Partnership marketing: What it is and how to get it right

Partnership marketing

When you’re focused on growing your business, almost every strategy can seem viable when you’re looking for the perfect growth lever. Some people use SEO, others work on social media platforms, and a few choose paid advertising.

Partnership marketing is another lever that can be pulled to accelerate business growth. The difference is that it’s dependent on the skills of your partners and many other factors. If you do it right then you’ll enjoy the benefits. If you do it wrong then there will be a lot of wasted time, money, and energy.

In this guide, you’ll learn exactly what partnership marketing is, the core elements, and how to create your own partnership marketing program.

Keep in mind that we may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. However, this does not impact our comparisons and recommendations. We try our best to keep things fair and balanced, in order to help you make the best choice for you.

What is partnership marketing?

At its core, partnership marketing is a partnership between two or more parties to strategically promote or market their products and services to meet their individual business goals.

A brand has something that can benefit other brands and vice versa so they work together to grow their respective businesses faster. If it’s not mutually beneficial then it’s not a true partnership. In a study by Partnerize, over half of all respondents said partnerships are responsible for 20% or more of their revenue.

There are many types of partnership marketing recognized with some people going as far as dividing them into 10 different types. When you zoom out, there are two overarching types that encompass the other ones.

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing is a type of performance marketing where the partners will promote the product of a brand using various means such as website publishing, social ads, etc., and earn a commission on any sales generated through their unique tracking link.

Brands such as Amazon popularized affiliate marketing and now it’s an entire industry that generates billions of dollars annually.

There are many ways to establish affiliate partnerships

Self-hosted. A self-hosted affiliate program is one where you recruit and administer your affiliate marketing partnerships yourself. Brands use software like Refersion, Post Affiliate Pro, or Impact to register affiliates, manage contracts, and set up payouts. Many of the platforms also allow you to upload creatives and marketing materials affiliate partners can use.

This approach has many benefits such as more interaction with affiliates so it’s easier to communicate with them and adjust based on feedback. It also allows you to keep costs down because self-hosted affiliate platforms usually charge a regular recurring fee.

Impact affiliate marketing software

Networks. Networks are similar to self-hosted solutions but add a layer of separation between the affiliate partner and the brand. It offers a larger pool of potential affiliates and may not have as many options for sharing materials with the affiliates that register.

Another thing to keep in mind is that most networks will charge a flat network fee plus a percentage of revenue in exchange for access to more potential affiliates.

Affilaite network

Agencies. Affiliate marketing agencies help brands do all of the heavy lifting related to managing an affiliate program. They’ll find affiliate partners, run the backend operations, create marketing materials, etc. In essence, you hand off everything to them and get results in return. This is a viable option if affiliate marketing is something that looks intriguing but you don’t have the in-house resources to make it work.

Hybrid. This model combines elements of different models together to produce a solution that works for you. For example, you use software to manage the operations in-house but outsource affiliate recruitment to an agency.

Regardless of which method is used to recruit and manage affiliates, they can choose to market products and services on your behalf in many ways which include:

  • Blog posts
  • Social media content
  • Display ads
  • YouTube videos
  • Podcasts
  • Newsletters

Affiliate marketing is one of the purest forms of partnership marketing because the incentives and the potential ROI is clear. If a partner doesn’t perform then they’re not compensated for their efforts.

The great thing about affiliates is that they have a wide range. Some of them are small bloggers while others are huge comparison sites. The diversity will give you exposure to audiences you may not otherwise be able to come into contact with which is always a good thing.

Distribution partnership

Distribution partnerships take many forms and it’s up to you to choose the one that works best for you. One brand can combine complementary products with theirs and add more value as a result. This can lead to higher sales volume or being able to charge a premium.

At other times, brands may choose to cross-market their partner’s products and services to their audience. The reason this can be so powerful is that you’re borrowing the credibility of your partner.

For example, if you partner with Acme Inc. that targets the same market with a different product, you could borrow their credibility and generate new loyal customers.

Like affiliate marketing, there are many ways to make distribution marketing partnerships work. It will largely depend on the strengths and weaknesses of your brand and the brand of potential partners.

For example, if you’re an online retailer, you could partner with a brick-and-mortar company and offer coupons to their customers and vice versa.

Other ways these partnerships could work are through co-marketing initiatives like exchanging guest posts, emailing each other’s lists respectively, linking to each other’s websites, posting on social media, YouTube videos, QR codes, etc.

The distribution model is attractive but it often takes a larger upfront investment than affiliate marketing. You have to prepare a marketing campaign upfront and swap it with your partner. This can turn many brands off when they’re not sure of the returns on the investment or if it’s a shorter partnership (in terms of duration).

In a later section, you’ll learn how to prevent over-investing before the method you’ve chosen has been vetted properly.

Elements of successful partnership marketing

There are three core elements of successful partnership marketing campaigns. If you miss any of them then the results fall short of what you could truly accomplish if you got all three elements right.

A good product. The first element is a good product. It’s the foundation of everything else. Even without a huge budget, you may be able to gain traction by telling to enough people. When the product is above average, customers will share it with their network because it makes them look good and builds social currency.

