Partnership Activations: The Essential Guide to Igniting Ecosystem Success

Unlock the innovative strategies, revenue-driving ideas and successful collaboration tactics to activated partnerships.

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A couple of years ago, every tech company was touting how many users they had. In the eyes of VCs and the general public — the more millions of users, the more promising a SaaS startup’s trajectory.

But over time, people realized those numbers were severely inflated. While some apps may have had millions of signups, only thousands were actually using it. And that meant only some of those users translated to real revenue.

Guess what? The same can be said for partner programs.
The sheer number of partners in your network doesn’t really matter. To extend your brand’s reach, hit your revenue goals, and keep your customers happy, you need activated partners.

But what exactly is partnership activation, and how do you do it? In this guide, we’ll cover the two main components of partnership activation and outline the key elements needed to activate partners and jumpstart partner-driven GTM success.

What is partnership activation?

Partners reach activation status when they’re fully engaged with your program and doing what you want them to do: amplifying your brand, sending leads, and converting customers. But there’s a misconception that activation happens magically when a partner signs onto your program.

Not so. Partnership activation takes hard work and collaboration — on both your part and your partner’s. Joe Corcione, Partner Manager at Trainual, expands on this point, “People think that a partnership is active once you sign the deal. But if a partner doesn’t follow through, they aren’t truly active. You have to help partners become active.”

Don’t sleep on activation
Paige Berger, Senior Partner Manager at Secureframe weighs in on this, too, “Don’t sign an agreement and let it sit. The biggest thing for us has been setting up a concrete activation plan and expectations upfront.”
When you break it down, partnership activation stems from two critical places — recruiting and engagement:

Recruiting the right partners

Recruiting is the first piece of the partnership activation puzzle. If you’re not recruiting ideal partners, there’s a lower likelihood they’ll activate — even with ample care and direction. They may not have a significant overlap in ICP (Ideal Customer Profile), be willing to co-market, or have the breadth and depth of connections to make the intros you need.

Emma Sinai, Senior Director of Customer Success at PartnerStack, explains, “You need enough of the right partners to be showing intent. They understand your program, understand your product, and have a network of their own that could benefit from your product or service.”

Having hundreds of dormant partners on your roster can have serious negative consequences, from less collaboration with sales to questionable QBR numbers and decreased partnership budgets. To ensure successful collaborations, Sinai advises being specific with your partner application forms. Asking pointed questions makes it easier to weed out the partners that may not be ideal contributors to your program. These questions should evolve as you measure your partnership activation efforts and refine your partner recruitment strategy 
over time.

Help partners become enabled and engaged

Achieving desired partner outcomes depends on keeping your partners engaged, informed, and educated. And different partners have different needs.

One-size doesn’t fit all: Tailor for a perfect fit
Sinai recommends taking a two-pronged approach to engagement and enablement: “We tell our customers to run two strategies in parallel: one for high potential partners, one for the long tail. With the long tail, you can afford to make onboarding more self-serve, more automated. But strategic partners need to be high touch.”
High tail / long tail infographic.
In this next section, we’ll offer some tips to make this strategy a reality:

Growth potential starts with partner activation strategies

Effective partner collaboration is challenging but not impossible. You just need an activation plan that motivates your customers to move through the partnership lifecycle. Here are some tried and tested strategies that should make up the bulk of that plan.

Illustration of Emma Sinai.
Emma Sinai

Help partners help you

Most new partners know a little about your company and your product — if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be applying to your program.

But that “little” is not enough to sell or implement your product. Without additional knowledge and resources, you risk being associated with a clumsy sale or poorly executed consulting project. To combat this, you’ll want to prepare your partners with ample (but simple) resources.

Create digestible enablement material

Partners need solid enablement material that explains how your product works, the value it confers to your ICP, and the sales strategies that convert. And keep it simple; otherwise, partners won’t stick with it. Sinai reiterates, “Don’t just brain dump onto partners. Make it excessively easy to get information and assets they need and lay out the path to success.”

Sinai encourages PartnerStack customers to create one-pagers. These should:

  • Show how their program works
  • Explain the best ways to talk about their product
  • Be simple, yet visually engaging

Partners can then use these to quickly understand what they need to do to be successful and to more easily identify potential leads.The partners that engage with this material tend to be your top performers, so take the time to recognize and encourage them.

