How to build co-marketing partnerships that aren’t a total waste of time

We’ve written previously about how marketing partnerships are one of our favorite demand generation secret weapons.

Partner marketing campaigns can bring new audiences, bolster brand credibility, and win the attention of executive buyers – and even boost contract size – by positioning you as part of a solution ecosystem, rather than as a standalone tool. 

But here’s the dark flip side: co-marketing partnerships often end up being a black hole of time and resources. Misalignment with potential partners on target market and expectations can scuttle even the best-laid plans.  

The takeaway: if you’re going to invest the energy in this (potentially) game-changing channel – it’s worth nailing the when, who, and how of building co-marketing partnerships that aren’t a waste of time. 

Here are the most common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Pitfall #1: Getting distracted by partner marketing too early

Why it’s a mistake: Here’s the scenario: you’re freshly emerged from stealth. Maybe you’ve booked your first few clients – or maybe you’re still pre-revenue – but you’re thinking about how to quickly ramp up demand generation. It’s time to pull the trigger on partner marketing, right? Not necessarily. You’re going to face a number of headwinds: 

  • Lack of social proof: it’s going to be hard to get a partner to take you seriously without a “reason to believe” (case studies, client testimonials). 
  • Untested message: it’s hard enough to nail your pitch in isolation – without worrying about how it complements the message of an ecosystem partner. 
  • Challenges creating good content: The most effective partner marketing comes from client inspiration and stories, or a deep dive into how your technologies work together to solve real client problems. (Here’s a great example from OpenLegacy featuring both angles.) All of this is tougher if you’re still chiseling away at your value proposition and building a library of marketable customer wins. 
  • Opportunity cost: the energy that you spend on partner marketing at this stage could instead be spent on closing more POCs and developing your early customers into champions – efforts that will benefit all your marketing channels.

What to do instead: Turn your attention to partner marketing once you’ve got your first 10 paying customers (doesn’t have to be 10 exactly, but enough that you’ve been through the motions). You’ll understand your market better and bring more to the partnership table. 

Pitfall #2: Chasing shiny objects (i.e., prioritizing partners that aren’t a good fit)

Why it’s a mistake: It’s always tempting to jump when a potential partner expresses interest in working together – especially if they’re a big name in the industry. But unless you ensure that they’re strategically aligned with your business and growth objectives, the money and time that you spend on joint programming (developing and promoting content together, doing a webinar, sponsoring a joint event) could amount to nothing more than a heap of unqualified leads. EXCEPTION: if you’re super-clear about the fact that your objective is PR and brand-building (e.g., “wow, look at this startup working with [X] – they must be legit!”) rather than lead gen, it can be worthwhile to chase a major brand…even if you’re not perfectly in sync on your buyer or market. (See below, “Going in with unrealistic expectations,” for more on this.)

What to do instead: Stress-test that a potential partner is aligned with you on the following key dimensions: 

  • Ideal customer profile (firmographics, geography, tech stack): if your partner is selling to banks in EMEA and your target is e-commerce companies in North America, you’re not going to get a lot of “bang for the buck” on your joint marketing opportunities. 
  • Persona: ideally you sell to a similar role within the organization – similar responsibilities, pain points, and level of seniority. 
  • Annual contract value (ACV): everything is sort of the same at a given ACV. If your partner is selling $500k enterprise deals and you’re promoting a $299/month tool with bottom-up adoption, there’s a mismatch in the buying process – and in the types of marketing campaigns that will be most effective. 
  • Complementarity of solutions: what’s the “1+1 = 3” of your technologies? You’ll need a point of view on how your products come together to solve pain points for your target market. Here’s a great recent example from Heap and their partner Appcues.

Pitfall #3: Going in with unrealistic expectations

Why it’s a mistake: Partner marketing can pay incredible dividends. It’s also a lot of work. Lead-sharing. Budgeting. Event logistics. You get the idea. Entering a partnership (even if it’s just for a single campaign) with the expectation of a “set-and-forget-it spigot” of new opportunities will lead you to under-invest in the basics that drive results.  

What to do instead: Treat partner marketing like any marketing channel – i.e., start with a point of view about how it will accelerate your growth, and don’t forget the details. 

  • What stage of the buyer journey are you targeting? Set goals appropriate to the funnel stage – e.g., reach for awareness (like this recent partner PR campaign from Oriient), leads or Sales Opportunities for upper-mid funnel campaigns. As highlighted above, it’s important to be honest here: if your (potential) partner is a big name but not perfectly aligned with your target market/buyer, that’s fine – just acknowledge that the value you’ll get from the partnership is mainly around brand awareness and credibility rather than qualified lead gen. 
  • Who is your target audience? Make sure that you and your partner are aligned on company profile and “bullseye” persona.  
  • How will you reach them? You’ll need a promotional plan, complete with a budget and detailed channel plans (e.g., email, social, paid media). 
  • How will you manage teams and measure success? This article lays out some best practices around managing the logistics of partner campaigns for success.

The bottom line

Done well, partner marketing is like adding high-octane fuel to your demand generation engine: it can accelerate results and get you farther than you would be able to alone. 

Just make sure that it’s the right moment to step on the gas – and that you’re adding the right kind of fuel to your tank.

Jordan is a Managing Director at Blue Seedling. You can find him reading medieval literature, running, or helping B2B startups with go-to-market strategy.

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