Over the last seven years, major brands have been shifting towards technology to manage their partnerships and affiliates—which means that the service required to support them has evolved too.
In 2010, when brands ran traditional affiliate marketing programs, service primarily focused on managing the channel on advertiser technology (ad tech). This was mainly third party account management with only the faintest support of technology.
But seven years ago, that changed when brands began to recognise that advances in technology enable them to automate many of the manual aspects of traditional account management—and that strategy is more effective when it is driven directly from the brand themselves. Software as a service (SaaS) was developed and led to the birth of customer success teams everywhere.
Both account management and customer success are prevalent today across both adtech and SaaS businesses, and I’d like to share some of the key differences where partner marketing is concerned. There are three areas I’d like to focus on—ongoing support, program growth & opportunities, and partner management.
Both account management and customer success require expert planning and organisation. Part of this stems from the the 80/20 rule, which dictates that service should be 80% planning and 20% adhoc.
For an account manager, ongoing support covers the following types of activities:
- Weekly/monthly/quarterly reporting of partner performance
- Managing partner communication
- Creative and commission management
- Opportunities for extra exposure
- Fraud management, etc.
- New partner recruitment
- Negotiation of commercials to work with those partners
Once the account manager presents their report to the client, the brand then makes top level decisions and the cycle repeats. Throughout the process, the client is largely removed from the day-to-day and has little insight into which partners are driving sales for which products. This not only makes it more difficult to optimize towards driving profitable products, but also leaves room for misalignment as the program strategy is no longer tied to the brand's larger business objectives. This support set-up also renders it more difficult for the brand to quickly make and implement changes to their program.
Ongoing support from customer success teams is very different. These teams take an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to initial partner onboarding and support to train all parties on a brand new technology. Customer success teams also focus on empowering the client to make day-to-day decisions themselves, which enables them to make agile decisions and immediately take action.
More tactical support questions such as “How do I pull a report?”, “How do I raise an invoice?”or “How do I use the communication tool?” are best addressed by support and, if persistent, by training.
Where a customer success manager instead becomes extremely useful is in leading and driving training and optimisation sessions. For example, for larger projects across multiple parties, the customer success manager will act as the project manager to unite all experts where needed. These can range from finance, legal, integrations, and technical teams to local market experts and even to senior teams when required.
Another core customer success activity is leading business reviews that are centered around the product and how it can be used to drive strategy. They ensure the client is the first to know about product updates, process any product feedback, legal requirements and overall act as the point of escalation if something doesn't quite meet expectations. This is critical for brands who want to go beyond traditional practices and drive innovation and growth in their program.
Growth and Opportunity
This brings us to the next point—driving growth and efficiency in partner marketing programs. Account managers are typically given a targeted revenue amount and traditional affiliate channel to work within. Quarterly business reviews and partners days are used to analyse the route to these targets and how to continue to achieve them.
On the other hand, customer success managers ensure that clients make the most of their parnter marketing programs by leveraging technology. With relationship management as a core focus, customer success managers share best practices on program set-up and growth as well as market expansion. These best practices typically include training on technology and business practices, quarterly and annual business reviews, roundtable sessions and product roadmap discussions individually and with other customers. These initiatives nearly always push the boundaries and strive to further the business goals of the brand as well as the brands or agencies’ skill sets and capabilities.
Lastly, one of the most vital aspects of partner management is effectively tackling the relationships with the key partners that currently drive revenue for the brand and forging new relationships with potential partners. Make no mistake—this is absolutely critical in partner marketing. But while account managers have the fundamentals in place (such as regular phone calls and reporting initiatives, partner business reviews and partner days), they can easily become complacent with existing processes and simply deliver their targets.
Customer success, however, looks to actually lift the ceiling and smash the target out of the park. While customer success teams also support ‘business as usual’ initiatives, they also drive business to business relationship with other portfolio clients and keep an eye out for inefficiencies. This enables them to identify opportunities where unconventional partners could improve how they use a streamlined tracking, reporting and global payments solution.
Core examples at the moment are travel advertisers who have built partnerships with banks, but currently manage these partnerships on spreadsheets and individual invoices instead of automating the process. This is an ideal situation where SaaS can enter the picture and enable the travel advertiser to scale their partnerships. In this situation, it is critical that both the customer and partner become advocates of the technology.
After all, showcasing the innovative ways the brands and partners have used the platform tremendously benefits all parties. Customer success teams manage market expansion, marketing initiatives such as award entries, joining advocacy programs, and ensuring that both businesses are grabbing all opportunities by both hands.
Customer success also works with strategic alliance counterparts to ensure partners are keeping up with their customers. Keeping their partners up to date with their developments and working together allows brands to better maximize their activities and drive stronger performance.
But brands can also take this even further. For example, taking advantage of tech developments such as open source APIs can enable partner developments that open the door to brands’ building their own unique, private ecosystems that they can scale through the technology. This type of development is virtually unheard of in adtech.
Customer Success vs. Account Management
Overall, there is without a doubt a natural evolution towards customer success within partner marketing. There are brands that continue to manage affiliates in the traditional manner, diligently reaching their year on year goals. But on the other hand, there are brands that paint a blank canvas—innovating along the way and exceeding targets over and above what they ever imagined. Customer success incubates this by encouraging agile decision making, faster development and challenging the traditional decisions.
If you'd like to learn more about how we can help drive innovation in your program, please reach out to our team!