How to build a platform messaging framework for your partner ecosystem
I saw this image of the Hubspot Connect partner ecosystem on LinkedIn the other day and thought, “Wow, now that’s an ecosystem!”. This graphic is something every emerging growth technology company should aspire to. One of the big challenges, once you develop an ecosystem of this size, is figuring out how to position and message for it in the context of all your other product messaging. With dozens, or even hundreds of partners, the risk of messaging sprawl is very real. But it doesn’t have to turn into a big mess if you do a good job of defining your platform vision, organize your partners into logical categories, and apply a disciplined messaging approach to each of those categories.
What’s your platform vision?
Early in my career, I managed platform product marketing for Omniture (prior to its acquisition by Adobe). Our ecosystem graphic looked similar to HubSpot’s, with over 250 partners and more than fifty active technology integrations. The ecosystem play was part of Omniture CEO, Josh James’ vision from the early days of the company. Josh led with a platform-first approach in terms of product design and approach to market. The Omniture platform vision was to become the “Online Marketing Hub” (which you can still see the remnants of, now a decade on, in the “Experience Cloud” platform positioning at Adobe). It was always about more than Online Analytics, and the company executed accordingly.
After Omniture, I joined Yahoo as a product manager to help build out the first generation of their in-house data management platform and data partner ecosystem. At Omniture, I was lucky to inherit a platform vision– at Yahoo I had to define it. At Yahoo, we wanted to lead in the emerging “people-based marketing” category— introducing identity as a core feature for ad targeting in what was, up until then, a mostly anonymous advertising channel. This drove our product priorities around enabling targeting and measurement which approached the precision of direct mail, with the ease and efficiency of online ad delivery.
If you want to create and own a category, developing your platform vision early-on is critical. It will guide many important decisions, including your business development strategy, key technology decisions, product roadmap, and your go-to-market approach. When you have a clear vision for your platform, you can start with the end-state in mind and then work your way back to a well-defined messaging framework.
What’s your market orientation—Vertical or Horizontal?
As you start to realize your platform vision through new product releases, it’s time to get your messaging game plan together so your go-to-market programs are set up for success. One of the key decisions you will need to make is whether or not you’ll be taking a vertical or horizontal approach to your market. At Omniture, we had a horizontal orientation, so this meant defining each category of partners based on use cases like ad analytics, retargeting, and CRM– and then building out messaging for each of those categories.
With hundreds of partners, it’s virtually impossible to establish a meaningful narrative if you create bespoke messaging for every partner. You have to go up a level. We ended up with seven categories of partner use cases and then applied the same use case-level messaging to each individual partner in a category. This made it much easier for our sales team to grapple with a large complex ecosystem and allowed our marketing team to tell a highly differentiated, but relatively uncomplicated platform story which complemented our core products.
At Yahoo, we had a verticalized go-to-market with our data partners. Most targeting and measurement use cases (aside from Demographics and Location, for example) were highly specialized by vertical—and the offline third-party data ecosystem reflected that. We built a verticalized partner taxonomy tailored to three core people-based marketing features; targeting, measurement, and optimization. Partners were nested in the messaging framework based on their corresponding vertical and product feature. This simple matrix accomplished several things; it clarified what was required for a “complete” platform to address all the key requirements for the different verticals we served, it clearly identified gaps in our existing feature set, and it gave us a rubric for prioritizing the buildout of Yahoo’s data partner ecosystem. I referred to this matrix often during my tenure, filling in each block as we signed new partners to fulfill our data platform vision. In the end, the audience platform became a key element of our overall display ad product—giving Yahoo sellers the ability to address a virtually infinite number of highly bespoke targeting and measurement use cases for our advertisers.
Vision defined- now build your messaging
Once you’ve defined your platform vision, you’re ready to start building out messaging for your partner ecosystem. The process for building messaging for each of your partner categories is really no different than for any product in your portfolio. It looks a lot like the approach in my 3 Steps for Better Messaging post. You have to define the challenges solved by each partner category (remembering to think through the strategic, professional, financial, and technical dimensions of buyers’ challenges), how your joint-solution solves for those challenges, the benefits of solving them, and demonstrate proof of the solution in the form of benchmarks and/or customers proof-points. If you do this well, all the pieces of your ecosystem positioning & messaging puzzle should click together like lego blocks, giving you the pre-fabricated content elements you need to address almost any sales or marketing situation.
What if you’re a spoke, not a hub?
What if you’re one of the 250 partners fighting for distribution of your product on the larger platforms—what is the messaging play if you’re a spoke, not a hub? I’ve been in that position too and it’s hard! At TU Digital, I helped build out distribution for TransUnion’s digital audiences across the $100B+ digital advertising ecosystem—fighting for position on the major DMP and Ad Buying platforms like Oracle Data Cloud, LiveRamp, Adobe, Google and others. With a crowd of about 100 other data vendors, there was a lot of noise in the space. It’s hard for sellers on these large platforms to make heads or tails of anything with so many different partner offerings—so you have to come prepared if you want to get their attention.
At TU, we took an insights-led approach to differentiating our Financial Services and B2B audience data products. We opened the kimono—so to speak—on how the data was sourced, the science behind our modeling approach, the results of our back-testing (to set benchmarks that would be hard for others to match). We field tested a messaging formula built around these concepts. Once we knew it was cutting through with partner sales teams, we expanded its use into an industry level campaign to educate the market on how to distinguish between high quality data and, well, everything else. This put our competitors on defense. We trained buyers at partners, agencies, and advertisers how to ask the hard questions about any competing data source—raising the bar to a level that few competitors could match. This approach drove triple-digit revenue growth and solid traction across all the major platforms in the ad space. We set a new standard in our category with a highly differentiated offering, messaged to and built mindshare around that standard, and then aggressively prepared our partners to sell into it.
If you’re a spoke, not a hub, in an ecosystem, you have to really think hard about what differentiates you from the other ecosystem players and lean heavily on that in your messaging and go-to-market approach. If you sound like every other partner in a platform’s portfolio, you’re not going to get any traction at all. If you make your partners smarter and help them sell more, they will create a tailwind for you. Make small, differentiated bets in terms of go-to-market and partner enablement—and if those pay off, make bigger bets until you have the momentum to reach the #1 or #2 position in your category with each of your platform partners. At TU we used this approach to go from the back of the pack– the bottom quintile of the 100 or so data players– to a top 5 partner on the industry’s leading DMP in under three years.
Building messaging for your partner ecosystem is a lot like putting together a puzzle. You want to start with the end in mind– define your platform vision and then work your way back to a clear framework that organizes partners into logical categories that align with the markets you serve.
Pulling it all together
Building messaging for your partner ecosystem is a lot like putting together a puzzle. You want to start with the end in mind– define your platform vision and then work your way back to a clear framework that organizes partners into logical categories that align with the markets you serve. From there, it’s a simple process of messaging to each of those categories, much as you would individual products, to create a cohesive platform messaging framework. If you’re a spoke in your ecosystem, fighting for position on the major platforms, lead your partner category on some dimension like quality, performance, features, and make sure everyone in the channel between you and your customer knows it. Set the standard, leverage your partners to promote that standard, and then force your competitors to follow.