The Why and How of CMS Vendor Partnerships

By Deane Barker on April 4, 2009

I got an email a couple weeks ago about a new-ish CMS that was looking for partners. “Partners” in the CMS-world usually means integrators, like Blend, who specialize in a particular CMS.

CMS vendors like these relationships because their partners sell their CMS to clients, generally promote the market penetration of the CMS, and the vendor can call the partner in to help close a deal. If a deal is teetering on the question of integration services, the partner can swoop in, inspire some confidence, define a number, and help close the deal.

Blend, for the record, is an official partner for three vendors (all starting with “e” for some reason): Episerver, Ektron, and eZ publish.

So, this vendor contacted me for a demo to see if we would sign-on as a partner. We went though a demo and the system was undeniably impressive. However, we we started taking about the partner program...there really wasn’t much there. While their system would have been fun to develop with, there didn’t seem to be much advantage to becoming a partner.

In the end, as a businessman (not a CMS fanboy, which I undeniably am), there is really just one reason for choosing to partner with a particular CMS: will it make us more money?

Yes, that sounds crass and denies all the joy and craftsmanship of being a student of content management, but you have to pay the bills, and, in the end, you have to make money to stay in business.

So, how does a CMS partnership make money for an integrator? Here is Blend’s experience, in no particular order:

  1. Many partnership deals offer a mark-up of the list price. Anywhere from ten to twenty-five percent is not uncommon, so you get that off the top of any license purchase. This is even better when the CMS is only sold through partners (like Episerver), not the vendor itself. In these cases, you make some money on strictly license deals that you wouldn’t get otherwise.

  2. Good partnership deals refer leads to their partners. Ektron has excelled at this. They send us business all the time that they’ve prospected and almost closed, but that are hinging on implementation details. We provide a good implementation option, the deal closes, and everyone is happy.

  3. You usually get marketing exposure on the CMS company site. For example, here’s our partner page at eZ publish (we don’t get dedicated, addressable pages with the other two). Some deals come through the door unsolicited just through exposure on these pages (though they’re often in the form of cattle-call RFPs sent to every partner the prospect could find).

  4. Fast-tracked tech support, some of which is better than others. For instance, one of our partners has an engineer on Skype all the time that instantly responds to questions. Another one has a “special” ticketing system for partners, but I can’t see any difference in tickets I open through that method and tickets that go through the normal channel.

Those are the big four advantages Blend has experienced.

Now, some may say, what if the CMS is so-o-o-o good that it helps you close deals? Well, perhaps, but how does being a partner change that? I can still use a particular CMS without being a partner, so there’s no net advantage there.

What about professional services? Partnering with a CMS company lets you sell the professional services alongside the CMS, right? Well, yes, but again, I get this anyway, no matter what CMS we implement.

There are some other, softer advantages to partnerships that vendors tout:

  1. Priority of feature requests. However, I highly doubt this ever actually happens. CMS versions are planned so far in advance, that feature requests – from partners or otherwise – probably have very little impact.

  2. Specialized training. But, in the end, this is usually a precursor to the partnership relationship, not an advantage of the relationship. For both Episerver and Ektron, we had to undergo training at our own expense.

  3. A “closer” relationship with the vendor. There’s some validity to this – we have backchannel contacts at all three of our CMS vendors that have undeniably provided assistance from time to time.

  4. The right to call yourself an “official partner” of that CMS. The right to name-drop, essentially.

So, back to the company that called me the other day. What did they offer?

  • They offered 20% discount from list price. Not a bad cut, but it was mitigated by the fact that their product sold in the sub-$1,000 range, so how does that really help me? Two hundred bucks isn’t a huge margin, in raw dollars, and it disappears in comparison to a $20K to $50K professional services engagement.

  • They offered a partner page on their site, which is always helpful. In these situations, I look to see who the nearest partner to me is, in geographical terms. We work all over the world, but when a prospect is seeking out a partner, they’re naturally going to do it by who is nearest to them, so, in this sense, geography is competition. This particular company has a partner in Minneapolis, which isn’t bad, but they had 50-75 U.S. partners in total, which is a big pool to compete in.

