Tl;dr - It doesn't matter what you sell, complex sales are getting tougher. Reaching more prospects and establishing trust quickly is key to a consistent flow of opportunities. Partner marketing delivers both.
What is Partner Marketing?
Partner marketing is a collaboration between companies that have similar target markets that extends their reach and establishes trust through joint marketing activities.
Partnership marketing is the subject of considerable activity and enthusiasm in the technology (particularly SaaS) space. It's producing results for companies in crowded markets where the volume of content is overwhelming, and buyers have a hard time differentiating between solutions.
A partner marketing program normally has two main elements - technology partners and solutions partners.
You're certainly familiar with the solutions partners concept. Your external IT resource is likely a Microsoft Solutions Partner. When you need email improvements, they'll automatically suggest Exchange and Outlook, and discourage you from considering GSuite. Objectively they've marinated in the Microsoft world so long they probably believe it's a superior solution. Subjectively, they'll make money on it - the sale up front, and then years of support since it requires lots of babysitting.
They'll also suggest Microsoft Dynamics when you are looking at CRMs, and may even point out Salesforce.com's notoriously cumbersome customization process and the need you'll incur to hire ANOTHER outside firm to help set it up. Solutions partner marketing programs have driven growth for these companies! 95% of Microsoft's commercial revenue flows through solutions partners like your IT group1, and according to research group IDC "Salesforce partner ecosystem will create $1.6 trillion in new business revenues and 9.3 million jobs worldwide by 2026."2 Similarly, I'm a HubSpot Solutions Partner.
While solutions partners focus on solution implementation, technology partners focus on solution integration. When you buy a PC, you buy Microsoft Windows. When you update your Zoom client, you now find countless apps to install, including, for instance, "Funtivity." I know nothing about it. It may be a great app and perhaps an entire product on its own. Or maybe it's simply built for Zoom. Either way, I would have never heard of it absent its technology partnership with Zoom, and its prominent placement in Zoom's "marketplace."
These familiar examples illustrate key advantages of partner marketing. Market reach and access to customers is one, and embedded trust is another. I won't worry if Funtivity is spyware or will crash my computer because I trust that Zoom has done that for me. You won't launch your own research into GSuite, because your trusted IT consultants tell you to stick with Microsoft.
Besides, you've probably used partner marketing for years if you've sold through indirect sales channel. Distributors and reps are a classic form of partner marketing in the industrial and capital equipment space. You may have incentivized some marketing they've done to your mutual benefit and sent folks to help man their booths at regional trade shows.
Sales channel partnership marketing is a vertical form of a solutions program - in other words, they're reaching buyers specifically for your product, and they will help to implement it.
And speaking of trade shows, you've probably done some casual partner marketing of the technology partnership type. If you've used a notable brand-name consumable or integrated technology with your display at a show, that's a foray into a bigger opportunity through expanding horizontal reach.
Why Should Industrial Companies Shamelessly Copy Technology's Partnership Marketing Models?
I have a perspective straddling the industrial and technology worlds. As a solutions partner with HubSpot, Drift, Membrain CRM, Seventh Sense, and others, I am in SaaS solutions partner programs. As CRO of IntentData.io, I understand how our competitors have successfully used technology partnerships to outsell us even with objectively inferior data. And I've been in industrial manufacturing and capital equipment in many roles, including as an indirect channel sales rep through president of a manufacturing company subsidiary.
That combination of experiences and perspectives helps me to compare and contrast industries and recognize opportunities in both directions.
Therefore I know that there's a huge amount that the technology industry can teach industrial companies about manufacturing marketing and revenue growth. These companies are often under enormous pressure to generate results despite selling into incredibly saturated and competitive markets. They're accountable for unattainable numbers....and they often attain them. Investors are impatient - even joining weekly pipeline reviews with execs and independent board directors. That makes technology companies very resourceful and creative in their marketing and sales.
Of course, there are important differences. Large gross margins in tech support significant marketing investment and that investment is expected (just as negligible investment beyond trade shows is the expectation in middle-market manufacturing.) It's also easier to spin up another software license than to custom engineer, fabricate and commission a $3MM capital equipment system. So scale in the technology case means simply more, while in the industrial case it means "better" (higher margin, higher lifetime value, collaborative design, etc.)
What are NOT different are the complexities of marketing and selling to people who are too busy; decision makers who defer to consensus decisions; buying teams that are growing and often dysfunctional; and prospects who are overwhelmed by information.
Getting and holding their attention is hard. Demonstrating that you have expertise and insight that may benefit them and at least merit a small commitment of time to consider your ideas is difficult when they have no time to give.
That's why referrals are the gold standard in sales leads. They're backed by the imprimatur of legitimacy by someone they trust.
That trust doesn't win you the deal. It wins you a meeting (or at least engaged communication) and the opportunity to share some insights. If you do that well (whether by the Challenger Sales, Baseline Selling, MEDDPICC, or other methodologies), you may create an opportunity for your sales pipeline.
Trust is the key.
And that's what technology companies have figured out about partnership marketing.
You trust your IT consultant to recommend the right email solution and to save you time researching and learning. They serve as your proxy.
Partner marketing helps reach prospects who are both actively exploring options and those open to considering new ideas but not actively cultivating them.
Partner marketing also generates referral-type leads with embedded trust and authority.
Hurdles to Partner Marketing
There are, of course, many reasons you can quickly think of why this won't work. And, as the saying goes, if you don't think it can be adapted to your industry, you're right.
Many manufacturers are hesitant to affiliate themselves too closely to some OEMs or related materials suppliers, at risk of alienating competitors with whom they also collaborate or prospects who have cemented relationships with others.
