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Building a Partner Program: Channel Partner Go-To-Marketing (GTM) Guide

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This is Part Two of our series on building a successful, engaged partner program. Find Part One here.

You’ve built the foundation for a strong partner program – you have executive buy-in, you’ve created your standard operating procedures and you’re starting to bring in partners. What’s the next phase?

To really leverage the investments you’ve made in launching your channel sales program, the natural next step is to develop a go-to-market (GTM) strategy. This is the best way to fully experience the advantages of successful partnerships with increased revenue, expanded reach and boosted credibility.

Whether you’re working with partners for the first time with a newly-launched program or looking to improve your channel strategy to better align with overall company goals, there are many parts to this next big step. We break it down from figuring out partner types and tiers, to creating the right content and assets, to setting up a competitive commission structure.

Planning: Building a Go-To-Market Strategy

As you optimize your channel partner strategy to support business goals of increased revenue or expanded reach, it’s important that the partner side of the equation is front and center.
Partnerships can play a powerful role in supporting overall company objectives by helping set your organization apart with deep integrations, value-added services and increased brand awareness.

What is a go-to-market strategy?

A go-to-market strategy is a plan to engage with customers, gain competitive advantages and coordinate messaging as you launch a new product or service, or enter a new market. Partnerships can play a hugely beneficial role with all these goals.

Align your partner strategy with clear business objectives. For example:

What product are you selling and what key differentiators set it apart from your competition?

Who is your target market and what are their pain points?

How can partners help you break into a new market, either geographically or vertically?

How will you reach your target customers?

A partner-focused GTM strategy can be an incredibly effective way to indirectly promote your channel partner program and help set you apart from other vendors as an organization worth partnering with, ultimately helping with both partner recruitment and retention.

Set realistic partnership goals

As you think about goals, increased revenue will certainly be on that list in some form or another. But revenue shouldn’t be the only metric to measure the partner program success.

Consider the big picture of where your organization is heading and the wider company goals. Let’s say, for example, that you are trying to break into a new vertical like government contracts or healthcare. Or if you are looking to expand into a new geographic area with language or cultural differences. Or you need to establish credibility with a certain customer base.

In any of these cases, strong partnerships can help achieve these goals over the long term by adding value, increasing your brand recognition and reputation and helping you scale in new markets.

While deals registered and sales closed are the ultimate indicator of success, don’t lose sight of leading performance indicators like engaged partners and customer satisfaction.

Identify your ideal partner

Building success with channel programs starts with having the right partners. And that means identifying ideal partners.

Start by listing out the must-haves and the nice-to-haves. Essentially, these are the characteristics an organization must have to fit your baseline criteria to be considered as a partner and those that would be an added benefit. That could be anything from the size or maturity of the organization, the geographic or vertical markets they sell to, or the extra value they can add.

One way to start thinking about what makes an ideal partner for your organization is by taking stock of what currently works. Even if you’re just now launching a formalized partner program, consider the unofficial partners you may have collaborated with previously. What kinds of partners in this ecosystem have been successful?

For example, you may have seen great returns from partners who actively co-market with you. Those that waited on you for leads, rather than generating their own, may not have been as good a fit.

The ideal partner profile often consists of some basic specific requirements like:

A key part of identifying the right partners is considering what verticals and geographies they work in. Ideally, your partners will help you fill in any market gaps you may face.

Working with partners in countries where you don’t have your own sales presence, for example, is hugely beneficial in helping you go-to-market. Their deeper understanding of the language and culture is crucial for breaking down communication barriers with prospects. Furthermore, a partner that built up trust with that region’s customers will lend credibility to your organization.

Likewise, partnering with an organization well-versed in industries that are new to you is invaluable. Not only can you leverage the connections and relationships that your partner has, but you’ll gain key insights into the nuances of the industry – unique requirements to be successful, for instance, or even new ideas for in-demand feature additions.

Once you have your list of must-haves and nice-to-haves, it’s important to also think of red flags or criteria that means an organization would not be a good fit for your channel sales program. These are often the opposite traits of your ideal partner profile – they sell to the wrong markets, their financials aren’t in order, or your overarching business goals aren’t aligned.

Of course, sometimes the best partners on paper aren’t the best fit in practice. An organization may have strong ties to a market you hope to break into, but if they aren’t upholding your company’s brand name and values – that relationship won’t work.

