The finicky beast that is partner content marketing
By Tracey Wallace
Partner content marketing is a finicky beast. It’s hard to get right, despite it seemingly like it shouldn’t be that hard.
More, even if you do get it right, it will likely only be right for that quarter––because things change, often, and your approach to partner content marketing will need to change, too.
You aren’t alone in this. It’s the tale of the industry.
Guest posts, for instance, used to be the bread and butter of content marketing programs. It is how organizations, even Hubspot, built such a large repository of content in the early days without spending much money.
Partners wrote it––for free––because partners had an interest in that content being seen and promoted by a third-party (not to mention the backlink).
This isn’t so much the case anymore, but in my early days at BigCommerce, this is what we did for the first year and a half.
It almost got me fired.
In fact, partner marketing strategies have nearly gotten me fired a few different times, and almost all of my worst experiences in the workplace have been in this arena (been called names by partners for enforcing quality, nearly had a partner shut down a year’s worth of work, had a director of partnerships steal credit for my work to get themselves a promotion––it’s been a ride!).
But don’t let that sidetrack you.
Some of my most successful programs have come to life because of partner marketing, and some of my most inspirational work has been put together because of partner marketing, and some of the best people you could imagine work in this field.
This is what I mean by its finicky beast status.
Let’s talk about what happened at BigCommerce to give you some background.
As you may recall, everyone on the content marketing team except for me was fired within 7 days of me starting at the company. The new mandate from the CEO to me was to create a Shopify-like content marketing program with $0 and just little ol’ me.
Shopify’s content marketing team at the time, for reference, had 7 full headcounts. I don’t even have that today at Klaviyo where I feel very supported, well-funded and well-resourced. But I digress.
I had to figure out how to run the editorial calendar at a company in which I didn’t even have Wordpress access yet––and I needed to figure it out nearly overnight.
Luckily, I was a reporter prior to this in the fashion and retail space. So, I leaned on what I knew. Back then, in my reporting job, I had to report out on one trend / story about 3-5 times per week.
BigCommerce at the time wanted to publish one blog every weekday, so I figured that I could write 3 of them as reporting pieces, and then have guest authors for the other two spots.
Partners quickly filled those guest spots, but there were some serious strings attached. I wasn’t allowed to edit the pieces they sent over. It was carte blanche publishing for them, which meant that their blogs were incredibly salesy.
Not only that, the content they sent over was typically ~500 words, didn’t go into depth on anything, didn’t include any quotes or sources (unless it was their own), and was truly awful to read.
But I had no choice. Our strategic business development and partner marketing team had, without me knowing, built out a contract to attract new partners that contractually obligated BigCommerce to publish a certain number of content pieces per new partner per year––whatever that partner wanted.
Soon, I was awash in partner content––and was publishing it 7 days a week. There was no room for my newsy pieces. All I did was find hero images. Copy edit a tiny bit. And then send traffic numbers over to our partners.
It was a miserable job. And soon, our partners found it miserable, too. They were writing the content after all––and they weren’t getting any results. No traffic, no leads, nothing at all.
We published content in this way for about a year and half, and during that time, we lost nearly all of our organic traffic.
This content wasn’t optimized for it, not even in the easier to rank algorithms of the time. It was salesy. It was short. It didn’t link off to anything else but the author’s own company. It plain and simple wasn’t any good.
It was around this time that I was called into a room with the company’s VPs. They wanted to know why our content wasn’t performing and why partners were so upset with it.
I explained, the best I could (I was still pretty junior), that blog content was a top of funnel asset, that people wanted to be educated there, not sold. Folks come to blogs for education or entertainment, and maybe sometimes for a soft sale, but not a hard sell every single time from the same partners who aren’t giving any real value.
It was easy to prove my point. I just pointed to the blog, and opened a few articles.
It was clear my head was on the chopping block, though. Why had I run content in this way?
That’s when we got to the conversations about the partner contracts, and things began to bubble. That line in the contracts was done away with, only to be used to help, if absolutely necessary, to close strategic partnerships––not just any partnership. And, we couldn’t give away complete control. Our editorial team would have final say over what was published.
This was a lightbulb moment for me and for the company. The longer you ignore good content strategies and SEO, the worse off you are. These things build overtime, and a year and a half is a long time to lose out.
This is when I built out my editorial guidelines and shared them with the larger team, and our partners. It required:
- 3 examples of brands doing what was recommended within each post.
- At least 1,500 words, with clearly cited sources for any data––and the data couldn’t be older than 4 years.
- That content be educational, not salesy.
None of the partners who originally published with us wanted to continue under the new rules. And that’s when I began to write every single piece of content we published (For the next year and a half).
- We reduced publishing cadence from 7 days a week to 2 days a week.
- We went through all older blogs and consolidated topics, updated URLs and did a deep clean in general.
- We started taking guest posts from industry experts––whose content still needed a lot of editing, but the educational spirit was there, and that was better than anything we had before!
A year in, we started seeing improvements. Our organic search was up. Folks were sharing our content. We’d won back the trust of the organization. But, we still needed to find a way to work more closely with our partners.
Because your partner network has built- in content distribution. They also have credibility and expertise that your organization might not have. And you should use both of those things regularly.
A tide that rises lifts all boats, as they say.