When a product is poor, you’ll be throwing good money after bad the more you market it. Partners won’t be interested in working with you and the systems created won’t yield the desired results.

If you’re not confident you have an excellent product then go back to the drawing board before trying to launch a partner program.

The partners. After you have a product you’re confident in, the next step is to decide what kind of partners you want. The 80/20 real is incredibly important here. If you’re not deliberate in choosing partners, the majority will produce little to no revenue while a few will be keeping your partnership marketing program afloat.

In the next section, we’ll look more closely at how to set up criteria for choosing partners for your brand.

Support systems and training. The last step is equally important. No one knows your product as well as you do. Even if a partner has a group of hungry buyers, they need your support to properly sell to them. This includes marketing collateral, product samples, ongoing training, timely updates about changes to the products, etc.

How to successfully initiate your own partnership marketing campaigns

At this point, you should have most of the preliminary work out of the way.

  • You have choosing a partnership marketing model
  • The product you’re promoting has been honed to perfection
  • You have a general idea of the kind of partners you want

Now, it’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts of getting partnerships off the ground for your brand.  

Identify criteria for partners

As mentioned previously, the partners you choose can make or break your campaigns. The first thing is to decide who you want to work with. There are a few questions you can ask to make this process easier.

  • Do they need to meet minim requirements like size of audience or website traffic
  • Are certain forms of advertising/marketing off limits (PPC advertising)
  • Should they serve a specific kind of audience? If so, define the audience
  • Is it a requirement that the partner do a certain kind of work (for example, an agency or consultant)
  • Do you want a partner with a previous track record of success?
  • Are the values of the company you’re partnering with important? If so, what are you looking for

GetResponse has done the research and has identified the kind of affiliate partners that will work best for them. It’s not shy about drawing the attention of those people and subtly letting others know that they’re not a good fit.

Example of affiliate partnership marketing program criteria

Determine what kind of partnerships you want

There are many facets to officially declaring what kind of partnership you’ll pursue and I recommend trying out a few different ones before settling. Conversely, you can run both affiliate and distribution partnerships over the long term and achieve success. This is commonly seen with web hosting companies.

For this exercise, choose a handful of partnership types. You may want to narrow down the type of distribution partnership in the beginning since there are so many to choose from.

Reach out to a handful of potential partners

Once you know what kind of program you want to run and the criteria to vet partners, create a one-page document that highlights the benefits to the partners. What do they stand to gain from working with you that they probably couldn’t get elsewhere?

Remember, partnerships are mutually beneficial. When putting together your one-page summary, ask yourself if the benefits are things you’d also be interested in. Will a 25% commission on a $10/m product get them excited? Will the opportunity to co-create content be up their alley?

If you put yourself in their shoes and can’t convince yourself that the offer is attractive then rework it or consider a different type of partnership.

When your one-pager is complete, reach out to a few potential partners. At this point, you don’t want to go for the top/dream partners because your program is too immature. You also don’t want to go for the smallest partners because their impact will be limited.

Focus on the partners that can move the needle but aren’t too established. For example, instead of reaching out to a massive site like NerdWallet, you may choose a personal finance blogger that gets less than 500,000 visitors a month to start with.

Once you get a handful of partners on board, communicate with them constantly so you can make your program even better for new partners.

  • How was their onboarding experience
  • Where do they need support
  • How do they think the offers can be improved
  • What collateral do they need for marketing
  • Do they know anyone else that would be interested in partnering

These are just a few of the questions you can ask. The key is to be receptive to all criticism/feedback and do your best to incorporate it. The better time your partners have, the more revenue they’ll help you produce.

Create materials for partners

The next step after getting your partners onboarded is to take the feedback you’ve gotten and formally structure your partnership marketing initiatives. Over time you can create a playbook that partners can access on demand.

  • Marketing materials
  • Onboarding guides
  • Tips and tricks for success
  • FAQs
  • Training materials (especially if you have a complex product)
  • Etc.

Start with the following resources:

Putting these pieces in place will make it so that you don’t have to personally tackle the same questions over and over again. Instead, you can just share it with the partner. If they don’t understand it then you can step in and help out.

At the same time, creating these materials will make it possible to scale your campaigns much faster. That’s not to say you or someone on your team won’t have to manage these partnerships or participate in some way.

It’s a partnership built on human relationships so it can’t be 100% automated.

Roll out your partnership marketing campaign on a larger scale

Everything is in place now, the final step is to actively recruit partners that meet your stated criteria. This is where you’ll end up spending the most time because the majority of day-to-day management will be automated in the background.

As you gain more experience, you’ll be able to tweak your partnership marketing initiatives to get more out of them with the same amount of or even less effort. You may be pleasantly surprised at the opportunities your partners will provide and the expertise they bring to the table.


Partnership marketing, depending on your approach, can be one of your most powerful revenue generation methods or the one that gives you the most headaches. This guide has outlined what it is, the different types, and what you need to do to be successful.

It’s now up to you to go out there and get it done. Start with deciding on which type(s) of partnership marketing you’re interested in then start to implement the lessons outlined in this guide. Let me know what you think in the comments and don’t forget to share.

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