In SaaS, a partner program is like the electrical grid: the oft-overlooked backbone that makes our modern life possible.
Any time you use an integration, a plug-in, or an extension, you are taking advantage of the web’s partner ecosystem – a system of bidirectional connections that enable you to move your data between the products you use.
We take for granted that many of our software as a service (SaaS) tools work together, but building that partner ecosystem using partner management software is the work of partnership professionals who spend their working lives building alliances between their organizations – and all of the meetings, strategy, and preparation it takes to align sales and product organizations at two fast-growing tech companies.
What is a partner program?
A partner program is a strategy that helps a business connect with sales and marketing channel partners who sell the company's product and services. Partners are also known as referral partners, resellers, and marketing partners.
Some of the most successful SaaS companies such as Salesforce, HubSpot, and Stripe have built massive businesses leveraging partnerships. And yet advice on how to build your own partner program is hard to come by.
This article tackles the basics you need to know to kickstart a partner program at your own company.
Why do partner programs matter?
Years ago, software was a monolith. Your email, word processor, and payment solution were all made by the same company that likely charged your company a massive yearly bill.
This was an all-or-nothing approach; choosing your software provider was a massive commitment and changing vendors was an arduous and expensive process.
Today, business customers have a bit more flexibility. You can choose best-in-breed tools that do a handful of things well and connect them with one another. Your technology stack is fully customizable. For example, if a better payment processor tool comes along, you can switch and connect it with your existing tech stack.
In a modern business, you can use one tool to send emails, one to close deals, and another to communicate with your teammates.
Consumers have the expectation that all of their tools work with one another. It’s a shift to the “era of the ecosystem". Ecosystems are filled with bidirectional application programming interfaces (APIs).
Data moves freely between the services as opposed to the ”all-in-one platforms” of old where data never leaves. Think of a train terminal (platform) vs the train tracks (ecosystem).
The data above shows that the most successful companies will be the ones that embrace an ecosystem approach.
Types of partner programs
For simplicity’s sake, it’s helpful to think about SaaS partnerships as falling into three buckets:
Tech partners: These are the partners that send data between their service and yours. Sometimes called “integration” partners.
Channel partners: These are the partners that sell and service your product on your behalf. These are sometimes called “resellers” or “service integrators”
Strategic partners: These are the partners with long-term partnerships that spans across several efforts, projects, and departments.
Most companies have some sort of combination of the above.
Let’s explore them one at a time.
Integrations and tech partners
Tech partners work together by exchanging data, creating workflows, triggering events, enriching data, and/or creating go-to-market strategies. They make money by co-marketing and co-selling their integration to mutual leads and customers.
Did you know?G2 Partner Hub features 50+ products, so you can easily integrate with your favorite sales, marketing, customer success, and operations tools.
Additionally, user retention rates tend to be higher among those companies that utilize an integration. After all, you are less likely to stop using a SaaS product if it already works with the rest of your workflow. Why bother?
Tech partners use this API data to help fill gaps in their use cases. If you work at a SaaS company you know your company can’t meet all of your users’ demands.
In some cases, you will choose not to build in the functionality and instead partner with a company that can help. This is often referred to as the “buy vs. build” question. In some cases, a SaaS company will build the functionality themselves. But increasingly, companies are opting to allow partnerships to fill their use case gaps.
For example, HubSpot doesn’t have a robust survey feature, so they partner with Typeform to feed Typeform responses directly into HubSpot CRM functionality.
Tech partnership examples:
Typeform automatically loads survey answers into HubSpot.
Mailchimp automatically posts new newsletter links on Twitter (now X).
Zoom generates a call link in a Slack message with a simple command.
Salesloft automatically sends call recordings to Gong for faster transcription and analysis of conversations.
A channel partnership is when a vendor, usually a SaaS company, also referred to as an independent software vendor (ISV), has their product served by a third party. This is often referred to as indirect sales.
Companies use channel partners to quickly grow their reach. SaaS companies often hit a growth ceiling when selling their service using their own sales team. Enter channel partners, who can be in more places and handle the heavy lifting in exchange for a cut of the sales.
Channel partners can cover geographic areas, market segments, or types of customers your direct sales can’t serve efficiently.
Example: Your U.S.-based company is ready to expand into Japan. Rather than staffing up an office and negotiating distribution deals with Japanese companies, you can find a channel partner there. They handle your rollout in exchange for 30% of the yearly contracts they close. You grow faster with less investment, and they can get a new revenue source. Everyone wins.
Channel partnership examples:
Web developers managing content management systems for clients as part of a website redesign project.
Managed service providers (MSPs) that sell and manage an installation of an office software suite for a mid-sized company and charge a recurring management fee.
