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Building a Partner Ecosystem? 5 Steps to Drive Your Approach

In today's business environment, collaboration is the key to success. Companies can no longer succeed by working in isolation. Top companies like Salesforce and HubSpot rely on partner ecosystems to drive their growth into untapped markets, and partner ecosystems are forecasted to drive a third of total global revenue in the coming years. If you’re building a partner ecosystem, but don’t know where to start, we’re here to help.  

This post goes into detail about the steps to set up, roll out, and optimize your ecosystem for success. You’ll learn about some of the biggest trends in ecosystems from industry experts and how to use technology to set up a scalable ecosystem that’s ready to grow at the speed of business.  

👉 Steps for building your partner ecosystem will include:

What is a partner ecosystem?  

The concept of partner ecosystems goes far beyond the unidirectional channel, and they’re quickly redefining the way we craft GTM strategies, collaborate with partners, and drive organizational growth. Today’s partner ecosystems include a wide network of partners, vendors, and third-party service providers who collaborate together to solve business problems and provide incredible value to customers.  

That customer value is integral to the ecosystem. With more complex buying journeys, long-term subscription models, and cloud-based solutions, the role of partnerships has evolved to put customer experience at the center. As Bob Layton writes at Channel Futures: “Ecosystems resemble the solar system, with the customer as the sun.” 

And, a well-managed partner ecosystem isn’t just a nice-to-have. It’s a necessity for businesses today. In a McKinsey article, Miklós Dietz notes that the shift to ecosystems is only accelerating, forecasting that: “By 2030, ecosystems will play a major role in almost every aspect of global economy, driving around $80 trillion in annual revenue—a third of total global revenue." 

Smart, scalable partner ecosystems will be the true competitive differentiator for companies in the future. This post will cover how to build a partner ecosystem that drives success from the very start.  

What are major partner ecosystem benefits?  

For today’s companies, a partner ecosystem can provide access to new markets, support services, technologies, and resources that would otherwise be unavailable for an organization.  

It’s easiest to consider benefits by starting with a partner ecosystem example. Consider AppExchange from Salesforce. AppExchange is a marketplace that provides access to thousands of third-party apps and solutions that can be integrated directly with Salesforce's platform, providing greater value to customers, partners, and Salesforce alike. Customers benefit from a wide range of solutions that can be easily integrated with Salesforce, while their partners benefit from access to Salesforce's large customer base.  

Ecosystems also allow companies to work more closely and directly with their partners to deliver better outcomes for their customers. By collaborating and co-innovating with your partners, you can create new products and services, and grow business together.  

️⭐️ Impartner customer ecosystem example: Mambu drives 2x increase in partner deal registrations 

As the world’s only true SaaS cloud banking platform, Mambu needed to build a best-in-class solution for its partnerships. Find out how Mambu drove greater partner engagement and revenue to grow their ecosystem in the following video.   

What are the different types of ecosystem partnerships? 

A new paradigm requires partner ecosystem examples to inspire your own success, but what a partner will look like in your ecosystem will vary greatly based on your business needs. There are many other partner types and even different terminology used for these partners that will depend on your industry.  

In general, though, there are several different types of ecosystem partnerships: 

  • Technology partnerships, which involves partnering with companies that provide complementary technologies or solutions 
  • Content partnerships, which involves partnering with companies that provide complementary content or information 
  • Reseller partnerships, which involves partnering with companies that resell your products or services 
  • Service partnerships, which involves partnering with companies that provide complementary services, support, or expertise 

Like any network, these types of partnerships will only grow and expand in definition over time. Jay McBain, Principal Analyst at Canalys, is a leading expert on the evolution of ecosystems. In our report, Trajectory: Ecosystems, A New Partner Imperative, McBain notes that ecosystems today can: “encompass six different partnering roles: including tech, alliance (strategic and business), influencer, transactional, transaction-assist, and retention channels.”  

Read more about the evolving nature of ecosystems in our full eBook!  

Steps for building a partner ecosystem 

Moving from a transaction-focused channel strategy to an interconnected ecosystem doesn’t happen overnight. While this post will cover many of these aspects of your partner ecosystem strategy, we’ll also link to in-depth assets where you can learn more. 

Ready to grow? These are the steps to start building a partner ecosystem.  

1. Establish an ecosystem mindset with leadership  

From the very beginning, work closely with your executive team to reframe the shift from sales-focused partners to a full ecosystem.  

Get executive buy-in first on a partnership ecosystem framework to guide these efforts. This framework is a model for how companies can build and manage their partner ecosystems, and generally focuses on a few key elements including:  

  • Collaboration 
  • Co-innovation 
  • Communication 
  • Trust 
  • Shared values 
  • Customer value  

While building a partner ecosystem, you’ll work closely with your partners to identify business problems and develop solutions that meet the needs of your customers. These partners will truly act as an extension of your sales team, doubling or 10xing your cumulative brain power.  

Communicate regularly and openly to ensure that everyone is aligned and working towards common goals and customer impact. Once you’ve agreed on this shared framework, use it to guide your decisions moving forward.  

2. Form a cross-functional team to build your ecosystem plan 

Don’t confine partnerships to sales. From marketing to IT to product, a thriving ecosystem will impact every aspect of your business. At the start, bring in key representatives from different departments to share input on your ecosystem plan.  

With everyone in the room, frankly assess the current state of your partnerships. Ask:   

  • What’s working? What’s not?  
  • Where are there organizational inefficiencies that make it difficult to manage current partners?  
  • What pain points are your customers currently experiencing, and how can an ecosystem help solve those problems? 
  • Where are the gaps in services or products you’re currently unable to meet for your customers?  

