Scaling An Agency Partner Program in E-commerce: Interview with Marco De Paulis

Privy sells an email and texting platform designed for small e-commerce merchants. The company has leveraged technology, agency, and affiliate partners to grow its customer base.

We spoke to Marco De Paulis, Privy's head of agency partners, about how he has nurtured and grown their over 400 agency partnerships. Marco shared his approach to forming and managing partnerships, why partner outbound should never be dropped, KPI advice, and what to think about when scaling an agency partner program.

How did you get into SaaS partnerships?

I worked at various web development, design and marketing agencies prior to coming to Privy. While in the agency space, I was always trying to find the best of breed technologies I could recommend to my clients. I started to form partnership relationships with SaaS companies, and I found I really enjoyed collaborating and strategizing with the best tech to complement the services we were providing our clients.

After doing this for several months, I started to see mutually beneficial relationships forming where SaaS platforms and our agency could add value to each other’s work and goals so I doubled down on it.

I quickly realized that this type of work the most intriguing, fulfilling part of the job and added the most value to the customers and partners and so I went out and found a channel partnerships role that I could focus 100% of my attention on.

How is the partnership team structured at Privy?

We have a VP of Partnerships who I report to. She primarily handles technology partners and, as the Director of Agency partnerships, I manage our agency partnership program.

We have over 400 agency partners now, and I have grown that significantly over the last 2 years that I have been here.

We have 2 people managing the agency relationships and we have 2 other folks who are appendages of our teams. We have a Channel Sales Rep who works all our deals from partners, and we have a Customer Success Manager who primarily works partner accounts.

This structure allows us to properly care for every key element of our partnerships from sales to customer success to partner management while allowing us to continue to build and grow our program.

What is your advice to a SaaS company looking to start an agency partner program?

You have to start with a really strong understanding of your ideal customer profile, or in this case, an ideal partner profile. Then you should work out where your product fits in with the services agencies are providing.

Do the market research so you know how your product would add value to an agency’s existing services and even open up new services that could help them grow their own business.

Marco De Paulis

Once you have a working hypothesis, start to get out there and network and get in front of people. I recommend casting a wide net initially, seeing what is working, and then doubling down on what shows promise. Refine your understanding of an ideal partner and where you fit in, and replicate what is working.

Privy is pretty easy to slot in to a variety of service businesses as we’re widely applicable to lots of services and industries. So, we had to figure out who and what to prioritize when it comes to agencies, their services, and their clientele.

We started to drill down more and more over time and now we can tell very quickly if an agency has the potential to be a top partner. It’s crucial to find traits or characteristics of an agency that does not fit your product or program well so you can start to qualify new partners. This will help you spend time with those who have the most potential and you won’t waste as much time with partners who don’t.

How does a company think through what business arrangement to set up with their partners? 

Every agency is a little different in what they value the most but I find the primary benefit for agencies is being able to sell more to their clients. This might be through your product adding billable hours to their services, enhancing an existing service, or opening up new services or revenue streams for them. For example, if a partnership with you enables them to move into a retainer or recurring contract with their clients instead of project-based, that can be a huge upside for them.

In terms of the secondary benefits of the partnership, an agency might see the highest value in co-marketing, referrals or leads.

I suggest you come up with a few different options for how you can do the business model and present them to the agency and see what they are most interested in.

We don’t always have qualified leads for larger partners so we supplement that by really leaning on co-marketing efforts when we can. And of course, every step of the way during our partnership we are dedicated to providing top quality service and value that other partners can’t compete with.

What do you consider best practices for agency outreach?

In terms of opening up a conversation you really want to make sure you have a clear business case for why you’re reaching out and how it fits into someone’s business before you try to speak to an agency and pitch them. Do your research, find a mutual client, or mention a recent project where your product would clearly add value or solve a problem.

If you can articulate the business value for them very clearly, you will be able to open up a conversation. Agencies are always looking for ways to be more efficient, improve results, and bring new ideas to the table to stand out to their clients and keep them happy and coming back for more projects

Compared to traditional outbound marketing or sales campaigns, agency outreach is more direct, personalized and involved.

Lastly, you have to be able to play the long game. New partnerships are hard to strike up, and it’s even harder to get a new agency to adopt a new tool, pitch it to clients, and actually go and implement your product.

If you don’t intent to invest the time and weeks/months of strategizing, dealing with objections, pushing through barriers, and meeting with different stakeholders, then you’re in for a tough time.

How should you onboard a new partner?

Once you have a conversation and kick off a partnership, I believe you should not ask for too much initially. Overdeliver on value you can add for your partner in the beginning.

This might seem counterintuitive, but partnerships are a long-term revenue generator and built on trust and relationships. If you provide value first before asking for things, in my experience, you won’t have to ask at all and you will end up getting more back in return.

Really focus on aligning yourself with their business and clients, ask good questions, and offer help wherever you can. As long as you stick to this, you will unlock opportunities to work with their clients, it’s just a matter of time. 

Do you still try and find partners through outbound campaigns? What is your advice for SaaS companies who are looking to scale their agency partner program?

Outbound at scale slows down as the program grows and revenue and sales becomes a little more predictable and consistent. It gets harder and harder to manage a growing program, but I don’t think outbound should ever go away because you know your ideal partner type better than anyone.

Even if you are getting steady inbound partner inquiries, they might not be ideal partners. You should continue to control your destiny and reach out to bring in new ideal partners and replicate your big successes.

