For VARs, systems integrators and MSPs, dealing with vendor marketing information has been a task akin to sipping from the proverbial fire hose.
Many resellers and integrators over the years struggled with the volume of channel program information: product data sheets, promotional materials, white papers, case studies and other forms of marketing collateral. The bits and pieces of information proved difficult to craft into coherent marketing campaigns. And a good chuck of the material proved less than relevant to a channel partner's focus.
"I used to think there was just so much information, and finding ways to channel it was difficult," noted Amy Fulton, marketing director at Advanced AV Sales Inc., an audio-visual systems integrator based in West Chester, Pa.
John Boyken, president and chief executive officer of Channel Chargers, a San Diego firm that works with vendors to create go-to-channel plans, said the old approach was for a vendor to ship a package of marketing material and sales training when it signed a partner. The vendor would meet once with the partner to explain how to use the material. Beyond that, the partner was on its own. In addition, the vendor sometimes had a difficult time distributing the right information to the right person within the partner organization, he added.
"It used to be completely unorganized," Boyken said.
The days of information glut may not be completely over, but channel executives contend that vendors have drastically improved their handling of marketing material. Vendors, they say, are doing a much better job of packaging information, making it more focused and easier to digest. Information delivery methods also show signs of improvement: Some product manufacturers now create marketing material with specific channel audiences in mind and target them accordingly. Others bundle information around a particular solution, so resellers don't have to hunt for the relevant elements. The judicious use of social media also contributes to the communications upgrade.
Those channel-friendly information methods can be found in some of the newer channel programs. In October, Brocade Communications Systems Inc. tweaked its partner program, the Brocade Alliance Partner Network, based on partner feedback obtained through surveys and an advisory council.
"We found partners are looking for role-based content," said Raelyn Kritzer, director of channel marketing at Brocade.
She said partners -- or anyone browsing a website for information -- will their search within five minutes if they can't find what they need. A channel ally who gives up on a vendor's site will call a sales rep to obtain the information, a situation that Kritzer said impairs the efficiency of both parties.
Role-based content, however, boosts relevancy and reduces the time partners spend looking for information. In Brocade's case, the partner program has created content for sales, technical and marketing personnel.
John Boykenpresident and CEO, Channel Chargers
"They can pick and choose which content they want to see," she said.
Brocade is housing the role-based content in its revamped partner portal. The portal, according to Brocade, centralizes the management of partner resources including sales and marketing materials.
IBM also aims to package its marketing information for easier consumption. Earlier this year, the company launched its Ready to Execute campaigns, which integrate such elements as "multi-touch emails, telemarketing scripts, and Web marketing guidance," according to the IBM Software Business Partner blog.
"IBM provides you with a vast array of marketing assets," said Jacqi Levy, marketing manager and social media strategist, Worldwide Software Business Partners at IBM, who authored the Ready to Execute blog post. "But, admittedly, it's not always easy to see how they might fit together as part of an integrated campaign."
IBM, however, contends its approach connects the dots.
"Yes, we do the up-front assembling of customizable emails, client offers, call guides for the Business Partners, and we provided a 'cookbook' guide, thus saving them the time of selecting the latest and best materials," said Shaun Jones, vice president business partner marketing, IBM Software.
Jones also pointed out that IBM provides multi-touch campaigns, sequenced so the campaign tells "a story that nurtures the client through the sales process." In addition, IBM's program lets partners use the same client offers -- whitepapers and assessment tools, for instance -- that IBM employs to generate demand.
IBM organizes its integrated campaigns around specific solutions, such as business analytics, security and collaboration, among other areas. Jones said nearly 1,000 partners have downloaded and customized campaign materials since the program's July launch.
The vendors' marketing improvements aren't strictly down to partner portals and better information packaging, however. Fulton said the vendors' partner portal sites are useful for forms, market development fund (MDF) information, logo files and marketing guidelines. But she noted that social media tools such as Twitter and LinkedIn have dramatically increased Advanced AV's communication with manufacturers and end users.
"The postings on social media of videos, product information and news [are] the quickest and easiest way for me to maintain the information and share it with our clients," Fulton said.
With social media, Advanced AV disseminates manufacturer news, product releases and videos as soon as those items become available. "It is instantaneous," she said.
Room for improvement
The latest vendor programs represent a change for the better, but they still face limitations.
"I definitely think vendors have gotten better at organizing the information and making it more relevant to what a customer might need," said Amy Thompson, director of marketing communications at Force 3, a federal integrator based in Crofton, Md.
That said, vendor-centric campaigns, no matter how well integrated, may not completely fit a channel partner's business model. Thompson said Force 3 creates solutions around multiple commercial off-the-shelf products -- a half dozen products in the case of its bring your own device (BYOD) solution, for example. A one-vendor marketing campaign doesn't address the company's multivendor focus, she noted.
Accordingly, Force 3 creates its own marketing material and campaigns. The company creates a reference architecture for a given solution and then uses that architecture in blogs, videos, seminars and telemarketing campaigns it engages in.
"For us, it is all about content syndication," Thompson said. "Once we develop the reference architecture, we can reuse it."
Force 3, nevertheless, still makes use of manufacturers' marketing material. The company may validate its solutions against vendors' product information, for example, Thompson said.
"We use it as a launching pad," she said.
Boyken, meanwhile, points to another for vendor improvement. He said vendors have an opportunity to extend their channel outreach beyond partner portals and into the realm of mobile apps.
"I think it makes a whole lot more sense to create channel sales materials and organize them in a fashion that vendors can push out to a smartphone or pad application," Boyken said.
In one vendor app scenario, a VAR sales rep selling a storage solution and competing against EMC could call up a competitive analysis app provided by the reseller's storage vendor, Boyken said. The app would outline the selling points of the vendor's storage offering versus its rivals.
Boyken said he hasn't seen much channel app activity among vendors yet, but he has brought up the topic with a couple of app developers.
Finally, vendors should reinforce improvements to marketing materials and information delivery methods through one-on-one meetings with channel partners. Boyken said those conversations help vendors make sure resellers are using marketing materials as intended, while letting the parties co-develop marketing programs and ways to measure their results. He said he recommends that vendors meet with channel companies over the course of a quarter, rather than just point them toward a partner portal.
"I always think it is important to hold regular business reviews between vendors and channel partners," he said.
About the author:
John Moore has written on business and technology topics for more than 25 years.