Justifying a PRM System

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of trying to gauge how far a company should go in developing an indirect channel before deciding to invest in a PRM system.  The answer today is different from it might have been a few years ago but it boils down to that old chestnut — “Go win a game, then we’ll think about getting you a helmet.”

As you might guess there are many situations in life where you can’t practically get below a bare minimum of support if you have any expectation of succeeding. If you’re going to play football at any organized level you need a helmet (and pads) and that’s all there is to it.  Or, another example, even your Sunday morning softball team still needs some balls, bats, and gloves.  You get the idea.

So from that perspective I shake my head when the question of PRM systems comes up. In the software world, the equivalent of playing without a helmet is trying to run a business with spreadsheet record keeping. It’s a tried and true practice with a predictable downside. While it might be true that no one plans to fail, not starting off with a PRM system could be considered a failure to plan.

Many years ago companies used spreadsheets in lieu of CRM systems because they were readily at hand and enabled smart people to model sales processes within them.  Alas, a model is not the thing itself and too often a model won’t stand up to volume, which is what happened with spreadsheets in CRM.  Among their many shortcomings, spreadsheets don’t have databases and the models they represent are ill equipped for high volume operations.

Fast-forward to the partner channel and you can see the same trouble. Companies getting involved with the indirect model sometimes use a combination of CRM, spreadsheets, and labor to run the channel.  But even discounting the labor, not having the right tool for the job puts the whole operation at risk.  Without the appropriate investment in partners, the partners in turn could decide that a vendor is not serious about supporting them leading to slower growth than expected and that becomes a downward spiral. 

Still, cobbled together systems tend to work well enough for the company’s first few partners but if the program becomes successful (and that’s the point of the program, right?) the spreadsheets can represent a not so happy, happy problem.  

Implementing a PRM system into a partner program that’s breaking its cobbled together system at the seams isn’t free of challenges, the major one being conversion. Employees need to adapt to the new system and both they and partners need to adjust to business processes now built into a system rather than being administered only by people.  

So, for instance, with a PRM system monitoring service level agreements, some partners might discover the hard way that they haven’t been following up on leads in as timely a manner as they thought.  Long term, having that knowledge might be good but it might also ruffle some feathers the first time an SLA expires and some sanction swings automatically into action.

Then too, a manual deal registration system might not afford all of the protections that partners expect and this can easily be one of the things that drive ultimate adoption of PRM.  But not before more partner feathers are ruffled.  

But the biggest reason for automating the PRM function is time and timing.  If time is money, partners and vendors alike don’t want to be burdened by inadequate systems that don’t operate as fast as they do.

In my view, this all boils down to catering to the partner experience.  Just like the customer experience (CX) in CRM, the partner experience (PX) is a way of measuring the things that contribute to success.  As with CRM you can develop metrics and use analytics to figure out how well your organization is performing for its partners and if you find something that needs fixing, you have all of the evidence and justification you need.  

That’s something you won’t get from spreadsheet management.  You may be able to collect a lot of data in a spreadsheet but you might not be able to convert it into the information you need to run a successful channel.  So, my answer to the question of how many partners you need before you invest in proper channel management tools is simple — one.  You need one partner and a vendor determined to make the channel a successful and integral part of the business. Given how much PRM technology is available today through software as a service (SaaS), it doesn’t make sense to start with anything else.

Going Further With Your Nurturing

It can be hard to go from blasting email to identifying the ways your buyers engage, what stages they go through, and how to effectively prepare them to talk to a salesperson with nurturing campaigns. Even after doing this up front work, many marketers have a hard time executing because it can take an enormous effort to create the content necessary to fuel nurturing. It can take months to identify and create content that triggers off of popular downloads, demo offers, specific sections of your website or events common to your marketing mix. 

It is important not to stop here, however. You can easily get bogged down in optimizing nurturing paths once you have them created vs. leveraging nurturing concepts in other areas of your company. Nurturing concepts, along with technology used to execute nurturing campaigns, can be applied to critical processes within your company—ultimately expanding the value that a marketing team can provide.

