You're Doing Your Web Site Wrong: How Microsoft Partners Can Win on the Web

A review of the Web sites of the RCP 200 reveals best practices and interesting trends -- as well as areas for improvement -- in the public face that Microsoft partners present to the world.

The Internet serves as the front door to every business today, with Web sites inviting prospects to visit and then giving those prospects a reason to stay. Most partners appear to get it -- the quality of the channel's Internet presence has improved dramatically throughout the past decade. Design and function have stepped up and product logos have mostly been replaced with content that educates.

But the channel continues to struggle to create compelling messaging and meet the never-ending demand for fresh content. Many partners still cling to messaging claiming they can do it all, and end up losing most prospects to specialists. In the constant challenge to post new content, partners depend on resources already stretched too thin.

Priorities for Modern Web Design
For a snapshot of what Microsoft partners are presenting to the world, we took a look at the Web sites of the RCP 200, Redmond Channel Partner magazine's annual list of top Microsoft partners. The review reveals interesting trends and best practices for partners trying to keep pace in an increasingly competitive market. Most of the partner sites include modern design, work well on mobile apps and use content to educate prospects. Design areas with room for improvement revolve around targeting the audience and UI.

"Most people do 70 percent of their research online before they even call a salesperson or a company," says Jennifer Garcia, partner and CEO of Red Bamboo Marketing. "So obviously your Web site is going to be the most important part of your marketing efforts."

"For partners, the design of their site really depends on who they're selling to. Just like with their other marketing, if they're focused on specific target industries, then certain things are important to those target industries," Garcia says. "A partner who's focused in the fashion and retail space may have a different design than somebody who's focused in the steel and metals industry. So that's important to match the look and the feel of your Web site to your audience."

Customer experience (CX) should be at the top of the list in Web site design priorities, according to Microsoft partner-focused marketing agency Fifty Five and Five. "Obviously you want to make the visitor experience as simple as possible," says Aidan Danaher, marketing manager at Fifty Five and Five. "Navigation should be friendly in the sense that if a visitor is on the product page, there should be helpful links to the demo page or for more information or FAQs or video."

"What we see as a big challenge with a lot of partners is that they don't say what they do on their homepage."

Jennifer Garcia, Partner and CEO, Red Bamboo Marketing

Focus, Focus, Focus
With the design and function field relatively level for partners in the channel, messaging and content become the big differentiators. Which are, of course, the hardest parts to get right.

"What we see as a big challenge with a lot of partners is that they don't say what they do on their homepage. It's not clear and direct what they do," Red Bamboo's Garcia says. "It's very important to have a simple, straight statement that says, 'This is what we do as a company.' 'We are focused on CRM for the hospitality industry.' Or, 'We're focused on ERP for the metals industry.' Something very specific like that."

All effective marketing, including Web site content, is built on a clear definition of the target market and a clear statement of the value the company delivers to that market. The importance of a focused value proposition comes up again and again when experts talk about Web sites. "What is your key selling point? What is your specific target audience? You need to have a specific target audience and work for them and not try to please everyone, because you're not going to please everyone," says Paulina Olin, Web designer at Fifty Five and Five.

To build a value proposition that will actually mean something to Web site visitors, partners should answer the following questions:

  • Who are we addressing? Identify the target audience by role or function.

  • What problem are we solving? In specific terms, describe the challenges the target audience faces.

  • How does our solution solve the problem? List the benefits that the solution will deliver.

  • What validates our claim of expertise? Provide evidence, like case studies, employee experience and industry-specific content.

The Culture of Content
The second common challenge facing partners is keeping content fresh and flowing. Almost without exception, the RCP 200 top partner Web sites include blogs, and most offer additional resources like white papers. Unsurprisingly, the frequency of posting varies from a couple of times per week to a couple times per year. Keeping content fresh on Web sites requires a long-term, continuing commitment. Those partners who are successful cite a culture that values contribution.

"We have a company culture here where people actually like to write blogs. It's perceived internally as an honor, or a privilege, when you're called upon to write a blog. It shows that your opinions and your role is respected," says Dan Langille, vice president of business development at Quadrotech Solutions AG. "We could call upon any number of 30 different people on a different day just to write a blog, and they'd be happy to do it. It covers a wide variety of perspectives and topics, so it gives you a really good variety of content."

