The value of partnerships is clear: driving recurring revenue through indirect channels can grow your business beyond what was possible alone. However, businesses often don’t form themselves with partnerships in mind. If you’re trying to fit partnerships into your existing organizational structure, you have a few options for where to grow the team.
Historically, partnerships have usually been an extension of the sales or marketing team. But today, an increasing number of organizations are also treating partnerships as their own independent department. There have never been more options for structuring a partnership program, but this can make the decision all the more difficult. Should you put your partnership program in sales, marketing, or turn it into its own function entirely?
To get to the bottom of this question, we spoke with Katie Clark, Onboarding Manager at PartnerStack, who has experience launching partner programs across a wide range of organizations. She believes that where you put partnerships in your organization depends a lot on your program type and the specific goals you’re looking to achieve.
Here’s how partnerships can fit into your organization, with org chart examples.Plus, we’ll share real examples of organization structures from TouchBistro, Sellfy, and Rewind. Let’s get into it.
1. Partnerships as part of the sales team
Best for: Referral or reseller programs, or small companies who haven’t yet built out their marketing function.
Historically, the sales team has been the natural home for partnership programs. (In fact, many partnership professionals get their start in sales.) And it makes sense, since partnerships essentially act as an extension of the sales team — bringing new customers through the door and selling them on the value of a product or service. Sales already has the collateral, processes, and resources to arm resellers with exactly what they need to be successful.
For an example, just look at how TouchBistro has structured their sales-led partnerships program below.
Partnerships organizational chart example: TouchBistro
This structure has allowed TouchBistro to build out a dedicated partnerships team within their sales function and streamline their relationship management with partners and prospective clients.
Following this model offers a number of benefits. For one, the sales team is often the most knowledgeable about your buyers — they know where to find members of your ideal customer persona (ICP) and how to talk to them. Plus, they know the value your product drives and how to deliver a compelling pitch. They likely already have sales enablement processes in place. Who better to equip your partners with their knowledge and resources?
But while nestling partnerships under your sales team can be an effective strategy, it’s not the best approach for all program types. According to Clark, this approach works best for referral or reseller programs. “It doesn't make sense to set up your affiliate partners with a direct link to a salesperson — that’s not going to be a great relationship,” she says. “If there's no self-service way to become a customer, then start with a referral program and put it under sales.” Referral and reseller partners will benefit most from the close connection to the sales team.
The one exception where you might consider putting an affiliate partner program under your sales team is if you’re a small company who doesn’t yet have a marketing team. In that case, the best place for partnerships is probably with your sales function — at least for now (you can always move your partnerships program over as your company expands).
One thing to keep in mind if you go the sales route: remember that partners aren’t the same as your sales representatives. “Sales gets inbound leads from the BDR team or marketing team,” says Clark. “Partners are out there on their own, so they need more resources and shouldn’t be held to the same standards.” Even if they work closely with your sales team, partners are still external, so naturally they require that extra level of support from you.
2. Partnerships as part of the marketing team
Best for: Affiliate programs or programs where volume and reach are more important than the quality of individual deals.
Partnerships, especially affiliate partnerships, share a lot of characteristics with marketing. Neither owns the whole sale, but both need to understand how to generate interest in vendors’ products and both need to know where ideal prospects hang out and get their information. Both rely on one-to-many communication, unlike sales, which is typically a one-to-one conversation.
We almost always recommend starting with an affiliate program first, since it’s the lightest lift — which means it’s often the quickest way to generate ROI and secure buy-in for your program. That’s why it can often be a good idea for partners to live under marketing in the early days. There’s a natural affinity between these functions.
Here’s an example of how this works at Sellfy, a small-but-mighty team where the marketing team comprises just five people, including one affiliate/partnerships marketer:
Partnerships org chart example: Sellfy
Having a close connection between marketing and partnerships can be beneficial from a decision-making perspective. As Sellfy Affiliate Manager Nikita Kuluks explains, “Everything is streamlined. There are no endless meetings — we can just discuss something today, decide on it, and start implementing it right away.” And attribution can be easier — when marketing and partners both play a role in educating a customer, it matters less who gets credit for the lead since it all comes under the same team.
Not only that, but the two functions can easily share resources too: marketing assets, templates, and general know-how can be super helpful for partner managers, who can learn how to create digital ads, host webinars, and spin up content for social media or other channels. The marketing team can make sure the partner team is representing the brand consistently and ensure partners have all the assets they need to succeed.
That said, as you scale and add more programs to your partnerships strategy, with a referral or reseller program for instance, you may find that placing them under the marketing team alongside your affiliate program will limit their potential.“Marketing can be ‘top of funnel,’ and that's not necessarily where you want your partners to be focusing all their attention,” says Clark. “If a partner is only closing 10% of their referrals because they’re being coached on how to generate but not close leads, they’re not going to be happy — and that can affect the overall success of your program.”
The sales team is better equipped to coach these referral and reseller partners on closing techniques and how to manage longer sales cycles, so if you plan to evolve beyond an affiliate program, that’s something to keep in mind. “It really comes down to your relationship with your partners and what you expect the relationship to grow into,” says Clark.