Here are two brief examples of using nurturing concepts in departments outside marketing:

Sales Initiated Nurturing

Salespeople hold on to a lot of knowledge. They also send a lot of nurturing email you don’t know about. The most successful salespeople get good at having prepared messages they reuse at specific stages in the buying process. Many will use tasks or reminders within their CRM system to let them know when to send these messages. 

Here’s the bad part that hits your company’s bottom line: When that salesperson leaves your company, so does the knowledge of what nurturing works.

There are spots in the post-marketing buying process where things typically stall out or where the buyer exits because of a specific reason (budget, authority, timing as examples). What types of communication are your best salespeople using to re-engage people? Meet with your sales teams often. You’ll discover some content that makes you understand the buying process much better.  There could also be some that makes you cringe. If you can create re-engagement communication that uses the tactics and content from your best salespeople, you can begin to replicate results across your sales team.

To automate this and send the right message at the right time, you have to make it easy for salespeople. That means giving them a place within their CRM system to initiate the timed nurturing communication based on their personal evaluation of the buyer. This is a lot easier than it sounds. You can integrate your CRM and marketing automation systems today in a way that puts nurturing paths at salespeople’s fingertips in custom fields. Once they choose the nurturing path and save the lead record, the right communication is launched via your marketing automation system—giving you the ability as a marketer to monitor its effectiveness, refine as needed in collaboration with salespeople and send them down a completely different nurturing path if you see new behavior.

Customer Onboarding

For many organizations, customer onboarding can be an involved process. The interesting part is that those responsible for this within your organization likely do the same thing salespeople do—create communication that supports the buyer going through a process. While the type of communication often changes from persuasive to being more task oriented, the concept is the same. There is no reason you can’t create and refine onboarding communication for the different stages a buyer goes through to use your product successfully.  If you can't find those within your organization that help your buyers do this better than others, then replicate and automate the general process. You can use this as a starting point to increase customer satisfaction.

If those responsible for onboarding new customers use your CRM system, this typically means creating nurturing paths using the contact or account status as a trigger. If they don’t, your marketing automation system should have robust enough APIs to let you queue off of a change in any system to launch the nurturing.

There are very few walls today when it comes to integrating system across your internal teams and leveraging the technology you have in place. Start experimenting with creating nurturing that touches buyers throughout all areas of their interaction with your company. Does this give you some ideas? What groups within your company could use automated nurturing and how could that change your potential for revenue?

Content Marketing: Why It Should Be A Marketing Priority

Many of today’s marketers are focused on their outbound campaigns or events and grossly underestimate the power of content marketing. This needs to be a new priority for marketers.

The idea of content marketing is to get to prospects earlier in the buying cycle by providing them relevant content they can use to help them learn more about your category of product and how to be successful with it. Early in the buying cycle, prospects tend to be in information gathering mode. They are doing research, and in many cases are just trying to get a better understanding of the category in general. If you look at most company websites, you will find that the majority of documents are geared toward much later stages in the buying cycle. Items like datasheets and competitive guides typically get viewed much later in the buying process than items like white papers.

Consider recent DemandGen Report research that indicates a mere 22% of respondents still follow the traditional RFP path. The remaining 78% now narrow the field long before the RFP process (DemandGen Report, 2010). This means that nearly 8 out of 10 buyers are searching the web long before they get to you. The earlier you get to them in the buying process, the more likely you will be to participate in the end (i.e. make a sale).

The best content marketing programs I have seen leverage this knowledge to their advantage.  Here are some strategies they have in common.

  • Generate relevant content
  • Syndicate content
  • Track content usage
  • Track and measure related behavior
  • Behave responsibly

Generate Relevant Content

The first component of content marketing is the content itself. It has to be meaningful, helpful and geared toward the early stages of the buying cycle. In some of the best executions I have seen in this area, companies actually have a content plan for each stage in the buying process. For the rest of us mortals, I recommend starting at the beginning—you likely have content for the end stages in the process already.

Syndicate

The most obvious syndication vehicle is your website. There are, however, many others. Some important ones are industry-specific sections of social networks like LinkedIn, where groups of like-minded individuals in your industry are already gathered and where it is easy to post content. There are also many industry websites and blogs that accept content if you just ask. Also consider newly emerging services like the Ventana New Media Engine. (Full disclaimer: Ventana is a partner and we are a customer of theirs). Finding the right content outlets and doing content syndication yourself can be a time consuming task. Their offering is part service and part software that can syndicate your content through many relevant outlets very quickly. 

