How to Build an Affiliate Partner Program With Integrity

This is what you need to do to build and grow an affiliate program that drives revenue and feels right.

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By this point, we've all used an affiliate link — whether it got us a discounted pair of shoes, a ticket to a special museum exhibit or a free trial of a personal finance app.

But affiliate marketing doesn’t just entice everyday consumers. It’s equally as effective in B2B. As any partner leader knows, publishers, industry leaders, agencies and other software companies have exposure to audiences that you may not have. And those audiences may be looking for a product or service just like yours.

PLG companies like Webflow, Zapier and Unbounce have already capitalized on the power of affiliate marketing. Yet starting your own program can be daunting. Who should be running the show? How do you cultivate internal and external trust? What do you need to prep before launch?

In this guide, we’re sharing the who, the what and the how of B2B affiliate marketing with tips from two partner veterans, Kassigan Naicker, Director of Marketplaces and Affiliates at Vendasta and Jason Lilien, formerly Senior Director at All Inclusive Marketing and now VP Client Services at Partner Commerce.

SAASPAS WINNERS Kassigan Naiker and Jason Lilien

The players

Starting up an affiliate marketing program at a B2B company is no small feat — particularly with so much skepticism around it.

That’s why, according to Lilien, “The people spearheading your affiliate efforts need to be the most well-rounded people in the organization. They need to be able to get executive buy-in. They need to be analytical yet business development-driven; creative yet technical.”

Naicker is a great example of this. He started his career in sales, then switched to product management, worked in strategic partnerships, and then landed on affiliate marketing, developing all kinds of skills along the way (it’s no wonder Vendasta is the winner of Best Partner Experience in the 2023 SaaS Partnerhips Awards). Putting the most capable people in charge not only boosts your chances of success, it reassures executives, too.

These unique skilled  professionals may sit on the marketing team, the partner team or the sales team, depending on your company’s structure. Regardless of where they are in the org chart, they’ll be highly cross-functional. Overall, affiliate managers work with:

  • Sales: to close partner-sourced leads
  • Marketing: to produce partner-related content
  • Finance: to get budget for new incentives and ensure partners are paid properly
  • IT: to stand up any necessary integrations for affiliate management software
  • Product: to get the inside scoop on new features partners can promote
Connect the dots to where affiliate partnerships sit within your tech company.

The partners

The quality of your partners will make or break the integrity of your affiliate program. The easiest and safest group to recruit first? Your customers — they already know and rave about your product or service.

Naicker shares, “We heard through the grapevine that some of our customers were already promoting us, so our affiliate program was a natural fit and a great way to compensate them.”

After you’ve invited customers to join your program, expand your recruitment to existing partners and other advocates. At Vendasta, sales teams share in this responsibility. “It took some training to get the sales team to understand what would qualify as a good affiliate. But it was worth it — developing relationships with affiliates helps reps influence the kinds of leads they’d like to get and work [with].”The third rung of ideal partners are the ones already participating in affiliate programs, such as competitors’ partners or your partners’ partners. Lilien explains, “They should either know about you or know about affiliate marketing. If they don’t know either, it’s a lot harder to activate them.”

Don’t sleep on activation
Starting with your inner circle and working outward gives you the confidence that prospective partners:
  1. Know what they’re doing
  2. Have a trusting, captive audience
  3. Can get active fairly quickly

The training

Affiliate partners can’t hit your targets if they don’t know what they are. Setting expectations and getting your partners up to speed on your products and services is the first step in any affiliate marketing program.

But there’s simply no way to do that at scale in spreadsheets and one-off webinars. To get and keep your program up and running, you need a partner relationship management system (PRM) that can centralize partner information and provide a portal for all things affiliate marketing.

As a baseline, PRMs designed for affiliate management should be able to support:

Partner engagement tracking
Partner challenges
Email marketing
New partner discovery
Onboarding automation
Certifications or LMS integrations

Once you’ve got a PRM in mind, it’s time to think through the partner experience to create a credible affiliate program.

Map out and automate your partner’s journey

A strong onboarding process gives partners a good first impression of your program and gets them proficient faster. The secret to creating one? Putting yourself in a new affiliate partner’s shoes.

When starting out, you’d want to know what’s expected of you, how the commission structure works, and the best way to understand the product or service you’re selling. As you get acquainted with the program and product or service, you’d want to know how to get certified, where you can find marketing resources and if there are any examples of successful campaigns you can review and use as inspiration.

For most partners, all of this information will be the same — and that means disseminating it can be automated. Lilien recommends, “Automated email sequences are your friend. Creating a welcome series drip campaign to expose new partners to the tools and assets they need is a good start.”

To activate and engage your partners, you may also want to consider building and automating other email sequences to:

  • Re-engage partners who’ve been inactive for a while
  • Share updates on where leads are in the sales cycle
  • Congratulate and thank partners for their performance
  • Get partners excited about new features or offerings

Email isn’t the only thing you can automate. Naicker leverages automation to move partners who’ve completed a certification into a new partner group, automatically granting them a higher commission rate.

The quality control

Mitigating fraud is a major piece of the affiliate marketing puzzle and a key to building trust with partners and end-users. Without a robust partner approval process, you’ll waste time cleaning up your partner portal and your sales team will lose time chasing down bad leads.

It all starts with the structure of your partner signup form. What were the must-haves on your ideal affiliate partner profile? These characteristics need to be featured prominently in your questionnaire and they need to be easy to verify.

From there, set up a process to validate the authenticity of each partner. Do they have a profile on LinkedIn? Does their company have a functioning website? Can you find their profile in another company’s partner database?

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T-shaped partner leader

Naicker’s program has another layer of protection — the sales team. “Since we’ve opened up partner referrals to the sales team, we know that the ones that come in have already been vetted by our AEs, making them much more likely to be good affiliate candidates.”

