Channel marketing: What goes around comes around
4 min read - by Gareth Kershaw - Senior Writer
Where the tech channel is concerned, the more that things have changed over the years, the more they’ve somehow stayed the same.
So says Gareth Kershaw, former channel journalist and editor, and now senior writer with Twogether. Could its latest incarnation represent a significant evolutionary leap? Quite possibly. But actually making it will demand an equally significant leap of faith. Oh and of marketing too…
Change. Cuh. Is it only me that’s getting tired of even typing that word?
Not that it can be helped. Change and all it entails – including hearing about it non-stop apparently – has always been rather an occupational hazard in tech. I’ve even just kicked off this blog with it for pity’s sake. Then again, at a fundamental level, I suppose technology sort of IS change. So no wonder it crops up as often as it inevitably does.
At the Channel Meet Up (CMU) down in Runnymede, for example. There it was, front and centre from the outset, in a keynote from IDC European Partnering Ecosystems research director, Stuart Wilson.
Shiny and new?
The channel, said Stuart, is changing. Where once it was largely linear (vendor–distie–reseller–end user), lately it’s becoming much more an ‘ecosystem’, characterised by a huge variety of intertwined, complementary organisations, activities, and relationships. As such, he enthused, there’s never been a more exciting time to be a channel business.
Now don't get me wrong, I’m not down on any of this, much less Stuart or IDC. Far be it from me. Indeed, they’re basically right. But it did get me thinking.
You see, I’ve been knocking around the channel (and with channel types) for a good while now. (How long? Let’s just say I started writing for CRN when it was still called PC Dealer and leave it there.) That’s why, when I heard about the whole shiny new channel ecosystem thing and how exciting it all is, it made me smile. In one guise or another, I’ve been hearing broadly the same thing at industry events for well north of 20 years.
A hundred different answers
Why is this? Well for one thing the channel has, by its very nature, always had a great capacity for reinvention. It’s had to.
There’s another, more basic reason, however. That the channel itself has never been terribly clear on what it is. Even those who live and work in it rarely agree. Ask a hundred people to define the channel and you'll likely get a hundred different answers. (Trust me, I’ve done it. Partly as a kind of thought experiment, and partly just for my own childish amusement. The variety of confused, blank looks and convoluted answers over the years has been extraordinary.)
The irony is that it’s actually pretty simple so far as I’m concerned. The vendor sits at one extreme of the tech marketplace, the end user sits at the other. The channel is anything – anything – in between.
Viewed in this light, it’s always been an ecosystem of sorts. It’s evolved of course. That's only natural. But in make-up, mindset, and intent, the essential ‘ABC’ of the channel is much the same as it ever was: Always Be Closing.
An apt analogy
What has changed however, is the channel ‘journey’. How it gets from A to B to C, so to speak. What it does along the way and how it does it, too. For want of a better word, the channel is now more ‘symbiotic’ than it’s ever been. More collaborative. And that can surely only be a change for the better.
Historically, channel businesses often tried to be all things to all customers. The answer is yes, went the mantra, what’s the question? Now though, more and more are seeing the wisdom of specialisation and niche expertise. Of collaborating with others whose specialisms complement their own. In partnering to deliver outcomes rather than just products and services.
(In our CMU follow-up podcast we likened the whole thing to superheroes and their various superpowers. No single Avenger would have fared too well against Thanos on their own, right? We laughed about it at the time, but in hindsight it’s actually a pretty apt analogy.)
What’s the real point here? If this ‘new’ model is to gain real and lasting traction, one major change is now most definitely needed. And the fact that the channel still defies definition is what proves it.
Mastering the art
What is that change exactly? That channel firms finally need to master the art of telling the world (i.e. their customers, their partners, and even themselves) who and what they are. Of what they do, where they do it, and whom they do it with. Most crucially of all, they need to fully articulate the customer outcomes that all this can deliver.
That’s where marketing – specifically a variety of truly creative, emotive, idea-driven brand marketing that remains very rare in B2B – now has an absolutely critical part to play. It’s also where the vendor community can and should be stepping up to help.
There’s a but though. Before vendors can start helping their channel partners to express their ideas and value more clearly, creatively, and emotively, they need (once and for all) to buy into the power of clarity, creativity, and emotion themselves.
Now there’s a change worth talking about.
To hear more insights from our time at the Channel Meet Up, tune into this episode of The Tech Marketing Podcast.
 McKinsey & Co., (2021), https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/why-every-business-needs-a-full-funnel-marketing-strategy
 The B2B Effectiveness Code, B2B Institute (2021)