This conversation is transcribed from our podcast Between Product and Partnerships, a podcast brought to you by our group the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance. It’s focused on bringing together product, partnerships, partner marketing and engineering leaders to discuss how to build support and scale SaaS ecosystems. If you're interested in watching or listening in on this conversation, you can access the video here and a link to listen on podcast platforms here.
Sonal Uban is the Director of Marketing for Technology Alliances at Fortinet, a global leader for cybersecurity services. In this interview with Liz Garcia, the Community Manager of the SaaS Ecosystem Alliance, she shares:
- How smaller companies can get the attention of larger partners
- Underutilized methods for co-marketing
- How she’s scaled co-marketing & attribution tracking
- What to do before taking joint-solutions to market
- A framework for assessing the compatibility of a tech partnership
Sonal: It's great to be in conversation with you, Liz. To introduce myself, I’m the Director of Marketing at Fortinet. My role really is to engage in relationship building with strategic partners and scale out the program in terms of marketing.
This includes co-marketing with non-strategic partners, with strategic partners, and then there's very, very strategic partners. I help scale them effectively to impact sales and define the go-to-market for each partner in a way that’s meaningful for them in driving business together.
Liz: Before we actually get into some more technical advice, I'd love to hear about your transition into your current role. I know you've gone from being a Partner Marketing Manager to the Director of Marketing for Technology Alliances at a very large company.
What was that transition like? What skills did you bring with you that you felt best prepared you for your current role? What were some learning curves that you experienced?
Sonal: That’s a very interesting question. I actually started my career at a startup. I got to experience a lot of the roles. You know, in a startup, you're a lean team, you can just walk over to the product team or the marketing teams and most times engage with them and make decisions really quickly.
Then I transitioned into a much larger company, which is still lean and mean and very fast working. But now I have to be mindful of the organizational hierarchy. I have to factor in timelines and lead times when making a decision. I've been on both sides of the fence and I've enjoyed them thoroughly.
It was a very interesting transition, but I have to confess, it wasn't very difficult for me. When you talk about alliances, partner marketing or even marketing in general, soft skills like communication are the most important skill sets. For me, I think that was the number one reason why I was able to transition and do so successfully.
Any alliance marketing person, or an alliance manager, has to be very good at people skills, business skills, and relationship skills. These are the three things that you're really bringing with you in any role that has something to do with alliances.
Maybe I should take a step back. What are alliances? Alliances are the coming together of two organizations. In the end, it is the people that are involved, and the personal relationships and the business relationships that you develop with them that helped make a partnership a success.
You can get to touch markets, audiences, or personas you may not already be touching.
Go-to-market with alliance partners is very critical, because you can get to touch markets and audiences or personas that you may not already be touching, but your business interests are aligned to those.
When it comes to communication, the soft skills that you're bringing into your role are of two types. You have to be a very good diplomat, because you have to align the interests of the two parties. You need to get the buy-in of all those involved, not just within the organization, but also outside your organization. You have to be a very, very good diplomat and that means you have to be a good talker, you have to be a very good communicator.
The second piece of that communication is being a very good analyst. By that I mean you have to be a good listener, and you have to hear your partner and what's happening within your organizations to start connecting the dots to make it easy for both parties to align interests.
The other piece is acting as a business manager, where you're bringing your financial acumen, your business insights, even to some degree, sales insight and negotiation skills.
Negotiation plays a very important role in any alliances position, including alliances marketing, because you're constantly trying to get more, give more, or give less. There's always a party that wants more, and there's always a party that's trying to make things happen within their means.
You also have to be a fast thinker and think out of the box when you're talking about marketing campaigns. Always bring your innovative hat. Those are the skill sets that I would say have helped me transition into this role very successfully.
Liz: I definitely agree about the soft skill of being able to manage those relationships. Your point about being an analyst was really interesting, I haven't really heard anyone speak about the role in that way. You also mentioned having to be more mindful of where you're positioned within the organization and how you communicate with others based on that, within large organizations.
Where do you currently sit in the org chart? Who do you report to in your role? What does that collaboration with tech partnerships and product look like?
