This content is part of the Essential Guide: IT channel sales and marketing strategy for the digital era

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Channel partner marketing: Offloading the work to specialists

Channel partners, who have long bemoaned the challenges of marketing themselves, turn to outside specialists for help optimizing their website design and content.

Derek Brown knows firsthand the challenges that partners have with marketing themselves. When Brown was director of product management for Windows Small Business Server at Microsoft, he spent a lot of time meeting with MSPs, VARs and IT consultants to find out how his group could help with channel partner marketing resources.

"Even if they know what to do and have the resources -- both of which are big 'ifs' -- they will struggle with execution. They are busy taking care of their businesses and clients, so executing on a website update, or getting out an email newsletter, is always going to get pushed down the 'to do list,'" said Brown,  managing director of Pronto Marketing, a company he co-founded to address what he sees as the biggest pain point partners have: making time for marketing execution.

"That was the pain point Pronto started out to address, specifically with MSPs," he said. "We do the execution, so they can focus on their business."

Tom McDonald, president of IT services firm NSI TotalCare, based in Naugatuck, Conn., agreed that channel partner marketing is a challenge. "Everyone likes to think they're a marketer, but really, they should be doing something else." McDonald is in the throes of having his website redesigned for the third or fourth time since he started the business in 1985, always with the goal of making NSI look as professional as possible to the outside world.

Businesses evolve and change, and websites should reflect that. There are a number of firms like Pronto that help channel partners market themselves with services like website design, social media, advertising, analytics and content.

Fine-tuning your website to generate leads

NSI started out selling used equipment and is now concentrating on offering fixed fee, fully managed services in its geographic region, McDonald said. "Now we're trying to make our website a vehicle to find our perfect client" -- someone at a small business who searches for IT services on Google, he said.

A client doesn't care who you partner with ... They just want someone to take away the pain. You have to get in front of them, and it's so hard because there's so much noise out there.
Tom McDonaldpresident, NSI TotalCare

"They have to be local, in our geography, in order for us to provide services," he explained. "That's the struggle we're having today: We've done a lot of work to increase our traffic, SEO (search engine optimization) and social media, and it's worked, but not the local traffic we need or to the degree we need it."

A few years ago, NSI began working with HubSpot, a provider of inbound marketing software, for its marketing needs. Previously, McDonald had someone internally dedicated to marketing, but he said it wasn't cost-effective.

"HubSpot gave us some direction around things we could do with our existing website to improve SEO … There's all these tips and tricks they tell you about with embedding keywords and information that makes you easier to find based upon what a person punches into Google," he said. That can be difficult in the IT managed services business, McDonald noted, because there are so many different terms a person could use to search for a provider. "We have terminology we use, but that doesn't mean end users will use it."

McDonald has since hired an inbound marketing and Web design agency called SmartBug that HubSpot recommended to provide SEO and content. "They put a plan [together] to create consistent content for us, and I give them a framework and they hire people to create my voice," he said. "My feeling is that's key."

That content includes white papers focused on a certain relevant topic, as well as lots of blogging, Tweeting and posting on LinkedIn, he said. In the nine months since he has been working with SmartBug, the effort has paid off. "The phone rings and people say, 'Hey, I need help,' and we never had that before," McDonald said. He estimates NSI has averaged three new qualified inbound opportunities every month.

Just recently, "someone called in and said they're struggling and their current provider has dropped the ball," he said. "I asked how they found us, and they [said they] went on LinkedIn, typed in 'managed service provider' and our name popped up."

Channel partner marketing that stands out

Partners just starting the process need to find a marketing company that understands their voice, provides the best fit for them and can deliver the results, McDonald said. "We all want to be able to track our investment in marketing dollars."

Pronto offers a Managed Website package for channel partner marketing that covers everything from design, copywriting and implementation to ongoing support, SEO, and tracking and reporting, said Tim Kelsey, Pronto's marketing services director. The package is $500 for the setup with a $247 monthly fee.

All of the content Pronto writes for its clients' sites is unique to them, Kelsey said. "Our team of writers works directly with our clients to understand their story and unique selling position. We then work those ideas into the content throughout the site."

Pronto also offers syndicated blog content, which covers general tech news and updates, to its channel partner clients.

The secret sauce to channel partner marketing, as McDonald sees it, is making your company stand out from the manufacturers you represent. "A client doesn't care who you partner with -- at least small business partners [don't]. They just want someone to take away the pain. You have to get in front of them, and it's so hard because there's so much noise out there."

It's also important to focus your business and identify who your targeted customer is, he added.

"You couldn't pay me enough to put content on my website that won't help drive my business," McDonald said. "I don't have to help VMware or Microsoft. They can do it on their own."

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