Track Content Usage

Essentially, many demand generation/marketing automation systems, including TreeHouse Interactive’s, can help you track who is downloading your content. This is critical to being able to provide follow-on nurturing and marketing automation that develops an initial content download into a lead. One word of advice: some marketing automation systems will require a form to be placed in front of each piece of content (for the record, TreeHouse Interactive’s does not). My rule is that the number of questions you ask on such a form is inversely proportionate to the number of leads you get. Therefore, keep the content gate to a minimum.

Track and Measure Related Behavior (anonymous website visitor tracking)

Tracking your anonymous visits correctly can help turn them into incremental revenue. If you choose not to gate your content (or even if you do) you can track the companies that come to your website and determine who they are and what content they are both downloading and viewing online. There are many tools that do this today. You can then take that information and use a service like Data.com or ZoomInfo to purchase contacts at those companies that match your likely buyer profile. This enables you to begin nurturing the right contacts at companies that have displayed interest or even directly reach out to them. In addition to the content downloaded, sophisticated companies are tracking individual web visits, anonymous company web visits, page views, email opens, link clicks and more. The complete behavioral picture on a company and individual level helps you nurture potential buyers more effectively. 

Behave Responsibly

We all want to react quickly to leads generated by marketing efforts. Sometimes, however, you need to be judicious in how and when you take action. Most of the top marketing automation systems can alert a sales person when one of their leads returns to the website. Before calling that lead, it makes sense to look at their contact history with you and determine if they are ready first. There is a company that calls me every time I hit their website. I have never asked for a call nor have I ever filled out a form on their website that would indicate I am open to one. The salesperson typically opens with something like, “Hey, I see you’ve been on our site today.” This has really turned me off to the company’s products and makes me sorry I ever downloaded anything from their website. So, be judicious in your approach and how you use the information you are gaining from content marketing efforts.

In summary, if you execute an effective content marketing strategy, you will get to buyers earlier in the buying cycle. You will increase your leads and web traffic, and ultimately increase your revenue as a result if you use both information and automation responsibly.

The New Partner Marketing Enablement

Marketing assistance is one of the most requested benefits that partners ask for from the companies they represent. CRN’s Annual Report Card found that resellers value “channel enablement” more than anything else. This is echoed by Everything Channel’s recent recognition of “Channel Champions,” all of which have implemented partner marketing enablement in their programs.

So what new trends are there in partner marketing enablement? How can you best help partners that are typically sales focused, have small marketing staffs and limited technical or financial resources? Here are some things partner programs are beginning to offer to stand out:

Automated Co-Branding of Collateral

With automated co-branding, partners log into your partner portal and specify what collateral they need. It gives them a preview of where their logo and information will appear in the document and allows them to download and print it on demand. If you have a cumbersome co-branding process now, this is definitely an eco-friendly change you can make that leads to more partner promotion of your products, increased loyalty and time/resource savings on your end.

Full Service Co-branded Campaign Execution

In much the same way as collateral, partners log into your partner portal and pick the pre-approved co-branded campaign they want to run. It can be anything from a single email to a complex campaign with landing pages, nurturing tracks and automation for lead alerts. The partner simply specifies their call to action and uploads both their logo and list of prospects (which you never have to see). The campaign is executed with push reporting sent to the partner automatically.

Partner Micro-sites

You create end user content that is packaged into a micro-site. This is augmented by lead capture and lead routing technology. Partners simply place a line of HTML code on their site to syndicate your content and receive leads from it as a result. As you make updates to the content, they are automatically pushed out to hundreds or thousands of partners at a time.

If you would like to learn more about these new partner marketing enablement methods and see them in action, download TreeHouse Interactive’s Partner Marketing Enablement webinar.

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Getting a New Partner Up and Running

Once new partners are registered and approved for your channel efforts, it is important to give them what they need to be successful. Here are a few steps to take in order to better insure your new partners start off in the right direction.