Liz: For example, when deciding on a new technology partnership to focus on, what role does everyone play in that? Are you seen as a reporting team to partnerships or is it more of a collaborative effort where everyone's on the same playing field?
Sonal: That's a good question. You know, typically, alliances in most organizations sit under sales. Very interestingly at Fortinet we fit under the CMO. So we sit under the marketing organization.
Alliances Marketing is really a facilitating role.
That's a very interesting strategy. At Fortinet, they realize that alliances and alliances marketing is really a facilitating role. You're facilitating something to enable sales to bring the internal stakeholders and the external stakeholders together.
The product we own is called the open ecosystem, which is nothing but a community of partners.
You are product owners in your own right, and the product we own is called the open ecosystem, which is nothing but a community of partners involved. You're owning the product, from a development standpoint, as well as from a marketing standpoint within the firm.
You now become the facilitator, the owner to bring the technical stakeholders together, and the marketing stakeholders together and the business stakeholders together to take that partnership to new heights for the success metrics for both companies.
Now, as with any alliance, when you're embarking on a new partnership, how do you really assess whether that partnership makes sense? Is it even worth advancing? We have so many different companies that we're talking to.
I would have to say the first team you have to get the buy-in from are the product owners or the technical stakeholders because they are the ones that help you define the first piece of any alliance framework, which assesses the compatibility of the solution.
If it is compatible, how do we bring those two together in a way that benefits our mutual customers? What knowledge is the result? What use cases can be defined if it is successfully able to come together? Once you establish the scope of being able to work together with the product team, and once they validate it, then you start to define the marketing piece.
Then, you define the awareness that you want to bring to your customers, the business and sales side of it. Technical stakeholders like the product managers, solution architects, solution engineers, or developers are usually the first team that you engage with and the first stakeholder that you have to get buy-in from.
Partnerships used to be a nice-to-have at one point in time. Now, it's become a must-have.
It’s important because these days the customers own anywhere from 30+ multi-vendor solutions. The customers want to buy the best in their own areas of need, or requirements. It’s even more political now. Partnerships used to be a nice-to-have at one point in time. Now, it's become a must have.
We have to define how companies are coming together, and how they bring the solutions together. The product team helps us do that. Once they validate the solution, then we take it to market. We all need equal footing, but the first piece of that footing starts with the technical team
Liz: I was going to ask you about what makes a tech partner great, or a framework that you would use to determine who to partner and market with, but you spoke a little bit to how the product team really does the defining of who that is.
How do you define a great partner or a great company to partner with? What is the framework you have in place?
Sonal: The first piece of it is something I've covered previously, which is, what is that company running for Fortinet?
Let's say I'm analyzing this from Fortinet’s perspective, the first thing I realized or had to realize is:
- What is the product that the company is offering?
- What is the innovation they provide?
- Is their solution compatible with my solution?
- If we did decide to partner, how quickly can they scale the integration?
- Are they able to bring the integration to a level that would be very beneficial for my customer and our mutual customers? This piece of it is defined by the technical teams I defined earlier.
The second piece of it is the culture. The business compatibility.
- Is my partner and I seeking the same things out of this?
It may differ, but it still has to be complementary, and we both should stand to gain something. If we do, that makes for a good partner.
The third piece that is very important for us is the market and category leadership of that particular company. We are leaders in what we do. Fortinet is a leader in what they're bringing to the table, and we put a little extra emphasis on whether our partner is also a category leader.
- Will our customers recognize this partner?
- Do they enjoy market penetration?
- Are there markets that we want to penetrate that this partner can help with?
- Are they marketing in the same areas or in complementary areas?
- Are they catering to the same audience or persona?
Again, it doesn't always have to be the same, but it has to be complementary. Each of us should stand to gain something from the other.
The fourth, and, in my opinion, the most important is the nature and depth of the collaboration. How committed is the partner to our relationship? You don't want to be the only one committed to the partnership. Sometimes with very big partners you can feel like you're putting in all the effort, and you're not really getting the same recognition or commitment back.