Deloitte acts as a value-added reseller (VAR) to resell and implement SAP products to their clients and customers.
Best Buy resells Apple hardware and provides repair services in its stores.
A strategic partnership is a bit more loosely defined than our previous buckets. A strategy partnership is a broad agreement that aligns the strategic efforts of two or more companies with overlapping products or markets towards a common goal.
These are often long-term arrangements that can sometimes result in one company acquiring another.
Strategic partnerships can (and often do) involve elements of tech and channel partnerships, but tend to be recurring, long-term commitments. They can also include co-branding, product roadmap development, and/or public relations.
Strategic partnership examples:
IBM partnering with Vodafone to create a joint venture that delivers cloud capabilities and faster connectivity to their customers.
Slack partnering with Atlassian to transfer all Hipchat users to Slack.
Uber partnering with Checkr to scale up background checks for drivers.
Adobe partnering with Microsoft to facilitate data standards for sharing between their solutions.
What to keep in mind before launching a partner program
Here’s the tricky part about building a partner program: there’s no guidebook for partnerships. Good advice is hard to come by – especially when each partnership hinges on the unique offering, culture, structure, and maturity of each partner company.
Hear from dozens of partnership professionals every week and with these learnings and others in the Partner Playbook – free to you. Some universal advice and key learnings we’ve learned in that process:
Optimize for common customers
You’ll eventually need to compare lists of customers, prospects, or opportunities using account mapping. The exact lists and comparison depends on your specific strategy. However, account mapping is often the first step in a partnership – think of it as a “getting to know you” dinner.
In short, account mapping is taking a list of your pipeline and cross-referencing or “mapping” it with a partner’s list of current or potential customers.
For example, I can take a list of my opportunities and “map” them to your customers to see what accounts you can introduce me to. You can use this "account map" to learn more about the contacts in your CRM software, accelerate deals in motion, or start to co-sell. A simple benefit matrix may look like:
For example, if you are considering an integration with a partner, compare customer lists. The more overlapping customers you have, the more likely your integration will be successful as more shared customers = more possible users.
Partnerships take 9 to 12 months to deliver revenue
Because of the nebulous nature of partnerships, if you are starting from scratch it’s going to take a while. At minimum you’ll see to decide:
What your company’s business goals are
What kinds of partnerships work best for those business goals
How much internal support and resources you have
What companies share these goals and can execute on a timeline you can manage
Establish workflows to scale partnerships beyond the first
Processes for continuing to engage with partners
Whew. That’s a lot of hard work that involved research and candid conversations with internal and external stakeholders. And even when you do have alignment on goals, you still need to find the right partners.
Veteran partnership professionals will tell you that they spend a lot of time going to events and taking calls that don’t result in a partnership.
Starting a partner program is a commitment of one to three years and you should expect not to see any revenue until around the ninth month at minimum. If your executive team can’t give you this runway, you won’t be successful. This is why so many partnership professionals demand that they report to the C-suite.
It’s best if your C-suite understands the commitment and that the partner program may take some time to bear some fruit.
You need executive-level buy-in
Partnerships require long-term thinking and alignment with business goals. Shifting priorities and strategy could render your partnership efforts moot, which is especially frustrating if your sales cycles are long.
If you can’t report to the C-suite, you should have regular meetings with your C-suite. And if you can’t do that you need to ensure your manager is advocating for partnerships at the executive level.
Get your data in order
No matter your partnership strategy, you will be exchanging data with your partner. Channel partners exchange leads, contact lists, and opportunities. Integration partners also exchange product data via bidirectional APIs.
You will need a handful of tools to help facilitate these exchanges, such as:
Partner relationship management (PRM) tools help channel sales managers and channel marketers, connect and automate all the pieces of their partner management process within one tool.
Partner ecosystem platform (PEP) is a SaaS product that allows you to manage, track, and share data with your partner ecosystem. A good PEP will typically also include tools to attribute revenue to your partners, track ecosystem-qualified leads, and keep your data secure.
Customer relationship management (CRM) is a tool that tracks where customers, prospects, and opportunities are in your sales cycle.
A modern partnership professional uses all three of these tools in concert to scale a partner program. And in true “meta” fashion, these tools often integrate with one another ensuring your sales team can get the partnership data when they need it to help close deals and avoid conflicts.
Best partner management software
Partner management systems, also known as partner relationship management (PRM) tools, provide business partners with tools for tracking sales and affiliates. These software solutions enable businesses to train, onboard, and certify partners as well.
To be included in this category, the software product must:
Facilitate information communication and exchange between an organization and its partners
Manage access rights for different user groups
Support business process workflows between a company and its partners
Evaluate effectiveness of market development funds (MDF) and co-branded partner activities
Train, onboard, and certify partners
*Below are the top five leading partner management solutions from G2’s Fall 2023 Grid® Report. Some reviews may be edited for clarity.
