What Is a Channel Partner Ecosystem & How Can It Impact Your Partner Program?

By: Ellen Linkenhoker
woman connecting with network of channel partners
If you’re not sure you want to jump on the ecosystem bandwagon, it’s too late—you already have.
It’s not that you don’t get a choice; it’s just happening around you whether you’re ready or not.
Put simply: A channel partner ecosystem is the new way to talk about a go-to-market strategy you’ve had in place for over a decade—your channel partners.
What has changed is the mentality and process for understanding what and who is included in your strategy. It’s no longer good enough to sign up anyone who says they will sell your product—or even to put every partner into the program you’ve got in place today. The partner landscape in any industry is just too small to offer a one-size-fits-all strategy to partners because they are:
  • a finite resource
  • being approached by competitors and your competition
  • impacting your buyer's journey at every stage
  • often responsible for more than half your revenue
So if you’re in the business of making money through your channel partners—and, really, aren’t we all?—listen up, because the times they are a-changin’.

No Need to Reinvent the Wheel With Partner Ecosystems—Just Revise It

Embracing your partner ecosystem is by no means telling you to scrap everything and start over. You have programs and partners in place that will never go away! So what does it mean? It’s easiest to think about by breaking it up into segments.
Current Partners
You’ve got programs in place that have a wealth of partners in them. You also know that only a fraction of those partners are bringing revenue to the table and of those a mere handful are collaborating with you at a level that accounts for a significant portion of your channel revenue.
These are what we call your transactional partners. Your classic partner program with traditional tiering based on performance plays here. And it’s not a bad model! It also will never go away.
BUT—you can get smarter with your investment with ongoing a/b incentive program testing to understand what will net the best sales results as well as uncover the specialization and expertise within your partners’ walls.
Doing so can take this tiering idea to a level that will not only help you encourage revenue growth but also recruit look-alike partners. Who doesn’t want more high performers?
So what about the bulk of your current partners who aren’t exactly who you thought you’d signed up?
Re-Evaluating Current Partners
These are the partners you’ve got in your program who might be showing high engagement (or not) but just don’t seem to bring dollars to the table in the traditional sense. Clearly they want to work with you though—so what gives?
They’re probably contributing to your bottom line in some way, it’s just not transactional. Some of these partners could be playing at the top of the funnel helping you build your pipeline through referrals, lead generation, word of mouth influence or the occasional recommendation.
Others could be helping you stay sticky with clients and renew business; think about the integration specialists connecting you to the rest of a customer’s business, or the MSP who layers in recurring services that align with your offering—they are just as invested in seeing the client stick with your products and services as they are theirs.
The key piece of the puzzle here? These are the partners helping influence the sale and the ones helping retain the business.
Here is where the ecosystem mentality really comes into play. You have to start thinking about these types of partners differently. The way they interact with your brand and the value they get in working with you is different from a transactional partner. And it has to be—you can’t tie direct revenue to them, so there is no percent of the sale, no new customer bonus, and no rebates to pull out of our traditional incentives box and hand to them as a reward for working with you.
But they’re still an important piece to the revenue puzzle—especially in a channel strategy. So the trick to the ecosystem is to find a home for these partner types—your influencer and retention channels. Then figure out how to work with and reward them.
The partner ecosystem mentality also means welcoming more of those new influencer and retention partner types into your programs.
Adding Partners
Once you’ve got your current partners into their appropriate homes, you can move forward with welcoming new partner types into the fold and feel comfortable knowing you’ve got the perfect place for them to thrive while working with you. What to look for here can be sussed out by understanding your industry influencers, how your customer buys and what keeps the customer experience so positive they never want to leave. This will likely mean filling in gaps in your partner ecosystem after you’ve identified the key places and people who interact with your buyer.
Ecosystem Opportunities
While you’re evaluating your partner strategy to embrace the ecosystem, it’s also a great time to evaluate how you categorize your partners. Inevitably, you’re going to have to collect, unearth, pull together all kinds of partner data to define your ecosystem and make it come to life. As you’re doing that, it presents the opportunity for you to apply a new lens to your partners. Consider:
  • Specialization with your products
  • Vertical and industry expertise
  • Geographically preferred services
  • Makeup of partner employees (roles like SEs, technicians, success managers, etc.)
  • Digital presence
All of these aspects can help you create a better partner program strategy and potentially identify trends or gaps in revenue, partner coverage and high-performer characteristics.
So welcome to the jungle—the partner ecosystem jungle. It’s time to think differently, make room for more than just our traditional partners and change the way we go to market. But if this makes you stressed or sends a bolt of anxiety down your spine, I want to remind you that you’re not alone: 76% of business leaders expect their current business models to be unrecognizable in five years. The reason? Ecosystems. It doesn’t mean out with the old, but it’s welcoming in the new.
Let's change how you go to market with a new mindset that includes all the partners in your distribution channel. Download our white paper to discover how to map your partner ecosystem with segmentation.

Ellen Linkenhoker
Ellen Linkenhoker

Ellen Linkenhoker is the Channel Partner Solutions Lead for ITA Group. She drives the insights, strategy and evolution of the organization’s channel solution while offering advisement for client engagement and incentive programs. She’s worked as a practitioner in technology, software and service companies as part of the channel and as a vendor. She is an award-winning marketer and navigates all things channel, marketing, incentives and engagement, including pioneering thought leadership on channel partner ecosystems and the partner experience.