Looking for Leads Online

Microsoft's goal for its online Solution Finder directory is to drive a million partner leads per month. Is it the right tool for your company?

Create a great Web site, get it listed in the search engines and optimize search terms regularly. What more should there be to a Microsoft partner's strategy for gathering business leads online? A lot, Todd Weatherby believes.

Weatherby is general manager for Microsoft's Partner Systems Analysis Team and reports to Allison Watson, corporate vice president in the Worldwide Partner Group. His laid-back delivery belies an intensity and passion that comes through in a command of metrics and an eagerness to get his points across.

An 11-year Microsoft veteran who previously spent eight years at Oracle, Weatherby is responsible for bringing partners self-service capabilities over the Web. Weatherby likes to describe his job as a puzzle. "How do you get [Microsoft's] $20 billion of R&D over the last few years ... through 380,000 partner organizations that really represent over 4 million people ... out to the number of Windows desktop users-600 million people around the world?" he says. "We've got to do it over the Web. We've got to do self-service."

In his first 18 months on Watson's team, Weatherby helped steer the overhaul of the Partner Portal interface from a dashboard of each partner's status in the Partner Program to more of a comprehensive guide to the self-service resources available to partners. His attention currently is largely focused on using the Web to drive customer leads to partners.

A Million a Month
If partner search-engine optimization (SEO) is bottom-up marketing, Weatherby is pushing a top-down directory effort with a peer-to-peer flavor in the Microsoft Solution Finder.

The Solution Finder is a customer-facing directory of partner solutions that appears in many places on the Microsoft Web site. The idea is to leverage information required for registration in the Microsoft Partner Program, along with additional solution descriptions (and validations of those solutions), to build a Microsoft-hosted infrastructure where customers and partners can connect. Microsoft's ultimate goal for the program is staggeringly high: to generate a million customer leads for partners per month.

After unveiling plans for the Solution Finder at the Microsoft Convergence and Worldwide Partner conferences in 2005, Microsoft launched the tool in March 2006. Six months later, for the month of September, it drove just 1,400 leads. Microsoft plans to put plenty of tactical blocks in place over the next few years to close that 998,600 lead-per-month gap. But that aggressive metric and the emphasis the company is placing on the program mean it may be worthwhile for partners to spend time now to get their solutions entered into the directory.

Watson says the effort dovetails with many Microsoft goals. "A lot of our strategy is about self-service and velocity and scalability and making sure that customers and partners can find each other," Watson says. "We're involved, but if we do our job right, we're in the back seat, and our customers and partners are in the front seat together."

Of course, the concept of an online directory of partners isn't new at Microsoft.

Paul DeGroot, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash., sums up the major limitations of a previous iteration known as the Resource Directory: "It was about as useful as the Yellow Pages. It could tell you who generally [did] the kind of thing, but it [couldn't] tell you how good they [were]," he explains. "There wasn't much rigor around qualifying the providers themselves. [The instructions said,] 'If you can help customers with Exchange, tick here.' Well, guess what? They checked all the boxes because they didn't want to turn down any work."

Microsoft was fully aware of those problems, and Weatherby says customers were clear on what information they needed. In tests, prospects asked for customer references first, certifications second and partner status third. "But it was really about the references," he says.

The new directory's quality checks confine partners to profiling solutions that fall within their competency areas only and for which they have customer references. That requirement has kept the enrollment fairly low, with about 10,000 solutions profiled out of 380,000 members in the Microsoft Partner Program.

Meanwhile, the partner team hasn't yet gained control over all Microsoft partner directories. "We aren't down to just one [directory] for the company yet," Weatherby says. "We're getting it all in one pile, but there are product group sites. Our Office team still has one where they showcase some Office partners, and they want those partners to profile over there. We're working with them to make sure that they could profile over here and we could expose it in the Office site the way those guys want to, because partners have said, 'Don't make me profile [in] eight different places.'"

A couple of years ago, there were more than 30 different profile databases across Micrososft. "We're making great progress in [consolidating directories]. Now people are coming to us who are going to build one," Weatherby says. "I think it's going to be the center of gravity."

Getting its own directory structure under control is one thing. Getting customers to visit the Solution Finder and ask to be contacted is quite another. The program is beginning to gain some traction among highly committed partners. Weatherby says that at a recent Partner Advisory Council meeting, 12 member partners said that they had received leads through Solution Finder. But a few dozen leads to the Partner Advisory Council and about 1,400 overall in September is a long way from a million.

"That's Microsoft philosophy," Watson explains. "In general, one of the things I think that we like to do is put a goal that seems so impossible when you're starting from zero. But we do have validation behind why that's not an unreasonable goal, because we know how many partners we have and we know how many customers there are, and we know on average how many customers need a solution every year. [With that information,] you start to say, 'Well, a million isn't an unreasonable number at all.'"

But she admits that figuring out "how to go from zero to a million is hard."

Solution Finder Metrics

Leads in September 2006
Leads-per-month goal
1 million
Number of solution listings in the Solution Finder (as of Oct.31)
Number of partners listed in the Solution Finder
Number of Microsoft partners
Number of customers
~ 600 million

Source: Microsoft

Back-Seat Approach
Weatherby breaks down one reason a million-lead goal out of the Solution Finder isn't insanely optimistic. "It turns out that there are millions of customers each day that come to," he says, adding that, of course, many are interested in consumer products such as the Xbox. "But it turns out hundreds of thousands of them are business customers looking to Microsoft for some guidance at least or some direction of which partners might have [business solutions] offerings."

