Frank Belzer has a lot of wisdom to share about partner communities, and perhaps the most notable angle he takes is the importance of putting faith in people and partners over technology and analytics.

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"You have to believe that the people who are passionate, who know more, who understand more about your product, who have your product top of mind, you have to believe that those people are going to do a better job helping you to sell your product," he says in Episode 551 of Marketing Smarts. "Tracking that by person is very difficult, so there is a little bit of faith that you have to have."

So, what do the people in your partner community need? What do they expect, and how can they help? It's essential, Frank says, to have a vision.

"If you don't lay the groundwork correctly on what your vision is for the community and what your expectations are, you're going to get sucked into what I call this technology hell of the vendor who is providing the platform dictating to you what a community should look like," Frank says.

That's the unique thing about partner communities: Unlike many other areas of marketing, a community can't be entirely automated. It can't be managed by a chatbot.

"Although it's a technology, although it's a platform, and although the people who are building it for you are going to talk to you about all of these great features that they have and how everything is automated and algorithm-based, you still have to manage it," he says. There's no such thing as self-serve or set-it-and-forget-it with a community. It requires investments of time for it to really work."

Will a B2B partner community work for you? It just might, as long as you prioritize what the people in that community need and not what the technology platform requires.

"Don't let the technology become your strategist," Frank concludes.

Listen to the entire show from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.

"Marketing Smarts" theme music composed by Juanito Pascual of Signature Tones.

Full Transcript: Building a Partner Community for B2B Marketing and Sales Success

George B. Thomas: I have to ask, are you excited about partners or partner communities, or have you ever thought about building a partner community? Today, in this episode we're going to talk about building a partner community for B2B marketing and sales success. Of course, we have Frank Belzer on today. We're going to talk about what keeps him up at night, getting started, hurdles along the way, words of wisdom, and so much more about partner communities. There are some great examples in here as well.

Frank Belzer is an international business development expert based in Orlando. He is currently the chief sales and marketing officer at ICON Park. Prior to that, he was SVP of sales for Universal Parks and Resorts during a time of unprecedented growth from 2014 until the end of 2020. He oversaw all domestic and international sales strategies. His oversight at Universal included managing all trade partner relationships and all international business efforts for the park and hotels. He is on the board of Experience Kissimmee and served as a board member and advisor to the Grand Canyon Resort Corporation. There is a long list of things that I could go on to say, a pedigree for Frank, if you will, but you'll quickly see how his brain works and how it might help you.

Let's get into the good stuff. You know what I'm going to say. That's right, I'm super excited. Today, we're going to take this conversation into a place that maybe we haven't taken it before. We're going to talk about building a partner community for B2B marketing and sales success. Oh my gosh, are we actually aligning stuff on this episode, too? We'll see. I am super excited because I have Frank Belzer here with me today.

Frank, how are you doing today?

Frank Belzer: I'm doing wonderful. You're getting me excited already. It's great.

George: We have that effect on the Marketing Smarts Podcast. We just like to get people excited, to be excited. Education should be fun. I have this curious question that I like to start with on the podcast, and it has brought in some interesting answers over the historical asking of it. What keeps you up at night pertaining to partner communities? By the way, is it a dream, is it a nightmare? Marketing Smarts listeners want to know.

Frank: I think I'm going to put that question in the past tense, because I'm currently not in this process of developing or working on one, but it was my life's work at Universal. I was devoted to getting this thing up and running over a four-year time period. We had 700 resellers with multiple employees amongst every one of those 700 resellers that we were trying to reach.

I think the thing that was the most stressful for me was just this question of by nature a community is made up of diversity. You have people of all different levels in a company, you have people with all different roles in the company, you want to engage with all of them, they're in all different markets and different countries, working for different types of organizations. How do you resonate? The goal is to engage with all of these people. How do you know you're doing that? How do you create something that is so broad but also so specific at the same time?

I think that was the number one thing that probably stressed me out the most. I would see things come across my desk that were part of the execution, or the work, or the content, and I would look at it, scratch my head, and think I don't know if that's going to resonate with enough people, I don't know if that's going to do what we're trying to do.

