Kyle Burnett, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Allbound, joins me, Jen Spencer to discuss the birth and growth of the partner portal, navigating channel tech, integrations, SaaS partner programs and more on this episode of The Allbound Podcast.
I want to start with a Channel Partner word that I honestly kind of have a love/hate relationship with. It’s the word “portal” or “partner portal,”. Kyle, can you put on your professor hat and walk us through the birth and the growth of the partner portal?
I’m kind of like the wiki on that, and I think that sometimes the word’s so loaded and we can take pieces of it and maybe think about it positively or negatively. But I think if you just back up the story and where the portal came from, it’s really no different than every other portal that exists on the internet.
Pre-internet, how did you communicate with partners, with business partners? You printed and mailed things to them, newsletters, for example. And you had to print and mail other collateral and information that you needed them to have – data sheets, board papers, case studies – whatever you needed your partners to have, and that was print and mail.
Pretty soon that turned into digital files that are online, so instead of physically sending a newsletter you can email a newsletter. Instead of physically sending files, you can email files or links to files. And pretty soon you start aggregating that into one location online into, well, a portal.
And now you can actually switch and have that be more of an on-demand scenario where partners can come and get it when they need it. And it pretty much follows the history of the internet in general, having information that you wanted to share and getting it all congregated, aggregated to one location so that it’s there on-demand, and that’s kind of where the portal came from and actually to where it exists today.
To hone in on the love/hate piece of this, what we don’t like about where portals exist today is that still implies that it was the portal that came in 1997 when the internet started to really take off. It feels like it got left in time, vs. software, which is ever evolving, changing, and growing. That’s where Allbound sits. A lot of companies, what they’re looking to in the channels to try to figure out how to actually use technology and how to actually use software and they still call it a portal. And so we look at that and we want to address that and say, “Wait, are you thinking the portal? Or are you actually just thinking software?” But that’s where it came from and it’s, to some degree, better or worse, where it still largely sits today.
When I think about why I have this weird feeling about partner portals; I love the idea that organizations are investing in allocating a resource for their partners, and providing their partners with the location to go to, to be able to access information, I love that. What I hate is that I feel like portals are this place where marketing collateral kind of goes to die.
I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anybody who says, “Oh my gosh. We have the best partner portal ever. It’s amazing. I love it.” It’s like there’s all this furniture in this room and artwork, and none of it really goes together, but it’s all there. Is it better to have the room? Would it be better not to have it at all? And so, that’s where my conflict, I think, comes into play.
You’re right, it is that feeling that it is a wasteland. And to some degree, it’s kind of true. It’s like you put content up there, you make it accessible to somebody. And that’s great. The first time they go get it, they pull it up, they’re like, “Awesome, great. This served this need that I have right now.” But it does become very transactional. And it kind of lives and dies by the need of the transaction. And it doesn’t really take on any other life form of its own. It just sits there, it just waits. And that serves its purpose, but that is, in scale and in scope, a very limited purpose and that’s painful for the business-minded marketers, such as yourself, that actually want to invest your precious resources in something that’s got a bigger, longer, more valuable life span than just transactions.
The other way that portals are used, besides just to hold content, is almost like a place to go to then access other systems.
So maybe I go into the portal and then I can access a lead or deal registration system, or then I can access a marketing campaign type of system. And I start thinking about from the user experience perspective, how do you make sure that you’re able to maintain a consistent user experience? Or are you leading someone through this portal and they’re literally going through this magical kind of realm and then they end up in this other system? How can they cleanly get back to where they started? I think that’s one of the other challenges that I’ve seen come into play besides just the content piece.
It’s like they need a treasure map, a crayon to help work their way through it. But we invest in technology, especially in the channel largely for two reasons. I think the other challenge is that the channel leaders are looking to bring systems together and perhaps portal is kind of this place where they start to think, “Well, I’ve got a portal. Can I also add this there? Can I also add that there?”
But if you simplify it, back up to, like, two commonalities there, one is, they are looking to simplify process. And they’re also looking to speed up and simplify their own lives and that of the lives of their partners. And so, once they move beyond, “I’ve got content,” and things to share with them, they do start to say, “Well, I also have this process. I’ve got this.”
So it starts to balloon out from there and it’s tricky. As a person who likes to build systems and tie systems together, I know that it’s very easy to engage in that scope creep and engage in that idea creep to go, “Well, just one more thing, just one more thing, just one more thing,” but that is how most people’s portals and systems were built, was just one more thing over a couple of years, over a couple of different regimes, over a couple of different technologies. And pretty soon you do have, as you’ve alluded to, that house of horrors and rooms and things tied together and no one even remembers why they got added on and why that was put there. It just becomes very weird when the guest shows up and is not quite sure how to navigate it. So it can definitely become legacy very quickly. And those challenges exist, but that was born out of great intentions, and that was born out of great promise and it was born out of great opportunity, but it does need to be revisited. It can have a very limited lifespan if you’re not careful.
To learn more about the birth and growth of the partner portal, navigating channel tech, integrations, SaaS partner programs and more, tune in to episode 21 of The Allbound Podcast.