Marketing professionals and executives are now spending approximately one-third of their budgets on channels they didn’t even know existed 5 years ago. This is according to the latest Salesforce State of Marketing report that surveyed 3,500 marketers across the globe. The report showcases the evolution of 10 digital marketing channels, finding that websites (83%), social media marketing (77%) and email marketing (75%) remain the most used channels, with the fastest growing channel being video advertising (176%). While the report provides an excellent perspective and insights into the channels that marketers invest the most, it does not cover how these channels reach their customers. What happens when your growth strategy depends on partners, resellers, or distributors? How can you empower them to take advantage of prominent marketing channels and invest accordingly? Nowadays, building a growth strategy is a must-do for any successful organization. It’s the foundation that helps startups build traction and become scale-ups. It’s also the ‘bible’ that helps these scale-ups stay dynamic and create systemic growth. Creating systemic growth is not a “get it done now” task. Despite the hype around growth hacking and the attention it brings towards building a growth engine, not all companies can easily implement a mindset that revolves around growth. Yes, you probably read the infamous stories of growth from Airbnb or Dropbox. You also might have read a bazillion articles with quick wins such as “How I Increase My Website Traffic By 380% In 30 Days Without Spending a Dime on Advertising” – yet all these stories are built around the fact that most businesses sell directly to their target audience. It’s also fair to mention they didn’t have to deal with GDPR back in the first glory days of marketing disruption. But what if you sell indirectly? There are countless businesses that have an indirect sales engine depending on their distribution and resellers network to create revenue and product growth. In these cases, growth strategies do have some limitations because you rely on the mindset, willingness, and knowledge of your partner to achieve your goals. So, what can you do to create a systemic growth engine through partnerships and indirect channels? Here are five recommendations to help you out, in no specific order of preference.

1. Build your partner persona

Yes, it’s a must. Most businesses build a persona to understand the type of customers they’re dealing with. A well-done customer persona will help you grasp what the customer’s traits are, how they purchase services/products, what their lifestyle is and what are the major touchpoints in your relationship with them. Building your customer persona is key and sharing it with your partners is highly relevant to them. To go even further, it’s absolutely crucial to train your partners on how to reach such a persona and how they can do the research themselves. This will not only enable partners to align their market approach to yours, but also understand who is the target audience, what are their pains and gains, and where they hang out. Here’s an example from EVBox, a leading global player in electric vehicle (EV) charging solutions. EVBox works with indirect channels such as partners (think of resellers, distributors, full-service providers, car manufacturers etc) and installers (installation companies or networks of electricians that install electrical appliances). How can our partners use such input? EVBox provides both partners and installers with extra insights into their target audiences. An example of such usage is done by partners that have a B2C strategy, will use the electric driver persona to better understand how they can reach more electric drivers in a more efficient and persuasive way. See example below: Buyer Persona EV Driver Building such personas helped EVBox understand the pains, gains and key questions installers face on a daily basis, but also align their understanding of the end customer with the company’s overall view from the persona exercise. Creating a persona can seem hard to do but it boils down to talking to current resources (employees, customers, partners, management, etc) to identify key elements that define it. Test different variables and see what’s most important to your company. Work down from name, job title, income, demographics to goals and values, fears and challenges and conclude with your marketing message to them. A great way to sharpen the profile of a persona is to build an elevator pitch for them. If you’re looking for a beginner’s guide to building a persona, Buffer has a great template for you.  

2. Define the role of partners in your customer journey

What does that mean? Take a moment to look at your customer journey. There are different approaches you can use, here’s an example of customer journey stages you can consider: awareness, consideration, decision, delivery, first use, support, loyalty. After you’re done mapping out the customer journey, identify where partners play an active role in influencing the customer experience. If a partner offers your service as part of a bigger package, who takes care of the support in this case? What kind of communication does the customer receive? How can you enable your partner to offer the best experience to their customer? Remember that being customer-oriented also means you’re helping your partners reach their customers. Bonus: Don’t know where to start your customer journey? CustomerThink wrote a great summary on five simple strategies to execute a customer journey that includes key elements meant to help partners understand the customer journey. The better your partners understand the customer journey and your buyer personas, the more they can improve their growing actions and strategy. As a company that works with partners, you enable them to identify opportunities and offer your growth expertise to reach customers.  

3. Engage them with your product in a special way

Building a growth strategy is based on the culture of experimentation and scaling up what works. Imagine the possibilities once your partners can cultivate both the right mindset and their own library of content to extend your growth strategy beyond your reach! To empower your partners to implement such a culture, you need to get them on board with your way of thinking. This means that your partners are potentially aware of your product roadmap, when features are coming up and how it can influence them and their customers. If you offer a service instead of a product, then they should be aware of how you plan to evolve your offering and if they can be the early beta-testers of such service. A great way to engage your partners is by building an Early Adopter Program, that can help key partners evaluate and access your product before being publicly open to everyone. Think of this as an advanced Beta program. How to make this happen? You need to think of the Early Adopter Program as a funnel from onboarding partners to helping them become evangelists of it. Early Adopter Program Rollout The above illustration explains a bit the steps and flow in order to help a Partner become more than just a Partner – to also become an Evangelist. There are 3 phases to consider: Onboarding, Rollout and Reporting, and Public Launch. During the Onboarding phase, the critical element is to invest most of the time explaining the vision of the product, what is today and where is headed, as well as how it will help the partner advance their business. Once the Partner onboards the program, then starts the Rollout and Report phase, where stability in processes is key. It’s recommended to focus on a journey that includes engaging your partners in getting ideas on features, evolve the roadmap, move features to production and communicate with the partners and gather feedback. This is built upon training, documentation and also some business model innovation as new features can bring new sources of revenue for both entities. The final phase is the Public Launch, where the Partners know competition might also join, so it’s important to emphasize their contribution to the existence of the product and celebrate accordingly with a special deal or even an event where you bring the key partners together.  

