How I Approach Strategic Partnerships at Buffer
Nearly two years ago, in an article on how I approach TOFU marketing at Buffer, I postulated:
“One of the most exciting things about working at a startup or small company is that every employee wears multiple hats.”
At the time, I didn’t fully understand how relevant that statement was and would be to this day.
Each one of my teammates at Buffer still wears multiple hats. Things still move lightning fast. I’m still learning and failing and succeeding all at the same time.
My most recent role comes in the form of strategic partnerships manager.
Essentially SPM means that much of my day is focused on identifying mutually beneficial partnerships (both marketing and product) that will help Buffer achieve very specific business goals. Some companies call it Business Development, but I tend to think that sounds a bit sales-y.
Once I’ve identified a potential partnership, I’m in charge of the project from start to finish: relationship building, testing, building, creating, writing, analyzing, innovating, etc. Each project is then tied back to something specific such as trial starts, or brand awareness, or retention.
Since starting this role in early 2018, I’ve come to realize that there seems to be a limited amount of resources available to learn about the emerging role of strategic partnerships (a.k.a. business development).
And so I put together what I’m calling my Strategic Partnerships Strategy 2019. It’s based on the incredible work of James Cohane, Andrew Chen, Tien Anh Nguyen, as well as other professionals working in the field that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting over the last year.
As with everything I create, I’m still learning and this strategy is nowhere near perfect (plus, it’s changing every day), but I thought it might be useful to share it with you all. Enjoy!
Why invest in strategic partnerships?
In both B2B and B2C, partnerships provide businesses with a unique and quantifiable opportunity for incremental growth. When done right, they have the potential to expose both parties to an even larger base of targeted and qualified customers. A win-win.
Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes (more on that later), but the most important factor when considering partners is whether or not they are aligned with your business.
Successful partners see eye-to-eye on key variables such as target customer, market, product, brand positioning, values, and long-term goals.
In my short tenure as strategic partnerships manager, we’ve utilized strategic partnerships at Buffer to:
De-risk Buffer against future market changes by developing relationships with key product managers at all major social media platforms and 3rd-party networks upon which our product relies
Expose Buffer to a larger group of profitable markets, including small-to-medium sized businesses
Build brand awareness by aligning with bigger, more well-known businesses in the SaaS industry
Publish thought-leadership pieces by leveraging exclusive, previously unavailable research data
One example of this in action is our recent partnership with Delmondo — one of the world’s leading analytics platforms. You can check out the complete research here, but this wouldn’t have been possible without the mutual effort of both teams.
Types of strategic partnerships
James Cohane defines partnerships and business development as:
“The function at the company responsible for identifying, securing, and/or managing relationships with organizations outside of the company (excluding customers and suppliers) that helps other key functions at the company achieve their respective goals.”
What I love about this definition is that it provides folks (like me) in the role unlimited possibilities in what they can experiment with and accomplish.
I tend to lump partnerships into two main categories/opportunities: product and marketing.
Let’s take a look at each.
Note: There’s traditionally a third category of “sales,” but since Buffer doesn’t have a formal sales team — never has — I decided to leave it out for now. Check out this post from Andrew Dumont on the difference between sales and partnerships and this complete guide from James Cohane for sales-related insights.
When done right, product and partnerships are a match made in heaven.
In this bucket, partnership managers work closely with the product team in order to, you guessed it, achieve product-related goals.
Marketplace / App Store
One of the most classic examples of this in action is when the partnerships team creates a program that allows 3rd-party developers to build a marketplace of apps and/or features that integrate seamlessly with the company’s core platform.
Intercom did this in July 2018 with their launch of a brand new app store — connecting more than 100 apps to the Intercom product, including Atlassian, Google, Marketo, Salesforce and Stripe.
These types of integrations help to increase the amount of engaged users within your product. Engagement is critical in keeping users from cancelling their subscriptions. As Intercom wrote about on their blog, a decrease in customer engagement is called activity churn, and it indicates that customers are finding less and less value in your product.
On a similar note, many companies will strategically seek out potential integrations to build themselves.
There’s the obvious example of products whose entire business model relies on building 3rd-party integrations to attract customers and drive revenue — Buffer is one of those examples.
But there’s also opportunities to strategically build integrations on top of other platforms in order to expose your product to a new market. In the Intercom example above, Google, Salesforce, Marketo and others all strategically decided to build an integration on top of the Intercom platform to open up the potential for a new market.
The wonderful thing about product and partnerships working together is that it relieves some of the pressure from the engineering to “build everything.”
“Make what most people want to do most of the time easy, and make the rest possible.”
Finally, on a smaller, but important point, building integrations also allows businesses to develop relationships with key partners in their industry. Not only does this open up other marketing and partnership opportunities, but it’s a gateway to what could end up as a profitable merger or acquisition.
No matter what industry you’re in or type of product you sell, marketing is hard.
Add that to the fact that more products, websites, content, ads, videos, and emails are being produced than ever before, and it’s easy to see why a brand might get lost in the noise.
