When and how to go-to-market with partners.

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Going to market means introducing a product or service to a new buyer persona. 

...At least, that's how I define it...

And, the success percentage is minimal. Just a few of the things that must go right to achieve a successful GTM campaign are: 

  1. You are made aware of the correct buyers.
  2. These buyers understand your value proposition.
  3. The pricing is correct. 
  4. You have the correct amount of customer support.
  5. Your delivery is seamless.

The playbooks for go-to-market for technology companies have been pretty standard since I began my career in growth for SaaS back in 2008. We would leverage social network audiences and SEO to seed the market with our messaging, maybe do a PR campaign, capture audiences, retarget, and nurture... Standard stuff. 

But, I knew this was slow, costly, and too dependent on algorithms, and we were never close to the buyer during any of it. So, in 2018, while consulting with SaaS during their seed and series A, amidst GTM campaigns, I noticed something I thought was odd... 

None of my clients were trying to establish partnerships before their go-to-market. 

Hmmm 🤔 I thought.

I put together presentations examples and plans... However, not a single CEO I was consulting for believed it was best to recruit partners PRIOR to their go-to-market campaign launch. 

So, that night in May 2019, I bought a domain name and started Partnerprograms Inc. 

Over the next 4 years, I learned how correct I was. The vast majority of CEO's are more comfortable and confident in a go-to-market strategy that is entirely internal. Which makes complete sense. What's not under your control, is potentially out of control. And B2B partners are not under your control. Regardless of the contracts you made them sign. 

Regardless, it's my opinion tech companies should involve partners when they are ready to go to market. And here's why... 

Why tech companies should find and include partners in their go-to-market campaigns

The reason is simple. Your tech company can never be everything your customer needs. Or trusts.  As a tech company, you will never be leveraged by your buyers in a vacuum. 

Therefore, if you are trying to gain the prospective customers' attention in your GTM campaign alone, you will be telling a "why me" story, and competing with all of the "why us" stories they will gravitate towards.  

Partners can be vital to the success of any GTM campaign in today's tech ecosystem. 

Imagine an assembly line - that Henry Ford invention that changed the future of mass production forever. Your company is but one piece of that line. Or, you wish it was.
IF you do not tell the story of why you should be on that line, with those other orgs, you will not make it on the line. 

We call this a "better together story."

And, it applies directly to go-to-market campaigns. 

So to recap, the main reasons you should involve partners in your go-to-market are: 

  • Retention. You are either partners with the companies advising and integrating... or not. If you are, they act as that retention moat for your product.
  • Trust. Being seen next to established companies your buyers already work with.
  • Reach. If done correctly, your partners will share, tag, post, and email the GTM assets you developed together to their audiences. 
  •  Efficiency. Partners being involved means resource extension and can do more with less budget. 
  • Product stress test and improvement. There is no better way to find out the truth about your product than getting it in the hands of top solutions partners who know your ICP's needs 6 months from now and can quickly vet your product for its ability to meet those needs. 

Ok, convinced partners should be included in your GTM? 

Well, let's continue...

Here's how to incorporate partners into your GTM campaigns

First, it's on your team to determine who your partners are, and develop your partner types, definitions, and ecosystems they are in now. 

For example, if I were a technology product looking for RevOps agencies and needing to solidify my product in the HubSpot ecosystem, my partner types would be: 

  1. Solutions partners of a high tier already in the HubSpot partner program, selling RevOps and/or lead-generation services to B2B technology companies. I will focus my account-based approach on ~30-50 of these agencies with the hope of convincing 10-20 to work with me on a co-marketing basis first, tinker with my product under a free license, and agree to a set of tasks to execute alongside me during the GTM campaign. 
  2. Integration partners who have partnerships with the same agencies I am after by the definition above. I will first scope integrations with ~3 of these products based on my team's knowledge/research of your better-together story.
  3. And strategic influencer partners who have a large following and talk/write/speak about your keywords (i.e. RevOps and HubSpot). 

I have a worthwhile strategy I like to recommend to startup teams with a new product they are bringing to a new agency persona. It requires complete buy-in from the team - marketing only markets with partners, sales only sell with partners, and the CEO leads it. If you're in that position, wherein you know partners are going to be the backbone of your success, and you need them to become the category leader, then try this: 

First, agree with the team on everything you can do to bring these partners into your sales funnel. Content, directory, your product by way of deployable use case templates created by partners... and your team mentioning them on customer calls - offering to connect them to an expert... 

Then, project what you would spend paying commissions to referral partners, and instead budget that towards spiffing the salespeople of your partners. Also, estimate how much time it takes your CS team to properly onboard and set up new top-tier users for success. Multiply that time by $100 per hour. And make that figure into the sum you would pay an "expert" in your product implementation to execute it for you and your new user. 

