sophos) and Budi Santoso (Cisco) / Bottom row (L-R): Joanne Wong (LogRhythm); Alistair MacIntyre-Currie (Veeam) and Jocelyn Tan (Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise)

Following the hard-hitting sucker punch delivered by Covid-19, the channel is slowly sobering up to the social and economic realities of such a devastating pandemic.

Whether in Bangkok or Brisbane, Ahmedabad or Auckland, partners, distributors and vendors are adjusting in real-time as market dynamics continue to shift at pace.

During a time of crisis, history dictates that marketing spend will naturally slow down in response, especially during the early phases when over-communication and out of touch messaging could strike a killer blow from a branding perspective.

Whether through surprise, uncertainty or tactical detachment, the channel endured a brief marketing quiet period during the first quarter as the virus raced across the region and the rest of the world. While campaigns didn’t entirely stop, unsurprisingly, adjustments were made and activities reassessed as marketers went back to the drawing board.

Despite a long road to recovery ahead, the ecosystem is gradually coming to terms with a new reality, prompting a fresh round of engagement from vendors seeking to pivot marketing strategies, reactivate campaigns and create future pipeline.

With events collectively viewed as the beating heart of the channel, vendors are turning to virtual alternatives, content, lead-generation and digital campaigns to maintain partner engagement levels, with differentiation key in such a crowded marketplace.

Likewise, market development funds (MDF) also remain on the table, motivated by a desire to help partners prioritise the nurturing of existing customers, alongside providing future strategies to recruit new logos.

Following briefings with Channel Asia, leaders from Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, Cisco, LogRhythm, Sophos, Veeam and VMware outline key marketing challenges related to Covid-19, while documenting examples of best practice and revamped engagement strategies in 2020.

Responding in real-time

Due to government measures across the region, in addition to widespread travel bans, a host of large-scale vendor conferences were cancelled or converted to virtual events during the first quarter, impacting technology giants such as Microsoft, IBM, Amazon Web Services, VMware, Google Cloud, Dell Technologies and HP among others.

An obvious statement to make perhaps, but for some vendors, the switch from physical to virtual was initiated within the space of days and weeks, rather than months.

As an early casualty of Covid-19 in Asia Pacific, the decision to transform Cisco Live in Melbourne - set to house more than 8500 attendees spanning channel partners and customers - into a digital-only event was made 19 days before doors were set to open. The US-version soon followed, resulting in a quick turnaround from physical to virtual with the Melbourne edition running virtually from 1-2 April.

“If you told us a couple of months ago that we would be recreating our largest events into a virtual format, we would have never believed it,” acknowledged Budi Santoso, head of ASEAN Partner Organisation at Cisco.

On the flip side however, and armed with internal collaboration tools such as Cisco Webex, Santoso said the pandemic has prompted a realisation of what can be achieved through a virtual format.

“We will be replicating a lot of this great work long after the Covid-19 uncertainty has gone,” he added. “We are also actively helping partners transform their marketing strategy to be virtual and digital-led through enabling their teams, providing digital resources and content and simplifying funding support.”

Fresh from launching a new channel program in the form of Partner Connect, VMware has also leveraged the virtual format to launch Empower Online, designed to maintain ecosystem engagement levels remotely.

“In the past few months, many partners and customers, including their employees, have been impacted and this has contributed to low morale across the ecosystem,” acknowledged Qu Fan, director of Partner Business across Southeast Asia and Korea at VMware. “As such, we are exploring creative, inspirational ways to create more meaningful campaigns while allowing them to stay connected and execute plans while working remotely.”

But as the entire industry moves online, Qu accepted that a new challenge emerges in the form of “differentiation and decluttering value-based communication”.

“This is a time of uplifting and enabling the ecosystem and we have moved from physical meetings and trainings to virtual trainings and white board sessions to facilitate discussions, learnings and sharing,” he added.

Staying within Southeast Asia, one of the biggest roadblocks impacting Sophos centred around the early precautions issued by the governments in Singapore and the Philippines among other nations.

“As a region, we are heavily reliant on face-to-face events,” explained Nicki Dewhurst, director of marketing across Asia Pacific and Japan (APJ) at Sophos. “It’s part of our culture to socialise, share a meal and discuss business. To see that instantly evaporate has been an interesting test. Most of our partner MDF activities are event related, so we’ve had to move quickly to create digital programs and webinars that support our partners remaining relevant to their customers."

Echoing Dewhurst’s observations, Jocelyn Tan - head of marketing across Asia Pacific at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise - said the challenge lies in the absence of human interaction when conducting partner engagements, in addition to planned end-user programs.

“The human element facilitates co-operation, forms relationships and builds trust,” Tan said. “The nature of the ASEAN market is still very much face-to-face engagement where physical presence is much appreciated. But with those interactions suspended indefinitely at this point, we have revisited our activation plans and budgets to strategically shift towards a digitally-led demand generation effort.”

