Putting MDF to Work in New Ways

Ellen Linkenhoker
Ellen Linkenhoker

channel marketing communications campaign elements

Market development funds (MDF) have long been a staple in channel programs. They can help partners leverage vendor content, messaging, branding and demand generation initiatives in their local markets, which is critical to driving a winning customer experience. Unfortunately, the current disruption takes once tried-and-true investments for your MDF off the table.

Since the majority of vendors (63%) aren’t changing their MDF availability to partners, this is an opportunity to reimagine and innovate on the ways MDFs can best benefit the channel.

Rethinking MDF During Social Distancing

While social distancing has put a pause on in-person gatherings, people still want a chance to network and learn. So what happens when the largest piece of that output gets disrupted? What happens when the partners who were set to earn MDF are now behind goals and the dollars you budgeted to have sitting for them will never be used by the partner now?

Some companies are adjusting partner goals while others are pivoting to help fill the knowledge gap with virtual events, educational videos or by publishing thought-leadership content. But the surge in webinars being hosted makes it hard to differentiate. What’s going to make yours stand apart from the rest as something worth attending? Is it time to step up the communication and engagement tactics surrounding your webinars?

In-Person Events Are Paused—What Can Be Done Instead?

In-person events are not going away—they are still a very important aspect to channel and customer relationships that will be even more highly valued. While these in-person connections are paused, there are still ways to drive leads, capture attention and create brand awareness. And a run-of-the-mill webinar doesn’t have to be the only option.

How do you shift your MDF to better fuel your partners and bring value to them (and by association you)?

MDF programs were designed in the 1980s to service a one-way relationship between buyers and sellers that no longer exists—and yet they’re still around. The sheer number of ways to reach a buyer now is vast and most of those (68%) are starting online—it’s time to get digital. Here are some ways to get creative putting MDF to work in new ways for a partner program:

  1. Upgrade Webinars
    • Time: This time a year ago webinars scheduled for 60 minutes attracted 67% of registrations, while 30-minute webinars only attract 8% of registrations, according to one report. But is that still the case now? Experiment with shortened or elongated interactive sessions to buck the trend and stand out.
    • Engagement: Send a physical direct mail piece that infuses gamification tactics to drive attendees to participate. Perhaps there is a small incentive to attend or stay until the end. You could even create an “attend all X for Y” type incentive.
    • Content: Maximize your content by breaking up recorded webinars into easy to digest short videos, which can be sent to attendees and registrants and shared socially. Getting more use out of your content than a single recorded webinar will offer cost efficiencies. Every partner portal is (likely) begging for new, fresh and relevant content.
  2. Upgrade your Digital Presence
    • Optimize Website UX: Seemingly small optimizations (e.g., conversion rates, landing pages, navigation, log-ins, productizing, ecommerce, etc.) allow for a better overall user experience.
    • SEO & Content Marketing: Ensure your brand is seen, and associated with what buyers want. Unless you are showing up when and where buyers are looking, those buyers will likely never come to you. The same holds true for partners and in fact may be better represented with customers at a more lucrative locally priced rate vs. trying to reach the population as a whole with your brand message.
    • SEM & PPC: There are times when getting quick wins is essential. It can also be good to augment results while longer term fruit is maturing. While search engine marketing (SEM) is confined to search engines, Pay-per-click (PPC) can be done on a multitude of platforms for most businesses, Google and Facebook all the down to content driven downloads on digital media outlets.
  3. Develop Creative Communications Campaign(s)
    • Direct mailers: Develop direct mail pieces, product/service flyers, announcements, newsletters and thought leadership materials.
    • ABM & Other Door Opener Campaigns: Key marketing activities when timing is a factor. While you may bring in fewer leads, an effective ABM strategy will actually raise your marketing ROI because each lead will be worth more.
  4. Understand the Buyer
    • Collect, Sort & Analyze Data: Keep your data clean, organized and up to date.  Having complete data allows you to personalize media like display ads, emails and landing pages.
    • Segmentation: Offer segmentation analysis on partner data so they can better know their customer (and by result you’ll benefit too and be able to level-up incentive programs and enablement tactics).
  5. Influencer Programs
    • Referrals: Referral programs make it easier for a business to share your product or service with other decision-makers, streamline the sharing process, make referrals easy to track and reward the partner for sharing.
    • Testimonials: Creating an ongoing flow of testimonials helps to demonstrate to new customers that your product and service offering is strong, consistent and only improves over time.
    • Recommendations: Research shows 83% of consumers say they trust recommendations from family and friends. When your brand gets recommended to someone, they are likely to give it a shot.

What Makes Sense for Your MDF?

Spend some time thinking about what makes sense as an immediate shift for the use of your MDF and where your partners are at, then use some of your MDF to ensure your business partners wake up knowing you’re thinking of them so they can be thinking of ways they can sell for you.

These alternatives certainly do not rule out the opportunity to innovate in other ways, but a good approach would be to allocate more of your MDF budget across these areas while setting aside the remainder as discretionary budget for other creative marketing programs. Remember also that MDF programs need to evolve and change over time—they’re never a once-and-done program. The only way you can know how and when to make adjustments is to measure the results of what you’re doing.

I urge you to consider how, why and where you spend these dollars. As you analyze every other part of your program for impact to the bottom line—don’t leave MDF out.

It’s time to think differently and make room for new ways to go to market. And that starts with diving into your partner ecosystem. Seriously—it can impact your partner programs.

Ellen Linkenhoker

Ellen Linkenhoker

Ellen is a life-long learner who finds joy in exploring new ideas and thrives on disruption in all forms. She is an award-winning marketer and navigates all things channel, incentives, and tech. In her role as an Insights & Strategy Leader at ITA Group she keeps a pulse on the changes in the market to direct the vision, position, and evolution of their incentives portfolio. Her position as a leader on the American Marketing Association board keeps her immersed in the latest trends and advances in the marketing field. When she’s not working or volunteering you can find her competing on the volleyball court or working on home renovation projects with her husband.