Quadrotech's commitment to its Web site is reflected by the company's inclusion in the "Inbound Marketing Excellence" report compiled by Fifty Five and Five, which ranks partners on their blogging output, Web site and social media activity. Cogmotive Ltd., which recently merged with Quadrotech, also earned a spot on the Fifty Five and Five excellence list.

The Quadrotech/Cogmotive merger posed an interesting challenge -- and one that more partners are facing -- in how to combine the accumulated and future content of the two companies. Both practices had a strong commitment to content development, with each company building its own search engine optimization (SEO) strengths and community following.

[Click to view the full RCP 200 list.]

"We identified quite soon on that the value in the Cogmotive site was the knowledge side. It was really important to us that, even though the companies are now one, not to lose the identity and the reputation that Cogmotive has built up," says Heather Trevenna, director of marketing operations at Quadrotech. "It's really just making sure you focus on what is good in both of them and pull those bits together to make sure that you're utilizing all your strongest assets."

The company plans to move all of the product-focused information to the Quadrotech site and retain the Cogmotive site as an education-focused site. "We're going to maintain the Cogmotive blog. It's a really well-read blog, a lot of visitors, a lot of hits every month. We're going to keep that blog going for Office 365 hints and tips, how-to guides, and really keep that knowledge part alive," Trevenna says. "Cogmotive will move away from a product brand and more to a knowledge brand, which it's become most recognized for, and the Quadrotech site will be focused more on lead generation and recruiting."

The Value of Chat Windows
To augment the connections made through content, many companies are adding pop-up chat windows to their sites. Partners appear relatively hesitant to adopt the practice, with only about 20 percent of the top RCP 200 partners greeting visitors with live chat windows.

Adding live chat has been highly successful for Quadrotech, delivering regular, high-quality leads to the sales team. "The quality of the leads is very high, because they're people who are definitely interested," Trevenna says. "We can attempt to follow up with those ones quickly, whereas a resource download lead might need a little bit more nurturing, a little more attention. A live chat lead is likely to be further on in that process."

Langille, on the business development side of the house, agrees. "People are able to get answers immediately to a question they may not be able to find anywhere else. It's been a great supporting tool for the modern buyer journey, where modern buyers tend to want to self-educate, and by the time they reach out to you, they've pretty much made a decision that you're in their consideration set. Being able to have that instant interaction, I think, gives them a degree of immediacy to the decision that they're in the process of making."

"You need to have a specific target audience and work for them and not try to please everyone, because you're not going to please everyone."

Paulina Olin, Web Designer, Fifty Five and Five

Content that Reflects Personality
Another aspect of how partners can create and use content to differentiate the business is in showing the "personality" of the partner organization. A relatively small proportion of the top RCP 200 partners uses photographs of their own people on their Web sites -- stock photos are still the norm.

"I think one of the things we've learned is to make sure we are sharing our personality. We really want people to know who we are, and being very intentional about how we communicate that through images, through updated content around what we're doing socially and what we are doing in the community," says Jenna Soule, manager of marketing and corporate communications at RBA. "Those are the things that prospective employees care about. They want to know what RBA is doing to be involved and to give back, and how we are involved in the technical community, as well. Then, of course, our prospective clients want to know what work we've done in this space or that particular space."

Because most partners are "content-challenged," compiling and displaying information in multiple ways on the Web site is a smart strategy. The consolidated News & Views page on the RBA site gathers news, events, social and blog posts from across the site and social media to convey a full, fresh image for the company.

"We showcase our perspective through photos and kind of a day in the life in the News & Views section. But we also showcase it through our blog and through the work section, which is our clients and our clients' stories," Soule says. "Our biggest priority is education, but that takes many forms. We want to educate prospective clients on the work that we do and our areas of expertise and we want to educate prospective employees about who RBA is and what we're all about."

Social Media Drives Web Site Traffic
RBA is active on social media, using content campaigns to drive traffic to its Web site. Tapping its expertise in Web sites and portals, the company created an e-Book, "6 Reasons Your Intranet Project Will Fail & Tips for Success." The campaign was recognized as a finalist in the 2017 Content Marketing Awards in the "Best Use of E-Book or White Paper Program" category.

