Microsoft Deepens Partner Program with New Designations, More Perks

Tech giants are laying off thousands, a certain notable and longstanding channel program is being gutted, and Microsoft Inspire -- the annual summer mega-gathering for Microsoft's army of partners -- is "evolving" to be a comparatively lowkey online-only event. All told, they make for uneasy times for partners.

Amid the uncertainty, however, Microsoft is encouraging its partners to focus on growth. In fact, it's shaping up to be a year of "exponential innovation and growth for partners," wrote Microsoft channel chief Nicole Dezen on Wednesday in her "State of the Partner Ecosystem 2024" missive.

"Today more than 13,000 partners are transacting with Microsoft Azure AI, serving more than 53,000 customers with generative AI capabilities alone," she said. "Our partner ecosystem is rising to meet demand with a nearly 250 percent increase in the number of generative AI-related transacting partners in the past eight months."

New Partner Designations
To nurture this growth, Microsoft on Wednesday announced a string of improvements to its Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program. For starters, the number of Solutions Partner designations is increasing from the original six to nine by the end of 2024.

Going live later this year will be the Solutions Partner for Support Services designation. Coming April 10 will be the Solutions Partner for Training Services designation. And, as of Wednesday, March 20, the Solutions Partner with certified software designation is now live.

The Solutions Partner with certified software designation is meant for ISVs whose products are particularly suited for one of four Microsoft solution areas (Azure, Business Applications, Modern Work and Security). This designation also has an additional "Industry AI" distinction for products that "meet an industry-specific challenge aligned with the Microsoft Industry Cloud scenarios and include a Microsoft AI capability," per Dezen. Industry AI distinctions are now available for the healthcare, retail, financial services, manufacturing and sustainability industries.

"Ignite is where we launch our company news. It's where we're launching new innovations. Being able to do that at the same time with our partners and customers just felt like the right thing to do."

Julie Sanford, VP of Partner GTM, Programs & Experiences, Microsoft Global Partner Solutions

In an interview, Julie Sanford, Microsoft's head of Partner Go To Market, said that these new designations -- particularly the certified software designation -- is indicative of Microsoft's overarching plan make its partner program as inclusive as possible.

"Our first original six designations really focused on our software integrators, our services partners," Sanford said. "The addition of the certified software designations is really anchored toward partners that develop software solutions. Traditionally, we've talked about those partners as ISVs. But, as you know, every partner is now expanding their business models to not only provide services, but most are also developing IP. So this is our way to make sure that the partner program is really meeting the needs of partners and their business models."

Besides these new designations, Microsoft also plans to give SMB partners new avenues to earn Solutions Partner designations for Azure and Security (similar paths are already available for the Business Applications and Modern Work Solutions Partner designations). Details on this improvement will come in the following weeks.

In-Person Events (That Are Not Inspire)
This past February, Microsoft signaled that Inspire 2024 wouldn't be happening in its usual format. In a blog post , Microsoft wrote, "We are evolving the event previously known as Microsoft Inspire," adding, "[W]e will also welcome partners to join us at Microsoft Ignite for an in-person experience in November to see the latest Microsoft innovations, network and celebrate the Partner of the Year Award winners."

Microsoft may feel that Ignite, a massive conference in its own right, is as good an arena as any for its partners to get the immersive experience they want with Microsoft executives, customers and technologies.

"[We're] expanding the Ignite experience for our partners to join us in person, to be able to meet not only the Microsoft executives but, most importantly, be there with our collective customers," Sanford said. "And Ignite [set to take place in Chicago on Nov. 18-22] is where we launch our company news. It's where we're launching new innovations. Being able to do that at the same time with our partners and customers just felt like the right thing to do, based on partner feedback. So we're excited for partners to have a much bigger presence at that event."

Microsoft is also attempting to fill the in-person meeting gaps for partners with a string of intensive training workshops focused on AI. The new Microsoft AI Partner Training Roadshow is one such program. Starting in March and going through June this year, Microsoft will hold in-person training events in six cities, including in Germany, Japan and Brazil. The first of these roadshow events took place recently in India, drawing 1,500 attendees.

"The roadshow is focused on in-person training on AI, targeting 270 partner organizations," said Dezen, "and includes a keynote session highlighting the unique value of Microsoft AI, Fabric and Copilot for Microsoft 365, followed by a sales excellence and technical excellence tracks."

Microsoft also has two upcoming events specifically for Microsoft Copilot for Security -- a partner bootcamp on April 16, and a multiday workshop on April 22-25. (Microsoft Copilot for Security itself is set to launch on April 1.)

There are three other training events highlighted in Dezen's post:

  • Copilot for Microsoft 365 Pre-Sales, Deployment and Adoption Bootcamp (March 26)
  • Microsoft Fabric Workshop (April 8)
  • Azure OpenAI Workshop (April 16)

Microsoft plans to share more details about the health of its partner ecosystem -- and the company in general -- during its fiscal year kickoff, which will take place virtually in July. Sanford indicated that partners are a key component of that event, even if it's not as partner-specific as Inspire.

"We know how critical it is to be able to check off our fiscal year in harmony with our partner ecosystem. We talk all the time how partners are an extension to the Microsoft salesforce," she said. "So we will be doing a launch for the fiscal year where we do all of our scaling and readiness with our partner ecosystem at the same time that we're readying our Microsoft sales organizations."