4. Execute parts of the growth engine for your partners

If engaging your partners in experiments does not work, you can always execute parts of it for them. In the most recent State of Inbound report, 63% of marketers say their main challenge is generating traffic and leads. Well, this will probably be true not only for you, but also for your partners – so how can you help them out? There are a couple of tactics and ways of doing it. Again, it depends on your customer journey and what matters the most to your partners, but let’s say they have challenges in generating traffic – you can always:
  • Create a section on your website that talks about the partnership and where your partners’ presence adds  value – point to their website
  • Share success stories on how they nurtured and won deals – ask for pictures, testimonials and share their success on your distribution channels (e.g. social)
  • Engage, build and execute joint-marketing campaigns to generate traffic to an independent initiative (co-built by both you and your partner)
There are plenty more ideas that could be shared, but the point is that you are helping your partners by not only generating referral traffic, but more important, engaging them on potential joint-strategies where you can empower growth tactics from your side and help them become autonomous in executing them. Another great example from EVBox is the switch in the mindset on generating leads. When I joined, the company had publicly available pricing on the website. This was damaging the relationship the partners (visitors could easily compare prices), but also did not allow any interaction with visitors. Through a well-built SLA (service level agreement) with the sales team, the pricing strategy evolved into a dynamic quotation module. Once the leads get into our system, we nurture them, understand their needs and pass them along to a preferred partner. The advantage? We became even more important to our partners because they also recognized EVBox’s value as a lead generation channel for their business. And what about content? benchmarks and trends report from Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs shares that more than 60% of marketers say that their content marketing strategies are more effective than one year before. Building a content empire is an ambition of every marketer, especially if you can develop articles, how-to guides, whitepapers, and more in every part of the customer journey. Since content is still a key component of growth for any company, how can you get that in the hands of your partners? Here are three simple rules to keep in mind:
  1. Don’t create content for them
  2. They are your partners. Let them access your knowledge base and walk them through it
  3. Give feedback and help them create their own content
Last but not least, let them be involved in parts of your rapid experimentations – perhaps they want to test how to increase traffic through guest blog posts, or increase lead generation by having a joint-social media campaign. Be open to working with them and make time to support their experiments.  

5. Sell through direct channels when possible (and if it makes sense)

This can be seen as a strange recommendation. Aren’t we hurting our partners by doing direct sales? Sure, this can be true. On the other hand, you can only understand the full extent of your customer journey with the challenges your partners are going through by interacting with customers. Want to sell direct? Then start by defining the right criteria. For example, the importance of a prospect can be such criteria. Once you define it, it’s easy to determine which prospect goes to a partner and which you will handle internally. Other criteria can be the strategic importance of customers. Think of key customers you want to do business with yourself because they are key players on the market. Having these criteria in place does not happen overnight, but it does require a focus on identifying what’s critical for your business growth. All in all, it’s highly recommended that you do direct business, even if the majority of your go-to-market and growth strategy depends or is influenced by the partner network you’re building. John Kedzierski, the Corporate Vice-President, North America Service and Commercial Markets for Motorola Solutions covers this aspect in this great interview about working with indirect and direct sales. “In my opinion, in a properly designed channel there’ll always be some channel conflict across your various routes to market, not just direct and indirect, but across multiple indirect channels if you have those. You want some channel conflict, otherwise ,you risk having white spots in your markets or your product is too hard to buy, by end customers. However, it’s critical to manage that so that you make your product financially attractive to sell too much coverage and you’ll go to the wrong end of that pendulum. It’s a constant balance. You must work at managing it. When it does flare up in our case, we think we do manage it well. It’s typically when we have customers that bridge across different product lines and you have overlapping channels, that they might be interacting with, but we try our best to keep that in minimum while making sure that our products are relatively easy to buy by our customers.”

Let’s wrap it up – what are the 5 steps to keep in mind when building your own growth story through partnerships?

  1. Define your customer and partner persona and share them with your partners.
  2. Create a joint customer journey where you emphasize what roles partners can play to ensure a great customer experience. Enable your partners to deliver wow moments in that journey.where is clear the different roles partners can play in ensuring a great experience with many wow moments.
  3. Engage your partners in your experiments, content or create joint-initiatives.
  4. Execute parts of the growth strategy for them – become an important distribution channel yourself.
  5. Be a sales agent yourself to fully understand the pains and gains of customers, and support even better your partners.