Corcione suggests, “Reach out to the ones attending office hours and live sessions. Even if they haven’t referred yet, they’re putting in the effort and, with some extra hands-on guidance, may be sending leads your way soon.”

Streamline partner onboarding with a PRM

Partner relationship management (PRM) tools like PartnerStack promote partnership activation by storing enablement materials in a self-serve portal and enabling effective partner communication.

From PartnerStack’s portal, you can:

Design and send partner onboarding sequences linking to various resources.

Customize and organize content for different types 
of partners.

Connect to an LMS to deliver top-tier training.

Drive engagement on new feature releases through branded email alerts.

Share important partner program announcements.

Set milestones for sign-ups or sales.

The best part? You can maintain consistent messaging throughout. Per Sinai, “There’s a saying that you have to repeat something seven times for people to internalize it, and that’s what PartnerStack does. It gives you multiple tools to repeat that message.”

For strategic partners, supplement the portal with partner-specific onboarding meetings and calls with your sales team and the partner’s sales teams to ensure everyone is equipped to drive revenue.

Taking a more holistic approach for high-touch partners was a boon for Berger and her team: “An unlock for us was getting our sales and CS teams involved. Making sure they understood the value of our partners, how to leverage them, and how to pitch them made a huge difference.”

Learn how a powerful PRM and smart goal-setting can kick-start your partners:

Certify partner knowledge

First impressions matter, and certifications are often one of the first things potential customers look for in a partner. They know that certified partners know the ins and outs of your product and feel the most comfortable pitching and implementing it.

Coincidentally, certified partners are usually the most activated ones on your list. Corcione says, “Our certification is optional. But if I look at our best consultant partners, 90 per cent of them have completed it.”

The happy, engaged customers you’ll get from certified partners are worth the effort to stand up a formal certification program. And there’s another bonus: You’ll get a little extra PR any time someone shares a new certification badge on LinkedIn.

Make partners the star of the show

Fully integrating your partners into your marketing strategy goes a long way.

Include partners as SMEs on webinar panels, promote better-together stories on social media, and make them guest speakers at prospect luncheons or dinners. Besides making partners look good, partner marketing content reflects the strength of your program and allows customers and other partners to learn from each other.

The best partners are willing to share the 
most — even when they know their competitors are listening. They don’t have a fear mindset.
Joe Corcione, Partner Manager at Trainual

If a partner event is successful, turn it into evergreen content for the portal, how-to blogs, or ads.

Corcione trusts partnership professionals. “The best partners are willing to share the most — even when they know their competitors are listening. They don’t have a fear mindset,” he says.

For Corcione and other partner managers, the Trainual partner Slack is also a fantastic resource for building additional high-impact partner experiences, sharing that the chances are if one person shares feedback about your program, there are other partners who think 
the same.

Go where your partners are
Trainual created a partner community to share joint partner marketing content and amplify the value of their partner program internally. On Slack, partners exchange success stories, sample sales slide decks, use cases, and genuine advice — almost acting as mini influencers for partnership activation.

At PartnerStack, we have PartnerSlack to support our customers running partnerships every day.

Provide business value upfront

How do you prove to your partners that the juice is worth the squeeze? Give them something valuable right away — even if it feels like you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Sinai shares that one PartnerStack customer sends new partners leads from their own pipeline that the sales team just hasn’t gotten to yet as an effective collaboration strategy. “They’ve told us over and over that getting partners their first referral bonus or commission really jumpstarts their partnerships and pushes partners to do more.”

T-shaped partner leader

Another customer offers free business consulting to their partners. Whatever your first joint venture is, it must be memorable and valuable. Sinai points out, “There’s so much competition out there. Giving partners something first hooks them in and makes them loyal to you — I say it over and over to our customers — ‘Give to get.’

Berger echoed the same sentiment. “Partners that give us the highest return are the ones we give the most referrals to at the outset. It shows we’re committed to a two-way partnership upfront.”

Measure partnership success

To gain the internal respect and budget you need to grow your partner program, you need the activation numbers to back it up.

Define your partner activation rate

First, figure out what partnership activation means in your program. It could be a first referral, first closed won deal, or hitting a certain amount of revenue — something demonstrating that a partner will probably stay engaged and profitable.

Then, ask yourself what the best-scoring partners have in common. What sparked their engagement? That’s your partnership activation metric.

