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How to Create a Partner Network that Drives Profit [Online Community Tips]

Written by Joshua Paul | on May 1, 2013 at 8:30 AM

Some of the world's most successful social business strategies don't revolve around employee collaboration or tracking customer behavior in social crm systems. They are online partner communities.

How to Create a Partner Network or Online Partner Community

Many of the technology companies that you know by name host online communities for their partner networks. These private online communities help to strengthen several types of partner relationships, including:

  • Managed services and outsourcing partners
  • Resellers
  • Distributors
  • Suppliers
  • Consultants
  • Vendors that serve customers
  • Technology solution partners
  • Referral partners

Why Do Organizations Invest In Partner Management?

According to a conversation that I recently had with B2B technology research firm, SiriusDecisions, over 50% of their customers' revenue comes through their partner channels. That is a significant chunk of their business that relies on motivated and informed partners.

Many user groups, associations, and other membership organizations rely on partner communities to create lucrative sponsorship packages in their gated online communities. The flexibility and added features of these vendor programs provide more value to both their vendor partners and their members than traditional sponsorship packages.

Though helping customers find more success with your products or services is the most well-known use of online community technology in the enterprise, partner communities have long played an important role in business growth. Sometimes partner communities are included in an organization's online customer community platform. Other times, they stand alone.

Not All Partner Relationships Are the Same

Segmentation built into most online community software is designed to handle multiple sub-communities accessing the community at once. For instance, you can have channel partners that sell you product through their sales and marketing channels accessing one area of the community and vendor partners that rely on your company to help drum up business by giving them exposure to your customers in the community as well. Their paths may never cross if your strategy calls for it.

Partner Networks Are Still Online Communities

While partner and supplier communities have different audiences, strategies, and content than online customer communities, many of the same community management principles apply. You still need to create value in the community so that partners have a reason to visit. Communities need to be private and exclusive. And you need to have community management processes in place to bring partners back the community consistently.

Why Are Online Partner Communities Important?

Partner strategies can be one of your most effective approaches to growing your business. The people in your partner organizations like you, know your products, and have a vested interest in seeing your market share increase. If you manage your partner community correctly and treat them well, partners offer an army of educated and energetic supporters that can reach deep into your market to promote your products and services.

I have seen companies engage partners to impact many different business goals, including:

  • Increasing revenue by selling more of your solution through the channel, referrals, or word-of-mouth marketing
  • Controlling support costs by providing answers to existing customers in your online customer community
  • Improving market advocacy by spreading your content, buzz, and product news throughout their networks

Components of a Killer Online Partner Community or Partner Social Network

As with all social business platforms, online partner network communities vary greatly from ecosystem to ecosystem. With online community software having hundreds of features, businesses are able to shape their partner communities around their specific strategies and goals, now and as the community evolves.

However, there are common themes of successful online partner communities. The three major ingredients are below.

#1) Business Development

Vendors, suppliers, and other companies mainly invest time and resources in a partnership with your organization for one reason—to generate revenue.

Although they may love your people and products, partners cozy up to your company to make money. Your online partner community is like a Swiss Army Knife for making sure that your partners have the tools, techniques, and information they need to successfully bring your product or service to market.

Some of the ideas that I have seen in practice include:

  • How-to blogs and video libraries with selling tips
  • Partner forums where they can discussion strategies
  • Partner newsletters targeting specific partner-types or product segments

If you partner network is part of your online customer community, you can also provide:

  • Access to help provide answers in customer discussion forums (This can be configured so that partners can respond to customer questions, but not start new discussions.)
  • Partner-focused discussion forums where customers can ask questions to and about vendors
  • Vendor resource libraries where customers can get specs and videos about partner's products
  • Seachable partner and vendor directories

The main business development focus behind managing channel relationships in a private partner social network is to identify what your partners need to sell you solution and provide relevant and insightful information to meet that need on a consistent basis.

#2) Support

Your customers are not the only stakeholders in your ecosystem that need product support. Though it is a different kind of customer service, a thriving partner network might need just as much support as your customer base to be successful.

Along with traditional support ticketing systems, customers have online customer communities to share solutions and get help from their peers. Though it is much less known, partners need a similar level of support. Here are some of the most common channel support features in online partner communities.

  • Support forums and listservs (away from the eyes of customers) where partners can ask questions and get answers from employees, experts, and other partners
  • Document and video libraries with how-tos and other product tips
  • Mobile community apps so that partners can get support in the field, such as on a client's site

Even if those in your channel are fierce competitors, they will often help each other solve product challenges and offer advice on specific market problems—all while building loyalty to your company and products.

Customer Community Tip: Partners are also a great source of support for your customers. By hosting your customer community and your partner community in separate (sometimes overlapping) areas on the same online community software platform, you have the opportunity to enable partners to help customers solve their problems. Both the nature of self-policing online communities and security settings in your social technology permit partners to help support customers without becoming a spammy nuisance.

#3) Feedback

You partner network can be one your company's most important product management tools. They exist outside the walls of your company and are often closer to the market than your product development team. Partners can not only deliver a vast amount of product input from existing and prospective customers, they have ideas for improving your distribution strategy, messaging, and channel processes.

Tips for using your online community software to get market data and feedback from your partner network include:

  • Set up private partner advisory boards in your online community where product executives and channel managers can engage your partners.
  • Integrate partner management professionals into your community management processes so that they can analyze partner activity to address concern and connect partners with questions with people that have answers.
  • Use the product idea tracking features in your online community to crowdsource features and product enhancements from your partner community.
  • Conduct live or virtual partner events through your online community's event management tools.

It is important not to overlook your partners' understanding of your customers' problems and preferences. While partner relationships often take a backseat to customer engagement strategies, many businesses gain a competitive advantage by looking to partners to be their eyes and ears in the market.

Online Partner Community Takeaway

Channels and partner relationships are a major tool for businesses to grow rapidly and control operational costs. In the same way that online customer communities are a big part of the future of customer relationship management, online partner communities are proving to be a critical part of building stronger and sustainable partner networks.

While you will configure your private partner social network to your specific partners and company during the online community software implementation process, you can build from the framework of business development, support, and feedback. This outline is also an excellent aid in communicating your partner strategy to stakeholders.

Topics: Engagement

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