  • They also offered some of the software benefits I mentioned: a “closer” relationship, fast-tracking of feature requests and support, etc.

This is great, but the biggest problem is what they didn’t offer: sales leads. According to them, most sales leads come directly in through partner pages, so they aren’t in a position to refer many leads directly to partners. In this sense, I’m at the mercy of a partner page on their Web site, competing with all the other partner pages, rather than a warm handoff of a qualified lead from their sales group.

So, in the end, we declined this one. Partly for the reasons I mentioned, but mainly because we have three partnerships already, and they’re working well for us. We’re not regularly in situations where we’re thnking, “Man, if only we had another CMS partnership to fall back on...”

Comments (4)

John Austin says:

I feel you are missing some important aspects to a vendor partnership. Trust and transparency are vital to the long-term health vendor/implementation partnership. In addition if you are building long-term relationships with your clients, then selecting the CMS solution that best meets their needs is important as well.

A bad vendor relationship can damage your company’s own brand and client relationships. Hence mutual respect, product stability and solid support services from the vendor are vital.

Deane says:

then selecting the CMS solution that best meets their needs is important as well.

In this post, I wasn’t referring to the selection of a CMS. I was referring to selecting a CMS vendor to partner with. I don’t have to be a partner with a specific vendor to select their CMS because it’s the correct one for my client. I fact, being too dogmatic about your CMS vendors often causes people to pick the wrong CMS just because they get a cut.

Joani Reisen says:

Thanks Dean! This is great information! I wonder how many end users are aware of the deals being made between vendors and CMS Companies and vice versa? As a vendor do you think it is ok for a CMS company to start doing the same work as thier partners after they have built thier company off the backs of thier partners? I will be sure to send the end users that call us for recommendation for a CMS platform to your blog!

David Maffei says:

Deane, I agree with much of what you write above. I think there are ‘real’ advantages to having tight relationships – there are also ‘fluff’ advantages.

I also have to agree with what John Austin commented below the article. Beyond ‘what can this product do for me’ there has to be a relationship there that makes people (like you and I) want to do business together.

From our perspective – our partner program in 2006 and 2007 was based on driving value thru the channel in the form of leads (2 quick points – this worked AWESOME and ultimately hurt us later on). In 2008 we made an abrupt change in our approach in terms of the value proposition to the partners. We knew that to survive in this market companies needed to be working with us because they felt our technology was the best and because of the relationship (to Austin’s point). The lead passing needed to be secondary (albeit still prominent), but no longer the driving force behind the partnership.

The issue with this change is that all the partners that were getting a significant amount of leads, and didn’t see the ‘value’ of the new value proposition felt like they were out in the cold.

In 2009 we have proved that we made a wise – and strategic change to this partner program regardless of the growing pains. More than ever we are teaming with our partners to deliver quality web solutions. From doing the complete backend integration of a partners design and IA, to simply providing staff augmentation in the form of an Ektron expert for the project to even something as simple as our partners being able to leverage our Best Practices Engineering support.

Many of the partners that felt left out in 2008 are back inside and sitting at the fireplace – and there are over 50 new agencies there as well.

At the end of the day – a CMS company that does no professional services will not survive or effectively grow in this marketplace. This point, probably more than any other, is backed by the industry analysts.

I did a call with an agency who is partners with one of our competitors – they have done 30 plus implementations of said competitor and are looking to leave – not because that company isn’t bringing them leads anymore – quite to the contrary – they are leaving because said competitor leaves them by themselves holding the bag on these implementations. No application services, no partner engineering team, no best practices – just a lead thrown over a wall and a piece of software sold transactional – rather than as a part of an overall solution.

We find that our best partnerships are the ones where the customers, at the end of the projects, are most happy. Ektron’s reputation and our partners reputation is so important that from our perspective both parties need to have skin in the game to ensure that success. You wont find Ektron throwing leads aimlessly over the proverbial wall anymore – you will however find our partner program growing like it did in 2006 – but this time with the customers interest and successful project completion as the driver.

Sure, we give discounts too – 25% to our best partners – and recognize our partners on our site (personal pages for our top tier) – but our value is driving customer success on their projects – not Ektron success on a one-off sale.

-David Maffei, Director – Sales and Partner Development