George: I love this. We'll get back to the idea of how do we know. It sounds like nightmare sweats, by the way, the answer to that one. Let's level-set. Community has become all the buzzword in a lot of the marketing spaces, so I want to really define the difference between what a typical B2B marketer might call a community, fan-based, versus a partner community and what we're talking about today. Maybe talk about the differences.

Frank: A consumer community, that's pretty straightforward, you're trying to reach out to your... in the theme park business, for us, it would be annual pass holders, customers who were just walking in and planning a vacation. It's a little more direct, you're hitting first level, you're talking right to that person. With partners, or with sales channels, or with resellers, it's a lot different because now you're trying to actually go through that channel and reach the people who are then selling, hoping those people that are selling will reach those consumers at the very end. So, there's two or three steps along the way where your engagement could go wrong.

That was my point in the last question. It wouldn't be enough to just engage with the ownership, for example, of all of your partners or resellers. That's nice, but that's not going to move the needle. What about the management level? That's still nice, you want those people involved. Really, what you're trying to do is you're trying to engage with the management team, with the executive, and with the front line, with the people who are working on your product or selling your product or supporting your product.

It's a lot more challenging, I think, than a consumer community. Getting the B2B community right has a lot more nuance and there's a lot more complexity to getting that to work for you.

George: It's interesting. I want to go off the beaten path for a second. As I listened to you answer that, the word enablement came to my brain. I'm like it sounds like Frank is saying the owner, great, management, great, team, great, and what we need to do is be able to enable them to do it as good as we're doing it in-house. Talk us through that and what that looks like.

Frank: That was the goal from day one for me. This whole project for me at Universal started with a regression analysis of our best customers. What we started to learn was that with our best sales channels a couple of common themes came out.

A) We were engaged with multiple stakeholders across the company. B) When we mystery-shopped them, we had great front line adoption, they knew our product, they understood how to position us. We had numerous contacts on the middle management level, which meant that working with them was easy. We saw these commonalities and we said if we could replicate that across all 700 partners, if we could replicate what makes the overperformers so great of a partner, wouldn't that be wonderful?

That was the goal from the beginning. In some cases, when we audited these clients, we had great relationships with the front line, they loved our product, they loved talking about us, but we didn't have as strong of a relationship in the middle and at the top. Then we had others that were completely the opposite. The goal of this community from the outset was how do we connect with each of these different groups with the end goal being enabling people to better sell our product and better position our product.

I also think that's a difference between the consumer approach and the B2B approach. On the consumer side, your people are going to tell you it's just about engagement, we just want to engage, we don't want to solicit, we don't want to have any conversion metrics. Let's be honest. When you start a partner community, yes, engagement is top of mind, it's a goal, but the outcome at the end of the day, if it doesn't pay for itself, if it doesn't create numbers, then you're going to be in a rough situation. You can be a little more direct that we're doing this so that we can drive the business.

George: I love that so much. I think understanding there is that set of differences. I usually like to see both sides of the coin, I want to know what I'm playing with. Also, I try to put my mindset into that of the Marketing Smarts listeners. If I'm at the very beginning of this and I'm like I saw the title build a partner community for B2B sales and marketing success, I clicked on it because I'm getting ready to start a journey. Do I have to build this from scratch?

What I'm asking here is are there some similarities between the two, community and partner community? Because maybe I already have the engaged community, the fans-based community. Is building a partner community starting from scratch?

Frank: I do think it's a different animal. I'm going to be honest here, when I started—I'm going to give myself a pat on the back—one of the best things I did was, I had this piece of art that I put on the wall and it was basically a cheesy cartoonish drawing of a typical community. It was a village, it had a coffee shop, it had a gas station, it had a church, it had another church, it had a school. My whole message to the team was this is what a community looks like, it's made up of all these different components.

The most beautiful communities that we know, when we think about a beautiful community, what do we say? It has great schools. It has great coffee shops. It has good private businesses. It's very diverse. It's very artsy. It has access to the highways. There's a list of criteria for us with our typical neighborhood / community that we look for. That for me became sort of the strawman for what this partner community is going to look like. We have all these differences, but we're going to bring people together around this common purpose.

