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How To Build A Partnership Business Plan

Jun 14, 2022 by Martech Record

Partnerships have been an integral part of many go-to-market strategies for decades. For some brands, they drive an enormous share of total sales. For others, they drive next to nothing. What separates successful programs from unsuccessful ones is often the focus emanating from a strong business plan. As with any other go-to-market approach, partnership requires analysis and planning to achieve maximum potential.

A partnership business plan can help companies understand the channel's potential and the investments necessary to achieve those results. It also identifies the business partnership priorities that the team should focus on for maximum business impact. It’s different from a standard business plan in that you are not providing a rationale for an entire business but instead creating a roadmap for this critical business channel.

Setting appropriate expectations is even more critical than for other channels because of misconceptions many business leaders have about partnership. Many companies pursue partnership because they believe it will be a low/no-cost approach to driving sales. Somehow, goes this flawed thinking, the business partner will do most or all of the work of promoting the brand, and we can sit back and reap the benefits.

Certainly, one great rationale for the channel is strong ROI, but partnerships require resources and focus to succeed. A business plan can help clarify the business potential of the marketing strategy and the people, systems, and processes needed to achieve those results. This eGuide outlines the essentials for a strong partnership business plan and provides tips on how to deliver it. It provides insight as to what resources are needed to reach goals.

It is important to first set up the costs of setting up a program and the basic formula for customer acquisition.

The basic costs of a partner marketing program are:

Fixed costs:

  • Software to recruit, track and pay partners. This can also be a variable costs since some platforms charge a percentage of sale. But, most have a component that is a flat fee.
  • Service/headcount to recruit and manage partners. This can be an agency, an in house team or managed service from your tech platform. Sometimes agencies will work on a commission basis, but mostly this will be a relatively stable annual cost. Regardless, be aware that unlike programmatic, search or social, partnership marketing is still relationship driven and requires humans to connect. This takes time and it is facilitated by people who have relationships.

Variable costs:

  • Commissions paid to partners for a sale.
  • Any additional media costs including placement fees.

Note: be sure to build in a ramp up time for your partner program. Unlike search or social you can't just "turn on" a partner program. You need time to recruit partners and activate these partners. There is a lot of blocking and tackling involved and you should not expect to see results overnight. The rule of thumb is six months until full activation, but that varies by industry.

Customer Acquisition Cost

Ultimately, the success of failure of a new marketing channel will be its ability to acquire customers at an equal or lower cost than other channels. Start by identifying your overall CAC so that you can determine if your partnership financial and operating plans will be effective.

​The basic formula is: {Fixed costs (like software, service, people) + (variable costs *volume)} / customers = CAC

Why Business Plans are Important

As partnership and affiliate play an increasingly important role in the total go-to-market for a brand, companies expect their leaders to offer a strong business case for additional investment. A solid partnership business plan will:

  • Help the company understand the business potential for partnerships
  • Enable business owners to understand and predict costs and benefits for proper resource and revenue planning
  • Provide straightforward ways to track progress toward achieving channel goals
  • Identify potential risks to achieving the goals and how to mitigate them
  • Establish a clear timeline of when a company can expect to achieve goals
  • Provide a complete picture so that the company can make an informed business decision on whether and how to invest in the partnerships channel

Beyond these tangible benefits, there is also the advantage of presenting and interpreting the opportunity in a context accessible to leaders within and beyond marketing.

Critical Components

Here’s a summary of critical elements for a partnership business plan and why they are important:

Executive Summary: This brief synopsis should highlight the key findings in the plan, from projected revenue and costs to the various advantages and risks of pursuing this line of business. Writing this part of your plan last is best after fully developing the other elements.

​Scope and Description: This section of the plan provides a high-level outline of the types of partnerships you recommend pursuing - not channel by channel but rather in the context of what characteristics must be present in a potential partnership to warrant pursuit. We’ll provide a list of thought-starter questions to help you keep this high level and strategic rather than too specific and tactical.

