Ask any stand-up comedian the #1 rule of their craft and they will tell you: You’ve got to know your audience.
Running a successful partner marketing program is much the same — if you don't know your audience, you may be met with the dreaded response of … crickets. The reality is, many businesses launch partner programs without a clear understanding of who their partners are, only to later discover that they struggle to recruit new partners or keep them engaged in the program.
Taking the time upfront to study your partner personas will inform a solid strategy for positioning the program to partners, providing them with the right resources and rewarding them in a way that motivates them. What’s more, with these strong fundamentals in place, you’ll be in an excellent position to expand your program in the future — whether that involves targeting new personas or layering on new program types.
In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about partner personas, including a 5-step process for building your own. Whether you're looking to improve your existing program or starting a new program from scratch, creating partner personas is the best way to unlock the maximum growth potential of your program.
Partner personas are research-based profiles that describe each different group of partners you work with.
Not every program will need multiple personas. It’s certainly okay to focus on a single persona. However, if you’re running multiple partner programs (e.g. an affiliate program, as well as a referral program), you’ll need at least one persona for each program.
There are three main types of partner programs:
You can also have multiple personas within one program type. For example, Riipen, an experiential learning platform, runs two different programs with four total personas: students, working professionals, organizations, and affiliates sourced from PartnerStack’s Marketplace.
The reason you need partner personas is simple: each type of partner wants and needs different things to be successful. Partner personas act as a cheat code to help you recruit new partners effectively and give each group the support they need to become active participants in your program.
What’s more, understanding how you can best support each persona will ensure that you're directing your limited internal resources into the groups that are most likely to succeed. If you don't understand your personas in-depth, you risk putting your efforts into an affiliate type or persona that won’t give you a return on your investment. They are also an excellent resource for interdepartmental collaboration because they communicate your vision to others in the organization.
Finally, slowing down to document your personas and make sure you're serving each effectively builds a solid foundation for scale later. One of the biggest mistakes that Matthew Merrifield, Customer Success Manager at PartnerStack, sees partner marketers make is they add new program types to “save” a struggling program. For example, they have an affiliate program that isn’t delivering results and they want to introduce a lead section or a reseller section. “That’s actually the worst thing you can do,” he says. “If your program is built on a faulty foundation, all the expansion in the world won’t help.” You need to step back and figure out first how to make your original program resonate with partners. Only then can you effectively branch out into new program types.
There are five simple steps to create your own partner personas: identify your partner types, research them intently, synthesize your findings, distribute internally, and continuously refine. We’ll explain each step in detail, with examples.
For some partner programs, there may be obvious groupings that distinguish your types of partners. For example, if you have one group of technology partners and another group of marketing partners, it’s an easy split. For other partner programs, however, it’s less clear cut. If this is the case, you may decide to begin your program with one large group, and let segments emerge organically over time. Then you’ll identify them through your analytics.
If you’re using a partner relationship management tool like PartnerStack, you can let data collect for a few months and then examine which factors make partners more effective (for example, different locations, cohorts, or links.) In this way, you can leverage the data around your existing partner base to create segments for you.
Crunching the data can also help you identify your top-performing partners (the most engaged folks who drive the most significant results for your business.) Identifying these individuals will be extremely important for the next step — the research phase — where you can uncover insights about these ideal partners that you can mold your recruitment strategy around.
As we covered above, there are three main program types: marketing partner programs, referral partner programs, and reseller partner programs. Within each of these program types, you may have one or more personas. Below are some typical ways you may choose to distinguish your partner personas within one program type.
When creating personas, you should also consider the level of knowledge that each group has about your offering. For example, customer ambassadors who love your product likely need lighter support than folks who come in from a wider, less qualified audience. Your ambassadors may just need marketing materials, whereas your external affiliates will need a lot more enablement and education.
During the research phase, your goal is to understand the individuals who make up each group: their stories, their motivations, their needs, their concerns. This process will build up your empathy and your ability to apply the ‘lens’ of each segment when you’re designing program touchpoints later. There are a variety of methods you can use to collect this information.
When talking to partners one-on-one, you really want to understand the partner program from their perspective. Think about the entirety of the partner journey when you design your questions, from recruitment to onboarding to promoting your products and services to payout.
If you’re lucky enough to get a handful of your top-performing partners on a call, pay particular attention to identifying the qualities and personality traits that make them ideal. This will make it easier to seek out other partners in the future who fit the profile.