The beauty of the B2B community is that you get to dictate what that purpose is, you're building the community. As the founder of the community, you get to set the vision. For us, the commonality was these are all people who are involved in helping people make travel decisions, these are all companies who resell travel in one form or another. By that definition, they moved into this community. Not everybody went to the same church. Not everybody went to the same coffee shop. Not everybody walked their dog in the same park. But we brought them together around this common purpose.

I think if you don't lay the groundwork correctly on what your vision is for the community and what your expectations are, you're going to get sucked into what I call this technology hell of the vendor who is providing the platform dictating to you what a community should look like, and they're really building a community around their technology, not the other way around. So, I think it's really important to have a very clear idea of what does our community look like.

George: There might be a rewind spot right there about that whole technology hell and building it based on a platform instead of on what you need. Marketing Smarts listeners, maybe just rewind.

I do want to go off the beaten path again, because I loved when you were painting the picture of there's a church, there's a shop, and it's all these different kinds of people. What came into my brain is this community has what they need. When I think about the humans, what that does is it means they're happy and it's maybe even this kind of harmonious place. Frank, how do you make sure that your partners are happy and harmonious?

Frank: You have to get them to like staying in the community, not to go to the nearby town, not to go to the neighboring town. You want them to stay within the community.

One of the things we focused on was measuring engagement. We tried to create a platform for people. As I looked at other successful things that we're using in this modern age, if we buy something on Amazon, we get to offer a suggestion, but also if you have a question, on Amazon you can ask a question, "Did anyone have trouble with this?" We have a lot of places like that now. Yelp can do that. So, there's this interaction that happens.

From the very beginning, we pushed trying to get our members to help feed the funnel. We wanted people to talk. Three-way communication was the goal. It wasn't just about us talking to our resellers, and it wasn't just about our resellers talking to us. We also wanted to encourage reseller-to-reseller communication. That was really a lot of fun.

We did things like you're doing here where we would interview resellers from other markets and have them share tips. We really got people into this idea of let's all help each other. I'm selling in Mexico, you're selling the UK, it's really not competitive. Let's talk about what are some of the best practices that we're doing and maybe we can help each other. It's about getting those people to connect with your community. It's hard to develop that.

George: Yes, but I love that idea of being the great connector. I also love the fact that you brought up this idea of, I want to say almost being the catalyst for these individuals, one-on-one, but then helping them the catalyst for each other. It's so amazing.

Let's back up a little bit so that we can shoot forward in the next couple of questions. My fear is that we have somebody that clicks on this, they haven't started yet, they really don't even know what we mean by partner community. When you say partner community, what the heck do we really even mean? In other words, how do we define what is a B2B partner community, what is it?

Frank: The way I describe it, and I could talk about some of the pushback we got from other places when we did this, but it's basically a gated portal that works as an intranet or an internal Facebook-type of platform.

We were trying to do a couple of things. We wanted to have availability to train within that platform so people could learn about different products. We wanted to have availability to various pieces of thought leadership, some things within the industry that would help them all in one place. We wanted to share news about things that were happening at our different campuses, different parks, different divisions and groups, and any reorgs that we were doing. We wanted to have assets available for them to download, so on and so forth, and just general business tips on how you might position this product or how you might sell this ticket.

So, we had all of these different aspects. We wanted them also to be able to look at their performance. We wanted them to be able to go in at different tiers and know how they were doing as far as rankings would go. Then we tried to create gamification aspects to it, too, which of course is challenging. Badges for engagement, badges for certification, badges for reaching different levels.

Basically, that's it. It's a place where your collective resellers, whatever they might be, whether they're travel agencies or OTAs, whether they're hardware stores, whether they're network and IT providers, whatever they are, it's a place where they can come together based on their familiarity and their commonality around selling your product and working with your product. It's place for you then to provide whatever it is that you think those partners need.