Define Expectations

Your partners should understand what you expect of them in the partnership. While general partner program concepts should be made clear to them before they apply, very clear expectations are needed once you bring them onboard. For example, what is the expected timeframe for closing an initial sale? Create a solid understanding with your partners of what the expectations are so that they know how to plan and budget resources accordingly.

Have a Concrete Training Schedule

Every partner is different, but you should be able provide them with a detailed schedule to follow in order to receive the best information and training they need to be successful. Your most skilled partners, those that have more experience in your industry, may take less time than inexperienced partners to get up and running, but they all should have a schedule to follow for getting them where you want them to be.

Get Involved Early

On the first partner sale, you should be involved as much as you can. Make sure your partners are trained on handling objections and questions pertaining to your product offering. The more they know what to expect, the faster they can increase their sales and provide real value to your channel efforts.

Provide Additional Incentives

A general principle to increase early partner sales is to use incentives. For a new partner, additional incentives on the first sale or group of sales can speed up learning and training. It motivates them to move quickly through beginning stages of on-boarding and ramp up. It gets them motivated to produce immediate results. With that success, they will also be more motivated to focus on selling your product(s) vs. a competitor’s.

Follow Up 

Once your partners have gone through training and initial sales processes, it is important that you follow up with them to get their feedback. This should happen shortly after their initial sale, so you know how to help them going forward. Ongoing communication should be part of your channel marketing practices too. As you identify roadblocks to success, work together to remove them.

Creating a good relationship, as well as a good understanding of products and processes, should be your initial focus. There are many different ways you can approach getting partners up and running. These are just a few that other channel marketers have found success with. What approach have you used that was successful in getting new partners up and running?

Now that your positioning statement is done, what do you do?

You have spent weeks researching your markets, building competitive taxonomies and calling together disparate company stakeholders to get your positioning statement complete. Now what? This is a really good question. 

Just to refresh, the objective of positioning is to find a perception you want to create in your target customer’s mind—one that addresses customer issues and enables you to focus on the highly desired and highly competitive features of your product relative to your competitors products in your target market. Once you find the perception you want to create, you need to take steps to make it happen.

It is important to know what a positioning statement is, and what it isn’t. Let’s start with a few things it isn’t.

A positioning statement is not:

  1. A tagline
  2. An advertising slogan
  3. Marketing copy for websites or datasheets
  4. A company mission statement

A positioning statement is:

  1. A perception you want to create in your target customer’s mind
  2. Sets the competitive agenda
  3. Focuses on your solution’s most compelling attributes
  4. Is protectable over time
  5. Is consistent with product delivery
  6. Determines what is said and to whom
  7. Determines how messages are communicated
  8. Helps prioritize new products/features based on pleasing a well defined target customer

Your positioning should be used to help drive the underlying messaging in everything from website content to key points given to your CEO for press interviews and everything in between. Your marketing team will use it to build materials and programs that generate leads in the most attractive markets. 

If your positioning is truly competitive, your sales teams should be almost unbeatable when properly trained and provided with the sales tools needed to win business. Sales will be focused on your product’s most competitive attributes and looking for customers in markets where your company has the greatest likelihood of success. Even non-sales areas like development will be influenced. Target market requirements, for example, will put priority on the development of features most critical to your target prospects.


The bottom line is that positioning will touch most areas of your company. For marketing, this includes everything from social media and content marketing to more traditional print advertising. The positioning statement won’t likely be the message, but it will greatly influence the messages, strategies and tactics to create the desired perception in the target customer’s mind.  

How to Create Positioning That Works

One of the most basic and fundamental deliverables marketing teams need to provide is positioning for both their company and solution. The right positioning establishes the target markets, competitive agenda and key messages you will put forward for your solution. If you don’t have it, salespeople say one thing, marketers say another, press releases are off target, social media efforts focus on the wrong ideas and outbound campaigns miss their mark. The fact is, if you can’t succinctly communicate your solution’s unique value consistently on all levels of your organization, and through all the marketing channels available to you, then your efforts become diluted. It makes you less effective and either makes it tougher for you to succeed against your competition or opens the door for your competition to take business away from you. This is especially true if you’re selling in a crowded marketplace. Best-in-class companies clearly know what issues they solve, how they solve them better than their competition and how to both articulate and support those messages in all areas. 