1. Impartner PRM
Impartner PRM is an award-winning channel partner management technology provider offering PRM and through-channel marketing automation solutions. Businesses use this platform to manage partner relationships, generate demand through partners, and boost profitability.
What users like best:
"Working with Shad and Benjamin saved our implementation with Impartner PRM. We initially implemented the Impartner PRM without sufficient consideration of our desired use cases and what goals we were aiming to accomplish.
After Shad (success) took over management of our account, he quickly understood our actual end goals, got the resources on the Impartner PRM side to support a rebuild of our PRM instance, and worked closely with us to meet our goals."
"Some features take sometimes a little longer to develop and deploy than we would like. We are in a business where we need speed (however not at the expense of quality)! We would like enhanced portal usage reporting metrics."
ZINFI offers a unified partner management solution to help companies align channel policies, programs, and people. It also offers end-to-end automation capabilities for affiliate marketing management, partner marketing management, partner incentives management, and partner relationship management processes.
What users like best:
"The ZINFI portal is very user friendly and has all the required options and details at the fingertips.
I found it quite easy to navigate and am able to find the tools that I needed very easily and to be fair there are quite a lot of tools and resources available in this website. Also this website is smooth and I'm yet to face any lags or bugs in this portal. The customer support is very good and dedicated. The main highlight would be the ease of implementation and integration of this platform."
"ZINFI can improve by offering some solutions for a free trial so that we get to know more about their products and then decide which one is best for us. This will also help us to understand how ZINFI can be used efficiaently and productively to achieve our desired goals."
PartnerStack helps brands manage partner relationships as well as expand their ecosystem. The platform makes it easy for businesses to recruit partners, track traffic and leads, and reward partners.
What users like best:
"I love the clean user interface. It makes it easy and fast to access all the important information that I need. As a YouTuber who is part of many different affiliate programs, I would say PartnerStack is probably my favorite as I have quick access to the multiple companies I'm an affiliate with and can see the statistics I want to analyze. For any company looking for an affiliate program, I would suggest looking at PartnerStack. Your affiliates will thank you later."
"The only downside that I've experienced is that the length of time from requesting payout, to actually receiving the payment has grown over the past year. It's not a dealbreaker, but having to wait 10+ business days to receive a payout once you request your funds seems a bit excessive to me. Yes, you can shorten that time to 5 business days by connecting your bank account, but even that seems like a bit long to wait."
Zift Solutions offer PRM and through-channel marketing automation capabilities, which help businesses to improve partner experience, streamline program management, and stay on top of goals with in-platform analytics and reporting.
What users like best:
"I have been using Zift Solutions for three years now, and I must say that I am extremely pleased with the platform. Being able to create content on my own has been a great asset in creating captivating campaigns. The features for email, campaign, and social media planning are simple to use and have helped me simplify my marketing efforts.
I especially appreciate the option to add microsites to my company's website. The reporting process is also very comprehensive, and I value the ability to view all my leads as campaign results. In general, Zift Solutions has been an outstanding tool for me to achieve my marketing objectives, and I'm particularly happy with the customer support team."
"There are minimal things, but they have some restrictions in their fields, like dependent fields, that make integrating with some of our CRM fields challenging.
Also, I wish they integrated with SFDC CPQ. I was also hoping their default translation tool would be better, as our team in Asia agrees some of the wording is not optimal. Lastly, I wish they had better tools to support the two-tier business."
impact.com is a global partnership management platform that enables brands, publishers, and agencies to manage different types of partnerships. The platform has a large database of over 120k verified global partners that businesses can work with to scale growth.
What users like best:
"The best things about the impact is one the best and large market where we can sell out product and any one create as a affiliate marketer promote the product and earn money."
"They will lock you in for a year, with few opportunities for SMB as most profitable opportunities need additional flat fees. Their reps are robotic and don't really care about you as a business. Integration also requires developers and is not so friendly."
Partner Program: Definition, Types, and How to Launch OneA partner program helps companies connect with, manage, and track sales and marketing referral partners. Learn why it matters and the different types. https://learn.g2.com/what-is-a-partner-programhttps://learn.g2.com/hubfs/iStock-1188929940.jpg2023-10-23 10:30:00Z
Sean BlandaSean Blanda is the Director of Content at Crossbeam. He lives in Philadelphia.https://learn.g2.com/author/sean-blandahttps://learn.g2.com/hubfs/Google%20Drive%20Integration/Crossbeam%20x%20G2%20Guest%20Post%20Outline%20Brief%20-%20Partner%20programs.jpeg
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