If your business was different, I assume some of what you might be offering would be different than what I offered on our community. That's basically it, this sort of gated area for them to go and get a little something extra than they would get from the regular website.

George: So good. Marketing Smarts listeners, dare I say that Frank just gave us a blueprint when it comes to community elements. Education, news, thought leadership, assets, general tips, and the ability for the members or the community to see their performance, ranking, gamification. Again, mark that down and figure out how you customize that for your business and your business needs for your partner program.

Here's the thing. I want to actually go off the beaten path for a third time, because you alluded to and you teased me when you said, "I can talk about the pushback." What the heck was the pushback?

Frank: I don't know if the listeners from every vertical or every segment will relate to this, but there is a tendency in B2B across the board for people, there's always an element within any company that prefers direct business over business that comes through sales channels.

Marc Benioff from Salesforce and Brian Halligan from HubSpot are two men that I really admire. Brian, of course, imitated Marc. When Marc started Salesforce, he opened up his API and he opened up the idea of selling through channels. By doing that, they were the fastest growing software company ever. He knew that by working with partners he could provide a level of service, a level of capability, and a level of support that his company was ready to provide, so there was lower attrition, etcetera. HubSpot tried to model something very similar, and they also grew relatively quickly.

I always looked at that and I had a very positive view of resellers. Additionally, my data told me that resellers on average sold better product, they sold longer trips, they sold my premium products, they sold my ancillary product, their per caps, as we call them in the business, were higher than those from the direct side. So, I had a plethora of reasons why we should be working on the trade business, but, of course, you always have elements in your company who don't want to do that, who think it's better to sell direct and automatically assume that direct is more profitable than indirect business.

So, a lot of the pushback came from those elements. Like, "We're going to spend more money on doing something with these partners? Aren't your people already doing that? Why do they need these resources? Can't you just send this via email? Can't you just do this on a free platform?" That was all the pushback that we got. Not to mention that IT stack was getting higher and this involved an element of IT, and they weren't really super keen on doing something that involved working with all of these different partners and the potential complexities that has as well.

George: So much good stuff in this interview. Marketing Smarts listeners, I hope that you're paying attention. Let's shoot forward. I said we were going to set and then shoot forward. How should B2B marketers get started? That's the hardest part in anything in life is just getting started. How can they get started with building a partner community that drives B2B marketing and sales success?

Frank: I think it's real simple. I think the first step is to understand if your market wants it. If you're in one of those channels where people don't see a benefit, it's maybe a commodity sale, it's maybe really fast, there's not much additional value that you're going to provide, maybe you don't need one.

But if you're selling a product that is a little more complex, if you're not the lowest priced product on the shelf, if you have nuances or value adds that you want people to understand, or if there competitive issues that really need to be clarified, if you're that kind of space, I think it's reaching out to customers, talking to some of your key stakeholders and customers, and finding out what kind of things they would like to see in a portal like this, what aren't we giving you now, and is anyone else giving you a portal like this.

It was amazing to me that I started on this thing and within a few months, sure enough, there was a portal for my competitor down the street being worked on. You might ask your customers and they might say, "We're already doing something like that with so-and-so, they already have that kind of platform." But because these things are gated, you don't see them, they're not public. You might already be behind the eight ball, you might not have a community, and your partner might already have a community. You're thinking that you're losing sales or market share and you're thinking its because of price, or because of this or that, and the reality might be that your competitor is over-engaging with the reseller and it's pushing you back down the priority list.

George: Love that so much. I know we talked about community elements as far as the direction of education, news, thought leadership, and things like that. I still do want to ask the question, because I think there's probably four or five thousand different ways you could go at this question. What are some key elements to a great partner community that B2B marketers should be paying attention to as they move forward?

Frank: I think it checks all of the boxes with connecting with all of the relevant positions, relative markets, and companies that you're trying to connect with. That's part one. Part two is usage. If you've built it and people are not using it and not going on, you kind of have to discipline yourself to make it the outlet. You can't maintain the old way of sending out everything via Dropbox. It has to be, "Go to the community, new assets are available on the community." You have to have everybody on your team pushing people toward the community.

