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Keeping It Relevant, Keeping It Real: Summit Session Tackles Promoting Joint Marketing Initiatives amid COVID-19

Posted By Jon Lavietes, Thursday, July 23, 2020

“Enterprises are being tested. People are being tested. Certainly, strategic alliances are being tested.” As Mark Reino, principal and founder of Merit Mile, spoke, a quote from Cengage CEO Michael Hansen about the importance of staying ahead of the curve in these trying times appeared on the screen. A few moments later, Andrea Katsivelis, global strategic marketing advisor at Microsoft, shared anecdotes accompanied by screen shots of young children, dogs, and cats making unsolicited cameos in work-related Zoom meetings and Microsoft conferences. Shortly thereafter, a Warren Buffett quote graced the screen offering the silver lining that we will all be better off in the long run after we overcome the interruptions to our normal ways of doing business that have been forced upon us.

Reino and Katsivelis were setting the tone for the 2020 ASAP Global Alliance Summit session “Are Your Alliance Marketing Strategies Destined to Boom or Bust?” They were about to spend the next half-hour reviewing some of the basic tenets of joint marketing, but first they wanted to remind viewers that we have to play the cards we are dealt and make sure our marketing programs account for the current climate.

“We learn how to block out the noise and accommodate. It’s a lot to handle. It’s the elephant in the partnership virtual room, and we keep on working through it,” said Katsivelis.

Flexibility Helps Stretch Shrinking Marketing Dollars, Resources

With that, it was time for the audience to feast on the meat and potatoes of joint marketing. Reino began by emphasizing that alliance marketers, like many of us, are being asked to do more with less—or “more with flexibility,” he said, trying to put a positive spin on it. “More partner alliances. Fewer dollars to support them. Quicker timelines and limited access to people and resources.”

Joint marketers also face tactical challenges. According to Merit Mile’s own research, 55 percent of executives felt that the development of substantive joint messaging is the toughest part of creating a business plan, while 40 percent cited limited access to subject matter experts (SMEs) as the biggest obstacle in plan execution. On top of that, companies are facing a talent shortage; there aren’t enough specialized joint content marketers to perform essential marketing tasks, such as joint messaging and sales enablement. Moreover, 54 percent struggle to produce memorable messaging, 42 percent encounter bottlenecks in joint marketing/sales programs, and 40 percent do not have access to creative teams.

Katsivelis concurred that joint messaging, in particular, is “a struggle.” “Finding those key points that resonate can be like finding a unicorn,” she said, before reiterating that these hurdles are compounded by the fact that alliance portfolios aren’t shrinking. More than half of organizations expect to increase or maintain the same number of alliances in 2020, yet nearly half of people are still using traditional tools like spreadsheets and email instead of modern digital transformation tools to manage these large stables of partnerships—14 percent have no formal process or tools at all.

Content to Address the Customer’s Problem

How should marketing partners solve these challenges? Reino started with an idea that, on the face of things, should go without saying.

“Having a plan and executing it might seem simple enough, but the data indicates that four in 10 companies do not have a COVID-19 plan or a crisis communications plan in general,” said Reino. In addition, 23 percent are not communicating externally or don’t know how.

One of the most important tools for bringing plans to fruition: content that resonates with prospects and customers, which Katsivelis proceeded to address in greater depth.

“No one wants to be pitched on how great your company and alliance is, or how your widget is the best,” she cautioned. Rather, the goal is to get your prospect to connect with a story or image that resonates in a “lasting and meaningful way.”

To spark this relationship, it helps to address the customer’s problem or need, and then back it up with customer success stories. On a more granular level, Katsivelis stressed the importance of sprinkling keywords related to the business problems you are solving into the title, opening paragraph, headings, and tags to help your content gain SEO traction. Most important, both partners must align on what exactly the customer need is and how the partners can remedy it together.