This is a strategy that was invaluable for Kaitlyn Crocker, Affiliate Channel Manager at Riipen, an experiential learning platform that connects students with employers. She identified a star partner named Victoria, who was a 4th year university student from Dalhousie. Victoria was active in many extracurricular activities, had an outgoing and friendly personality, and wasn't shy to cold call or message people out of the blue. “She had a lot of fire and initiative within her. We wish we could just clone 50 Victorias,” says Kaitlyn. “But instead used her as a model for the type of students we try to recruit.”
Next you’ll want to boil down your research into a concise summary. Having a clean, easy, readable document will help you remember important insights and consistently apply them throughout the partner journey. Communicating your findings clearly is also helpful for distributing your partner personas throughout your organization. Your summary can be many different formats, but slide decks tend to work nicely.
While the main purpose of creating partner personas is for yourself and your own team, it can also be an extremely valuable tool for articulating your vision as you collaborate with other teams. It can serve as a concise overview that helps other team members get up to speed fast.
Your personas should be a living document that gets updated regularly. After all, your partners are not static, so why should your program be? For example, for Kaitlyn at Riipen, a new sub-demographic of highly engaged partners emerged in spring 2020: folks who had been laid off during the pandemic and needed a reliable and quick new income source to make ends meet. Understanding this specific subset of partners helped Kaitlyn tailor the experience to these individuals to create a mutually beneficial arrangement — for example, creating customized marketing materials for these folks.
It can be helpful to periodically survey partners to see what is and isn’t working, as well as uncover new risks and opportunities. Analytics can also help you refine how you address each partner personas, as you troubleshoot their sticky points. Ask yourself, where is the drop-off? What enablement resources can you create, or what campaigns can you run to address them?
You may also want to adjust incentives for various personas over time. For example, you may notice that customer ambassadors are more motivated by social status and swag, whereas affiliates are more motivated by a payout. Or, as your company’s overall business strategy inevitably shifts over time, you may want to beef up rewards for actions your company deems more valuable.
Nadia Ardekani, Affiliate Marketing Coordinator at Riipen, used PartnerStack’s analytics to create an in-depth report a few months after the team launched their program. She found that the group sourced from PartnerStack’s marketplace gets the most applications, but has the lowest engagement because they come from a more general pool and may not be as familiar with Riipen as other groups.
Based on this insight, she and the team designed strategies to specifically engage this group. This included organizing existing resources better and providing new resources — such as self-training videos and quizzes on how to customize links and get leads. With a little more attention to enablement, Nadia has extremely high hopes for this group. ‘We’re confident that this is going to be a very successful, fast-growing group,” says Nadia.
Once you’ve created well-researched partner personas, and documented them into concise summaries, you now have a clear lens you can apply to every single touchpoint in the partner’s journey.
It’s a valuable exercise to map out each point on their partner journey for each persona and apply the empathetic lens of each persona. Pretend you are from that group and ask yourself: “What’s in it for me?” Seeing each point through their eyes will help you optimize each step for a better partner experience and ultimately more conversions. Every email and every page of web copy should be written with your partner persona in mind.
You can use the key motivators you discovered in the research phase to create an irresistible landing page that converts highly. Positioning your program well is key to recruitment, something the Riipen team has done beautifully on their landing page. While they offer the same incentive to all groups — money — they express it in the distinct language each. When they address professionals, they say “earn extra income.” When they address students, they say “earn some side cash.” When they address companies, they say “earn revenue.”
Knowing your audience also means your communication will be seen as helpful and not interruptive. Matthew Merrifield notes that in his experience as a CSM at PartnerStack, many vendors are hesitant to send 4-5 emails to new partners in their first week, fearing they’ll come on too strong. But if each of these touchpoints is intentional messaging that speaks to something that a persona cares about, even a large volume of communication will be welcome.
“For example, these touchpoints could be: a case study of your most successful partner, examples of where to promote content, an upcoming seasonal promo, a note that you just launched our Slack channel or our LinkedIn group,” he says. “If you deliver information people are genuinely hungry for, they’ll be grateful,” he says.
Ultimately creating partner personas is all about refining your aim, so that every campaign and touchpoint is a bullseye. Without partner personas, you may be wasting time launching arrows in the wrong direction. Better aim means better performance, no matter how many new personas or new program types you layer on.
While a variety of competing priorities may pull you away from creating partner personas, the old adage applies: Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up. It pays to take a step back and ensure that every touchpoint caters to your partners’ motivations, enables their success, and helps them overcome their hurdles. If you can do that, you’ll have your audience in the palm of your hand. And whether you're a partner marketer or a standup comic, that’s no joke.