​Competitive Analysis: This section outlines how your key competitors leverage performance partnerships to build their businesses. Understanding competitive partnership activity contributes valuable learnings to your decisions about which partnerships to pursue.

Recommended Partnership Types: This section will enable you to list the types of partnerships you believe warrant pursuit, in priority order. The number of available partnership types is constantly expanding, so it makes sense to prioritize partnerships based on your revenue, profit, and brand equity goals. You should also consider what signals are available to ensure that potential partners are likely to consider working with you.

Operating Plan: Here is where you will outline the people, software, budget, and other resources required. You should also outline why your team is qualified and likely to succeed in building out the channel.

Financial Plan: Outline the costs and revenue expectations according to the approaches and timelines in use by your company. The level of granularity here really depends on how your company plans go-to-market initiatives and reports on performance.

Headwinds and Tailwinds: This section outlines the uncertainties that may help or hinder your ability to hit your targets.

Let’s consider each of these sections individually.

Executive Summary

Smart business opportunities can always be explained in a relatively small amount of words or “space.” Many companies require the rationale for an entire multi-million dollar business to be summarized in a single page. You can try to hit that target or give yourself two pages. But not more than that. Your ability to outline a business succinctly helps senior executives quickly understand why they should prioritize your initiative and demonstrates your ability to focus on what’s most important. Ask yourself:

  • How can I explain performance partnerships, the potential range of available opportunities, and why partnership represents an advantageous channel for business development?
  • What do senior executives need to know to understand the business potential of the partnerships channel?
  • What arguments and data are essential to evaluate this channel properly?
  • What topline data should I include to demonstrate the business value of pursuing the channel?

Providing hard numbers in your summary is critical if you are to gain buy-in from your leadership team. They must weigh any financial investment decision against the potential business value of other initiatives competing for resources. Make it easy for leaders to understand the enormous revenue and profit from partnerships. Use this channel's massive ROI and ROAS to telegraph why your recommendation warrants commitment.

It can be tempting to try to write this section first. Don’t yield to that desire. By building out your other plan sections first, you will have ready access to the information for the executive summary.

Scope and Description

This critical section explains the range of partners and types of partnerships you recommend pursuing. Having articulated guard rails will help your team focus on the best opportunities and help prevent “swoop and poop” requests from outside leaders and teams.

Start by declaring your commitment to PERFORMANCE or OUTCOMES-BASED partnerships, and define this category clearly. From there, outline other criteria that will help guide your decisions on whether to pursue and accept specific partners and programs. Consider:

  1. What sort of scale should a partner offer to warrant your time and attention?
  2. What brand considerations should be taken into account?
  3. What targeting considerations should be “musts”?
  4. Are you willing to pursue temporary partners, or do you want to focus only on evergreen relationships, and why?

Competitive Analysis

Competitive analysis can be an invaluable aid in guiding partnership decisions. Including competitive analysis in your plan serves several purposes:

  • It helps establish the channel as a viable option for your business
  • It provides insight into the potential scale and most significant opportunity sectors
  • It can help you determine appropriate offers so you can build your sales and profit models
  • It provides urgency to senior management (FOMO)

Competitive information is an aid to judgment, not a predictor of your results. It helps establish a baseline from which you can develop plans to surpass competitive program performance.