Create a PR agenda straight from your CEO and the entire organization to: 

  1. Bring 20 partners into a go-to-market.
  2. Align on needs and document each custom relationship requirement.
  3. Train these power partners on complete implementations.
  4. Meanwhile, put them into content on your blog and newsletter so you can drive them value early on.
  5. Host dinners alongside partners with ideal customer personas as guests.
  6. Spiff their salespeople for referrals.
  7. Put them into your approved partner directory.
  8. And, when they are experts, they qualify to be introduced to new users and paid for the implementations.
  9. Your product team will keep them involved in roadmap planning. 
  10. Your CS and sales team will keep them in the loop with regard to shared accounts.
  11. Your CEO is committed and will be their first POC. 
  12. Shared OKRs and quarterly check-ins to ensure both parties continue to gain value. 

This is a partnerships PR campaign that is at the core of your go-to-market. One cannot happen without the other. That is how you go to market with partners. 

And now, we have to find our GTM partners...

Recruiting partners for your GTM campaigns - what's in it for them?

Why would they represent your product? 

I new product (or, new to them), which they have to first learn themselves, then prove out, then train their team on, put their own reputation on the line for... Before introducing you to their bread and butter (clients). Which to you may mean hundreds of dollars in revenue. But to these agencies, a client could mean millions in revenue for their agency. 

In short, you have to provide the entire roadmap to success for your partner prospects. 

Here are your partner incentives: 

  1. Expansion of their current retainers or increased margins.
  2. Referrals back. You aren’t selling services, so they are your CS team essentially.
  3. Gather assets, approvals, press releases, logos…
  4. Are we co-selling prior to this GTM? If so, where, how, who… (Or, at least mapping accounts?)

Get interdepartmental buy-in. Have an enablement plan and process that the stakeholders are all aware of.

What is the GTM campaign? Are there in-person engagements? With who?
Budget for partner-first XYZ? “MDFs”

Discounted licenses. Some sort of “Partner advisory board” that includes shares/equity/options… Being a part of the PR - links, mentions, MDFs for in-person or virtual events… Being on a short list of “approved experts” the CS and sales team send to new customers…

Some of the pitfalls to try and avoid with partnerships in general

Of course involving third parties in your go-to-market is going to bring about complexity, which could lead to the following issues: 

Channel conflict. This occurs in programs with high-ticket software and commissions promised to both partners and salespeople. A salesperson will claim influence over the same deal a partner referred in and wants commissions already promised to the partner. If you pay them both, you will lose money on the deal... Hence the conflict.

Services cannibalization. For software companies also selling a service package, their salespeople making commissions on sales of that package would be cannibalizing, or taking, the potential service revenue from the partner.

Inconsistent branding. If not executed correctly, your partnership's GTM campaign can be a branding free for all... Partners want to do well and work quickly. If they do not have the assets they need, they will often create their own. This means, in most cases, these videos, presentations, decks... will all be off-brand.

Accelerating the bad. If your processes or product are not yet ready for partnerships, a partnerships GTM campaign will simply speed up this broken machine like a car with a loose wheel... nothing good will happen.

How to prevent these from occurring in your go-to-market campaign

Here is my final advice for teams to avoid those pitfalls in the execution of partnerships-led growth and GTM involving partners:

  1. If your ACV (average customer value) is under $10,000, do not make partner commissions a part of your incentive structure. It will only create dependencies for tracking, management, taxation, and bookkeeping, your CRO will hate you... and channel conflict. Instead, consider paying a partner once if/when they (a) ask for it, and (b) sell a bigger ticket account.
  2. Avoid exclusivity clauses in most circumstances. i.e. Asking partners not to recommend or partner with a "Competitor" (in quotes because it's subjective). 
  3. Do not sell services and try to partner with service providers... I've seen it a few times in recent history and it never works. Instead, calculate what CS costs are for a new user, and offer to pay your select expert partners that fee as a project for setting that new user up correctly. That's a win-win-win because your customer gets a better holistic setup, you get a happy partner, and they get a new lead with a little money for their time.
  4. Make sure you have all your team's partner operating procedures buttoned up before you launch. This means CS knows what to do when CC'd on a partner referral thread... Sales know when and how to find and bring the right partner into a deal... The product team knows who to bring onto roadmap discussion calls... Marketing has all the approved assets in one place and knows how to train the partner on co-marketing campaigns.
  5. And finally, remember that partnerships are between people. Not companies. That is to say, the people are the ones who choose if and when to refer their contact to you, not the org. So be cool. Reciprocate. Give before you ask. And you'll do fine :) 

I hope this was helpful!