But, accepting partner content based on our current guidelines meant I was having to rewrite everyone’s stuff and publish it under their name. That was time consuming, and demoralizing. Plus, it was time consuming for the partners, too! They had to write that first draft (even if it wasn’t great) and manage approvals of a complete rewrite.
Not ideal for anyone. So, to save time…
The monthly questionnaire
I started publishing a monthly questionnaire. This included 8-10 questions partners could answer to potentially have their quote featured in upcoming content on that topic.
It worked beautifully! It was easy for partners to contribute. It was easy for me to pull in the best quotes.
When something went live, it was even easier to promote it to those included in the piece and have them share it out with their network.
To date, this is the easiest partner content marketing tactic on the books––and everyone should be doing it. It’s table stakes.
You can create this just in Google Survey, collect their email, name, title and company link. Then, drop in questions like: What’s your #1 SMS marketing tip for brands just getting started?
^^ Make sure the questions relate to the upcoming content you’ll publish. And then, you can pull in partner quotes to help flesh out your article and add third-party perspective.
Pulling partners into proprietary reports
Questionnaires are great, but they still don’t leave a ton of room for a more hand-selected group of partners. And your organization no doubt has these. Your partner team wants these folks to feel special and get priority treatment within your marketing organization.
So, for any proprietary data report that we were bringing to market, which was always 1 per quarter, we’d have a spot for 10-20 hand-select partners to also get involved.
They’d get early access to the content to:
- Give us quotes / commentary / a recommendation based on the data for a specific section
- Write blog posts that could go live on the same day the report went live
As for us, we’d include them in social promo, get them a backlink, and they’d be visible within a content piece that was getting the full GTM treatment. Cool!
Klaviyo does this today, too. You can see it at play in our consumer survey we launched a few weeks ago.
But what about those strategic partner plays, those VIPs?
And still, it’s likely your partner team will want even more––ideally a more exclusive partnership they can offer to the most VIP of your VIP partners.
It took me a long time to figure this one out y’all, and I had to pull on my branded content experience from Mashable in which companies would send in RFPs for our editorial team to pitch them 3-5 content ideas. We’d be up against other publications, and we always wanted to win (this was how publications drove most of their revenue back in 2014).
To win, you need to have some ground rules:
- Exclusivity. You couldn’t do this for every brand or every partner. Cap it at no more than 12 per year (one per month). Even better if you can make it 6 per year (which gives you more time for creativity and distribution anyway, which the partner will want).
- Shared KPIs. Before you can put pen to paper, you need to understand what the partner’s goals are from this content partnership, and make yours clear, too. The goals will direct the strategy you come up with.
- Choices! This one is important, and missed by most teams. This is where Mashable shined in the branded content world. We’d present 3-5 content ideas, starting with the most basic (but the cheapest) and going up to the coolest (but most expensive). Do the same thing for your partners. Present them 3-5 options, the first one or two can be free, but show them what some extra spend can get them––and what kind of cool programs you could do together with some money to back it. Make it clear that the more money, the easier it is to hit those goals. Finally, make this deck beautiful, smart, inspirational, enticing.
Now, you do need one thing to make this program work: a short list of your most strategic partners from your partner organization––and you need that list at least 6 months before you launch a program with a strategic partner.
These types of content plays are strategic, and can be really cool and fun! Sure, they can include basic things like:
- A co-branded proprietary report
- A co-branded white paper
- A co-branded webinar
But they can also be things like:
- A bus tour through 5 major cities in the U.S. in which we co-brand small events and document the trip over TikTok for our business audience (We did this was Square)
- Publish an actual book on How to Sell on Amazon (this was in partnership with Amazon) and send the print version to all of our enterprise customers, bring it with us to all of our events, and hand it out like canddyyy. Promote it like crazy! (We did this with Amazon)
- Put together a history of holiday shopping post that inspires people, educates people, and harkens on nostalgia right before Thanksgiving. (We did this with PayPal)
The easier you make it to understand, the clearer you make the cost, the closer you tie the proposal to their KPIs, the faster you’ll get a yes. And you want that yes, because these can be some of your coolest content programs.
BAU ways to include partners in content
Now, let’s chat through just a couple always on partner plays beyond the questionnaire.
- Use partners as sources for stories: Yea, like actually interview them and include them as experts in your pieces. This goes beyond the questionnaire. Even better if you can interview them for something that is related to your business but not competitive, and then you can create a co-branded white paper out of that content that their team can also promote.
- Use partners for webinars: Honestly, all webinars should have at least one partner involved, up to 5 or 6 if you do a roundtable. There are rules to this…partners must send at least one dedicated email to their list to promote the webinar (and you need to know the size of that list) in order to participate. Lead sharing can be activated after they drive at least 50 signs up, for example.
- Case studies: As you ramp up case studies, work with your partner team before the interview with a case study customer to see who their partners are––and then ask about them in the case studies! Do they like them? Would they recommend them? How have they helped them grow? Make sure the partners they like end up in the case study, and share any partner product feedback with your partners, too.
I’m going to tell y’all this––even after a long story that thankfully led to some actionable advice, partner content marketing is still hard.
You’re managing at least two different internal teams (yours and the partner marketing team, and sometimes the strategic business development team) and at least one but potentially several teams at another organization.
Be patient here. Figure out how to help people hit their goals in the easiest way possible, and start small. Build from that questionnaire to everything else mentioned in here. And soon, your tide will rise, too.