Here are a series of questions to help you gather as much relevant data as possible quickly:

  • What sorts of offers are my competitors making in their affiliate programs? You can also get great insights into how your competitors manage programs on knoji.com. Most programs also have affiliate intake pages on their sites that can be found in site footers or with Google.
  • What can you learn about the business structure of your competitors? Use LinkedIn employee searches as a starting point here.
  • Visit the top cashback and coupon sites to see if your competitors are active there.
  • Use an SEO tool like SemRush, Moz, or Ahrefs to search for competitor backlinks.
  • Monitor their websites and social media to look for signs of partnerships and offer programs.
  • Subscribe to their marketing automation email programs (assuming your domain isn’t blocked. It usually won’t be.)
  • Is there evidence that they use influencers to deliver brand messages and drive direct sales? What are the terms under which they work with influencers? Often it is easy to find insights on your influencer platform tool or by doing Google searches for program pages.
  • Large partners can sometimes share publicly available info to help you structure successful programs.
  • Searching for “Brand Trademark + Deals” can often uncover search partners and other partners active in a brand’s programs.
  • Searching LinkedIn for partnership-related titles can give you a sense of the size and focus of a brand program.
  • Search the offer “malls” of credit card reward programs to see if your competitors have offers available there. Note that card-linked offers are generally confined to retailer brands, so that can simplify your search.

These and other strategies can help you understand the partnerships competitors are pursuing and the specifics of their commission offers.

Recommended Partnership Types

Explain the specific classes of partnership that you want to pursue. Some categories to consider include:

  • Traditional Affiliates (e.g., RMN, GSG)
  • Mainstream Publishers (e.g., Conde Nast)
  • Blogger Influencers (e.g., Pioneer Woman)
  • Social Influencers (e.g., Paul’s Hardware)
  • Fintech Partners (e.g., Venmo)
  • Card-Linked Offers (e.g., Cardlytics/CC Reward Programs)
  • BNPLs (e.g., Klarna)
  • Conversion Optimization Partners (e.g., RevLifter)
  • Travel Rewards Programs (e.g., United Mileage Plus)
  • Clubs and Associations (e.g., AARP Rewards)
  • Employee Benefits and Rewards Programs (e.g., Bucketlist)
  • Brand-to-Brand Partnerships (e.g., brands in related categories)

This is by no means an exhaustive list but does include many of the most popular partnership categories for consideration.

The right partners for your business depend on your brand, price point, buying cycle, compensation rate, and other factors unique to your category and market position. Further, your brand values and brand equity also play critical roles. For example, some brands are entirely opposed to offering discounts publicly, which might rule out certain traditional affiliates. Other brands might be a great fit for travel rewards programs. Still others might be ideal for influencer programs because many opinion leaders write about your category.

Naturally, some of these channels are more developed than others. Some market sizing data is available for the most developed categories like traditional affiliates. Others will have a dearth of information. But even in those categories that are less developed, you can put pen to paper to make some estimates of potential sales from a channel.

Creating an Operating Plan

Any business needs resources to enable its establishment and growth. A partnership business is no different. An operating plan outlines the people, investment, and other resources necessary to facilitate success.

When creating a partnership operating plan, it’s valuable to start your thinking with “hats, not heads.” Define the roles and associated responsibilities needed before thinking about the individuals who fill them. While extraordinary individuals have tremendous value in a business plan, starting with hats instead of heads ensures that the needs of the business dictate the organization, not the wants of specific individuals.

For a company to deliver scalable and repeatable results, you need to create an organization and operating principles that are not dependent on specific “superstar” individuals. Investors say that one of the most common mistakes businesses make is building an organization and planning dependent on "superhuman" individuals. Remember that your star players can power more success for a business plan - they are not the essence of that plan. If you struggle with this recommendation, consider this: would you base your entire partnership program on an individual partner?

From there, you need to think about the financial investment you need. Take the time to think through your needs. Many people rush through this stage and later find themselves strapped when forgotten expense types emerge. At the same time, recognize that a business plan is also an expression of the potential value that can be driven through the channel. “Sandbagging” may price you out of consideration. Similarly, delivering too rosy a picture can help you skate through the early stages only to be called on the carpet later when your projections prove inaccurate.

The operating plan development process should be one in which you choose what to do first and what can wait. Think through what the company wants from you. Do you need to be profitable by month three or year three? You want the aggressiveness of your recommendation to align with company goals and investment style.