From there, you can calculate your activation rate. Take the number of partners who met your activation metric, divide it by the total number of partners who joined your program, and multiply that result by 100.

Power Up Your PRM
To home in on partner activation rate, use your portal to pull partner health KPIs like the number of:
  • Portal logins
  • Content downloads
  • Email sequence opens and clicks
  • LMS courses taken
  • Certifications passed
  • MDFs used (and resulting leads)
  • Leads (converted and non-converted) per partner

Drill down: Know and grow your partner metrics

Activation rate is a good jumping-off point for partner conversations about revenue and performance. But you should also look at hidden metrics, like customer retention, time to close, and co-marketing success. Sinai reminds us:

“Partnership value isn’t just about new deal volume. Look at the size of deals partners reel in. Look at your customer retention — do partner-sourced customers stay longer? Are partner-sourced customers more engaged? Are partners decreasing the length of your sales cycle? Are your co-marketing campaigns impactful? All of these metrics are important.”

Berger brings up another key metric: response time. “The partners that reply to me quickly are the ones I can count on the most and are the ones I tap most often when leads come in.”

The benefits of diving into these KPIs are three-fold. They will:

  1. Fuel your partner marketing engine with success stories
  2. Help you recruit more excellent partners
  3. Give you ideas for enabling new and existing partners
Paleto principle infographic.
chart by partnerstack research lab

Automate wherever possible

The widely-known Pareto Principle that 20 per cent of your partners give 80 per cent of your return. Spending the bulk of your time on that 20 per cent is crucial.

Here’s the problem: Because you’re spending time on that 20 per cent, you can’t afford to sit down with every single other partner. That’s where automation comes in.

Corcione recommends using a PRM like PartnerStack to design and schedule onboarding email sequences that:

Point partners to all the resources you have available in your portal

Remind them of marketing development funds (MDFs) and offer ideas for strategic co-branding initiatives

Motivate them with better-together success stories from your other partnerships

Share key information about their dedicated partner manager and sales team contacts

That said, don’t go overboard. Sinai warns, “The worst thing you can do is automate everything. You can’t extract value from strategic partners through one or two emails.”

To add some personal flair, Corcione sets an alert when whale partners (large partners that exactly fit Trainual’s ideal partner profile) join the program so he can send them customized videos about how excited he is to meet and work with them.

Embrace creativity in partner activation efforts

Don’t be afraid to tap into your creative side when focusing on partner activation campaigns. To do this:

  • Go beyond the usual sponsorships
  • Brainstorm creative partnership campaigns
  • Host innovative partner events
  • Use engaging cross-promotions to wow customers and prospects
  • Put your partner front and center
Get creative with rewarding partners
Corcione sends the most active Trainual partners a Trainual-branded cape to wear around the office and at partner and customer events. It keeps the Trainual brand top of mind and makes the partner feel like an integral part of the company’s success.
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T-shaped partner leader

Reignite inactive partners

Not all inactive partners are invaluable — some might just be lost. Sinai tells PartnerStack customers to consider their inactive partner base “a pipeline for reactivation.”

Send these partners reactivation email campaigns through a PRM like PartnerStack. Or, if they’re big enough and have joint revenue potential, meet with them one-on-one to figure out what they need to get to the next level.

Corcione advises, “Partner managers should ask this million-dollar question: ‘What can we do to make this the best partnership you’ve ever been a part of?’ You’ll know how to serve that partner, and the changes you make as a result will likely help other partners hit activation, too.”

For example: At Secureframe, customer requests can be the driving factor behind reactivation. Berger explains, “Sometimes a customer asks for help with something one of our dormant partners would be a great fit for. We use that lead as a way of bringing them back into the fold, asking them to hop on a call to discuss how to go about that sale.”

Inactive and ineffective partners aren’t just not helping your program, they’re hurting it.
Give 60/40 to Get 50/50

Successful, balanced alliance activations depend on your ability to show partners you’re investing in their success.

While you’ll never reach 100 per cent partner activation, meeting your partners halfway isn’t going to incite the sustained energy and effort you need from any of your partners.

True collaboration and partnership activation necessitate a 60/40 split. Leveraging these tactics to give more than you get is what will set your partnerships in motion and set your program — and your activated partners’ performance — apart.

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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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