5 Tips For Creating A Successful Channel Marketing Strategy

‘You Have To Invest In Marketing’

While many solution providers struggle to create a winning marketing program, developing one is critical in order to drive sales, no matter the size of the organization.

Mike Hadley, president and CEO of iCorps Technologies, employs a full-time marketing staff, and said it is money well spent.

“You have to invest in marketing,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have that philosophy. They invest in sales. They invest in support and delivery. Invest in marketing. It’s important. You just have to be smart about it. You have to really do your research and understand what you’re investing in. It can’t be a one and done. You have to continuously invest in it, and you have to be very strategic as far as what your investing in.”

CRN talked with channel marketing experts who said what’s crucial to any strategy is that solution providers must know their current customers and potential customers as well as they know their own business. Here they spill on how to get your shop ready to compete in 2019.

Know Your Customers

Jennifer Anaya, senior vice president of marketing for distribution powerhouse Ingram Micro, said in some cases solution providers are not sure who all their customers are.

“Don’t underestimate the simplicity of looking at your customer list and analyzing the types of businesses you are serving,” she said. “It’s interesting, every time we’ve asked partners, at an event, we ask for a show of hands, ‘OK, how many of you can rattle off the business types that you’re serving?’ Someone always says, ‘I don’t know because I’m doing managed services for storage security and email.’ Well, who are you doing that for? So understanding the kinds of businesses they’re serving because they’re learning an expertise. They can say ‘Hey we know how to manage this for a doctors office, or what to do with law firms and storage. That’s an expertise we’ve built. That’s important because those smaller companyies especially, they don’t have time to do RFPs and go searching for three bids. They just want to find someone they can trust, who is going to come in and know what they need to do for their business.”

“As a channel partner you really need to understand who you are marketing to. I think that sounds basic. But I don’t think our partners are really looking into their customer base. Maybe you reflect on last year and have some conversations with your sales team and ask them, who are you selling to?”

Know Your Potential Customers

The days of solution providers only selling technology to their customer’s chief information officer are gone.

“You have to reach business decision makers and you have to reach the ordinary employee in the company," said Hadley. "You have to go through the full spectrum. So words that mean something to people. Content that means something to people, and not something to someone specific, like an IT manager or CEO. If a CEO is looking for outsourced IT, they’re not doing the searching. Their executive assistant is.”

The digital transformations that have taken over nearly every part of business make all of those departments a potential buyer, said Jay McBain, principal analyst, channel partnerships and alliances with market research firm Forrester.

First and foremost is targeting the new marketing, at the new buyers,” he said. “Sixty-five percent of all technology decisions are made today outside of IT. So you have to focus the marketing on business executives, which are sales, marketing, finance, operations, HR type of professionals, who now spend over half their budget and over half their time on technology. The CMO now spends more than the CIO on technology. So, if you’re marketing, you have to market outside of the boundaries that perhaps you have in the past … You have to market in the language of the line of business buyer. So if it’s a marketing professional, you’re talking the language of top of funnel, lead passing, progression, click rates, all those types of things, you’re not talking speeds and feeds.”

When In Doubt, Farm It Out

The intensive research and analysis needed to find your customers, find the buyer, the market and then craft a message can be overwhelming for smaller shops, so some recommend a hired gun.

“I think it’s a good idea to outsource it if you do not have the ability to perform the work, or the time yourself to do this,” said Josh Justice, president of Just Tech in La Plata, Md. “I was a marketing major and love organizing marketing for the company. One of my employees has graphic design skills, and one has videography skills and they help out, but I still outsource the development of our website.”

McBain said many vendors are also willing to help solution providers.

“So we know today that 66 percent of MSPs are in the category of ‘do it for me,’ or ‘do it on behalf of me,’ type marketing,” McBain said. “So they’re not going to spend a minute doing this, let alone two days. So you know, outsource it. Letting a third party digital agency, and your vendor pay for it is the best practice. Most vendors today are not just giving you a brochure with their logo, plus your logo. What they’re doing is allowing you to build your own brand in front of a customer. This includes email social search. Syndicated content. It’s a pretty broad array of digital marketing tactics that you could use, you know in most cases, for free. This is part of your market development funds. And you know 80 percent of MSPs, small, medium, and large are not taking advantage of this freight.”

Jade Surrette, senior vice president and GM, marketing services at The Channel Company, cautions solution providers to make sure they tailor that content in a way that showcases them, and avoids “vendor heavy” material.

“There are many things out there that they can take advantage of, but at the same time take that content and wrap themselves around it, so they’re really showcasing their value and work,” she said.

Make Your Social Media Great Again

Social media profiles on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are a crucial part of establishing your business’s identity, and reinforcing your expertise to the world.

Hadley said iCorps uses social media to help drive leads. The company posts once or more per day to its Facebook page, featuring different employees, often with topical IT stories, and sometimes using humor.

“You can reach a lot of people, and really get your people involved in liking and sharing,” Hadley said. “The more you can do that, the better off you are. Making sure your content is rich and full of calls to action and value. We also do a newsletter, so we’re constantly improving our newsletter.”

Marie Rourke, founder of WhiteFox Marketing Inc., said companies must think tactically about what messages they post to which social media platform.

“Some of them don’t use social media as a strategic marketing tool, they use social media as kind of a throw-away page,” she said. “They put themselves up there on LinkedIn. They put themselves up there on Twitter and Facebook, but they’re not using it to build an advantage, or build a culture. Facebook, that’s where you demonstrate your culture, maybe areas where you give back. Twitter, you use that to build your influence, to understand what’s going on in the marketplace, to elevate that hashtag strategy where you’re looking and listening in to the industry and weighing in as an influencer, as a solution provider, as an MSP. LinkedIn, it’s definitely become a place where people are interacting. They’re sharing ideas and looking for people to follow and understand and get ‘This is my problem. Here’s the challenge. Where’s the opportunity? Where is the solution?’ ”

Surrette said often social media accounts become one-way conversations. She recommends posting with the idea of engaging readers, and getting them to share and like. She also said that involving employees is key.

“Develop a social strategy that’s inclusive of employee advocacy, so they don’t have a single voice for their organization,” she said. “Making sure they have multiple voices and folks who are actually extending that message out and creating scale. Doing things like content curation, where they’re able to identify other industry related type of content that someone else is producing, but that they’re posting and leveraging across their site, so it shows thought leadership. It creates some good interactive nuances within their social strategy.”

No School Like The Old School

While technology companies may push digital transformation, Anaya said their marketing strategy can incorporate some analog face time at the local chamber of commerce, Better Business Bureau or Rotary Club. And don’t forget newspapers, she said.

“If you’re a local MSP, your local publications, especially the business publications, are really interested in wanting to talk to you, and get your insight on how technology is being used in businesses,” she said. “How are companies in your area using technology? What are you doing to give them access to it? Or if its security, how are you showing success, in terms of how you’re helping those businesses use that technology to either grow, or to protect themselves or to add on capability that they’re not able to do?”

And while there are no shortage of ways to spend money on marketing, it’s best not to get too fancy, McBain said.

“If I go to my small MSP’s website, I don’t expect there to be a chatbot there,” McBain said. “This is Larry in the white van who’s been fixing your PCs for 37 years. The second you talk to a chatbot thinking its Larry, and they’re coming back with some generic, friendly, ‘Thank you for your message. Have you thought of plugging it in and turning it on?’ That would totally turn somebody off. It’s just not the make-up of the 162,000 partners we have in North America.”