This content is part of the Essential Guide: IT channel sales and marketing strategy for the digital era

Seven tips for creating a marketing plan and lead generation strategy

VARs and MSPs don't always excel at marketing. Here are seven tips that can help a channel company build an effective channel marketing plan.

Being a value-added reseller (VAR) or managed service provider (MSP) who stands out from the competition isn't easy. Even if you have all the right certifications and experience, plus the right competitively priced IT solution bundles, it's all for naught if prospects don't know who you are and what makes you unique.

It's a fact that marketing remains one of the biggest areas where channel partners struggle to get it done right -- if at all. Many just keep to "word of mouth" as the primary lead generation strategy, but there's so much more that can be done to get real results. As a marketing agency for the IT channel, we're often asked what else a partner can do to be seen and heard. The following are some budget-friendly tips that I've put together based on our experience with marketing channel partners:

1. Set a tangible marketing goal

It's a fact that marketing remains one of the biggest areas where channel partners struggle to get it done right -- if at all.

Whether you're adding a new solution, obtaining a new certification or doing marketing, you should start with a few specific goals. For example, one of the primary roles of marketing is to set up your sales team with warm leads so they aren't wasting time chasing leads that aren't a fit for your business. With that in mind, think about the kinds of leads you're looking for and the different types of activities you could do to attract those leads. List specific marketing activities (e.g., webinar, email campaign, customer survey, lunch and learn) you're considering, plus the cost of the event and the number of leads you expect to generate.

Before you can plug in accurate figures, you'll need to know two things to develop your lead generation strategy: How many leads do you need per month and what is your lead conversion rate? If you're not sure about your conversion rate, start with 10%, which is the industry average. To answer the other question, you'll need to know your average contract value. For example, if your average customer is a 50-person shop and your solution costs $10 per seat, then the average contract value would be $500. If you need to sell 6 new solutions per month, then you'll need to generate 60 leads a month.

2. Determine your funding sources and budget

Once you add up all the costs of the activities that will help you meet your marketing goal, you'll need to determine how your costs align with your budget. Typically, the money you need for your marketing plan will be more than what your available budget allows. Don't assume that means you need to compromise your marketing plans; there are other options you should consider first. Your vendor or distributor partners may have marketing co-op funds available. Having a detailed marketing plan is an important first step to be considered for any available funds.

3. Don't go it alone

Many solution providers mistakenly think that doing marketing means hiring a full-time marketing person. The truth is, if you leverage outside expertise and resources, you don't need to hire someone with an advanced marketing degree to do effective marketing. Some distributor and vendor partners, for instance, offer a wide range of low-cost marketing services, including email templates, collateral, websites, videos and white papers that can be co-branded or white-labeled with little effort. Others may offer custom content to strategic partners.

4. Befriend an editor

Being seen as a thought leader by writing articles that speak to the themes your target audience cares about is a great way to boost your website relevancy with major search engines and stand out from your competitors. One of the easiest ways to get your business covered is to introduce yourself to a business-to-business editor. These reporters work on tight deadlines, and if they know you're available and reliable you'll greatly increase your chances to be quoted -- or perhaps featured -- in their magazine or online publication.

5. Ditch your 'me too' website look

To a prospect, all VARs and MSPs look alike. Where do they get that impression? Your website. Nearly every IT service provider's website has the same vendors' logos and uses the same high-tech jargon. What a prospect really wants to know about is you. One of our channel partners, Platte River, distinguishes itself by using short video clips, photos and other personalized messages that illustrate its employees performing important job functions and interacting with clients. "A video doesn't need to be long to be effective -- one minute is sufficient," said David DeCamillis, vice president, sales and marketing at Platte River. "What's important is that a prospect gets an opportunity to see what your team looks like and how you interact with customers -- without having to decipher that information from a bulleted list of certifications and credentials."

6. Incorporate social media in your marketing plan, lead generation strategy

No one doubts the prevalence of social media, but many debate its relevance as a marketing tool. If you're skeptical about using social media in marketing, here are a couple points to consider: First, social media has a 100% higher lead-to-close rate than outbound marketing, according to a State of Inbound Marketing report from HubSpot. Platte River confirmed this statistic firsthand after running a marketing campaign that combined IT services with craft beer tasting. To attract prospects to its event, the MSP hired an outsourced marketing firm and it also used its own social media resources such as LinkedIn. "We got a better ROI from LinkedIn than from the outsourced marketing firm," said DeCamillis.

7. Build a marketing plan that embraces change

One of the main reasons you should track the details of your marketing plan is so that you can make informed updates over time. You may discover after a couple of months that one type of marketing activity is outperforming all the others. Take the opportunity to assess what's working and what's not and make adjustments accordingly. With enough data points, it becomes much easier to identify areas that need to be addressed.

Taking advantage of the budget-wise resources outlined above can lead to significant improvements over the word-of-mouth marketing strategy many IT solution providers use. And, when you consider the results some solution providers experience after adopting these practices, I think you'll agree that it's important to act with urgency.

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