Partner Engagement: What It Is and 5 Ways to Improve It
Partner engagement is the antidote to low brand exposure, customer churn, and slow sales.
Think about it:
- Engaging channel partners by funding co-marketing campaigns publicizes your their products but also advertises your own.
- Investing in adequate enablement means your partners are better equipped to serve your customers, which increases their satisfaction and loyalty.
- Offering engaging incentives motivates partners to bring you more leads, which scores you more sales.
The challenge, of course, is that fostering partner engagement is one of the hardest things for partnership leaders to achieve and sustain. There are so many things competing for a partner’s attention, and without a continued focus on engagement, it’s easy for it to slip — right under your nose.
Keep reading for a refresher on partner engagement and to gain five strategies for achieving and maintaining it over time from seven partner program veterans.
What is Partner Engagement?
Before we dive into the ways to improve partner engagement, let’s briefly define it.
Partner engagement refers to the process of enabling, activating, and incentivizing partners in your channel program. The more involved partners are in your program, the greater the chances they will deliver value — whether that’s boosting your brand reputation, referring new deals, or both.
But here’s the thing: you can’t onboard partners to your program and expect them to be engaged immediately.
Improving partner engagement is dependent on your ability to recruit, motivate, and support partners who are the best fit for your program. And that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes creativity, experimentation, and dedication.
5 Strategies for Promoting Partner Engagement
Partner engagement can unlock a wealth of benefits, but attaining and sustaining it over time is tough. Here are five ways to jumpstart your engagement engine.
1. Re-evaluate Your Partner Recruitment to Boost Partner Engagement
Your partners will never reach peak engagement if they were poorly aligned with your program in the first place. So consider this a sign to revisit your ideal partner profile (IPP).
- Does it reflect our current company goals?
- Has our ideal customer profile (ICP) changed?
- Are we placing more or less focus on certain geographies?
- Have we rolled out new products that original channel partners aren’t ideally suited to resell?
Any dramatic changes to your overall go-to-market approach should warrant revisions to your IPP, and in turn, your partner recruitment strategy.
Now, that’s not to say that you only work with one kind of partner. In fact, you may have multiple IPPs in order to maximize your presence in multiple regions or industries. Be sure to identify these personas in your partner portal so you can cater your communications and tailor your collaboration to what each type of partner cares most about.
Kathleen Clarke, Partner Recruitment Executive at Inseego, says, “Partner executive sponsors, partner management sponsors, and procurement sponsors are easily identified in our partner portal. This is important because we have stakeholder buy-in when we advance business planning and campaigns.”
Once you feel good about your IPP, prioritize your partners for engagement. Who are the ones you’d most want to collaborate with? Hone your focus on those partners.
An easy way to get started? fold yourself into their existing strategy.
Trish Rilling, Founder and Principal Consultant at Grititude, suggests, “Pay attention to the way partners are engaging their customers and piggyback off of that. If you notice they do a lot of webinars, see if you or someone on your team can be a panelist. If you see them posting a lot on social media, propose a new campaign.”
2. Teach Your Partners How to Fish
The ultimate engagement goal is to help partners become self-sufficient — to teach them how to fish. As Trish puts it, “The faster they can make money without hand-holding from the vendor, the more business they will chase and close.”
But that can’t come at the expense of rigor. Without proper partner enablement, you’re putting prospects and customer relationships at risk — partners may incorrectly answer technical questions, overpromise during a sale, or underdeliver on an ancillary service.
But your partners are busy, and asking them to sit through live training sessions is a lot to ask. To prompt partner engagement, meet them where they are and offer self-paced courses and certifications in a centralized partner portal.
Neha Verma, an independent partner marketing consultant, says, “In my opinion, PRMs are instrumental in providing on-demand training sessions, making it easy for reps to navigate and quickly check their progress on the certification path with intuitive dashboards.”
Depending on what partner relationship management (PRM) software you choose, you can upload content in various formats, ensuring that there is a type of training that matches every partner’s learning style and availability — even if they’re operating in an entirely different country or region.
Be sure to create content that inherently invites engagement, such as interactive partner quizzes, surveys, and reflections. And above all, explain why training is so critical and what partners will get out of it.
Will Yang, Head of Growth at Instrumentl, explains, “Partnerships are founded on understanding and mutual interests. Program participation needs to be fueled by benefits that the partner can see and appreciate. And the acknowledgment of their time and effort is crucial, whether it’s through certifications, exclusive content access, or special support pathways.”
Don’t forget — training can quickly get out of date. Update your training in conjunction with new product releases and plan to refresh them on a regular cadence, perhaps every few years.
Asif Mansoor, Global Account Lead at Google, says, “New product features are a useful signal to re-engage with your partners. Client use cases typically develop over a long timeline, and it is essential to the long-term health of the partnership to stay aligned as you reach important milestones in the product roadmap.”
