Ten ways to build stronger relationships in partnership marketing

Here's the good news: it's pretty straightforward to stand out as a good marketing partner. Here's the bad news: You have to be well-organized, dilligent, and consciencious. Also: It's hard work.

All I can write is what I know, what's worked for me. I'm definitely not good at doing all these things all the time and sometimes I fail--as do the many excellent people I work with, which is why being forgiving is critical trait for success.

But working in this space over time, I've seen that if you can be consistent -- not perfect -- in these areas, you'll be more successful than not. You'll also attract better people and companies to partner with.

Do what you say
Don't say you're doing to do something by a certain time and then not do it. Don't offer up a communication component in your partner program and then leave it out when it comes time to execute. Do what you say and say what you do.

This is really about organization, not honesty. Most people are honest in their dealings. But you need to keep track of your commitments and then execute.

If you're going to miss a deadline (as we all do from time to time) send up a flare in advance. Let your partner know the miss is coming, and reach out share the date and time when you will deliver on your commitment. You'll be forgiven fare more often than not.

Exceed expectations in unanticipated ways. Leave yourself some wiggle room to overperform. Deliver ahead of schedule, or offer some extra value that maybe you didn't put on the table as part of the core negotiation.

Give more than people expect and you'll get more back than you expect. Very simple.

Hand-write thank you notes
This is a trick I learned from a former boss. No one does this anymore, because it's a pain. You need stamps, thank you cards, a decent pen, and penmanship that doesn't resemble hieroglyphics. So much easier to dash off an email -- which is why everyone sends the email.

I'm not always great about doing this, but when I do, it always has a positive effect. Try it five times and see what happens.

I'm an introvert at times, which is unique amongst many of my peers in partnership marketing. It also gives me an advantage. Because I'm not trying to dominate the conversation, I'm more inclined to hear what the other person says.

So just stop talking. Ask good questions and hear the replies. You will craft a better partnership program and build more trust when you really hear what the other person is saying. They will see it in your actions, which will better align to their needs and goals. Listening pays off.

Understand your partner's business

Listening to your marketing partner is critical here, but so is a little research on your part. The internet is your friend. Read the partner's web content. What is their USP? Read customer reviews. Understand who else plays in their space.

In some ways, you're acting as an ad agency for your partner by providing them with marketing opportunities. Know their business and you will serve it better. Much better.

Understand what you accelerate
The only reason to enter a marketing partnership is to either accelerate or deliver more efficiently business growth and/or customer value. What are you bringing to the table that creates velocity for your partner? Why aren't they just doing it on their own? Think this through and be able to articulate it clearly and simply.

Jointly define success
You've put a new deal in place. You have your marketing plan and your action plan and you're ready to run. Where's the finish line? And is your partner's finish line in the same place as yours? How will you measure pace along the way to know if things are going well? Jointly agree on a set of metrics -- revenue, service level markers, lead conversion, whatever -- that sets a common and objective definition of success.

Say yes
Be open to new ideas and alternate ways of doing things. The best way to say yes and to be open to trying new things is to minimize risk -- the risk of wasting money, yes, but also wasting time. Develop a simple-to-implement testing framework that lets you address a subset of customers and see if it works. Your testing framework should let you ramp up and ramp down quickly. Sometimes we say no because doing a program seems like a ton of work and the return is uncertain. You can miss big opportunities that way, however. So set up your nimble marketing lab and always have petri dishes with interesting things growing in them. Some will grow bold and bright. Some you'll just toss in the trash. But you'll never blow up the whole building if you have your lab set up and experiment correctly.

Say no
Sometimes it's just wrong for your customers, for your partnership strategy and capabilities, or for your company. And then you need to politely say no and move on. But in order to differentiate between what belongs in the testing lab and what belongs in someone else's lab, you must have a deep understanding of your customers, partnership strategy and program capabilities. Being able to say no quickly is a gift -- to yourself, your team and also to the other party, who, when you say no for the right reasons, will be given time and energy to work on something that will be more successful.