They may have a stellar reputation, but if they don’t have their own client relationships or way to secure their own leads – that may not work with what you are looking for from a partnership.

The best partners [for us] are specialized in their verticals or geos, they bring in steady deals such that we can forecast the pipeline from them, and they promptly respond to and take care of the leads that we send to them."
– Nikunj Sanghvi,
   VP of Alliances and Business Development at Caspio

Growing: Getting GTM Partners

You’ve identified your ideal partners and how they fit into your overall go-to-market strategy, but how do you grow your partner program and recruit those potential partners?

Start by figuring out what partner types you need, what partner tiers you will build and how you will support those partners for long-term growth.

Partner types and tiers

Deciding how to categorize your partners based on their activities, engagement, or performance is an important part of setting up a successful GTM strategy. Having partner types and tiers firmly established then informs other parts of your partnership, including expectations and commission structures.

Consider the types of partners you’re currently working with and if there are any gaps that could be filled.

The types of channel partnerships could include any of the following examples:

These partner types will be part of the equation when you’re thinking about tiering and setting up a commission structure.

Partner tiers are a way of ranking partners by what they do and the results they generate. Top tier partners, as the name suggests, are those that drive the most revenue and so receive the greatest benefits.

The way to structure your partner tiers will depend on your organization, partner types and compensation parameters. But typically it’s a sliding scale based on the partner requirements (training or certifications, for example), benchmarks, and corresponding reward system.

Some examples of popular ways to tier partners include:

  • Member, Partner, and Premier Partner
  • Registered Partners, Silver Partners, Gold Partners, and Platinum Partners
  • Partner, Elite Partner, Elite Plus Partner

The starting tier, for example, may simply require a partner to complete the required registration paperwork and complete a few onboarding modules. In return, they would receive a set percentage of the sale as commission – say, 5 percent.

A higher level tier, on the other hand, could require the partner to maintain specific certifications or accreditations related to your product, have a minimum sales goal, or co-host marketing events. As compensation, they might receive a higher commission – say 10 percent – as well as additional rewards like market development funds or increased visibility in your partner directory.

Thoughtful tiers that tap into how your partners want to participate and how they want to be rewarded are a useful way to incentivize partners and hold them accountable, while also allowing you to scale your channel ecosystem more easily.

Recruiting and onboarding partners

Identifying ideal partners and how they can help you fill market gaps is part of the equation but, at the end of the day, a partnership is a two-way relationship. It’s equally important to consider how you might be an ideal partner to them and what makes your program compelling.

The value you provide is an important part of your recruitment messaging. What makes you stand out from other vendors? What’s your commission structure or compensation packages? What other perks or opportunities do you offer?

Successful partner recruitment isn’t just about the incentives you offer, although that often is part of the attraction. It’s also about how you can support and enable your partners in their growth – through robust back-end infrastructure, sales enablement, demand generation, business development, or other features.

Make sure you understand your partners’ individual goals and motivations and – crucially – how partnering with your organization helps them achieve objectives.

Recruitment is just one step in a multi-step engagement process, and it’s not the ultimate measure of success. Enablement and retention after that initial entry point are equally important. And a big part of that is supporting your partners and setting them up to progress, starting from the onboarding phase.

Understand why they’re coming to you, provide accessible and easy-to-digest training, and start rewarding them from the get-go for being a part of your community.

Supporting: Creating the Right Content and Assets

Content is king, and not just for your prospects.

Whether you’re onboarding a new partner or arming them with marketing collateral, the right content and assets are foundational to setting your partners up for success.

Each piece should have a clear purpose and be part of a larger channel content strategy in order to tease out its full value. And, of course, keep materials timely and updated to remain relevant and value-rich.

What kind of content do you need?

The ideal content depends on your audience and your strategic GTM goals. The best way to think about it, however, is through the lens of what would be most useful for your partners – what they can take, learn from, brand for themselves and use to accomplish their objectives.

Along similar lines, make sure that you have content that supports partners at all stages of their journey with you.

The good news is that you likely don’t need to start from scratch as much as you might think. Much of what you have already developed for your internal sales department will be helpful for partners.

