Solving the Marketing Development Fund problem

Marketing Development funds – MDF. It should be a great benefit, a potent tool to drive your brand through the channel shouldn’t it, after all its effectively free money you make available to your channel partners, either as part of their partner contract or through joint marketing plans. So why is it so frustratingly difficult to get them to use it effectively?

The first of many problems is often getting them to take it in the first place. Here’s a question to ponder…

How many of your SMB reseller partners have funds in their MDF account right now that they are not using?

I would guess quite a lot if my experience in the IT channel is anything to go by, and I’m sorry to say that the reason those funds are gathering dust rather than driving business is at least partially your fault.

There, I said it. Yes I know you create marketing portals and make assets available for download and do everything you can think of to encourage partners to engage, but the simple truth is that for every gate you open, you close another with often overly-complicated approval forms and labyrinthine claiming processes that can frankly put the fear of God into resellers that have neither the time, expertise or experience in creating effective marketing. In short, partners perceive the risk as outweighing the potential rewards.

I have spoken to hundreds of SME resellers during my 10 years working in channel marketing and a vast majority of them have said they would make more use of MDF if they had the time, expertise and didn’t feel that they risked their investments by falling foul of the claiming process or failing to deliver the minimum Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to ensure payment.

On the other side of the coin, you as vendors are quite rightfully very protective of your money and brands. You are for the most part large global organisations and need to ensure that the central USP and brand image you have worked hard to develop is not eroded by incorrect use through a sprawling partner network that crosses both geographical and cultural borders. This leaves you with the dichotomy of wanting your partners to drive your message through the channel, whilst at the same time protecting your brand and ensuring the funds you give them are auditable and used effectively.

The divide between these goals is pretty stark, with Partners often seeing you as large and uncaring, worrying too much about the “global” picture and not recognising the differing needs of individual regions and verticals. From your side you view MDF as a logistical nightmare and have seen so much money go to waste that you have been forced to put in progressively greater and greater checks and balances to manage it… So, what do we do?

Well option 1 is to carry on with the status quo, but I think everyone can agree that is probably not a sustainable long-term model given everything I have just outlined.

Option 2 is giving up on the whole idea, but that’s not really a viable option either for more reasons that I could possibly fit into this post.

That leaves us with option 3 – Do things better. Yes, I know that’s easy to say, so how do we do things better?

I’m no guru, of course, and I most definitely don’t have some secret formula to success. But I do have enough experience to have an opinion, and enough knowledge to suggest ways we can refine things at least a little, so here they are.

This is definitely a quid pro quo situation, but for this article I’m going to focus on what you as Vendors can do to get a far better Return on Investment (ROI) from your marketing investment.

Don’t throw money at the problem and hope it will go away.

Sorry if that sounds harsh, but I’ve seen that tactic used more than once and watched it deliver little or no value every time. Creating a bigger and better “portal” isn’t a catch all solution and neither is simply giving partners more money. Don’t get me wrong, more money is always welcome and marketing portals are a great tool which I’m a big fan of, but portals should be the cherry on the cake of a robust channel marketing philosophy, not the whole cake.

Try to avoid putting partners in categories.

Yeah, I get it, this is really tough, especially if your partner community count can be measured in the thousands. The temptation will always be to create generic assets for “country A” or cookie cutter copy for “vertical B”. It’s the option that protects your brand and also allows you cover the most bases without creating thousands of versions of the same campaign.

The problem with this is that there is no such thing as a typical partner. They are all as unique as the people that run them and the customers they serve, so simply serving up generic content to hard won customers devalues their individuality and ultimately stifles diversity within your community.

There will always be a need for generic content of course, there is simply no way to make every campaign unique, but by making bespoke content easier to deliver for those that want or need it you will see the overall quality of marketing, and subsequently your ROI, improve exponentially.

Show your partners the respect they deserve.

Your partners are for the most part at least as knowledgeable about your products as you are, and more than that they are the tip of the spear when it comes to real world applications. Because of that they should be given latitude to offer up their own insights as part of the campaigns they do. Make sure the assets you make available give them the chance to express this knowledge to their customers and develop their own identity within your community.

Simplify the Process.

Any process that gets in the way of delivering the service it is designed for is a process that needs to change. Overly complicated processes are a symptom of a lack of trust, trust in partners to deliver a message that protects your brand and trust that they will use the MDF for the right things. These processes have come about off the back of hard lessons learned over many years and I’m not for one second suggesting that those checks and balances are relaxed too much.

The thing to remember in all of this is that marketing has never and will never be an exact science, so expecting partners to forecast potential ROI before the campaign has even taken place is frankly counter-productive. Sometimes 1+1 = rabbit in the marketing world and therefore “finger in the air” guestimates on the number of leads or potential sales are nowhere near as useful as a solid plan of action and deliverable KPI’s. Focus more on the “why” and timescales in approval forms, this will ensure that attention is given to content and timely delivery. Funding is important. ROI is important and I fully appreciate that decisions on funding marketing are subject to intense internal scrutiny.

Try to ask questions that partners feel they can answer honestly, rather than simply completing what they think you want to hear to secure the funding they need. That way you’ll get more accurate plans and you’ll be able to judge if the investment you are being asked for is likely to deliver the uplift you want.

Move Marketing up the agenda.

“…and marketing support”.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this statement closing the benefits section of the partner program brochure, and it irks me every time! Why is it last? Surely helping your partners grow and develop their customer base is one of the main things you can help them with, after all isn’t that exactly what you did to become a successful vendor in the first place?

Your partners become your partners because they want to be part of your success story and grow their own business as a result. They like your products and services so much that they are willing to invest their own future in what you do, so surely helping them with marketing themselves deserves more than a reluctant footnote in a brochure.

Marketing is probably the thing they struggle with the most. They are usually astute business people with a great technical capability and so if you can offer them a simple and effective way to market themselves then why wouldn’t they engage?


The simple answer to the MDF question is that there is no single simple answer, so I suppose to summarise:

  1. Yes, we need processes, but do they really need to be so complicated as to deter people from participation?
  2. The best marketing will always put the “why” ahead of the “how” or even the “how much”.
  3. Partners need support at least as much as they need funding.
  4. If partners are scared to innovate for fear of losing their funding then channel marketing will stagnate and become less effective.
  5. Portals and funding are part of the answer, not the whole answer.

This is of course a very simplistic overview of an extremely complicated situation, and every vendor will have their own requirements, goals and challenges, but whatever flavour of channel marketing you are involved with the fundamental issues are in truth very similar.

The Sell:

This whole post is, of course, designed to highlight the issues we all know are there, and to make you ask the question – Can do anything to improve your current solution? Contact us at Clever Marketing to see that we can “walk the walk” after “talking the talk”.

I’m not going to devalue the advice we’ve offered up with a long and convoluted pitch promising you some snake oil cure to all your MDF ills. We know enough to know that we don’t have all the answers, so we’ll simply invite you to call us. Test our knowledge, insight and ability to streamline your MDF process. Support your partners more effectively, improve your ROI and truly make MDF a benefit rather than the burden it is in danger of becoming.

Clever Marketing - Hampshire SEO & Digital AgencyClever Marketing are a Hampshire digital marketing agency with specialist channel marketing expertise. Spend your Marketing Development Fund effectively and generate the right leads for your vendors with our in-house team, an extension of yours.

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