The world is a strange place right now. Solution providers and their customers are being forced to change their behavior. The coronavirus is altering the way we engage with customers, putting a stop to traditional forms of marketing like tradeshows and customer visits. Buyers were already trending toward digital media as their preferred route of communication when making a purchase, but now they have no alternative. Even for us in the IT channel, who live in the digital domain, this is a great challenge.
As the normalcy of working from home settles in day by day, solution providers must attempt to strike the right chord with their customers if they choose to venture into digital marketing in a quarantined world. I am sure everyone has received their fair share of cringeworthy, tone-deaf emails throughout the last few months. I have also seen creative, unique promotions that genuinely entertained me or helped me solve a problem that otherwise would have been ignored. The channel can be a difficult medium to navigate digitally as a marketer in general, but now it is more complicated than ever. Here are some tips on what to do (and not do) when marketing during the coronavirus outbreak:
1. Do: Be helpful and supportive
The best thing a solution provider can do right now is provide something of substance to help their customers who are in need. This could come in many forms: identifying which of your vendors offer extended no-cost licensing during this crisis, providing critical solutions that are essential to healthcare institutions or improve one’s ability to work from home, or just being educational and informative when messaging to customers. Make sure you first identify what your company innately can do to help, then allow that answer to influence your tone and overall digital presence.
2. Do Not: SELL! SELL! SELL!
Now is not the time for aggressive selling. Offers that ignore the present circumstances entirely and go straight to all-caps promotional offers come across as completely tone-deaf and inhumane. Customers are more likely to respond to a message that acknowledges the world we are all currently living in, as opposed to one that ignores it entirely to push a product.
3. Do: Build a sense of community
There is one thing that all of us have in common right now – our everyday lives are much different than they were two months ago. Solution providers have an opportunity to relate to customers by embracing our collective change. We can learn from consumer brands like NIKE and IKEA, they have been successful in creating a feeling of togetherness by acknowledging the circumstances and incorporating personality into the content they produce during quarantine. This is one area that the IT channel is uniquely positioned for. For many solution providers, there is no shortage of “partners” out there to work with – hardware and software vendors, distributors, and customers across a vast variety of industries. Lean on this network of channel partners for collaboration in videos or highlight specific individuals to give your promotions a more personal feel.
4. Do Not: Schedule ahead and forget
The easiest mistake to make when content planning is now more critical to avoid than ever before. With how rapidly things are changing, it is important for solution providers to be flexible and adapt to the environment around them. Content plans that were made pre-2020 must be altered and traditional activities must be replaced. Do not hesitate to make proactive changes – you may have allocated MDF and Co-Op from your top vendors to support tradeshows, tabletops or lunch & learns that have now been cancelled. Instead of losing those funds entirely, prepare creative ideas for reallocation – video podcasts, online happy-hours with giveaways, or product donations for front-line workers.
5. Do: Be different and (try to) entertain
Unique circumstances call for unique ideas. Standing out is rarely a bad thing when it comes to digital marketing. Knowing that the majority of customers are spending hours of every day at home on their phones, scrolling social media or checking email, it’s not a bad thing to try to give them something to smile at and pass the time. Finding the right mix between normal and fun could be the key to unlocking a new audience that could become customers in the long-term.
6. Do not: Be cliché
I have received countless versions of the “Our Response to the Coronavirus” email, and after the first two or three I just started deleting them one by one. They typically all have the same common characteristics: too corporate-sounding, too bleak or negative, too many buzzwords and not enough substance. Solution providers should not feel pressured into producing digital content unless they are confident and comfortable in the message they send. Be personable, thoughtful and avoid generic messaging – we’re all bored enough already.
Solution providers now have a unique opportunity to strengthen customer relationships through creativity. As time passes, digital marketing will play an important role in restoring normalcy to our everyday lives. There is not just one perfect way to do it, but by spending some extra time honing in on what you can do to help, entertain, or bring people together, you can still have an impactful presence in the lives of your quarantined customers.
Disruption. A word commonly used in the tech world that carries a positive connotation regarding the change in status quo. Fail Fast. An expression commonly used in the tech world that embraces failure as a guiding direction, allowing navigation towards success. Pivot. Yet another word commonly used to describe a change in business direction, usually followed by Fail Fast. The above-mentioned have been used for years to help encourage risk-taking and spur innovation but it’s been used as a directive from leadership in organizations that focus on such things. Now, globally, companies are being forced to do so without first having the opportunity to prepare themselves for such a journey. Disruption, in this case, is seemingly terrible. Even moreso, it’s nearly impossible to Fail Fast if you weren’t prepared and never planned for a secondary or even tertiary strategy. It just feels like failure. So, how do you pivot and in what direction do you do so?