We actually created a metric around engagement for companies. We would go to someone and find out how many employees do you think should be on this community, and they might say our entire sales team, our entire marketing team, all of these business dev people, and then the managers of our retail outlets. How many people is that? 322. That 322 would go into the metric. We would want to know how we were doing. Out of the 322 people that should be engaged, how are we doing? We would share that number with our partners.

The other element would be once you have people in there using it, how do you leverage it to drive returns and results? We would have partners come to us and say, "We want to do a marketing campaign with you. We'd like you to spend some money doing this and this." I would say, "How is their community engagement? Only 10% of their people are trained. Out of those 322 people, only 15 people have logged on. Well, why don't you take some time first before we do something together, why don't you work on that so that I know your people are trained, and I know that you're using the right assets, and I know that you understand our product? Then we'll come back to you with a plan. How does that sound?"

That's how you really use the community to change the business. I think those are maybe four things that you have to work on.

George: So smart. I fully understand this next question and what I'm about to say dates me. I think it dates me. People will get it. I love the show MythBusters. I can sit and watch episode after episode, and maybe two or three times. I love the way it was created, I love what they're doing there. One of the things that I like to do on the Marketing Smarts Podcast is just bust some myths. When you think about that, what is a common myth about partner communities that you want to use this day and the time that we're spending together to debunk?

Frank: I think one of the myths is that partners already have too many things to log onto and too many things to do, and they're not going to engage with it. I heard that a lot before doing it, "They already have Facebook, they already have apps, they don't want another platform." Well, it turns out they do want another platform. So, that's one thing.

Another myth is that you're not going to get people to use it in the way you're thinking that they're going to use it. That's also a myth because that really comes down to how you manage. It's like any other process that your company launches. You might have a product you sell that requires someone to take a certain level of training, or to have a certain license, or to have a certain certification. Nobody says those things aren't going to work. It becomes part of your practice. If you treat the community as this is how we communicate with our partners and how we want our partners to communicate with us, if you really live it, then there will be results.

The final one is that there's no ROI. I do think there's an ROI from having an engaged community. I'll caveat that with it has the potential to have no ROI, but so does everything. Everything we invest in, everything we do has the potential to have no ROI. The ROI comes from how you manage it.

I think the community, although it's a technology, although it's a platform, and although the people who are building it for you are going to talk to you about all of these great features that they have and how everything is automated and algorithm-based, you still have to manage it. There's no such thing as self-serve or set-it-and-forget-it with a community. It requires investments of time for it to really work.

George: I love that. Time, money, it makes me start to think about you have to be passionate about the community, the success of the community, and the people that are in it. What are some hurdles that you've seen marketers, or it could be not even marketers, but we're talking to marketers today, but what are some hurdles that you've seen people face when trying to do partner communities?

Frank: I think one of the biggest ones that I ran into was that most of the platforms that work well for this are not necessarily the prettiest. As marketing people, we love creative Flash, we love some GIF, we love some B-roll. It's not like a website. It's not trying to impress people with Flash. You're not trying to capture people's attention who don't know who you are. I think that's one of the big things is you have to get out of your own way with all of that. It really is a functional product. I think you have to really think about that.

I think the other hurdles are whatever platform you go with, in order for it to really be effective—for example, I wanted this platform we had to when someone downloaded assets, when someone finished training, I wanted the rep who was the account manager for that account to get notified someone has just downloaded assets or someone has just completed training. In order for that compatibility to happen, I had Salesforce as a CRM and I went with the Salesforce community because those two things could talk to each other, which is great. But I also want this talking to my ERP, I want this talking to my website, how does it connect with all of the other internal silos that you have.

That's another hurdle. You could end up building something that isn't able to offer your partners what they want because of a connectivity issue.

George: Oh, man, the Frankenstein and the ability to connect it. Ladies and gentlemen, please don't fall prey to any of those hurdles now that they've been diagnosed for you. Again, sides of a coin. I talk about the hurdles, the problems, the difficulties. But how do we know what success looks like? What does partner community nirvana look like?