Lilien tells his clients to keep a close eye on their data. “There are a lot of things that could indicate fraud, from increased portal traffic to strange email domain names to spikes in referrals — which are often too good to be true. Monitoring your data every day can help you quickly identify abnormal performance.”

Partner relationship management tools like PartnerStack have fraud detection features that flag partners with suspicious activity for you. With a quick review, you can determine whether a spike in leads is normal or cause for concern.

Lastly, be sure you’re protected from a legal standpoint. Lilien advises companies to add a clause in their program terms and conditions that outlines the right to reverse commissions for any partners suspected of fraud.

The content

Affiliate partners already have an audience they know and trust, they just need to focus that audience’s attention on your product and services. That requires some marketing and messaging. And since you’re the expert, why not pre-create content for them?

As Lilien says, “The best affiliate partners want to get started quickly, so make it as easy on them as possible. Give them ideas and value-add content that makes sense for their audience.”

Some examples of content you can create for partners are:

Product one-pagers
Affiliate landing pages
Customer success stories
Video clips from popular webinars
Free worksheets or calculators

This may be a joint lift with your marketing team — and you’ll want to get aligned sooner rather than later. Building this relationship internally will also boost trust for you and your affiliate program. Naicker says, “I wish I would’ve known how much we needed to lean on the marketing team and put in my requests earlier. I’d also recommend establishing a process for adding newly published content to your partner portal so your library stays fresh.”

Smaller teams may not have this luxury. Before Naicker was able to work with a dedicated marketing team, he had to use what he already had. Over time, he continued adding to that foundation — with partners’ input.

I’d recommend establishing a process for adding newly published content to your partner portal so your library stays fresh.
Kassigan Naicker, Dir. Marketplaces and Affiliates at Vendasta

“We uploaded any relevant pieces to the portal, recorded a couple of quick videos, created some new email templates and then released. Post-launch, we made iterative changes based on partner feedback.”

Choose the right channels

Different partners have different preferred styles of communication. Using a mix of channels can help you get the word out about program changes, product updates, and service offerings effectively and efficiently.

In a PRM, you can notify partners in a variety of ways, from portal announcements to email sequences. In PartnerStack, Naicker sends a monthly affiliate newsletter that contains:

  • Company updates
  • Links to new portal assets
  • Signups for new contests
  • Previous contest winners

“Sending these newsletters keeps Vendasta top of mind, motivates partners to get more involved in the program, and gives them jumping off points.”

Don’t make CTAs an afterthought

You don’t want to lose momentum with prospects after affiliates have piqued their attention. You need calls to action that will drive them to, well, act.

The best CTAs provide value and drive prospects to your product or service in some way. Some examples might be:

  • Booking: a live demo
  • Inviting: potential customers to an interactive demo
  • Getting: a longer free trial or freemium plan
  • Receiving: a free course, audit, or toolkit
Add a personal touch
If you’re struggling, ask your partners what kinds of marketing CTAs they feel will perform well with their audience. Talking to partners and actioning on their insights will only increase their engagement. At Vendasta, top affiliates get a custom landing page with a CTA of their choice. Giving partners room to personalize their campaigns is a win-win: Partners run their affiliate marketing the way they want and the vendor’s team gets more qualified leads.
“The differentiator between a strong affiliate program and an average one is that the strong ones tend to be much more flexible in the way they think about affiliate marketing. They don’t have tunnel vision. They embrace a diversity of models and agreements.”
Jason Lilien, VP Client Services at Partner Commerce

The metrics

Executive leadership is going to want proof that you’re hitting your goals. And if you have a PRM with a native reporting module like PartnerStack, it’s easy enough to pull the final number of affiliate-sourced deals. But relying on overall revenue numbers only tells you so much about how well your program is actually working.

To determine what other metrics you should be tracking on a regular basis, Naicker suggests working backward. “The real insights come from looking at each stage of the funnel. How many qualified leads are you getting? More importantly, what’s your close percentage of those at each stage?”

In addition, you’ll want to track partner engagement KPIs like logins to the portal, certifications completed, and meetings attended. Top partners will inevitably start to surface, helping you understand partner motivations. You may even find some “aha metrics” — signs that a new partner is going to be valuable right away — enabling you to prioritize your time and effort.

Pivot where necessary

The key to maintaining a sound affiliate program with integrity is to act on your analysis. Invest in the partners that are bringing you quality leads. Reach out to partners who could be great but just aren’t there yet to see how you can assist. And perhaps most importantly, share feedback with your partners.

Lilien shares, “It’s one thing for your partners to drive a bunch of leads. But if they don’t know that half their leads aren’t converting, they can’t possibly fix it. Keeping track of where your program is at in real time helps you proactively close the feedback loop and preserve your relationships.”

Pick a platform that can grow with your program

Your affiliate program today won’t be your affiliate program tomorrow — and that’s a good thing.

As Lilien says, “The differentiator between a strong affiliate program and an average one is that the strong ones tend to be much more flexible in the way they think about affiliate marketing. They don’t have tunnel vision. They embrace a diversity of models and agreements.”

For now, you may just be committed to content syndication, but over time, you may want to incorporate comparison sites, influencers, CPA marketing and more. And as your program grows and changes, your PRM must evolve with it.

That’s why whether you’re building your affiliate program from scratch or hoping to take it to the next level, PartnerStack’s got you covered with quick and easy payouts, built-in email marketing templates, certifications, automated workflows, fraud detection and more. Book a demo to see our platform in action.

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Elizabeth Melton

Like many Stanford grads, Liz ventured into tech. She found her place developing content for startups like JumpCloud, Navattic, fabric, and Zapier. Outside of writing, she consumes too many true crime podcasts and hikes all over SoCal.

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