Launching Partnerships

5 questions to answer before launching your partner program

Most SaaS companies should get started with partnerships as soon as possible. These 5 questions let you know if you're ready to launch a partner program.

People have a tendency to overthink things, especially when facing the unfamiliar. I know I’m guilty of it.

In the process of co-founding PartnerStack, I read dozens of books on how to start a company. When we expanded the PartnerStack platform to support new types of partners, I spent hundreds of hours researching those partners in an attempt to understand how they thought and worked.

None of it really helped. Everything meaningful we’ve learned about the companies and partners that use our platform has come from shipping features, listening to their feedback and focusing on their success.
The same is true for launching an effective partnerships program. The fastest way to figure out what it takes for your partner program to be successful is to launch it in its simplest form and iterate on the feedback.

But what does it take to be ready to launch even a lightweight program? In this article, I’m going to go over 5 questions every business and any partner manager should answer before they launch their partner program:

  1. Does your business have product-market fit?
  2. Are customers already referring your product to others?
  3. What kinds of partners will you work with?
  4. Do you have buy-in from your company?
  5. What tools will you use to manage and measure partners?

Does your business have product-market fit?

When a company has product-market fit, it means they’re certain that their product is delivering value to a market large enough to scale the business. Companies with product-market fit know who their most important customers are and are able to retain those customers long-term.

Before even considering launching a partner program, you need to be sure your company’s reached product-market fit first.

If you don’t know who your customers are, how can you expect partners to reach and refer the right customers for your business?

If you’re not able to close customers on your own, you won’t be able to close partner referrals — and resellers won’t get the resources they need from your team to succeed.

And if you can’t retain the customers that partners are bringing to you, it’s impossible for a program to generate positive ROI.

But if you do know who your audience is and how your product provides value, partnerships can help you reach even more of the right kinds of customers.

Are customers already referring your product to others?

If customers are referring others to your product without any incentive already, it’s perfect timing to launch your partner program. It proves that your product exceeds customer expectations enough that you’re likely able to retain the prospects, leads and customers that partners bring in.

It also means that customers will refer even more business with additional incentives. In fact, customer ambassador programs can be one of the best types of programs to launch with for exactly this reason, and require less investment to get off the ground.

What kinds of partners will you work with?

The ultimate goal of a partner program is to drive consistent recurring revenue with the support of people outside your organization: your partners.

That revenue comes from converting traffic and leads referred by partners into paying customers, or when partners resell your product directly to new customers and earn a commission on the sale.

There are four types of partners that drive revenue in different ways:

  • Ambassadors are existing customers of your product that get rewarded when they refer new customers. Ambassadors already know the ins-and-outs of your product and likely know other people who could benefit from it.
  • Affiliates drive traffic to your website or product through unique links that you give them — or that they can generate themselves through your PRM platform — and earn commission when visitors they refer convert into paying customers.
  • Referrers generate and qualify their own leads before handing them off to your team to close the sale. They tend to be subject matter experts and consultants with direct relationships to their customers.
  • Resellers sell your product directly to customers and potentially own the entire client relationship. They’re often full-service agencies that sell products together as part of a strategic project.

Each partner type of partner is valuable, and which program to start with heavily depends on your business model. However, ambassador and affiliate programs are often the easiest to get off the ground, and work great for companies that have proven they can convert traffic effectively on their own.

Do you have buy-in from your company?

When our team spoke to Anca Bujor, Channel Partnerships Manager at Unbounce to learn about their program’s successes and challenges, she told us:

“Many companies never get their programs off the ground because they can’t get the buy-in they need internally. And when partnerships are seen as a transactional channel instead of as relationships with real people, it’s hard for internal teams to trust the partners, to understand the value they bring to the business.”

On a practical level, you’ll need the support from other teams internally to market your program via email and your website, and to integrate your partner management technology with your existing sales and marketing stack.

But to fully sell the program internally — and get the resources necessary to launch it successfully — you’ll want buy-in from the highest level at your company. Successfully pitching your partner program to your executive team can get your entire company on board much faster, because those leaders can help their own teams understand the value in the opportunity.

If you can’t get full buy-in without showing some success first, you can also start with a small test like launching a landing page for partner applications and linking to it from your site’s navigation. You might be surprised how many partners have been hoping for your program to appear. (Just don’t leave them waiting for too long.)

What tools will you use to measure and manage your partners?

Some companies try to run their partner programs manually. All of them regret it.

If you’re testing things out with one or two partners, you can get away with tracking things in a spreadsheet and paying them out manually. But it will quickly become a frustrating experience for both you and your partners if you try to scale your program without a partner relationship management — or PRM — platform.

There are many PRM platforms on the market, with a complete list of partner management software available at SaaS review website G2. A few things to look out for when reviewing the options:

  • Many PRM platforms are designed only to support one type of partner program, (e.g. affiliate management software). That means if you ever want to expand beyond the first channel you choose (very likely!), you’ll have to buy more software to manage it.
  • The most successful programs have automated onboarding and make marketing and sales resources easily available to partners, but not every PRM allows you to host resources and automate emails — you’ll be on your own to handle that with other tools.
  • The majority of PRM platforms don’t handle paying out partners, meaning that job will fall to your finance team… or you. Manual payments increase the likelihood of accounting errors and late payments to partners, and are just annoying to handle.

When building the PartnerStack PRM platform, we prioritized including features like multi-channel partner management, partner onboarding and resources, and automatic partner payments because our early experiences working with partners revealed that these were the areas where existing PRM solutions were failing both partner managers and the partners themselves the most.

Regardless of the platform you choose to launch your partner program with, the most important step post-launch is to keep talking to your partners, ask them what they need to succeed, and build out your program based on their feedback. Because when partners see you prioritize their success, they’ll be sure to put your program first.

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