That’s where marketing partnerships can help (also know as co-marketing).
The main benefit of strategic marketing partnerships is that they give multiple brands access to each other’s audiences. There are also secondary and tertiary benefits such as the ability to pool a larger amount of monetary resources, a variety of marketing perspectives (brain power), access to new press contacts, and lots more.
One of my favorite examples is a co-marketing campaign that we ran with Animoto in 2017 around the launch of their new square video product.
We were looking to publish original data around the state of video marketing (but didn’t have the robust data needed to make it legit) and Animoto was looking for a peer company that could help amplify the reach of their new product.
It worked because each partner (Buffer & Animoto) aligned in terms of goals, target market, and vision. Plus, each brand brought something unique and valuable to the campaign in the way of data and reach.
Examples of other great co-marketing campaigns:
Airbnb and Flipboard (source)
Nike and Apple (source)
Casper and West Elm (source)
HubSpot and Chatfuel (source)
Buffer, Mailchimp, and Square (source)
Buffer and Skillshare (source)
As you might have concluded from the examples above, there are unlimited ways to partner with another brand on a marketing campaign.
The key for a marketing partnership to be successful is that both partners must work together in a large, integrated capacity with efforts focused on the current campaign as well as long-term residual results.
When to invest in strategic partnerships
The beauty of strategic partnerships is that the benefits tend to span across the entire company — from marketing to product to advocacy.
As mentioned above, if your product relies on any sort of external partners, networks, or APIs, the relational aspect of strategic partnerships can provide significant long-term benefits such as de-risking your business from significant market changes.
But that doesn’t mean that strategic partnerships are right for every business or that you should start partnering right away.
The decision to invest in strategic partnerships must come from the top.
It must be a widely held belief that they are an important tool for business growth, otherwise SPM professionals will hit roadblocks every step of the way.
“Strategic partnerships only work if your SaaS startup is ready for them and if you’ve done the necessary homework to ensure they make sense (for both partners).”
— Scott Maxwell
Before investing in any sort of strategic partnerships — product or marketing — it’s important to ask a few key questions:
What does our product roadmap look like? What are we hoping to accomplish product-wise in the next 1-3-6-12 months and how/why will partnerships help us to get there?
Who is our target customer and where do they spend time? Are there markets we can tap into via strategic partnerships? How/why?
What does an ideal partner look like? How will we know if the partnership was successful or not?
Who will be responsible for initiating and executing the partnership from start to finish? Do we have the resources needed to support them?
Pay close attention to question #4 when developing your own strategic partnerships strategy. Often the idea of investing in SP sounds great on paper, but the actual implementation and resources needed for successful partnerships are a different story.
For example, marketing partnerships might require an engineer to build a landing page, the data team to ensure everything is properly tracked, and the content and email team to realign their schedules around a new campaign.
Product partnerships might require buy-in from various product managers and engineers as well as in-depth market research into the pros and cons of exploring new apps or integrations.
Though one person is typically responsible for overseeing various projects and campaigns, truly successful marketing and product partnerships are always a team effort.
How to measure results of strategic partnerships
Being in strategic partnerships reminds me of one of those “choose-your-own-adventure” books. There are endless ways to approach partnerships and there are certainly plenty of ways to be successful.
At the end of the day, I measure the success of this role based on how closely I am able to align various projects, campaigns, and initiatives with Buffer’s marketing vision and product roadmap.
Notice the inclusion of both marketing and product.
Strategic partnerships have the ability to impact both marketing results and product KPIs. Here are a few examples from a made-up SaaS business:
A Google My Business integration results in a large, company-wide product launch as well as increases user activation by 17%.
A co-marketing partnership with a well-known SaaS business results in press coverage from TechCrunch as well as 100 new product trialists.
A Shopify App Store launch results in more than 30,000 downloads as well as a front-page feature in the Shopify App Store. It’s now your #1 source of incoming trialists.
A co-marketing partnership and integration with a lesser-known SaaS data analytics platform closes the gap in your product offerings as well as gains significant press coverage from new published research.
It’s important to remember that truly successful partnerships take time. They often require weeks or months of planning and executing due to the fact that there are various stakeholders involved.
That’s why SPMs must evaluate every opportunity carefully.
Stakes are higher, timeframes are drawn out, and failures are inevitable. Sometimes you’ll wonder why you even took on a project in the first place.
But as time goes on, your eye for mutually beneficial partnerships will improve. Your knack for understanding when to say “no,” when to push forward, and when to drop an initiative completely will sharpen. Eventually, you’ll get to a place where your success rate for partnerships is 80% or above, and that’s a great place to be — for your career and your business.
Continued Reading: Strategic Partnerships
What are the Fundamental Skills for Tech Business Development (Matt Wyndowe)
Should You Be Investing in Channel Sales and Marketing? (CeCe Bazar)
There are Only a Few Ways to Scale User Growth, and Here’s the List (Andrew Chen)
Understanding Business Development (Seth Godin)
Why – And When – Strategic Partnerships Makes Sense for SaaS Startups (Scott Maxwell)