While most companies spend a lot of time and energy celebrating the success or agonizing over the failures of their direct sales forces, much of that energy is misspent. Studies show that the indirect channel -- resellers, VARs, distributors, consultants and partners of all stripes -- accounts for 70 percent of sales worldwide -- but channel programs are seldom showered with the attention that direct sales teams get.
By the same token, channel programs evolve at a slower pace than direct sales. That makes sense -- while a salesman’s techniques can change when he wants them to, the channel is a team sport and many people have to agree to process changes.
The channel’s also a much more crowded environment. The partners you count on to sell on your behalf also sell on behalf of seven other vendors, according to a Baptie/CompTIA study. That means that success in the channel depends not just on your ability to give partners the tools they need to sell and support your products -- you have to cut through the noise to reach them with those tools.
Social Media Changes Direct Sales
Direct sales people are finding ways to bring social media into their arsenals, which is changing the nature of direct sales. But social media is even more critical in the channel. It’s not enough to use social media as an alarm system to spot disgruntled partners (yours, but preferably your competitors’). You must harness social media to make sure that your partners are taking advantage of all the tools you’re making available to them.
Social media for the channel encompasses a lot of things -- some obvious and some not so much. In the “obvious” column are things like Tweets or LinkedIn posts about new marketing tools or training resources, and monitoring social media in search of opportunities to provide service help to end customers and partners.
The key to making many of these efforts work is a functioning partner portal. Social media is great for driving traffic to these resources -- housed, in the case of most channel programs, on a partner portal. Sadly, most portals are abysmal, static things that few partners ever bother to visit -- one study showed that only 30 percent of partners visit any one portal over the course of a month. If you can make your portal a vital, useful one-stop source for your partners, your social media efforts will have a place to drive your partners.
Otherwise, your social media efforts will serve only to increase your partners’ disgruntlement toward the way you take care of them.
Social Media as Community Builder
The less obvious uses of social media may not require a great portal, but they do require some imagination -- and their effects may be a little harder to quantify. For example, if your partner community responds well to positive reinforcement, you might use social media as an avenue to congratulate them (in front of their peers and customers) for completing training and earning certifications. The objective here is to encourage them -- and others in your partner program -- to continue positive behaviors.
Creating a community on your website to allow partners to talk to each other may not seem like a money maker for you at first, but if it allows your partners to team up to pursue deals they might not have been able to compete for on their own, or if they are able to brainstorm on ways for you (the vendor) to be easier to work with, a community can be very lucrative. And if you make that community public and invite in partners who aren’t part of your program, your current partners can help you recruit new partners.
All of these efforts help you stand out from the noise of the channel and gain attention from your partners and potential partners. The secret is not just to take social media seriously -- you must also integrate it into the entirety of your channel program, and to realize that social will expose the weaknesses in that program. The best results will come when you build a strong foundation -- in other words, a good collection of sales and marketing tools, a comprehensive on-boarding process and an effective and easy-to-use portal -- and add social as the tool that steers partners to these strong points.