Many companies are now struggling with a directive that forces employees to work remotely when there was not a cohesive plan in place to execute this and there are many items that need to be addressed before being able to do this well. How do your employees remote into a secure connection to transmit sensitive company data? Should everyone have the same access once they do remote in? What’s the best physical setup for an employee to work from home? How do you manage BYOD devices? What do you do about external threats? How do you protect company data? How do you protect against internal data exfiltration? This could all seem very daunting if you’ve never before looked into these topics but there are specific steps you can take to deliver a comprehensive and safe work from home solution.
According to the Information Technology Laboratory (ITL) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), guidelines have already been established. And while the Guide to Enterprise Telework and Remote Access Security was created nearly a decade ago, these standards still hold true today. Any business can use this guidance as a roadmap to getting their workforce fully functioning while remotely deployed. This publication covers various topics of the remote working environments and remote access, such as VPN, Remote Desktop, Virtual Machines, Authentication, Access Control, Client Device Security, Data Encryption and a summary of recommendations per topic. Failing isn’t foreign to anyone or any company and it’s never a bad thing as long as we use it as a teaching moment, treating it like a tuition payment for future preparedness. Collectively, we can use our failures and misses to push us towards a picture of what success should be. Ultimately, if you’re certain of where you don’t want to be then you’ll have a better idea of where you want to end up.
The most frequently asked question I hear from vendors is:
What do I need to do to be successful in the channel?
First, some background on what has shaped my perspective. I spent eight years at CDW, with exposure to channel programs from vendors of all sizes. I then started 3Eye, where our focus is on vendors who fall into one of these two categories:
1. “Emerging” – what I define as new or relatively new to selling through indirect channels
2. “Mid-market” – what I define as less than ~$50M in annual channel revenue.
Disclaimer: I’m not going to go into detail on the pros and cons of selling through the channel in this post, rather I’m just going to focus on the characteristics demonstrated by successful emerging and mid-market vendors. For now, if you’re interested in a brief read on the pros and cons of the channel, check out this write-up and stay tuned to this blog a future posting on the topic.
Whether you are selling hardware, software, or cloud services, you need a critical mass of customers who have already bought your product. You’ll need some customers to go on record stating that your product helped them achieve a better business outcome. Before you engage with the channel, you’ll also need a well-defined sales process that is clear and straightforward….and you must be able to translate it into something your channel can easily digest and repeat.
According to CompTIA, “Estimates suggest that 65-75% of IT products and services sold to businesses in the United States are delivered through or influenced by the indirect channel…Channel-influenced sales then equate to $350-400 billion of IT product and service sales in the United States.”
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼If you focus on the customer experience, many customers prefer to purchase through a channel partner. There is often less friction for your customers to buy through a channel partner, perhaps due to contracts, supplier consolidation, the difficulty of new vendor setup, pricing, or relationships. The channel helps you meet your customers where they are.
With that said, channel partners are not market makers. They are best viewed as demand amplifiers. You have to be able to generate demand that your channel partners can fulfill. Channel partners want to work with established technologies that have defined markets. Many vendors think they don’t need to market through partners, but they are mistaken. You’re going to have to invest in through-partner marketing and demand gen activities. Which leads nicely to my next point…
Like any go-to-market, selling through the channel takes time and money. Signing up resellers is the easy part (and signing up resellers is no small feat). Activating those resellers takes time, money, and a focused strategy. In addition to margin for your channel, you’ll need to invest in programs, to-partner and through-partner marketing, content development, and staffing. If you want to check out our approach, here’s a page that shows how we funnel programs to our partner community.
This should be obvious. However, there are a lot of ambitious sales and business development execs who try to build their own partner networks without executive buy-in. Your executive leadership needs to be aligned with your channel strategy, plain and simple.
Companies that are serious about succeeding in the channel take the time to get their sales compensation plan aligned to a pro-channel model. This is often referred to as “comp neutral” when your sales rep is paid the same commission no matter which channel the deal is sold through. Many channel leaders even create a “channel uplift” where their sales force is paid a higher commission for partner sales.
Some companies transition to a 100% channel model, where all sales flow through their partner network. The bottom line: if you compensate your sales reps more for deals they take direct, it will add a lot of friction to your channel engagement, and often create conflict between your channel and your direct sellers. Your channel partners have a long memory – the perception that you compete with them is a very tough one to overcome. Take the time to plan your sales compensation model now, with the channel in mind.
Just like the 50/50 raffle at the Friday night ballgame, you must be present to win. You have to engage with your partner network. Capturing mindshare is an ongoing battle. Like Woody Allen said, 80% of success is showing up. Of course, aligning with your channel partners’ strategies, bringing the right enablement tools and knowing how to engage across the organization all helps too. But it starts with being around.
These strategies have been used by channel leaders both large and small to grow their business. Channel success, while not easy, is not a mystery – embracing these concepts will increase your probability of success.
I hope you found some helpful advice and/or inspiration! I’ll be back with another post soon.
CompTIA. (2016, October). 5th Annual State of the Channel. Retrieved from CompTIA: https://www.comptia.org/resources/5th-annual-state-of-the-channel