You cannot do everything at once, or you will do everything poorly. Prioritize the opportunities and layout why you have chosen those priorities. Consider the law of threes. Accept that few organizations can do more than three big things simultaneously. “Big” is a subjective measure, and bigness varies based on that organization's size and core competencies. Still, this concept helps guide people to a reasonable number of priorities for a period. Some would suggest that even three is too many. But surely we can all agree that more than three is a bad idea.
Finally, it is often helpful to deliver multiple operating plans for different revenue projections/trajectories. Offer a low, medium, and high investment scenario to match the low, medium, and high revenue and profit projections you define in the next step.

After developing your “hats, not heads” plan, it’s perfectly valid to summarize the outstanding qualifications of those team members you have on hand to meet the business needs. Do so in the context of how they enhance your hat-defined org. That helps give your management team greater confidence in the wisdom of funding the initiative.

Creating a Financial Plan

The operating plan is a critical input for your financial plan. The financial plan is a projection of the revenue and profit from the channel. While, as you develop it, you will likely return to other elements of the business plan to adjust assumptions and figures, having baseline or ballpark figures for those elements of your program is crucial as you start to define the potential value of the business to your company.

There are many templates for building a financial plan available online. They are generally similar and often available without cost. They will require some adaptation to “fit” a partnership initiative, but they provide a good foundation.

Additionally, check with your CFO or company financial team to see if they have a model they believe in. This serves several purposes:

  • It aligns your effort to a format they are familiar with
  • It ensures that it is easy to understand your recommendations and compare your plan to other potential company investments
  • It demonstrates that you wish to partner with the financial team, which will be critical for your success.

If your financial team has a financial planning and analysis (“FP&A”) person, find out if you can ask for their help building your models. This will help you immeasurably and ensures that one of the critical evaluator/influencers is on your side later. Treat your company's financial team as a potential investor because that's what they are.

Identifying Headwinds and Tailwinds

It’s valuable to consider what macro changes could positively or negatively impact your success. Think both inside and outside the box in this area. Competitors, economic forces, and regulatory changes are three important considerations here, but there are likely others. Ask yourself:

  • What does an unsuccessful versus successful partnership look like?
  • What might affect customer receptivity to my products, services, and offers?
  • What might affect the willingness of the best partners to work with me?
  • What could positively or negatively affect the commission or payments I have to make per desired outcome?
  • What partnership agreement requirements could have a material impact on our success or liability?
  • What might limit the availability of data essential for measurement and optimization?

Once you have arrayed these potential challenges, you may be able to think of ways to reduce your exposure. Start by thinking about how intellectual property, speed to market, partnership exclusivity agreements, or other tools could help mitigate these threats. But whether or not you can think of ways to protect yourself from these risks, having identified these potential issues helps the business fully understand the opportunity you bring to them.

No sensible business leader will expect the partnership channel to be risk-free, but they will want to understand the scale and likelihood of the dangers. If your company cannot tolerate the potential problems associated with one or more of these key risk areas, better to know now than when it happens, and you have to explain the situation to the management team.

Conclusions

A partnership business plan's format, breadth, and depth should align with how your company expects such recommendations to be made. In general, it’s valuable to have an executive summary presentation and a more in-depth document available, along with detailed spreadsheets that chronicle your establishment and growth expectations.

For some, doing all this work may feel like a waste of time. After all, aren’t the benefits of a robust business plan obvious? But the plan not only helps your company understand and assess the opportunity. It also ensures that you have thought through the way forward and can make more of the right decisions on days 1, 91, 366, etc. Planning is good. Prioritization is good.

Having a plan also helps an organization understand what they approve and what will be necessary to achieve a strong partnership revenue stream. As discussed earlier, many companies enter into partnership thinking it is a low effort, low-cost means of driving rapid growth. By setting appropriate expectations and outlining the tremendous revenue and profit potential, you set yourself up for maximum success.