Be forgiving. Sometimes.
We all make mistakes. So forgive occasional transgressions and just move forward. Forgiving comes with caveats, however. Don't forgive patterns of mistakes -- the same issues over and over. And don't forgive bad or subversive behavior.

If you do forgive people for the same issues over and over, or tolerate unseemly behavior, then you get what you deserve: misery and a big drain on your time and energy. Know the difference between when to forgive and when to simply move on. When it's time to move on, do so without drama. 

Building great partnership marketing relationships isn't complicated. But it does take organization, strategy, and consistency. Start there and you'll have a strong foundation for your programs.

How to construct a marketing partnership press release announcement

Constructing a decent press release is hard enough. First you actually have to write something compelling, and then the Approval Olympics begin. You have to deal with internal egos -- somebody wants to re-write their quote. And you have to deal with legal. And you probably have other layers of approvals, often by people with little understanding of good PR or the concept of an actual news hook.

If you're writing a release about a new partnership initiative or alliance, you get to do all those things twice. And you get the added bonus of unfamiliar terrain -- what are the sacred cows of your partner? How does the partner organization's management like to be positioned to the media? What sets off the legal alarm bells for your partner?

So good luck with all of that. Fortunately there are some simple rules that can help you navigate the land mines and construct a compelling release.

Say glowing things about the other company
When quoting executives in press releases, the quotes are self-serving to the company 99.999 percent of the time. Change things up. Use the opportunity to create a little social proof: each side's quote should say something positive about the other company. 

Customer value, customer value, customer value
Why is the partnership good for each company's customers? That has to be the focus of the release -- it is all that matters. And if you can't articulate that clearly and succinctly, why did you do the deal? 

Check ALL the approval boxes and have a paper trail
Make sure all the laywers and PR people and executives from both sides have signed off on the release -- and have proof of all approvals. It's hard enough to put deals together; don't let yours get torpedoed by missing an approval on either side. Work together on this. Know in advance who must approve the release from both sides, check all the boxes and have proof.

Explain how 1 + 1 equals more than two
Again, from the customer perspective, explain how your companies create extra value by working together. What are you bringing to the marketplace together that each could not do on their own?

Have a clear customer call-to-action
A call-to-action in a press release? Absolutely. Be clear and specific about how customers can take advantage of the value created by your new partnership.

Press releases can be another valuable tool in getting a new partnership started off right. Be organized, be conscientious, and remember who you're ultimately writing for -- customers -- and you'll be on your way.

Eight uncommon paths to affiliate marketing success

Supposedly, there is a well-worn set of pathways to success in affiliate marketing. I see lots of common advice and tactics shared for publishers and advertisers. 

Thanks to some great partners, our affiliate and referral marketing programs have grown year after year. And also thanks to those partners, we haven't followed many “conventional” paths in affiliate marketing on the way to growth.

These paths can work for both advertisers and publishers. My experience is from the advertiser side of things, but I've seen our best publishing partners succeed by walking the same paths. 

I hope this post challenges your thinking and helps you create some alternate paths of your own on the way to affiliate marketing success.

1. If success is quick or sudden, worry.

Maybe a new partner takes off like a rocket. Or, even more concerning, a middling partner suddenly delivers big results out of nowhere.

Don’t celebrate. Worry about why it is happening.

Slow and steady growth tells you things are happening methodically and authentically. As an advertiser, when you see huge sales spikes, you have to investigate. Hopefully, you have a good relationships and can have open conversations about the tactics driving rapid growth.

And if you don't get a clear answer … see guideline #5. 

2. Build direct relationships.

Direct relationships trump all. Middlemen -- affiliate networks and affiliate agencies -- make it harder to build strong and direct relationships.

The agencies and networks may well help you add new partners quickly. They can also help root out fraud to some degree. The agencies tell you you need them to police the networks for you -- even though both parties generally earn commissions on every sale. 

The best way to add new partners and root out fraud is to know exactly who you are working with. The foundation for any successful business partnership lies in the relationship. This is harder to do with a middleman in between. Not impossible, but harder. 