Industrial companies tend to be technical and to look at the world through a very narrow lens of their expertise. They're hesitant to speak about related domains because they lack the same depth of knowledge and worry that doing so will jeopardize their authority in their core areas.
The mindset toward marketing is often constraining. Aside from underlying resource limitations, many manufacturers don't fully visualize the role of "marketing" in helping them to reach prospects in today's market, or even the role of marketing in helping to sell buyers who anonymously conduct extensive internet research. This not only limits the range of companies that might consider an initiative but also restricts the number of companies that might be open to considering collaboration.
Your team may well resist, arguing that you're overstepping your area of expertise, that buyers never ask them about these other topics, that the money should be directed to more print ads in trade journals, that marketing should make sure all slide decks look the same, etc., etc.
You will be uncomfortable. You'll be the subject of some whispers and snickers from some competitors. And you'll be doing the right thing.
Be prepared with some examples to illustrate your vision. In the capital equipment sales space, for instance, you might point to the way PLC companies have used partner marketing for years.
How to Adapt Partner Marketing Programs to Industrial Manufacturing
Underlying this effort must be a genuine commitment to helping buyers. To coopt a real estate maxim, your partner marketing must be about audience, audience, audience.
Let's start small. Instead of cementing some exclusive relationship with an adjacent OEM, start with discrete activities such as panel discussion webinars and cobranded downloadable guides.
You will seek partners who sell to the same ICP (ideal customer profile) and often different partners who sell to each of the roles on your typical buying team.
Across that range, you'll find many topics that are well-suited to partner marketing activities. For example, in the food manufacturing space where many of my capital equipment clients work, the topics below are representative topics for each of the common roles on a buying team. These are just examples. You'll have many more, and different ones, yourself.
- Feasibility of widespread 3D printing of food
- Greenfield investment vs. facilities upgrade (with insights from EDCs)
- Best practices for conducting post capital investment payback analysis
- Negotiating a great deal for the long-term - how to create vendor loyalty
- Major retail initiatives (e.g. WalMart's shelf ready packaging and Costco's sustainability programs)
- Managing approved vendor programs as change accelerates
- VR/AR operator training programs
- Knowledge management and exchange across facilities
- How to reduce the risk of new capital equipment investments
- Tips for optimizing capital justifications
- Spare parts storage, inventory and purchasing trends (with companies that manufacturer high-density storage, provide MRO management programs, or sell parts "vending machines"
- Reducing downtime and PM disruption (with companies that provide maintenance software, and centralized lubrication equipment and lubricants)
- Open controls engineering vs. cybersecurity
- What's the practical value of machine monitoring?
- Stop reducing risks, use automation to eliminate them
- How smart contracts can support EHS initiatives
- Consumer expectations for ingredient origin and tracking
- Trends in sourcing, distribution, and packaging sustainability
- Trends in alternative proteins
- FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) crunch time
Once you've identified topics that will be of interest to your prospects and customers, then you need to identify companies that have appropriate SMEs (subject matter experts) who can contribute authoritatively and that are amendable to partner marketing after you've educated them on what's in it for them.
You don't need expertise in these areas. You don't even need to agree with what other SMEs say. You might consider panels with representatives of several competitors to provide complimentary and contrasting perspectives. This is about you helping your prospects perform their jobs better.
Start small with a collaborative webinar or two and a downloadable guide. Be prepared to do the heavy lifting (coordination, writing, etc.) and make it easy for them (templates for their press release, emails to their list, etc.) Think of it as a content distribution step toward a partner marketing program. So the reach of your partners counts too. Perhaps a major consulting or accounting firm is a good fit for a topic, or a globally recognized controls vendor or industry association. Be creative.
Each piece of content must focus on the audience and their needs. Sure, you'll take a page at the end of a guide, or two minutes at the beginning of a webinar to introduce your company to the larger audience. But it's not about pitching your stuff - it's about helping the audience, reaching the audience your partners bring beyond yours, and establishing trust and authority.
Be sure to set expectations for promotion and lead sharing to include the tempo and content of emails to their list and posts on their social media profiles. Also, agree on what kind of sales or marketing follow-up you'd advise based on your experience. You might even provide email templates and sales enablement coaching for that.
Later you might advance the mutual effort to an entry sale collaboration; one in which your team (hopefully reciprocated) finds opportunities in new accounts and provides introductions to a partner who sells and implements them alongside your team - creating a commercial relationship and opportunities to do discovery from inside.
And later still, you might codify a more formal partner marketing program as you identify companies who "get it" and feature them in partnership information on your website, prospect and customer marketing materials, and perhaps even on proposals.
Partner Marketing Resources
If you're interested in watching and learning for a while before experimenting, there are a number of technology industry resources. Be prepared for the fact that there's lots of hype, bubbly enthusiasm, and overwrought language.
For instance, Partner Ecosystem is the term that many are using today. It's buzzy, but it's also representative of the big-picture view.
Here are some representative resources you might follow:
Think of these as sources of high-level inspiration and ideas. The tactical execution will have to be adapted to the realities of your industrial manufacturing world.
The Partner Marketing Payoff for Industrial Manufacturers
A successful marketing partnership program will require a mindshift for machinery manufacturers. But the payoff is potentially huge.
Predictable revenue today requires a flow of leads and projects that are increasingly difficult to generate. Partner marketing can substantially enhance that flow by expanding audience reach and creating new relationships that come with embedded trust.
You can simultaneously construct a partnership marketing strategy while you start small with content distribution and content promotion and gradually prove the potential value to doubters within your company and collaborators'. Later you can formalize some of the partner marketing relationships as is common in the tech industry. And along the way, you can generate revenue and create prospect relationships through partnerships and entry sales.