One thing that I wish I had started sooner is to build a cadence for program-wide communication. One-to-many communication campaigns where you are educating and adding value to all your partners is important at scale as you don’t have time to spend with every partner to keep the relationship in a good place

This should never replace high touch, direct communication but building that type of communication out makes it possible to keep all partners involved to some extent, even when you don’t have the time to personally reach out or do recurring check ins with each partner. You want to keep partners engaged even when you don’t have the time to reach out on a one-to-one basis.

Do you pursue co-marketing with your agency partners, and if so, any advice for making that successful? 

We do. I wish we could do more as it is one of the most valuable things that a SaaS can offer their agency partners. Agency partners don’t usually have the audience or marketing machine that SaaS companies have.

Getting in front of a SaaS company’s audience has much more value than bringing someone 1 lead for a four or five-figure contract or giving them a 10 percent commission on their partner referrals. 

I highly value co-marketing as people love to get in front of new audiences, share their ideas and expertise, and it makes them feel good in the process. 

We work with the Marketing team to see where they have a content gap that aligns with what our agencies can speak to as a thought leader. I think offering opportunities for thought leadership is the best strategy as it provides insights for our audience and allows the agency partner to connect with our audience, but the agency partner also feels respected and valued in the process.  

A common problem for earlier stage programs is setting KPIs and timelines. What’s your advice on how to approach that?

This is absolutely going to vary by the technology you’re working with and how big of a lift it is to get it implemented, the overall level of investment that goes into selling it, and the ability to drive sales through a partner program. But, I am of the mindset that we want to give a decent runway before putting in KPIs of driving revenue and leads. 

KPIs can be parallel KPIs to sales but they don’t have to be sales exactly. Give them 2 quarters to focus on booking a number of calls, prospecting partners, and then getting into lead flow.

If you focus on those KPIs at first, results will come. I recommend prioritizing the right actions before putting too many numbers on the KPIs. Once everyone hits their stride, then put more numbers related to revenue and leads.

Do you have advice for working well with other internal teams like sales and marketing?

Try to position yourself as a teammate rather than someone who is trying to take away opportunities. As an organization, there should be guardrails in place that define clearly the scope of partnership and what doesn’t qualify. And if there is crossover don't penalize. It’s better to double reward in those crossover areas and keep sales and partnerships working collaboratively. 

You want to incentivize sales to identify and pass on channel opportunities. Agencies will often go to the sales team to implement your product and if sales doesn’t have a good relationship with the partnerships team, they won’t bring you the lead. Communicate closely with sales and their leadership and keep everyone on the same page.

You recently relaunched your agency program. What did you improve?

There were two big themes for our relaunch. The first was adding more benefits to incentivize partners. These benefits include marketing and customer support. We really want to reward partners for moving up in status.

The second big thing was we restructured the partner thresholds to fit different partner profiles. We have added 2 new products since we launched our program, we’ve changed our pricing structures, and we have new ideal customer profiles than we used to.

We were starting to see the affects of these product changes within our program and we needed to future-proof things so that we are aligned with the direction of the company and our new products. The new program fits a larger variety of partners and products. 

The program tiers used to be solely based on revenue referred. But since our newer products had lower price points, this model didn’t sufficiently reward agencies who were working with the lower priced products.

We also added a number of referred accounts as a way to move up in status so they can see rewards for getting us more customers. The overarching focus is to also reward small, high volume partners who get more customers on Privy, regardless of the size of the revenue to show them that we value their efforts and keep them motivated and engaged

Any advice for other companies trying to set up program tiers?

I recommend thinking through who some of your best partners are and how they work with your company. Create an ideal partner profile and figure out what they can realistically achieve and how you can best reward them for it.

Next, try to figure out what incentives might motivate other partners to drive the same results. Make sure your program rewards and incentives align with your KPIs and your product.

Do you use any partner tech to meet your objectives and advice for others on choosing tech?

We use PartnerStack to manage the program and Salesforce for opportunity management. My advice is to not rush the decision and evaluate extensively because once you are up and running, it is difficult to migrate off or build in house. So I would recommend over-investigating when you build your partner tech stack.

Even still, we heavily rely on our CRM and Google Sheets to track a variety of data points, metrics, and contacts. It is very hard to find a perfect system as partner programs are complex, but there are more and more options coming out every day to help partner and channel professionals manage these programs.

What is your best advice for those leading agency partnerships?

The drum that I always beat is really try to over deliver the value you add and just focus on helping as much as possible. When you approach partnerships with this mindset, you will naturally develop great relationships that are mutually beneficial.

How do you see the e-commerce partnership landscape evolving?

I’m seeing a lot of consolidation in the market. Platforms are adding new tools and features to themselves that are competitive with the apps integrated into them.

Shopify, for example, added an email feature to their platform that makes them competitive to email marketing tools. And email marketing tools are adding texting functionality to their platforms.

This consolidation increases the competitiveness of the ecosystem. But even outside of technical integrations, you see a lot of ‘frenemies,’ companies that compete in some significant way but also co-market, co-sell or even knowledge share with one another.

A lot has changed in a short period of time, and lines are blurred in the overlap of products. But companies are finding ways to collaborate anyway.  

The good news is that we are in a thriving industry with tons of innovation. There is no shortage of business and everything is evolving at light speed. New opportunities, markets, and needs arise constantly so there will always be room for more platforms and partners to meet the needs of eCommerce merchants and platforms.

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