3. Make Partner Success Simple
Partners should have easy access to the information they need to succeed. Beyond enablement, this means:
- Clearly explaining what an ideal lead or referral looks like
- Sharing examples of successful comarketing campaigns
- Outlining what KPIs you expect them to hit every quarter
- Showing them how to make the most out of the resources you’re giving them
Some of this can be self-serve. In a partner portal like Channeltivity, you can populate a partner library with these guidelines and prominently display links to them on the portal homepage. You can create co-branded collateral templates for partners to customize whenever they need them.
But that doesn’t preclude you and your partner managers from having close communication and collaboration with partners — whether they are brand-new to your program or they’ve been around for a while.
According to Trish, “Setting a recurring meeting cadence with all of your partners is a good way to stay top of mind and build trust in each relationship.”
Joint business plans are good focal points for these meetings, bringing everyone’s attention back to your goals for the partnership and making sure everyone is swimming in the same direction.
At Inseego, Kathleen and her team use joint business plans to outline sales, marketing, and revenue targets and detail the activities to accomplish these targets: “This enables us to execute QBRs that are data-driven and provide business insights for the future.”
Lastly, make sure your partner program design is compelling.
Is there enough give in the give-and-take balance? Review your standard partner agreement and really think about whether the juice is worth the partner’s squeeze. If it’s not, you may need to make some adjustments.
Is there an easy and clear path for partners to be wildly successful in your program? Spell out partner tier qualifications and ensure partners know what resources they have available to them.
Is the program designed in a way that engenders trust? For example, maybe you’re 100% channel. Or, your lead distribution program is designed to optimize fairness.
Get any of these points wrong and you’re creating roadblocks for your partners. If your program is not easy-to-understand and compelling, partner engagement is going to suffer.
4. Give Partners Something to Look Forward To
It’s widely known that you catch a lot more flies with honey than vinegar. And the sweeter the honey is, the more flies you’ll catch.
The same goes for partnerships. Draw partners in with incentives, and make them worthwhile. The sweeter they are, the better partner performance you’ll see.
Neha explains, “Incentives can take the form of monetary rewards or forward-looking projects. The former is fairly standard. The latter gives you a bit more freedom. Perhaps channel partners that contribute ideas for new features will get first dibs on implementing them when they are live. In this case, the incentive is the potential for future growth.”
But even if you have the best incentives on the block, don’t expect partners will be a primary lead source out of the gate. Give them some grace by acting first. Trish advises, “Bring them into deals when you can. Build some momentum together with joint campaigns. The magic happens when both parties contribute to lead gen.”
Lastly, be sure to reward them accordingly. One of the worst things you can do is make partners feel underappreciated.
Gianluca Ferruggia, GM at DesignRush, shares, “We reward our partners with increased exposure through our Best Design Awards, press releases, and spotlights. These branded touchpoints allow them to demonstrate expertise and credibility with their target audience and our own.”
Marketing Development Funds, or MDFs, can be useful motivators, too — especially if you need help promoting new features, entering new geographies, or servicing new industries. If partners register the types of deals you’re looking for, you can offer them budget to host prospect happy hours, launch digital co-marketing campaigns, or amplify your brand at conferences. You get more leads, they get more kickbacks; it’s a win-win.
5. Embrace Partner Feedback
You might think you know what makes partners tick, but you really won’t know for sure unless you ask them. And there are plenty of ways to gather their feedback.
Every time you meet with them, ask for their opinion. What’s missing in your training program? How can your resources be more useful? How can your incentives be more attractive?
There are other creative ways to gather data, too.
For example, Gianluca says his team closely monitors community forums to address partner concerns and feedback in real time.
Make a running list of potential engagement strategies and set a goal to implement a certain number of them each quarter. The following quarter, measure the incremental impact and decide whether the strategy is worth continuing.
One Last Hint: Look Around
B2B SaaS has some great partner programs. Why not learn from their engagement strategy?
Asif admires HubSpot: “The HubSpot team offers a wealth of content through their blog and ecosystem websites which are helpful and abundant. They strike the right balance of offering up information and positioning calls-to-action for deeper insights to a holistic set of users from agencies, global systems integrators, independent software vendors, resellers, and developers.”
Partner Engagement Starts and Ends With a Great PRM
Program enrollment and completion rates, success of co-marketing campaigns, and number of referrals are all reflections of partner engagement. But if you can’t measure them, you can prove that your strategies are working.
And that’s where a PRM comes into play. A robust partner relationship management platform like Channeltivity makes it easy to give partners the information they need to succeed. Even better, it automatically keeps track of partner engagement metrics for you.
Channeltivity’s reports and dashboards can show:
- How many partners logged into the portal before and after launching a new engagement strategy
- Which courses and certifications have the lowest completion rate (and may need to be tweaked)
- How many downloads new documents added to the Resource Library get
- Which MDF-fueled co-marketing campaigns brought in new leads
- The number of referrals that came in after implementing a new partner engagement tactic, and how many of them closed
Having this data at your fingertips helps you be more proactive and prescriptive with your engagement strategies, keeping partners satisfied and motivated over the long term.
Want to see Channeltivity in action? Schedule a demo today.
More Partner Engagement Resources
The Complete Guide to Partner Marketing in 2023
How to Pull Off a Successful PRM Launch