For one, your partners are an extension of your sales team and so will benefit from some of the same types of collateral and enablement. Secondly, this helps create consistency in your sales voice and tone. Partners are representing your organization and so it’s key that they understand not just your product, but also your brand. You may need to tweak the material slightly, however, if it is too granular.

That said, you will need to develop some new content partner-specific material – like technical content about how the partner program works, for instance, or contact lists.

Content management tips

Creating the right content is one thing, but organizing it all into an easily accessible form for partners is another question.

The first step to managing your content effectively is to have a single location to store and share the material with partners.

One of the benefits of using a PRM system to house your content over other types of content management software is the flexibility it provides. Not only can you share assets, but you can also collaborate on co-marketing campaigns with partners and make it easy for them to co-brand materials themselves.

It’s equally important to make sure that your content is tailored to your partners’ needs. Even similar partner types, in similar tiers, aren’t monolithic. Two mid-tier value-added resellers, for example, might be selling to different verticals or struggling to close deals for various reasons, or simply need additional support at different stages of the buyer’s journey.

Part of creating tailored content is making sure that your partners can easily access it. A content library tool in your PRM should let you automate who can access what to make sure the right content is reaching the right audiences.

And, as with any marketing or sales strategy, knowing what’s working and what needs tweaking is key to success. With PRM software you can track engagement with your content to see what’s resonating and what’s not. Measuring your channel content’s effectiveness – by looking at metrics like content clicks, the number of co-branded materials created or engagement – is just as important as creating the right content pieces.

People tend to look for the magic solution or the blueprint. There’s a reason why so many partnerships fail – because there is no blueprint to copy. They are all unique.
Start with a partner strategy and make sure you’re not making the mistake of just repeating what other people do and then being surprised that it doesn’t work for you.
– Martin Scholz,
   Co-Founder of PartnerXperience

Engaging: Activating and Motivating Partners

Once you’ve made the investment of recruiting the right partners and setting them up for success, it’s important to continue finding ways to activate and motivate them.

These kinds of efforts require a feedback loop from partners to make sure that they continue to feel engaged – it’s not a set-it-and-forget-it strategy.

Engagement and touchpoints for partner activation

What does an activated partner look like? It’s not the same as enlisted or onboarded – it goes much deeper than that.

Actions that indicate activation might include:

You see why activation is worth the effort. The payoff can be huge. But getting there takes time and effort.

The best tactics to increase channel partner activation are many of the same ones you may be thinking about to increase overall engagement in your partner program, like:

  • Managing expectations from the beginning
  • Providing opportunities for growth, in addition to compensation
  • Offering ongoing support and training
  • Winning together with co-branding and co-marketing campaigns
  • Creating an engaged community of partners

Ultimately, though, figuring out how to motivate and engage partners on an individual level – knowing what makes them tick – is foundational to successful activation.

A faux pas that a lot of partner programs do is they go ‘Here’s my rudimentary structure of rates and tiers’ and they launch into the market.
But they haven’t interviewed any of their key partners ahead of that to ask ‘Does that interest you? Does this excite you?’ And then they wonder why no one is pushing deals their way.
– Daniel Lancioni,
  Senior Director of Partner Success at Reveal

Commission structures and incentives

Without a doubt, incentives motivate partners and drive sales. Deciding what incentives to offer and setting up the right commission structure can be a bit more tricky, though.

In broad strokes, incentives can depend on the partner type and tier, the effort and investment they are putting into the sale, and the method of revenue generation.

A partner that is helping close deals is different from one that is acting as a referral. Resellers, for example, typically receive a commission of a set percentage for opening doors and making introductions. A technology partner with a deep integration that took more upfront investment from both parties, on the other hand, will likely have larger expectations about compensation for their efforts.

Of course, there may be times when your sales pipeline is slowing down and ramping up incentives quickly can reverse that. In those cases, you may decide to offer more competitive compensation for a set period of time as additional motivation.

Common types of incentives and commissions are:

One of the most important aspects of setting an effective commission structure and incentives are simply communicating with your partners. What is it that they want? What motivates them and why did they choose to partner with you?

Of course, there are constraints in terms of what you can offer a partner just based on the margins set by the business. But in many cases, there are ways to offer more tailored incentives that motivate individual sales reps or partner organizations that aren’t just more money.

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