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The Channel Is More Than A Sales Channel

For the past 30 years, most B2B channel professionals have thought of their channel as a sales channel. Indeed, in the “good old days,” the standard operating procedure equated to the B2B manufacturer/vendor doing the marketing, the channel partner the selling.

But times have changed. The five-person “box-pusher” channel partner model of the past has, for the most part, gone the way of the dinosaurs. Today’s successful channel companies are diverse, vibrant business engines, firing on many cylinders, including innovative value-added services, managed services, business consulting, eCommerce, billing aggregation, and marketing.  Today’s channel is much more than a sales channel; it’s a marketing, sales, delivery, and support channel.

Partners as Marketers

The majority of channel partners now employ their own professional marketers and marketing programs – which can be a good thing or a bad thing. Left unchecked, channel partners’ marketing efforts can ignore, dilute, confuse, or (worse!) damage a tech vendor’s brand. Leveraged, channel partners’ relatively newfound marketing prowess represents a powerful amplifier for tech vendors to extend their marketing reach. At Cisco’s Marketing Velocity event this past spring, many Cisco channel partners evidenced a marketing aptitude for digital customer engagement that rivals that of many tech vendors.

The application and value realization of through-channel marketing are gaining steam. Forrester defines through-channel marketing as: the practice of engaging channel partners to extend and amplify a firm’s marketing campaigns and activities.  We estimate that less than 5% of B2B manufacturers/vendors have active through-channel marketing programs. (See Forrester report, “Turn Your Channel Into A Marketing Machine“.)

As with any steam-gathering trend, there is no shortage of supporting technology solutions.  We are tracking 26 through-channel marketing automation (TCMA) software vendors. (Note: Some TCMA software vendors characterize their solutions as supporting “local marketing” or “distributed marketing.”) TCMA solutions enable a tech vendor to design and govern marketing assets and campaigns, to which channel partners subscribe and execute.  One of the ironies of the TCMA space is that, as a group, the TCMA vendors’ solutions are superior to the enterprise marketing automation vendors’ solutions in terms of functionality, user experience, and integratability.  Indeed, many customers who utilize both enterprise marketing automation (for corporate marketing) and TCMA solutions have reported that their footprint utilization of TCMA is expanding and that of their enterprise marketing automation shrinking.

Challenges to Consider

And, as with any steam-gathering trend, through-channel marketing program implementation is not without its perils.  Tech vendor channel pros should think about channel programs in three supporting dimensions: (1) technology, (2) resources, and (3) incentivization (the TRIfecta of channel program success).  Different channel partners will need or take advantage of each of these to different degrees. For example, “power marketers” will leverage the full extent of the capabilities and marketing vehicles provided by their B2B manufacturer/vendor to them, and will need little incentivization to do so.  On the other hand, “neophytes” – lacking in understanding of the value of marketing and in resources – will need agency-like support and MDF/co-op funds to kickstart their participation.

Tim-HarmonStill, we anticipate the implementation of through-channel marketing programs and capabilities to continue to mushroom, fueling double-digit annual growth of TCMA technology through the next two years. And for tech vendors’ view and enablement program support of their channel partners to encompass and embrace partners’ marketing, sales, delivery, and support value.

Tim Harmon is principal analyst service B2B marketing professionals at Forrester Research. Read all Forrester blogs here.

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