Sometimes it's okay, but in most partnerships I think it's important to be equal to them, and have the same commitment on both sides. Both parties have to be able to collaborate and go-to-market and put the best into that partnership.
Liz: You actually touched on this a little bit, but I did want to get your perspective from someone who would be the bigger fish in the relationship. Any tips that you would provide to smaller companies who wanted to get marketing resources from large partners, like yourself?
You mentioned some of the things that you're specifically looking for in your partners.
Is there anything different that you would recommend to smaller partners who are trying to get the attention of larger companies like Fortinet? Anything you'd recommend that would be compelling to you, specifically?
Sonal: On both sides, I understand where some of the smaller companies are coming from. From the perspective of a bigger company, my advice to smaller companies is not to rush into the partnership. Take your time, be a good listener, understand the framework that matters to the bigger company.
Every company has their own sprint. Most of the bigger companies are very KPI driven, very goals driven. It's important for the smaller companies to understand what those goals might be.
Take ownership, be the driver of that partnership.
When you embark on a new partnership, don't be impatient about getting the most out of the big company. Take your time to prove your worth, to prove your mettle to the company, show them what you got. Then start to build that relationship and become hungry at an appropriate time.
One of the biggest mistakes I find with some of the smaller companies is when they come to us, we walk them through the framework, and as soon as you complete a solution with them the next question they ask sometimes is, “Can we do a webinar together?”
I always have to respond and say “In due time.” We have to do the legwork of creating awareness internally before going to an external audience.
Yes, it can be done, but if I had 225 partners, I have to prioritize the partner based on the strategic side of things. Some of them are bringing more revenue than you, I have to bring them up in the line.
Rather, I would recommend smaller companies to take the lead in driving those webinars. Instead of through a joint webinar, maybe say, “I'd like to do a webinar on the joint solution that we've just completed. Can you provide me with a speaker? We will take the onus of driving the attendance, but maybe you can help us promote it in some way?”
When you position it like that, it becomes a lot easier for the bigger companies to comply with, as opposed to going full on with a joint campaign that becomes a little harder to justify.
That's my recommendation to smaller companies. Understand the frameworks, understand the challenges with the bigger companies and play smartly with them in the initial years with your partnership. I urge you to take ownership, be the driver of that partnership.
Slowly and steadily build that relationship to a place where it becomes meaningful for you to ask for more resources from that bigger partner. You will get to that point, I promise you, but give it time.
Liz: That's great advice. As you pointed out, it's not a good idea to do all this external marketing work when there hasn't been education about the solution internally yet. It sounds as if that's something that you really prioritize before you go to market with partners.
How do you enable education internally before engaging in more externally focused marketing efforts?
Sonal: Absolutely. One of the challenges within larger companies is getting the messaging to everyone. It's hard. Especially when you are one of the largest ecosystems in this industry, it becomes especially hard. How often do you present the partners to your sales people?
At the end of the day, like I said, we are facilitators. We need the team to pick up on it and to sell it and to take it to the customers. They absolutely will, but there's also so much in their mind, and they have to learn our own technology.
You don't want customers approaching sales about partners they have not been informed about.
On top of that, you're asking them to be aware of partners’ technology and be able to speak intelligently about it. Personally, what's very dear to me is awareness. Awareness is very important. You can do a lot of things to build awareness. Tactically, there are a lot of avenues.
For example, at Fortinet, we have newsletters that reach out to our sales team. We do webinars internally, where we invite partners to speak. Maybe there's an industry event, and we find that a particular partner is very complementary to our solution. We would invite them to industry partners to speak in our booth. That gets the attention of the salesforce too and they start to sit up and take note of it.
Tactically, there are a lot of different things and tools that you can use. I would urge companies to focus on building awareness internally as step one. Use whatever tactics you have, but get the word out on partnerships internally before you start to talk about it externally.
You don't want customers approaching your sales force about solutions they have no idea about. Start building awareness internally, then externally. After that you can start to build on that awareness and develop tactics with your partners. Then once you start bringing the leads, you can focus on the right quality of lead, and start to focus on the conversion rate.