This article outlines a way to create positioning that works. Take the ideas and adapt them to your company. Many of these ideas are adopted from the proverbial bible on this topic, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (Al Ries & Jack Trout, 2000), which is a must read for any marketer.

In short, positioning can be summed up into five parts:

  1. Research
  2. Market Segmentation
  3. Competitive Differentiation
  4. Positioning Statement Development
  5. Education and Distribution

Research

Target Customers

This may be self evident, but you can’t position your products or services effectively if you don’t know who you are going after and why? Who are your target customers? Why would they choose your solution? What is your customer’s pain? What are their mandates, frustrations, roadblocks, etc.? Don’t be afraid to record business and emotional items. Consider both the strategic and the tactical. Once you have a list, prioritize it like your prospect would. 

Market Segmentation

Now that you understand the customer problem, it is time to decide if there is a market for solving it that is big enough to make it worth your while. It is best that this process occurs before a product is developed. Many times startups develop a technology then search for a market that the technology can fit into, only to find out there isn’t one. This process is very important when trying to justify a new product to an internal executive staff or to request funding from an external source like a VC. In most cases, the market is too big.

If your solution has the ability to span the Healthcare, Government, Entertainment and Oil and Gas markets, that doesn’t mean you should target them all. Segmentation success is many times defined by understanding what you are not going to do. Segmentation allows you to focus sales, marketing and development resources. Succeeding in one market first, establishing a beachhead and then moving to the next is a well established recipe for success (Read more in Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore, 1991, Revised 1999).

Competitive Differentiation

In this part of the process, you should do both an internal and external audit. I recommend developing a matrix with a feature-by-feature comparison of your solution’s key strengths and benefits against those of each competitor. Something that is often overlooked here is including the benefits of your company. Sometimes it is your service, or segment expertise (see segmentation above) that provides a real competitive differentiator.

Once you have your matrix complete, it is time to understand where your solution is strongest and where it is weak. Rank your strengths as your customer would. The top differentiators are going to be the key elements of your positioning statement. Do you have significant competitive advantages that are meaningful to your customers? If yes, you are ready to take the next step. If not, you have some work to do.

For example, can you define a smaller market segment where you are more competitive? Do you really have a product that can compete in your desired target market? If not, why? Can you make adjustments?

The Positioning Statement and Key Supporting Messages should be designed to create a desired perception in your target customer’s mind. Done correctly, it should be clear and succinct. It should play to your strengths, your target customer’s needs and your competitor’s weaknesses. It needs to be truthful and protectable over time. 

A simple format to follow includes:

  • Description of the target customer or segment
  • Description of the pain point and/or needs of this segment that our product addresses (from research phase)
  • Your solution’s name
  • The most compelling reason for a prospect to purchase your product
  • Then end with the main differentiator of your solution relative to competitors

Bad Example

For customers who need to transport people, Big Bird is a school bus that can travel at over 200 miles an hour. Unlike a Ferrari, it holds more people.

Of course this example is extreme, but it helps to easily illustrate common mistakes. In this example, while the company has defined a customer problem, it has not effectively segmented its market. Because the market is too broad (those who need to transport people), the company has no idea which customer benefit on which to focus. This, in turn, leads them to choosing speed as the key benefit and then comparing their solution to a Ferrari.

This comparison leads to additional errors. One, because the market is “transporting people,” the company needs to compete against all modes of transport. Second, because the key benefit chosen is not important for the real target market. Finally, this company has made the error of confusing posturing vs. positioning. It is doubtful that the school bus can go 200 miles per hour. They are committing to a brand promise on which they cannot deliver and one that will ultimately lead to low customer satisfaction and severely damaged credibility.

Good Example

For K-12 school superintendents and transportation managers in the contiguous United States who need to cost effectively and safely transport children to their schools, Big Bird is the safest school bus on the market. Unlike other school buses, it has the best safety record in its class and features both air bags and state of the art safety restraints.

Here we have a well defined target market: K-12 schools. This positioning excludes higher education and other commercial transport. It also allows us to target the decision makers in this well defined space with marketing efforts. Next, in researching this market, the product marketing team has discovered that safety is the number one concern of the decision makers. Luckily, the product happens to be the most competitive in this area. Big Bird has the best safety record in its class. It also has better safety restraints and air bags, both of which support its positioning as “the safest on the market.”