"We got that in front of some strategic audiences, which really drove a lot of activity to our Web site," Soule says. "We used a compelling title to grab people's attention and provided some tips for success on what clients should be doing when they're thinking about launching a new portal or intranet."

"Social is very strategic. It's not something that just happens because somebody likes to do it. It's very much a part of our marketing and communication strategy," Soule says. "RBA has a marketing specialist who leads the execution of our social plan. We meet on a weekly basis and plan it all out week-to-week, and we also look at it at a month at a glance, and then the longer-term strategy."

The Dark Art of SEO
For those partners with in-house expertise, like RBA, Web site design and SEO can be a do-it-yourself operation. Even then, resources with client-facing responsibilities often have a difficult time prioritizing internal projects. To hire the right firm to guide your journey, partners should look for agencies that have worked with organizations like theirs -- either other Microsoft partners or other firms in the industry the partner serves.

"With SEO, it's most important to have an expert set up your foundational SEO the right way," says Red Bamboo's Garcia. "I would recommend hiring somebody that's done it before, and that can at least get you started. When you're engaging with an agency, I would always ask, 'What is your process? Do you have a process for a Web site? And let me see it.'"

And while setting up the site correctly is important, ongoing support can be vital when things change. As Quadrotech realigns its Web site properties post-merger, it depends on expert advice. "We work with an outside agency. We've found it's something that we don't necessarily have all the skills for in-house, and it's something that is such a specialized topic and so important that we thought it was best to outsource," Trevenna says. "We're making a fair few Web site changes at the moment, so they can help us with making sure that we're not damaging anything that we've built up in SEO."

"One of the most successful things that we've done is actually turning our blogs into PDFs."

Heather Trevenna, Director of Marketing Operations, Quadrotech

Last year, through a Microsoft DigitalStride program, Quadrotech's marketing team worked with an SEO firm, CXGlobals LLC, and increased traffic to its Web site by 36 percent. "It has a significant impact when you hire somebody who's an expert in the area because it's very much a dark art, and if you try to do it without that intense degree of expertise then it's difficult to achieve those types of results," Langille says.

The Web Site Is Never Done
Those partners with the most effective Web presence understand that it's an evolving process, requiring ongoing investment in time and creative thinking. New forms of content, innovative approaches to messaging and emerging design trends should continue to shape the Web site.

To extend the value of content, Quadrotech tries different delivery options for current content on the site. "One of the most successful things that we've done is actually turning our blogs into PDFs. We went through and analyzed our top 25 blogs, and then made them so that people could download them as PDFs," Trevenna says. "They could read them all online still, it was still all available, open, with no gate, but then if they wanted to keep that as a reference, they could just fill out name, e-mail, address, company and then download the PDF. That is one of the most popular content types that we have."

To help partners monitor and benchmark their Web sites, Fifty Five and Five offers a free tool, Maya, that tracks digital marketing improvements over time. Maya was developed in association with Microsoft to help partners measure digital marketing metrics and provide recommendations for improvement.

"Web sites are never ever really finished, even when you do projects. Once you complete your Web site it's still never finished. It's always ongoing," says Danaher. "Tools out there, such as Maya, can help you understand how you're doing and where you can improve."

As the Internet continues to evolve, a long-term commitment to Web site testing and improvement should be a part of each partner's marketing foundation -- and even strategic vision. An active Web site can be a way to engage more with employees and recognize their contributions, which is especially important as more millennials enter the workforce. A creative approach to educate prospects and customers can uncover new opportunities and put untapped assets to work.

The RCP 200 reflects the progress partners have made in building professional Web sites, providing a strong marketing foundation and an inviting front door to the business. To continue to improve, partners need to refine their messaging to capitalize on their strengths -- courting a higher quality of leads instead of a higher volume of leads. Part of each partner's strength is the personality of the organization, best revealed through the employees who provide their expertise and build relationships with customers. And, finally, partners need to continue to push the edges -- evolving along with the expectations of prospects and customers.