We start to measure that by putting a ribbon on everything you've done around the partnership, by measuring the lifetime value. It's not just about the number of leads, it is about the quality of leads. As you start to track those leads, you start to put a value to that lifetime value of the partnership based on the opportunity that lead is developing into.
Awareness, demand gen, conversion and lifetime value. This is the way you advance the partnership. I'm sure different companies have different approaches, but this is something that has worked successfully at Fortinet.
I urge other companies to equally demand gen and awareness. A lot of companies are jumping to demand gen without building awareness internally. I think that's remiss of them.
Liz: That's some really great insight. You actually jumped into what I wanted to get your input on next, around the partner marketing or the alliance marketing KPIs from your perspective.
Are there any partner marketing or alliance marketing KPIs that you could share specifically that you work towards throughout that internal and external awareness process?
Sonal: It really depends on the avenue you're using. For awareness, we use newsletters, we use articles, blog posts, and bite sized videos to start to get the message out internally, and maybe externally as well.
As an overview, we generally track unique visitors, page views, traffic sources, and visits per channel. These are some of the metrics that I assign, and I look for. Are people clicking on my link? Are people listening to it? How long are they staying on that page? Are they engaging with my blog post? Are they asking questions? Those are some of the things you have to start watching out for.
The more engagement, the more interesting that partnership is from our perspective. That's important as we start to progress the partnership and we start to take the messaging externally.
From an alliance marketing perspective, it's very important to keep in mind your budget with demand gen. What is the cost per lead? If you're bringing a partner into the fold, or you're engaging in co-marketing with a partner, what is the cost per lead that you're paying?
Did the partner co-marketing help you bring more leads in? Maybe they brought fewer leads in, but the quality of the lead was phenomenal. You start to watch out for those kinds of metrics, and then, of course, the conversion rate.
How many of those leads are actually converting into a meeting, and opportunities? As you start to do that, you start to now put a value to the partnership. If there are closed deals, how much revenue or what opportunities did those partners act as an influencer? That could be one of many scenarios.
If there's an opportunity you're engaged with, and those customers already own your partner's product, then that integration and that partnership starts to act as an influential aspect of sales opportunity. Maybe the customers owned only one product of the core partners.
Now because of your messaging, they’re engaged and evaluating the other partner. Maybe a division that you were not engaged with before is now sitting up and taking note of you because you've got that co-marketing message out, the go-to-market, and joint messaging out.
These are some of the metrics you have to watch out for.
- How influential are your partners?
- How many opportunities are they impacting?
- How many leads are they bringing in?
With that, you start to put a dollar value to that partnership, which builds on what we call a lifetime value. That's the value of the partner generated need over time to my business.
Liz: We've done a couple panels on this, and actually haven't heard, many people mentioned that aspect.
What are some of the ways that you track influence and attribution to leads, especially at such a large company?
Given your experience with a startup, I’m curious about your perspective as to how that scales from a smaller company to a larger company?
Sonal: Yeah, I mean, I've been at startups where we've done the attributes in an Excel sheet. I think everyone starts there, let's be honest. Even at Fortinet. Then as you scale you realize you have to have a better process, you have to make it more systematic and streamlined.
Over the years, I've experimented with many different processes, but two of them work really well for me, so I'm going to talk about those two. One is a Salesforce attribution, or whatever CRM you're using.
When you are engaged with a partner in a joint campaign, it’s important to create a campaign ID within Salesforce and tag or attribute that campaign to all the partners involved with that campaign. Then as you upload your leads, and you start to track the progress of those leads over time, you start to now track the progress of your partnership.
If a co-marketing campaign or a joint campaign with Partner A that I did in 2020 resulted in a closed opportunity in 2021 or 2022, with the help of that tagging or tracking I can attribute it to the actual source. Now I know that partnership matters to the degree that they close for.
We also use a tool called WorkSpan. It's an ecosystem management tool. We actually just started using it last year. Using integrations, it allows me to pull a subset of the leads that close or that originated through a joint campaign attributed to a particular partner.