Recruit and develop your own relationships as much as you can. Use your own tracking and infrastructure if you can. Move slowly. Understand how you can bring the most value to your partner to create the best possible situation for both parties.

3. Get great at writing.

You can’t succeed as a publisher or advertiser if you can’t write.

If you’re an advertiser, you need to write compelling copy to spark relationships with new publishers. You need to publish clear and concise guidelines about the marketing tactics you encourage and those you won’t tolerate. You need to provide publishers with content and offers that are captivating to audiences. 

And obviously, if you're a publisher, content is everything. Delivering value to your audience through sharp writing is everything. 

So write well. Practice, test, refine.

And the easiest way to get better at writing?

Read. Fiction books. Non-fiction books. High-quality web content. Read a ton and with variety.

Read every day. Write every day. Repeat. 

4. Don’t race to create a huge stable of partners.

Some publishers use spyware (or “toolbars”) to siphon off web traffic already headed to an advertiser's site, then take margin for a sale the advertiser was about to get anyway. Often, the customer doesn't even know this is happening. They are just searching, a simple redirect occurs, and they arrive at the same destination, but are now classified as an affiliate customer.

This is one way advertisers get gamed. There are others.

If you ramp your program quickly, fraud in all its forms is hard to monitor.  Know the people you partner with. Then do everything you can to help your partners maximize their success. Slowly.

5. Be slow to partner and quick to walk away.

Whether an advertiser or a publisher, you are the company you keep.

Anybody can make an honest mistake once. (Lord knows I'm a living testament to that truth.) But if someone makes a “mistake” two or more times -- underhanded tactics, violation of your affiliate rules, uncommunicated changes in commission structure -- they will probably do it ten times.

I’ve learned the hard way. I still learn the hard way, because I hate giving up.

You don’t have to learn the hard way. Get out if there are repeated problems with a partner.

6. Understand your customer. And keep learning about her.

If you're an advertiser and unsure who to partner with, look to your customer. Who is she? What is she interested in? What behaviors and research does she undertake before buying your product?

Customer insight will guide you to the right partners.

As a publisher, survey your audience. What are they struggling with? What products and services do they value? Your audience will guide you toward the right advertisers.

Let customers show you the way.

7. Be real about incrementality. Then get better at it.

Not all affiliate sales are incremental. Some sales are siphoned off from other marketing channels. Some sales come from people who would’ve bought from you regardless.

This is a fact, so don't hide from it. Embrace it and work with it.

Guess what? No marketing channel delivers 100% incremental sales.

Search engine marketing doesn’t. Direct mail doesn't. Television? TV is like a broken fire hose that sometimes sprays the correct target.

Yet SEM, direct mail, and TV advertising are smart marketing choices for many companies. Affiliate marketing is often a smart choice, too.

So be real about the fact that not all affiliate sales are incremental. Then continuously get better at “truing up” your affiliate program, whether you're a publisher or advertiser. Make it more targeted, measured, and value-driven by working the guidelines on this list.

Publishers owe it to advertisers to send as much value -- truly incremental sales -- as they can. Advertisers should strive, for the sake of margins and accurate marketing decisions, to continually improve their ability to measure incrementality and attribution.

That’s the long game that builds real value. The game that avoids going for the quick wins that eventually buckle and collapse underneath you.

8. Break from any of these pathways as needed.

Sometimes you can’t build a relationship directly. Or you are resource constrained, and you need an agency. Or you’re new to the game, and a network or agency can help you avoid seedy players by weeding some of them out in advance.

That's fine. By all means, use the resources and expertise of those groups.

I've personally been part of a very successful retail partnership using an agency in the middle. For the right opportunity, I’d do it again. But I prefer to work direct.

That’s the thing about pathways. There are almost always other ways to get to your destination.

Technology changes. The fundamentals of great business partnerships do not.

Regardless of platform, successful affiliate partnerships still come down to basic human truths. Be honest. Be likeable. Serve your partners with great value and they will reward you.

Because these are simple human truths, they will never change even as technology does. At least not until the robots take over.