Overcoming event challenges

With event cancellations and postponements commonplace during the opening months of 2020, most vendors have temporarily lost access to a primary route to market. Despite such a seismic spanner in the works however, some have pivoted at pace to address the new realities of channel marketing.

“This does not mean that all interaction with partners, customers and potential partners should cease,” advised Alistair MacIntyre-Currie, vice president of marketing across APJ at Veeam Software. “We are exploring initiatives to engage either virtually, on the phone or digitally, ensuring that partner needs are met despite the situation.”

After moving “very quickly” to postpone face-to-face events - to meet healthy and safety requirements while complying with government instructions - the data management specialist shifted focus to partner enablement, underpinned by remote training and certification.

"We used this time to focus on enablement which has been very successful looking at the number of completed online certifications this year,” MacIntyre-Currie added. “When China was first hit we had already put measures in place to facilitate an online enablement journey and readiness for our channel partners.

“Through this, we learned a lot of best practices. While not all markets have had to transition at the same speed, we have seen lots of positive engagement and feedback from our partner community.”

Through prioritising online training, Veeam conducted six remote sessions within the space of a week, housing over 1200 sales and technical partner attendees. This is in addition to a sharp increase in online certification completion with more than 3000 enablement and certifications issued across APJ, 33 per cent of which awarded to China-based partners.

Meanwhile, Cisco has developed a centralised digital hub for partners, driving awareness for strategic technologies and solutions spanning sales, technical and marketing teams. Central to such efforts is a Marketing Velocity framework which delivers on-demand trainings developed to help partners strengthen marketing practices.

“This has been updated to give partners a head start to build digital marketing campaigns with new content and digital services that span automated email journeys, social syndication, website plugins and analytics to track and monitor contact engagement,” Santoso of Cisco added.

Alongside providing funding flexibility in recognition of physical events converting to virtual and digital activities, Cisco is also providing a “white glove co-marketing service” in the form of Marketing Velocity Activate.

“This service combines data-driven business planning with Cisco and insights-driven omni-channel journeys to engage customers to drive pipeline and grow revenue,” Santoso explained. “For partners that have had to cancel their physical events due to Covid-19, we are offering a free virtual event service in partnership with Vbrick where partners are able to host the virtual events or meetings for up to 5000 people.

“We’re also running ‘Ask the Expert’ webinars to address some of our most frequent questions from customers and partners in this new reality. All these services have been well received by partners and we see an increase in engagement of all these resources.”

Content is king

Looking ahead, Dewhurst said Sophos' focus centres around developing “strong, high quality content” for partners. This can be used either ‘off the shelf’ or can be rolled into a partner's own program, backed by the supply of subject matter experts and speakers.

“We’re also simplifying our MDF program so partners can select items from a succinct menu to build their marketing and business development programs more easily," she added. “The centrepiece of our partner marketing strategy this year is delivering quality leads to our partners so they can grow their business with Sophos, be profitable and help keep the economy turning.”

In addition, the security specialist has built a 'Secure Remote Working' webinar program that partners can leverage based on information and actions for end-users and system admins.

“Since it’s informative and helpful, partners can push this out quite easily and position their offerings around it,” Dewhurst added.

Speaking as vice president of marketing across APJ at LogRhythm, Joanne Wong said the immediate priority involves evaluating how marketing and sales are communicating with partners and customers to ensure messaging does not appear “tone-deaf” during such a challenging period.

“While traditional marketing approaches are often centred around developing materials and proof points that will help persuade customers and prospects buy a product or service, marketing and sales team need to be more sensitive about relevant business challenges at this point in time,” Wong outlined.

“For example, rather than spending on an ad placement for a new product, marketing can look at developing helpful content on how businesses can manage cyber risks to corporate networks as a result of telecommuting. Other examples of useful content could be basic cyber security hygiene tips which partners and customers can pass on to their employees.”

While maintaining a sense caution in terms of messaging, Tan of ALE stressed that in this current climate, “over-communication” with partners has proved vital in keeping the supply chain moving across the region.

“We have lined up a couple of ‘To-Partner’ webinar sessions to provide more insight on how partners can take advantage of several initiatives,” Tan added. “Partner assets like ‘campaign-in-a-box’ are tailored to our small and medium sized customers to overcome limited resources. These assets contain solutions such as emailers, landing pages, web banners and videos to provide support and help amplify engagement with consumers.”

Backed by positive feedback from the channel, Tan said plans are in place to ramp up marketing activities further, underpinned by business continuity theming.

“We have also made strategic shifts to our marketing mix, increasing our efforts around the execution of digital demand generation campaigns with a targeted focus on content marketing to address the ongoing needs of our end customers,” she said.

Earlier this year, Veeam launched a Marketing Concierge program which involves digital marketing experts supporting partners in the creation of digital marketing plans through the vendor's customisable content.

“We have seen significant growth in the number of partners utilising this service and engaging with this content,” MacIntyre-Currie added. “We are also ramping up on our training and marketing initiatives. To take collaboration to the next level, we are working with our partners directly by helping them in their strategies through exercises such as holding joint webinar sessions to connect with their audience."