Avoid the most common partner program launch mistakes


Every business has a unique path to launching its partner program.

Maybe you’ve been getting inbound requests from partners wanting to work with you. Maybe someone in your company sees the potential of partnerships as a revenue channel. Maybe that someone is you.

As a Product Manager at PartnerStack, and former manager of our Customer Success team, I’ve worked with many companies over the past years to help launch and migrate their programs.

What I’ve observed is that launching a very basic partner program isn’t that difficult… but that also makes it easy to miss some of the most essential steps of launching a program that actually succeeds.

In this article, I’ll cover the most common mistakes made when launching new partner programs:

  1. Setting vague program goals
  2. Not identifying ideal partners
  3. Over-complicating reward models
  4. Ignoring partner onboarding
  5. Managing partners across multiple systems

Along the way, I’ll teach you how to avoid every single one, and set your program up for success.

Mistake #1: Setting vague program goals

One of the first questions we ask companies during PartnerStack onboarding is what their goals for the program are. And often, we hear answers like "get some sales" or "onboard a few partners".

Those are, of course, good things to do. But the issue with vague or non-specific goals like these is that they do nothing to let you know if your program is driving meaningful results for the business, or help them prove those results to the rest of the company.

I recommend setting a clear set of SMART goals for your partner program from the very start. SMART goals are goals that are:

Your company might already set SMART goals for other types of projects, or use another goal-setting framework such as OKRs (objectives and key results) designed to make goals more measurable and actionable.

For example, a non-specific goal like “onboard a few partners” would become “acquire and onboard 50 new partners within the next 12 months.”

In our guide “Win internal trust and buy-in for your partner program,” we provide some examples of metrics you should consider tracking — and why it’s important to measure goals that matter not just to you, but to the entire company.

Beyond the core metric your program is meant to drive (e.g. Unbounce’s New Trial Starts), consider highlighting how you’ll track other metrics like:

You’ll also need to think about how you track all of the above, and the tools other teams can use to get involved. If other teams feel left in the dark, they won’t know why they should care about the program or how to support it — and the success of the program suffers.

By setting clear goals for your partner program that other teams in your company feel invested in, you can ensure that your program is on track to deliver real revenue — and that your colleagues will help you make it happen.

Looking for help on setting some goals for your program? Feel free to reach out and we’ll get you sorted! 

Mistake #2: Not identifying ideal partners

What kinds of partners are you hoping to recruit? The answer shouldn’t be all of them.

While it can be tempting to focus on recruiting as many partners as possible, this doesn’t actually do much to drive results. Many partnerships managers find that a majority of revenue from their programs comes from a minority of highly-engaged partners.

That’s why it’s important to identify who your ideal partners are before you launch your program. Your target partner personas will determine everything from how you incentivize and reward partners, the resources you’ll want to provide them with, and how you’ll promote your program to partners.

The first question to ask isn’t actually about partners, but customers. Specifically: how do customers discover and buy your product? Is it something that they do research for online and typically purchase themselves, or is it a more complex product that might require support from an agency or reseller? Thinking about the different stages of your buyer’s journey can help you identify touch points at which they might interact with partners.

From there, you can start to think about:

Mistake #3: Over-complicating reward models

“Earn 30% on a customer’s first 8 purchases of product X, 35% on a customer’s first 5 purchases of product Y, and $25 for a customer’s first purchase of product Z. Rewards will be earned 60 days after payment from customers.”

Did you follow that? No? Your partners won’t either — yet one of the most avoidable yet common mistakes new programs make is over-complicating their reward structure.

When you make it easy for partners to imagine what they can earn, you make it easy for them to pick your program over a competitor’s.

Plus, a simpler reward structure is easier for you to communicate. For example, Unbounce pays partners 20% of the lifetime revenue for every customer they refer, and provides examples of how much partners could earn directly on their landing page.

Screenshot of Unbounce partner program webpage including hero image, headline, and button with text reading Sign Up Now

Screenshot of Unbounce's partner program webpage discussing potential earnings from becoming a partner

The main decisions you’ll want to focus on making when designing your reward model is whether partners earn a flat reward from each purchase they drive, or whether they earn a recurring percentage of the revenue associated with their referrals.

Not sure what the right model looks like? Check out other partner programs in your industry — after all, you’ll be competing with those programs for the same partners, so you’ll need to know what you’re up against to ensure your offer stands out.

Mistake #4: Ignoring partner onboarding

Once you see that partners are signing up for your program, you might assume that you’re on the path to success. But there’s no guarantee those partners will actually sell anything… unless you help them do it.

We consistently see that programs that prioritize partner onboarding and engagement perform better, and partnerships managers see it too. Jungle Scout was able to triple their number of monthly active partners and grow annual program revenue to over $4 million by building automated partner onboarding and providing partners with useful resources.

Joe Cardillo, who manages Jungle Scout’s partner program, told us: “Acquiring partners wasn’t the problem for us — plenty of partners were joining every week organically. But they barely made any sales. We needed to empower them to do it. And PartnerStack has helped make it happen.”

Joe used PartnerStack to rebuild Jungle Scout’s partner onboarding with a series of automated emails that trigger based on partner activity, along with providing partners with resources and messaging directly within their partner dashboard (also part of PartnerStack).

Don’t expect that partners will reach out when they need help, even if you make it easy to do. Be proactive in how you onboard partners, and provide them with resources that help them sell your product.

You don’t need to use PartnerStack to do this, of course — a separate email automation platform and externally-hosted resources can help you get the job done. Any partner onboarding is better than none at all.

But breaking your partner program across multiple software systems comes with its own drawbacks.

Mistake #5: Managing partners across multiple systems

The truth is that most partner relationship management (PRM) platforms don’t include everything you need to manage your partner program, or to scale into multiple programs. PRMs usually focus on storing partner contact information and hosting resources for partners, which are useful features, but only a fraction of what programs — and their partners — need to succeed.

Most PRMs are missing features that we see as crucial to program success, like automated emails triggered by partner activity, learning management systems (LMS) and partner certification, and automatic partner payments. And the vast majority of PRMs can only handle one type of partner program, limiting your ability to scale partnerships revenue across new channels.

You can try to build a makeshift approach using multiple systems, and many companies do in an attempt to reduce costs or reuse software they already pay for. But then these things happen:

When discussing how Unbounce grew their program to drive 25% of new signups, their Channel Partnerships Manager Anca Bujor told us: “What really accelerated the growth of the program was when we better communicated internally how meaningful the relationships with the partners are. I love that now, other teams in the company feel like they own KPIs connected to partnerships. PartnerStack has helped make this possible.”

We prioritize building features into PartnerStack that other PRMs won’t touch, because partnerships managers constantly tell us that having everything in a single platform helps them and their partner programs succeed.

To get ahead, you have to plan ahead

Launching a partner program can be both incredibly exciting and genuinely stressful. Both feelings can make it tempting to take shortcuts, but doing things faster at the start won’t help you get ahead.

Spending just a bit of time thinking about what your program’s goals are and what your partners will need to help achieve them makes a huge difference in the results.

And if you’re not sure where to start — myself and the whole team at PartnerStack are here to help.

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Geoff Seeman
Geoff Seeman
Product Manager, PartnerStack

Geoff Seeman is a Product Manager at PartnerStack. Before that, he was a Customer Success Manager himself, helping companies like Unbounce, Drift, and Jungle Scout launch and scale up their partner programs.