Frank: The way I had this, I had two pie charts. One was out of all of the partners, which was close to 700, how many of them as partners were engaged. Then I had rankings for by partner how many of their people were engaged. In some cases, you had partners who had teams that were as many as 50 other partners combined. You wanted to know out of your big partners, especially, how we're doing there with overall engagement, but you also wanted to know globally how we're doing with all of the partners total. Those are the two things.

When you think about it, the word engagement is probably overused, I probably overused it too much even today, but that's really what success for a community comes down to. You have to believe that the people who are passionate, who know more, who understand more about your product, who have your product top of mind, you have to believe that those people are going to do a better job helping you to sell your product. Tracking that by person is very difficult, so there is a little bit of faith that you have to have.

But as marketers, we're used to that because a lot of what we do in marketing is an act of faith. We believe this will resonate with our customers, so we go with this slogan or with this piece of content. I think a community is the same thing. It's about knowing that I put the right stuff out there, if people are engaging, the end result will be that the numbers will start to lift. But I'm not going to focus entirely on that, because there's a lag time there. I'm going to focus on the engagement quotient the most.

George: So much going around in my brain of the lag time, I start to think about the echo. You're speaking out to your community, you might not immediately know what's coming back. You mentioned ROI earlier and the fact that sometimes it's hard to measure, but that doesn't mean it's not there. Hopefully, Marketing Smarts listeners, you are picking up these breadcrumbs of things that you need to be thinking about when it comes to building a partner community.

Frank: We've done that to ourselves a little bit, too. In this digital era, we've been so focused on attribution. There's nothing that pleases a marketer more than going into the executive team, putting up a slide and showing return on ad spend of, or click through rates of. We just got so excited, petting ourselves on the head for having these metrics that come through digital.

We've created an environment now where in corporate America it can be very difficult to sell a marketing campaign that is a little more visceral, that's a little more about feel and engagement, because we've created this environment of attribution. "Show me the attribution numbers. How are we going to track this?" So, we've done it to ourselves. We have to slowly wean leadership away from that a little bit, because it is going to be hard sometimes to direct attribution numbers to some of these programs.

George: Yes. I'm glad that we got that out there. Frank, what are some words of wisdom that you want to share with the Marketing Smarts listeners? It could be about partner communities, it could be about just communities in general, about marketing, maybe even life. What are the words of wisdom that you want to leave folks with?

Frank: One of the things that's happened to us all in marketing, sales, business dev, all of these places, is that we've had such massive advancements in technology, there are so many tools, there are so many measurement tools. Just do a Google search for marketing analytics and just watch what happens.

I think that's great, and I think those tools are a wonderful complement to what we do, but the bottom line is when I think about whether it's a community or I think about networking… People who were good at networking back in the '80s and '90s were good at networking. They would go to a lot of events, they would create a lot of content, they would hand out a lot of cards, they would meet a lot of people, they would shake a lot of hands. The principles are exactly the same as we have with social networking. If you were a good networker in the '80s, if you have that mindset about getting to know other people, then it works with these platforms.

I think one thing is don't forget about the customer, don't forget about the fundamentals and the basics. We have decades of consumer research out there that proves how people will feel and what people like. Many times, the data that you're going to get from a lot of the analytics tools is measuring what can be measured, but that doesn't mean that's all that is happening or all that is measurable out there.

Don't forget to think about the customer and think about what you're really trying to do. Don't get hung up too much. Don't let the technology become your strategist. I guess that's the bottom line.

George: Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast episode? Make sure you reach out and let us know in my inbox or on Twitter using the hashtag #MPB2B.

I also have to ask are you a free member of the MarketingProfs community yet? If not, head over to You won't regret the additional B2B marketing education that you'll be adding to your life.

We'd like it if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we'd love it if you would share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast where we talk with Bonnie Crater about a B2B marketer's guide to marketing attribution, I hope you do just a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversation you'd like to listen in on next. Two, focus on getting 1% better at your craft each and every day. Finally, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble B2B marketing human. We'll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.

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