I can track the success of that partner as opposed to the lead. WorkSpan, I can track this partnership in terms of the revenue, the MQL, leads that you’re engaged with, etc. So you can now take a partnership view using that tool. It allows you to incentivize the customer to come into the tool and register some deals, and take assistance from Fortinet.
All of those things over time help to bring the companies together, establish a closer working relationship, and follow the progress of the leads over time with the correct value to the right attribution. Sometimes in Excel, that doesn't really happen. If you have tools to help you track that, I think that's very critical.
Liz: Thank you for sharing those two tools. I'd also want to shift gears a little bit and talk to some of the partner marketing tactics that you have found particularly successful in with partners.
Are there any techniques that you've seen being underutilized or that you've seen a lot of success with in your role that could offer SaaS companies big gains? Or unique examples?
Sonal: That's a great question, Liz, because it might be an obvious answer, but I really think co-marketing and affiliate marketing are underutilized. I think oftentimes, companies end up focusing too much on their own marketing, your own corporate marketing, which is very important, of course, but I think that companies have to open up an avenue for the partners to plug in as well.
Both co-marketing and affiliate marketing have a lot more scope to be adopted. Very simple things like joint white papers, or networking events that are designed as a peer-to-peer event in the industry. These are things that customers find very powerful.
Think bigger. Think ecosystem. Think alliances. Bring more complementary solutions to the customer.
We all know what is on the top of customers’ minds, the pain points. We know that. So we have to find ways to partner with companies or come together with your partners to reach out to those customers using advanced white paper or a webinar or a podcast. That's called co-marketing. Get the shared voices together.
Instead of addressing one pain point in each of those avenues, bring the voices together to give a customer a more holistic view for addressing the pain points. That's very important.
In corporate marketing, each asset might address any one pain point, or maybe several different points, but with one solution. What I'm saying is think bigger, think ecosystem, and think alliances. Bring more voices to that customer. They're hearing multiple solutions or they're hearing complementary solutions for that pain point. You're taking the legwork away from the customer.
Affiliate marketing partnerships really are where you're incentivizing another business to independently drive traffic or conversions to a tracking URL. From a bigger company perspective, you should create a more tactical approach, then hand it over to your partner so that they can co-brand it and start to drive audiences to that asset.
With more assets and more teams, even if they're a smaller company, they don't have to spend a lot of money to co-market with you. That's affiliate marketing. Give them a tracking URL, develop a page with them, have them drive traffic, let them write their own customers that, but enable them to do that.
We are the bigger company, we have to step up. The companies that have the resources or the means, I think we should step up to doing that.
For example, develop an asset, or develop something like a webpage, that speaks to the partnership and is co-branded.
Then, arm your partners with those pages and assets, and let them do the legwork driving traffic to those pages. Give them the support they need in developing the messaging. That has worked really well for me.
I just wrapped up a joint campaign with a partner where we developed a white paper. We put it out there to the co-marketing engines. We took the help of a third-party content marketing company, called Tech Target, it’s pretty well known in the industry.
It was such a concerted effort, where we were very focused on the message that we were trying to get out. Using that white paper, we were able to take an ABM approach and it was fantastic. We got 300 accounts that we wanted to target, and we were able to reach out to them. It wasn't something that I could have done alone.
Because of the shared voice in that paper, we were able to bring the best of the two companies together and take it to a company that both of us are struggling to reach out to. We used a joint effort and it was very successful.
We were able to reach out to accounts that each of us alone were not able to reach out to. I urge companies to co-market more and to develop more affiliate marketing. It’s a little underutilized even today.
Liz: Ecosystem Marketing is really powerful. I've never really heard of that perspective for affiliate marketing. That's really great tactical advice, and also seems like a really great way to scale your partner marketing efforts with not as much of a lift going in.
Thank you so much for connecting with me and offering your expertise to our audience. Is there anywhere where our audience can connect with you on LinkedIn, etc.
Sonal: I would love to engage with people. Absolutely. My LinkedIn page is live and active. You can connect with me at Sonal Uban. I'm happy to connect with anyone that wants my perspective or who just wants to chat over coffee with me.
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