Another reason the one-million-lead push may not be out of reach: e-mail leads may end up being just a fraction of the leads the system delivers. "We don't see all the contact. We think [that] about five times out of six, customers are picking up the phone. The one time out of six they're filling out the e-mail form. We haven't been able to figure out how many times they're clicking through to the partner's Web site, but we're quite happy to have that happen," Weatherby says.

In any case, Microsoft is doing more than throwing dollars and eyeballs at the project. Instructive of the approach is the decision not to slap a broad version of the Solution Finder on the homepage.

"What we decided to do instead was to put a feature we call Solution Finder all over in places that are in context of the customer's needs," Weatherby explains. The Solution Finder pops up in about a dozen places across the site, with filters applied that make the results immediately relevant. Places where Solution Finder appears include the Microsoft Midsize Business Center, the public-sector customer site and the Microsoft Dynamics page. Visitors can then add a few keywords to further refine the list, for example, by plugging keywords such as "automotive" or "manufacturing" into the version on the Microsoft Dynamics page.

By passing the leads directly from input to the partner without a human touch on the Microsoft side, the company is trying to take the back-seat approach that Watson emphasizes. "We're learning as a company that if we try to manage every connection between customers and partners, that breaks down and we actually slow it down. The more we can get out of the way and let them connect with each other, the greater the velocity in the marketplace," Weatherby says.

DeGroot is impressed by the effort. "To some extent, it's pretty smart," he says. "They built a kind of structure for the Partner Program that turns out to be reasonably effective in creating a solution finder that can provide customers with a better shot at finding a Microsoft partner who can do their work."

Worth the Energy?
The question is whether partners will want to invest energy in the program when so many of the Web's users turn to Google first, even for business searches.

Weatherby says Microsoft understands that partners "have a limited amount of time." But, he adds, the Solution Finder forms are designed to take less than half an hour to fill out. "We don't feel like it's a big duplicative effort. We feel like it's an extension," he says.

Having to decide between spending time on the Solution Finder and SEO may become even more of a moot point soon, Weatherby contends. Building SEO into Solution Finder entries for partners is on Microsoft's roadmap for the program.

DeGroot believes the program is getting to the point where he's recommending that partners sign up. "If you plan to get any business from Microsoft, you should really take some time to fill out the profiles," he advises. "It helps Microsoft to find you and it helps customers find you."

Some partners who have signed up have seen solid leads from the Solution Finder. Sunny Sung, Western marketing manager for Ideaca, a Dynamics VAR and Gold Certified Partner with offices in Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver, calls results from the tool amazing. "We've only been in the profile a few months, and we have four to five leads already and two real opportunities out of it." Results have been even more concrete for Nakisa Inc., a human resources ISV and Gold Certified Partner in Montreal. "We've been getting inquiries on a weekly basis, and about one enterprise deal per month," says John Paynes, director of global Microsoft alliances for Nakisa. "That is incredible for the fact that this requires minimal effort on our side."

Microsoft faces some challenges in bringing partners up to full participation. One Gold Certified Partner, a U.S.-based VAR who asked not to be identified, says his firm hasn't entered anything in the Solution Finder yet. "I've got issues with it. I think it's a very good tool for ISVs. It's not a good tool for messages like, 'Hey, I'm a great Exchange guy who can get your Exchange servers running faster than anybody else.'" The VAR executive said his company had also figured out how to use Partner Points to improve its ranking in the older Microsoft partner directories, but wasn't sure how rankings would work in the new system.

DeGroot says it will be especially hard to develop an audience among small business owners who don't read technical magazines and aren't technical themselves. "Yeah, you can advertise on Monday Night Football, but you don't know how effective that will be. It may be a matter of word of mouth, people talking over Thanksgiving turkey," he says.

Then again, with Microsoft's advertising budget, a major ad campaign is far from out of the question. In fact, the Solution Finder is integral to Microsoft's ubiquitous "People-Ready" messaging.

"We've got the link from our biggest, baddest advertising campaign that we have as a company all the way back to our MSPP partners. The call to action that's on the first page [ peopleready] is 'Look up a partner,'" says Weatherby.

In the long run, Microsoft's strategy for driving leads online doesn't stop with the Solution Finder or even that ambitious one-million-leads goal. The Worldwide Partner Group has its eye on the Windows Marketplace.

Finding the Solution Finder

Want to check out the Solution Finder and see whether it's for you?
Main Solution Finder page

You can find some filtered versions at:

Microsoft Dynamics

Midsize Business Center

People-Ready Campaign (eight pre-filtered search options)

Windows Marketplace is currently a consumer-oriented community site for comparing, previewing, buying and downloading software-anything from digital photography suites to games to Office add-ons to screensavers.

"We're going to extend the MSPP partners into Windows Marketplace," Weatherby says. "The most advanced stuff is what we think of as a marketplace, where you actually have a sense of community online, where customers and partners are seeing each other and interacting with each other." Features include lists of most popular products, hottest products, latest products and most-used keywords.

"Today you can go up there and test drive consumer applications. Why couldn't you just test drive business applications?" Weatherby speculates. "Does it make sense to buy a big ISV application over the Web? Hmm.

Probably not. But you could see maybe some very small business things that are packages or widgets that might be MSPP partners that are selling."

That's as specific as he's willing to get right now. "We've got some work to do before we're ready to roll all that out."


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