How to create a Partnership Program for DTC SaaS

How to create a Partnership Program for DTC SaaS
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Last week on LinkedIn, I made a post about Partnerships Programs in the tech world that caused quite a ruckus.

What triggered this post was my own personal experience of being relentlessly approached with the same tiresome script:

“Hey Adam, I run partnerships at X, when is a good time for a call to explore synergies?”

This message may be well-intentioned. But it doesn’t come across that way to agency owners like myself who are often the gateway to many clients.

When I’ve had the misfortune of taking these partnership managers up in the past on these “synergy” calls, it typically goes like this....

“We’d love to get you on our partner program where we pay 20% rev share for two years. Should we set up a lead list and find a case study together with one of your clients to start?”

Agency owners are treated like low-level affiliates to help these people hit quotas – this is the overwhelming sentiment I have from speaking to dozens of other friends in the space who feel the same way.

That being said, I’ve also worked with some phenomenal partner managers, and I think the position has so much potential to unlock real growth both mutually for tech and agency partners.

OK, so moaning over. Let’s say I was a Partner Manager at a DTC SaaS company. How would I approach agency partners in order to build an effective program with them? 

Before I begin, a confession: I’ve never run partnerships at a software company. Take all of what I’m about to say with a pinch of salt as it may be completely wrong.

I’ll tell you what appeals to me and then leave it to you if you think it’s worth implementing.

What Do Agency Owners Care About?

Contrary to popular belief, most agency owners aren’t out to steal from unsuspecting clients; our primary focus is to get them results. Here’s how I’d categorise our priorities when it comes to deciding on whether to enrol in a partnership program.

1: Results

First and foremost, the technology being proposed needs to be truly valuable to the merchant to improve their business (the tech companies ICP).

Secondly, the tech company needs to have appropriate resources ready to be allocated towards enablement. Allocating time and resources to new software is a huge time suck for most agencies and whilst the right agency will have a proactive attitude to implementing beneficial software that improves results, most of us still need to be spoon fed to some degree in order to hit the ground running. 

If you aren’t willing to invest time into training the agency and getting them excited about your product, don’t expect them to go out and start selling it for you with low-level revenue share incentives.

2: Leads

If you’re approaching us to get access to our client list, understand that it goes both ways - we also expect that goodwill to be reciprocated and that you proactively refer to us business.

Actual clients drive a huge amount more revenue and bottom line profitability than revenue share does so this is a much stronger incentive for most agencies to work with you.

3: Acclaim

No two ways about it, agencies love having their egos massaged. That involves talking about us and promoting us on social media and highlighting our work.

Nestled at the bottom of the partner page that gets 200 visitors per year on GA isn’t acclaim. Actively advocating for us as a partner within the ecosystem at events, online and building mutually with us in public is what we want.

4: Revenue share

Yes, it’s last on the list, despite often being the first thing partner managers use to lure us into partnerships.

I can tell you that when building forecasts for our company, revenue share is barely a consideration and not something we rely on. Most of my friends who own agencies are the same - it’s treated as a bonus, not a given, and unless you’re conducting serious migrations of legacy tech and working with upmarket SaaS, it’s generally not that appealing or motivating to pursue rev share.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great feeling to have a few hundred dollars (or thousands) come in each month. Every little helps. But it’s not a needle mover so don’t expect to grab people’s attention with it.

How I’d operate a Partner Program

With all this being said, most partner managers I speak to are spread too thin - many having to juggle relationships with over 80-100 agencies. That’s clearly unsustainable and a recipe for inefficiency.

Instead, I’d much rather hone in on who could be 15-20 truly invaluable partners, and then throw everything at making these relationships successful.

If you pick the right-sized agencies to partner with, you can deliver a world-class partnership that opens up your software to easily over 100 brands, probably many more if you scale it.

If you whittle down the number of partners, you’ll also be able to spend more time doing partnership work and less time bouncing from call-to-call without achieving anything substantial.

Let’s examine a few tactics you could deploy to achieve the 4 factors that matter to agencies.

1: Enablement Sessions

The most logical place to start is by hosting workshops that are dedicated to educating agencies about your product along with quick-wins they can implement with their clients in order to drive better results.

Bring relevant case studies to these sessions and make them as practical as possible.

Give team members actionable tasks to follow up on and don’t be afraid of committing resources to assist in client deliverables at the beginning. It may sound overbearing, but you’re building up a relationship of trust and by training teams proactively, you are creating leverage by having dedicated advocates go out to market implementing your software.

If you leave teams to their own devices, you have to assume that they’ll do the necessary research by themselves to troubleshoot implementation issues. Time-to-value is a critical determiner of success in the agency world, so roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in assisting with enablement at the beginning to ensure you start off on the front foot.

2: Complimentary Audits to Merchants

This is one of the best ways to build equal value for all parties involved. When you onboard a new brand, offer them a complimentary consultation with a partner who will audit their business, no strings attached.

Example:

  1. You sign up a brand to your email marketing software
  2. You offer them a complimentary audit of their existing lifecycle automation by Adam at Magnet Monster
  3. Value for the brand increases by gaining knowledge; value for software increases by adding value; value for agency increases by building network effect

Everybody wins with this setup and when it’s the right fit, magical things can happen.

A simple tweak to your onboarding process with a timely introduction is all that’s needed to build a mutual feeling of goodwill here for agencies.

Speaking personally, I feel the need to reciprocate when somebody makes an introduction like this. And quite frankly, all agencies offer consultations/audits as part of their lead generation process so you’re not exactly asking them to do something out of the ordinary - you’re feeding their machine.

Be sure to set some guidelines here around expectations and to ensure it’s tactful, but executed correctly, I’ve seen magic happen with this approach.

3: Co-Marketing

Every agency loves seeing their face plastered everywhere (especially me, I’ll be honest…). It’s great for building a personal brand and when it’s also executed effectively, it creates value in the ecosystem which leads to inbound lead generation.

How I’d approach it:

  1. Create a cluster of topics around the problems you solve for your ICP (they’re either actively or passively in the market looking for solutions on this so you’re both creating and capturing demand simultaneously)
  2. Ask the agency to answer questions on that topic
  3. Turn the blog post/podcast (whatever media format works best for you) into carousels/spliced clips to share across social media
  4. Both parties distribute the clips over social media (often doubling reach)
  5. Repurpose them into a Newsletter
  6. Use the resources to educate incoming merchants and make relevant introductions

Again, everybody wins from a content-led approach, as long as the content is valuable, strategic, and not fluffy. And if you’re solving genuine problems, it will be effective.

You’re now not just a partnerships manager but you’re also part of the content marketing engine, further cementing your value to your organisation!

4: Revenue Share

Last on the list but importantly, is revenue share.

Revenue share is a nice-to-have for agencies but is something that is cumbersome to manage in the partner ecosystem due to the chaotic nature of submitting leads, tracking progress and reconciling payouts. The lack of transparency and a unified solution leads to more headaches in time spent searching for payments than it does collecting the money.

I don’t have a solution for this but I do have the following advice: if you’re building a partner program, diligently track rev share and hold true to your word. Be fair to the agency and pay out on time.

It’s business #101 but I’ve been involved in numerous disputes over the years that sour the relationships on both sides.

Partnership Managers are Appreciated

I started this article quite cynically, but I’d like to end it positively.

The right partner managers are an invaluable ally to have alongside agencies and are truly appreciated. I love working alongside enthusiastic, helpful tech partners who are mutually dedicated to client success but also respectful of what I bring to the table. It’s much easier to get into a good rhythm with these relationships when the intention is focused on value creation, not value extraction, from the beginning.

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