Then, discuss the future roadmap for your ecosystem. Your partner ecosystem plan should identify: 

  • The problems that the ecosystem will solve for customers 
  • Your organizational parameters and budgets  
  • The metrics and reports that you’ll monitor to prove success  
  • Potential partners and partner types 
  • The ways you’ll collaborate and co-innovate with partners 
  • How you’ll recruit and onboard new partners  
  • A framework for motivating and engaging your partners  

Use input from these different groups to put a general structure into place, knowing that this will evolve over time as you get input from partners and customers, and begin optimizing your processes based on ecosystem data.  

3. Define your partner recruitment and onboarding strategies 

Once your general plan is in place, and you’ve set out the problems you want to solve for your customers, it's time to identify potential partners and types of partners who can help you solve those problems.  

These partners may be technology providers, content creators, resellers, service providers, and more. Bring in partners who can provide access to new markets or customers, but don’t forget about the role of data and other non-transactional benefits partners can provide for your growing ecosystem. 

Gianvito Lanzolla and Constantinos C. Markides at Harvard Business Review developed a classification matrix for identifying the right types of partners for your growing ecosystem. This matrix breaks down partners into those who provide data in context to your target market, and those who offer new operating resources and capabilities. It’s a great starting point for thinking more deeply about the types of partners to approach.  

Before approaching partners, define expectations and roles for them, as well as your own role in growing this ecosystem. How you'll motivate and engage partners will also be essential. Develop a strategic approach for how you will be offering incentives and rewards, providing training and support, and communicating regularly with your partners.  

By building strong relationships with your partners from the start, you can ensure that they remain engaged and committed to the success of the ecosystem. 

🔎 Discover more: From assessment to automation, read our full partner onboarding checklist to learn how to efficiently onboard new partners into your ecosystem. 

4. Plan for ecosystem efficiency from the start  

Leading analysts agree: time-consuming manual processes and organizational inefficiencies represent some of the largest challenges for business today.  

McKinsey’s The State of Organizations 2023 report notes that a third of business leaders in their study listed efficiency as a top organizational priority. Inefficiency was traced back to a few root causes, with 32% of respondents citing redundant activities and another 28% pointing to unclear processes.  

When building a partner ecosystem that’s scalable, consider which tools can help you avoid this organizational inefficiency from the very start. As Jay McBain writes: 

Channel leaders need to be next on the automation train: In this new ecosystem model, vendors will suffer (competitively) from constrained access to data, manual human-centric processes, ad hoc channel account manager interactions with labor-intensive quarterly business reviews and programs that still run on spreadsheets. These workflows need to be automated (end to end) and human-based partner interactions should only be focused on joint business planning, customer value creation and co-innovation – not on chasing data and putting up artificial gates.” 

That same McKinsey report highlighted the use for applied AI and automation as a critical way to solve these organizational inefficiencies. When building a partner ecosystem, set up a smart infrastructure from the start that enables easier collaboration between you and your partners and deeper insights into key metrics. This infrastructure should include automated tools for managing partner relationships, tracking performance, and sharing information.  

It's important to invest in technology that is user-friendly and easy to use, so that partners will be more likely to engage with it. And, look for a solution that easily integrates with other critical systems already in your tech stack.  

Set up your ecosystem to grow with an end-to-end management platform like Impartner. We commissioned Forrester Consulting to conduct a Total Economic Impact™ study to examine the cost savings and benefits that companies can expect with Impartner.

🔎 Read the results: Forrester Consulting found that a composite organization based on Impartner customers achieved a 296% return on investment over 3 years and up to 50% increase in partner-sourced deals. Learn more in the Forrester study!

5. Use data to optimize your ecosystem  

Wherever you’re starting from in your ecosystem efforts, begin by building regular check-ins to monitor a few key metrics. Measuring performance and optimizing your ecosystem is critical to its success. You should track key metrics such as revenue, customer satisfaction, and partner engagement.  

Use this data to make ongoing changes to drive greater efficiencies, better engagement, and higher ROI across your ecosystem. It's important to be agile and adaptable, and to make changes quickly when building something as complex as a partner ecosystem. Learn from what works, and what doesn’t, and use data to drive those business decisions from the very start.  

🔎 Discover more: Our post Channel Partner Analytics: 20 Actionable Metrics and Tips goes into detail on the most important metrics to track in your ecosystem and how to set up consistent reporting.  

Let’s grow together    

Building a partner ecosystem takes consistent, coordinated work, but the results can revolutionize the way your company does business. Not only will you create more sustainable indirect revenue streams, but you’ll transform the services, support, and products you can offer your customers.  

Impartner can help you drive that change. Each day millions of partners in nearly every industry across the globe access Impartner. Why? Because the partner experience matters and leading ecosystem leaders agree.   

Impartner is the fastest-growing, most award-winning partner management solution provider on the market. Our partner relationship management and through channel marketing automation solutions help companies accelerate revenue and profitability through their indirect sales channels at every partner lifecycle touchpoint.  

With Impartner, you’ll be able to drive explosive ecosystem growth with automated onboarding, training, pipeline management, communication tools, reporting, and more.  

Ready to build your ecosystem? Let's go. 

About the Author

Impartner is the fastest-growing, most award-winning provider of partner management and partner marketing automation solutions. We've been around for decades, and were the first to coin the term "PRM". Today, over 40,000 users leverage Impartner to manage millions of partners within their ecosystem of distributors, resellers, and more. We draw on decades of experience with best practices in the channel to create content that helps partnership leaders grow their careers and scale their programs.

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