3. Partnerships as its own department
Best for: Companies with well-established partner programs, or ones who are ready to give partnerships their own seat at the table.
“Right now, partnerships typically fall under sales or under marketing. In the future, I think it will become its own organization,” says Adam Glazer, President of Partner Commerce, a performance marketing agency that specializes in B2B affiliate programs including Microsoft and Paypal, in a PartnerStack webinar.
Since partnerships are inherently cross-functional, it can sometimes feel restrictive to confine them to either sales or marketing. Take Rewind, for example. Since the beginning, Rewind’s partnerships team has reported into the Chief Operating Officer, who also functions as their Chief Revenue Officer. “This team structure has been extremely successful for us, because when one person owns the revenue engine, alignment is simple,” says Alison Piel, partner marketing manager at Rewind.
Partnerships org chart example: Rewind
“Since the COO has access and insight into other executive initiatives, they are able to ensure coordination of activities between partnerships and within the rest of the organization,” says Piel. This makes sense because partnerships are inherently cross-functional, and it's hard to cleanly bucket their goals and results into a sales vertical or a marketing vertical. As their own function, they can collaborate with different departments as needed.
It’s no wonder that this approach is starting to become more popular. “Partnerships as their own department is absolutely something that's catching on, and it's something that I encourage a lot of businesses to invest in,” says Clark. As the portion of revenue that partnerships contribute grows, they will need to set their own goals that are not beholden to sales and marketing. What’s more, “If partnerships is their own department, you're going to have a much easier time getting budget allocated for rewards and your tech stack,” she continues.
This can also help companies avoid the natural bias of under-representing partnership-driven customers, which can happen when the ultimate decision for attributing that customer lies with whatever department they fall under. Additionally, it helps the organization interact with partners without their own lead gen goals guiding those conversations, which directly tackles channel conflict.
Still, there are some potential pitfalls of making partnerships into its own department. “Like with any organization. If the more teams and departments you add on, the more conscious effort you have to put into making sure that they're aligned on a common goal or that they're at least talking to each other,” says Clark. You have to ensure that separate doesn’t mean siloed.
But you can easily mitigate these potential issues by being proactive. Setting up a weekly sync with other teams, scheduling a monthly recap to share your quarterly goals and how you’re progressing towards them, and staying in communication with other departments are all great ways to maintain your connections with other teams.
A less common option: Partnerships reporting to a cross-functional leader
Sometimes, at small organizations, sales and marketing are one department. Or, in Saksham Sharda’s case, one leader. He serves as the creative director at Outgrow, a role that involves leading three functions: sales, marketing, and partnerships.
“The benefits of partnerships reporting to the head of both Marketing and Sales is that we are able to offer partners both marketing-oriented as well as a sales-oriented collaboration,” says Sharda. “Scaling a partner program in the early days requires this kind of flexibility.”
While this structure will likely change as the company scales, it can be a necessary phase for partner programs in their nascency as they prove out the ROI necessary to grow bigger.
Partnerships org chart example: Outgrow
Scaling your partnerships team
While partnership programs usually start with just one person managing the entire program, more folks are typically added once the organization sees the revenue-generating potential. It’s common to start with a channel partnerships manager first, then add additional positions like an enablement role or an acquisition specialist next.
For instance, Formstack had been treating their partnerships in an ad-hoc way (what the team jokingly refers to as “random acts of partnerships”), when they decided to get serious about their program. Formstack’s director of sales & marketing (whose title changed to VP of partnerships) joined forces with their director of technology partnerships to form their own distinct partnerships team.
Their first hire within their new partnerships team was a partner enablement manager, who is responsible for hosting partner lunch-and-learns, partner training and certification, and supporting partners during implementation.
Since then, they’ve continued to add several new roles to the team to support partners, including a partner onboarding manager, partner growth team lead, and more. (See a full list of the roles they added in this article.) Similarly, you can start your partnerships team small and fill out roles as the need arises. As your program scales, your team can grow with it.
Different approaches, different advantages
When it comes to where partnerships should sit in your organization, different approaches offer different advantages. As the traditional go-to-market leaders, sales and marketing are uniquely positioned to give partners different kinds of support. Sales teams are often best equipped to help referral and reseller partners manage their sales cycles, while marketing teams are most suited to supporting affiliate partners in their lead gen efforts.
An increasingly popular solution is to establish partnerships as its own distinct function, which gives partnerships the autonomy to work alongside, not under, other functions to meet their own unique goals. This can work well for any type of program as long as the company has a strategic vision for how they want to grow their partnerships program in the long term.
There’s no one-size-fit-all approach to partnerships. “Partnerships are just another way of understanding the customer, communicating the value you provide, and learning how to make your potential customer see the value that's there and drive them to you,” says Clark. The ultimate answer to where partnerships should sit in your organization is whichever setup allows you to best achieve that goal. Use these chart templates to see how you can create your own ideal partnerships organization chart.