Those that can find, recruit, manage, and nourish partners at scale will determine future winners and losers.

A lot has changed in the 25-plus years I have spent in the technology channel. New technologies, partner business models, shifting demographics, expanding communication vehicles, and most recently, new technology buyers with different psychologies, behaviors, and journeys have created a whirlwind of change for vendors, distributors, and partners alike.

The one constant is the complexity of finding, recruiting, and managing thousands of partners globally, each with their own unique set of business practices, target markets, value proposition, and culture. We estimate that there are over 600,000 partners worldwide when you include broader technology channels such as IT, telecom, print, pro A/V, etc. This doesn’t include the millions of companies that are converging into the tech services space from far and wide.

Channel partners know that to be successful, they need to carve out a niche — whether that be by line of business, by industry (and, increasingly, by subindustry), by size of customer, geographically, technologically, and by business model. These six vectors are not mutually exclusive, and buyers of technology are looking for a match across all of them.

Partner programs are going through a major change, as the number of nontransacting partners entering the market far outweighs traditional resale-type partners. Selling through the channel is rapidly changing to selling to and with partners.

Cutting through all these changes and finding the ideal partner profile can be a daunting task. The channel is highly diverse and incredibly decentralized. As someone who previously cofounded a company with the aim of bringing them together, I can assure you it isn’t easy!

Most vendors make the mistake of focusing too much on their own communication vehicles inside their domain. Partners continuously point this out to vendors in their advisory councils and repeatedly mark communication and collaboration as top inhibitors to selling more.

The magic behind finding, recruiting and nourishing a top performing channel boils down to three simple questions about partners:

  1. What do they read?
  2. Where do they go?
  3. Who do they follow?

If you were able to ask all 600,000 global technology service companies (with an average of eight people at each) these three questions, you would learn that there are 56 channel-facing magazines around the world, 150-plus trade shows, numerous vendor and distributor communities, over a dozen associations and peer groups, and countless thought leaders who blog, run social media groups, host webinars and podcasts, and participate widely across the media and show landscape.

Understanding influence across this massive ecosystem is important for vendors. Some partners rank visibility and community involvement highest on their criteria for partnership, even higher than product, pricing, or margin potential.

The SMB (small- and medium-sized business) channel, which makes up over 90% of these firms, is significantly influenced inside its own chosen communities. For example, if you were to look at the MSP (managed services provider) market, you would find 31 distinct communities that highly influence the 50,000 MSPs globally. Targeting these 31 communities is a manageable and, for many vendors, profitable market.

With Google and numerous ratings sites at their fingertips, why do partners choose communities?

During this time of growing electronic ubiquity, the need for trusted and expert sources of information has increased significantly. The amount of competitive choices for products and services, combined with vast information on the internet and endless buzz through social media, has created a scenario where cutting through the white noise has become one of the most important skills.

Communities offer a smaller group of like-minded people (perhaps even competitors) who share similar experiences and challenges, have the ability to collaborate, and help improve decision making. The feeling of belonging is strong, as well as the affinity of membership. There is a feeling that communities are more democratic, as they are built by the membership, and participation is encouraged and celebrated.

Who Starts These Communities?

How Do These Communities Interact With Their Followers?

A dizzying array of new marketing vehicles have popped up in recent years. Traditional media such as magazines and events are very important in communicating to a community, but new media allows innovative ways to extend and enhance the message. From webinars, podcasts, vodcasts, blogs, tweets and LinkedIn and Facebook groups to virtual trade shows, community groups are using as many as 30 different marketing vehicles to drive collaboration within the group.

The challenge with these marketing vehicles is different than in the past. The main inhibitor to effective marketing used to be money; today, it is effective content and delivery. Many of the vehicles I mentioned above are free or cost very little compared with traditional media. Keeping content fresh, relevant, and abundant takes dedicated resourcing and should stretch beyond the marketing department.

Media savvy executives who can keynote an event, tweet about it offstage, promote the message through a podcast, do a media interview, and then write a blog about it later on represent the new model for the future. Messaging that would have required triple-checking through legal a few years ago needs to be sent out just in time and delivered consistently.

Be visible every day.

Community members have very effective personal spam filters. Anything that doesn’t add value to the community will be rejected and have a negative result for the vendor behind it. Selling to a community will be ignored and likely get you kicked out.

Beyond the human requirements of personal interaction and belonging, communities provide tangible benefits to all involved. Unfiltered information based on common experience will always trump random white papers and case studies posted on the internet. The give/get relationships within a community inspire openness and, in most of the communities I have seen, a level of bluntness that is refreshing.

Key Advantages Of Communities

What Is The Future Of Communities — And Why Now?

As information overload continues to flood the channel, communities will continue to form and grow, adding value to members. For example, we have grown from 10,000 software firms a decade ago to now over 175,000. I predict that this number will hit 1 million by 2028. What happens when a big chunk of these firms decide they need a channel?

Specialization will continue to expand as well, driving more need for these groups and subgroups. There is an upper limit to the size of a community where the point of diminishing returns kicks in, the point where coordination of the group and the generality of messaging outweigh the benefits listed above.

Smart communities will organize subgroups before the fringe members go off and launch a competing community. The permutations and combinations of geographic, technology, industry, line-of-business, solution, and business model specializations are endless.

Are you saying I should join thousands of communities?

No. Without some level of focus, you would stretch your organization too thin and not add value anywhere. For every firm I have worked with at Forrester, there are a manageable number of communities full of their ideal partners.

The future of the channel account manager will transition to community managers in order to support the diverse partner ecosystem. With millions of potential partners flooding into the marketplace, those that can find, recruit, manage, and nourish partners at scale will determine future winners and losers.

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Jay McBain
Jay McBain Principal Analyst – Channels, Partnerships & Alliances Forrester Research, Inc. Jay has close to 25 years experience in various executive channel, sales, marketing, and strategy roles within organisations such as IBM, Lenovo, Autotask, ChannelEyes, and now Forrester. He holds dual Bachelor of Management degrees in MIS and public administration from the University of Lethbridge and holds an MBA in entrepreneurship from Louisiana State University. Jay is based in Florida USA and advises vendors, distributors, and partners around the world. He provides research, advisory, and consulting to companies ranging from Fortune 100 vendors to startups on the entire scope of their channel and alliance strategies. Jay leads Forrester's research and advisory for global channels, alliances, and partnerships. He specialises in B2B marketing within the age of the customer; understanding and navigating the complexity of multiple routes to market; ensuring contextual and relevant content to accelerate the indirect sales process; and describing the technology infrastructure to build and support channel relationships. His background is in channel leadership, sales, marketing, and operations, with a specific emphasis on indirect sales strategy/execution, covering multiple industries, segments, and underlying technologies. Jay is renowned for his industry thought leadership and expertise in partner recruitment, development, and acceleration through effective partner coverage, enablement, communication, and incentives. He is an expert in building and leveraging channel communities and one of the global leaders in social media, partner marketing automation, and other indirect growth strategies.