Now that you have a solid perception that you want to create in your prospect’s mind, how do you employ it in your marketing efforts? That is the subject of an upcoming blog post. 

What positioning have you seen that works? Have you gone through this same process?

TreeHouse Extending Technology Lead in Partner Relationship Management and Marketing Automation

TreeHouse Interactive continues to extend its lead in partner relationship management (PRM) and marketing automation this month at the Dreamforce trade show in San Francisco, CA on August 30.

New technology will be released for the Marketing View™ marketing automation solution. The new features include ground-breaking capabilities related to company level behavioral tracking. 

TreeHouse will also add revolutionary new partner marketing enablement to its Reseller View™ PRM solution, which is already the most comprehensive PRM system available and the only one on the Salesforce.com Appexchange. 

Set up a time to see Marketing View and Reseller View in action at booth 219 at the Dreamforce trade show in San Francisco, CA August 30th - September 2nd or any time after via an online demonstration.

Do You Fire Under-Performing Partners?

With channel sales, the type and number of partners you attract and retain can determine your success. What’s also true is that the type of business you are in often determines the type of partners you want to attract, level of commitment and the type of benefits you might offer.  So what do you do when partners are not performing? Here are some perspectives to consider:

Low volume, high-priced and high involvement products make it very difficult to support and keep under-performing partners. The key to success if you’re at a company in this situation is revenue sales from a few partners vs. low or sporadic sales from many partners. This means that taking the time to select and train the right partners is mission critical. Because of this, make the decision to fire under-performing partners earlier rather than later in the relationship. If partners that meet your preferred criteria are on-boarded, but can’t perform after a short period of time, start spending time with ones that are more successful.

If you’re at a company where high-volume and low-priced products sales are the norm for your channel, the decision to fire partners becomes different. It’s nice and even necessary in this case to have many partners that support your products. An excellent example of why this is important is when inventory is long and it’s the end of the quarter. Having a larger number of partners in this case makes it more likely that you will be able to offload surplus inventory by providing your partner network with an end of quarter promotion. The solution for addressing under-performing partners in this case is to treat high-volume, better-performing partners well. A tiered partner program (platinum/gold/silver) can give better-performing partners access to more sales tools and benefits. Rather than fire partners, the idea is to motivate them to increase their volume and subsequently their access to valued program features like training, leads and MDF funds. With high-volume and low-price products, this tends to be a better way to deal with the issue of under-performing partners.

What hard decisions have you had to make surrounding under-performing partners? What did you do? 

Partner Value Propositions

Every partner program is different with each market having different things channel partners value. Channel managers have the job of finding out what partners value and what they don’t. What doesn't change is unless you have a value proposition, partners will not seek you out or remain partners for very long . The following are some of the most common value propositions to consider:

Increased Sales

Your company can provide more value to partners than competitors by increasing their sales. Having a program to distribute qualified leads to partners is one way to show value here. Protecting partner opportunities, preventing channel conflict and assisting with deal closing as part of a deal registration program also shows value. 

Training

Surveying partners for suggestions on improving your partner program helps you to understand where to focus efforts. Training will invariably be one of the top improvement areas. Providing easy access to quality training is of real value to partners because it helps them sell intelligently and promotes their trusted status with end users. 

Partner Marketing

Providing access to co-branded collateral, joint campaign creatives, email marketing and marketing funds is valuable to many partners. The key here is to make it easy to access and create what they need.

Quality Support

Partners appreciate being able to easily log support calls with you and your prompt attention to them. Even better, give trained partners access to tier 2 or 3 support, skipping the initial level that is typically a waste of their time. Make finding the support documents they need quick and easy so they can better support your mutual customers. Partners are more loyal if they get the help they need quickly.

Again, not all markets are the same, but focus on finding the areas where your partners find value and you will produce results. One final point is that as your market gets more competitive, the better your partner program must be. Partners are free agents. If another company has a world-class partner program with a Web-based portal, training programs, fund management and marketing assistance and you don’t, they will move on given competitive products are functionally similar. 

What value propositions have you seen work with your channel partners?