Storytelling is particularly critical in email marketing, the method of customer communication leveraged by 65 percent of Merit Mile’s survey respondents. However, Katsivelis emphasized not looking at any single piece of communication in a vacuum. No single ad, blog post, or web page will sustain a marketing campaign, but “a planned series of connections that inform [the prospect]” will create and maintain a steady drumbeat as long as every piece of content starts with the business challenge, not the alliance’s joint solution. Katsivelis called this process feeding the “conversation funnel with your content.”

Third Parties Are the First Choice for Delivering Your Message

Dotting your content with contributions from thought leaders is paramount. Once you identify the appropriate experts for your marketing plan, be aware that each might present different opportunities and constraints in working with them. Some are very busy and need help creating content. Others are excellent writers but not necessarily dynamic speakers. Many have large social networks and lots of followers to leverage.

Third-party experts are pivotal to your marketing campaigns as a whole, not just your content, as both presenters explained later in the presentation. Tech bloggers, journalists, industry analysts, customer advocates, and independent SMEs lend added credibility to your messages that inherently cannot be earned by even your most respected company executives.  

“The notion of credible industry leaders extending your message to targeted audiences is here to stay. From the agency standpoint, the number of these types of requests for paid media have increased nearly tenfold over the last two years,” said Reino, who added that influencer marketing isn’t just for consumer audiences anymore; B2B companies that don’t engage independent influencers will get left behind.

The Road to Salesperson Adoption Is Financially Driven

Joint marketers must also bake internal and external communication into their plans to highlight alliance successes. Reino outlined four elements of driving alliance program awareness: 1) energize audiences with fun materials, 2) educate both external and internal audiences on how your programs will help them strategically, 3) recognize high performers and success stories at appropriate moments—Reino urged viewers to be judicious in doling out praise, however—and 4) create incentive programs that drive the financial structure of the alliance program.

To that last point, Reino reminded the audience that the sales department has many solutions to sell, so it is up to the alliance team to make joint solutions a higher priority. Sales accelerators, special compensation plans, employee recognition and rewards, and hands-on assistance from the alliance team in joint planning and coselling are just some examples of tools alliance marketers can use to whet salespeople’s appetites.

“This audience is largely financially driven,” Reino said.

Show You Care When You Share

Of course, as Reino and Katsivelis said at the outset of the session, these principles need to be contextualized in today’s socially conscious climate. According to Metric Mile’s survey, 41 percent of people feel socially responsible messaging has a positive impact on alliances, which is why organizations must get COVID-19 messaging right. Katsivelis said Microsoft has actively touted its recent partnerships that help identify and track coronavirus cases. The organization has also actively engaged its own employees to make sure they are safe and give them a sense of community in this time of remote work and social distancing. By contrast, in looking at her own inbox, Katsivelis swore that most organizations “have missed the mark” in their coronavirus-related communication in that they talk the talk about caring about their customers but don’t get into “what they can do to help or provide new information that can be relevant to me.” 

Companies have also seen recent opportunities to align with the growing Black Lives Matter movement or Pride Month in June. Either way, if companies decide to connect with particular segments of the population, content and social media engagement should be developed and delivered through the lens of those audiences.

“Are Your Alliance Marketing Strategies Destined to Boom or Bust?” wasn’t the only source for marketing knowledge at the first-ever virtual ASAP Global Alliance Summit. Check out our coverage of veteran Citrix marketer Liz Fuller’s on-demand session on creating marketing moments. Or better yet, use your Summit registration credentials to watch “Integrated Joint Alliance Marketing Best Practices: How to Establish Joint Marketing Moments That Drive Impact” in its entirety, as well as several other presentations that are chock-full of tricks of the trade for optimizing your alliance portfolio.

Tags:  alliance  alliance program  Andrea Katsivelis  best practices  Cengage  COVID-19  Joint Marketing Initiatives  Mark Reino  Merit Mile  Michael Hansen  Microsoft  modern digital transformation  strategic alliances 

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