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Brooke Cunningham, vice president of Worldwide Marketing for the Data Management Customer Solution Unit at CA Technologies is a speaker at the marcus evans 2nd Annual Strategic Channel Management Conference taking place on May 17-18 in San Francisco.

Cunningham is responsible for the marketing strategy and programs that create awareness, demand and recognition for the company’s Disaster Recovery and Data Modelling solutions.  Her team leads initiatives to drive sales growth, profitability, and visibility for the CA ARCserve products and CA ERwin products. Cunningham recently sat down with marcus evans to discuss how to drive channel development, collaboration and market expansion.

Marcus Evans: What competitive advantage does a strong channel management practice offer?

Brooke Cunningham: Companies today are constantly evolving the way we reach, satisfy, and engage with customers and prospects.  And within a highly competitive market place, gaining that competitive edge is critical to success.

By relying on channel partners, vendors broaden their reach to a broader set of customers and prospects.   Further, Small and Mid-sized organizations usually rely on a local partner as a trusted advisor to their business, making the role of the channel partner even more critical to vendors to reach those customers and be considered. And lastly, indirect channels help expand your sales each in a very cost effective manner. Like any business partnership, it is important to have good channel management practices so these relationships provide the maximum mutual benefit.

ME: What are the important elements of an effective Partner Go-To-Market Plan?

BC: The elements of a strategic go-to-market- plan should have the focus on the partner in mind. Namely, ensuring there is an understanding of how the partner is going to be profitable.  With so many vendors to chose from, a clear return on investment in the relationship with the vendor is what a prospective partner will be evaluating.

Next, it’s important to ensure your programs enable partners to sell without channel conflict. That is, to ensure they have a model to eliminate challenges where they are selling into the same accounts as other account managers from the organization or as other partners. So, establishing programs like deal registration are critical for sales success.

In addition, ensuring that you treat your reseller partners as you treat your own sales force is another key to success. Partners should be provided with the same tools and information as a vendor sales individual, such as sales tools, training, and competitive intelligence. Also, technical training is needed in addition to the sales training for the staff to ensure success for both partners and customers.  

At CA Technologies, we treat the reseller channel as if they are our sales force because they in fact are exactly that.  – they’re our ” feet on the street” as our CA ARCserve and CA ERwin products sell entirely through channel partners.

As vendors we have a responsibility to provide the marketing programs. This includes all the branding, media and advertising, PR, web and other top-level marketing material. In addition to this, we have to role to play in providing programs and support for partner demand generation. These packaged demand generation programs make it easy and relatively turnkey for partners to go and position and market our solutions. Other programs like market development funds (MDF)  also support this by providing channel partners marketing funds to execute on local marketing activities.

ME: What is the importance of finding a good balance between customization and brand consistency for successful channel management?

BC: As a vendor, you want to have a strong brand, which is recognized in the marketplace and drives revenue. You have to drive a tight consistency in your brand to accomplish this.

Vendors will have various approaches to this, some have stringent brand guidelines that apply to usage for partners and other vendors allow more usage of the brand for their partners. It’s a fine line to balance here. The benefit from the partner perspective is that they get additional value by being able to use corporate brand look and feel, often driving higher response rates to campaigns due to the vendor brand recognition. From a customer’s perspective the responders to those campaigns can see that the vendor and the partner are truly positioned together.

Vendors have the responsibility to ensure that the brand guidelines are clear, articulated and easy for the partners to employ. We need to be flexible in allowing our partners to leverage the brand; and within those guidelines, enable them do a better job in reaching the customers that we’re working together to reach.

ME: What are the new business enhancement opportunities provided by the cloud and social media?

BC: We have a strong community base on our LinkedIn and Twitter feeds as well as Facebook groups for our partners as well as for reaching our customers. We also engage with a technical community called SpiceWorks in addition to blogs and forum posts for communities that we host on our own websites.

As a result, we can communicate with partners more frequently about programs, offers and incentives. Also, within these forums, customers engage in a conversation with us, we gain the opportunity to hear more from them about how they see value in our solutions, how they are using them, and also it’s a way we can also address any concerns. It’s a different kind of engagement; it’s not just push marketing anymore. It’s a conversation and it’s much more powerful because of the level of engagement. And, as an additional benefit, it’s a very cost effective marketing medium.

The cloud relates to the evolution of technology and what we’re seeing is that traditional channels are evolving. If you look at the spectrum of channel evolution, most partners started out as volume resellers. Many of them evolved to a more value-added reseller, and then moving up the spectrum to be more end-to-end  solution providers where they are providing many different vendor products and business continuity and planning.

Now with the cloud we have managed solution providers (MSP) – essentially solution providers that have evolved to host on behalf of their customers a lot of the technologies, leveraging Software as a Service the cloud.

That has been a major game changer and now with the cloud trend we’re seeing a migration of the channel. Customers however are still a little unsure about their data being hosted in the cloud. They’re concerned about security but are starting to dip their toe in the water and make purchase decisions. Data predictions show there will be a big shift in that market in the next one to two years.

ME: What advice would you give to business building a channel program?

BC: Listen. Learn. Take the best practice from the marketplace. Talk to your partners; talk to your prospective partners. Talk to other vendors. Read the research about what has worked and what hasn’t.  And as the market evolves, you and your programs need to as well. We cannot look at Channels in the same traditional context anymore as we shift to cloud-based technology and how customers buy and use technology changes. This then changes the role of partners and vendors.

Vendors should be challenged to think outside the box. This is a new phase of evolution for technology with the cloud and some of those paradigms need to shift. Some of the concepts we built our channel programs on may cease to be relevant so we need to be evolving for the new marketplace.

ME: What are the challenges facing businesses trying to drive channel development in this current tough economic climate?

BC: It all comes down to competition. What we saw through the downturn was that the partners who were most closely aligned with us, stuck with us.

The key within this competitive market is to differentiate your channel programs and offering as well as to showcase the strengths of your technology and how it solves customers’ business pains, as channel partners want to be aligned with the vendor of choice. Continually bringing new approaches and innovations into the program is where the focus will be as we continue to operate in more competitive economic times.

The marcus evans 2nd Annual Strategic Channel Management Conference takes  place May 17-18 in San Francisco.  View the event website here.