What is a Partner Ecosystem?

e-commerce partnerships ecosystem

You see these buzz words in business practices often — partner, community, ecosystem — so what exactly is a partner ecosystem, and why are they so important to the success of partner initiatives? But before we go there, let's define what an ecosystem is.

In nature, an ecosystem is a closely interconnected system of different organisms, all living together in harmony and forming a thriving environment.

The same holds true in the context of e-commerce partnerships. An ecosystem of partners is a collective where every solution or service complements each other’s activities and forms something bigger than themselves; namely, a network that is recognized and trusted by customers and brands within the industry at large.

What types of partner ecosystems can I build/join?

Just like grasslands are different from the rainforest, partner ecosystems come in all shapes and sizes. For clarity, we’re going to cover the two main ecosystem types you’re most likely to encounter: strategic and technology ecosystems.

A strategic partner ecosystem is a good fit if…

You have a lot of relationships with brands that are based on things like shared audiences, mutual marketing goals, or overlapping acquisition strategies. A strategic partner ecosystem can be anything you want it to be - so long as you and your partners share a common understanding of what you are trying to achieve and have a clear driving force behind joining forces.

Every member of a strategic partner ecosystem doesn’t necessarily have to have the same goals, but they do need to be aligned in the sense of working to ensure that everyone is getting what they need out of being in a partnership.

Some metrics you can look at to check in on the health of your strategic partner ecosystem are:

  • Lead sharing: How often are you referring business to each other?
  • Expansion revenue: When you refer a partner to a customer, how has that impacted their business?
  • Engagement: How well are partners teaming up and finding each other within your ecosystem?

A technology partner ecosystem is a good fit if…

If your product already features a lot of integrations with other platforms and tools, launching an integration network that prioritizes providing both partners and customers with technical support and advice makes a lot of sense.

However, it’s important to make sure that any integration you’re promoting is a true value-add that caters to improving functionality or solving an actual pain point. Building an integration is a ton of work for you, your partner, or both, so you need to be sure that there’s a clear market for it.

Of course, it isn’t always a case of either/or when it comes to partner ecosystems. The very best ecosystems often feature a mix of different partner types.

Let’s not forget that the healthiest ecosystems in nature feature a ton of biodiversity. Having lots of different species is what makes them stable and resilient - not to mention places that we like spending time in. Our partner ecosystem at Ryder, for example, hosts a mix of technical and strategic partners across a range of areas including inventory management, returns, post-purchase, marketing, and more.

In that same vein, an ecosystem can also have competing offerings —ecosystems are bountiful with options (think about multiple types of return software, for example). This competition also fosters growth and challenge and can help brands, like you, not live in a monopoly but have options on where you rest and grow.

In sum, offering a full spectrum of solutions means that your ecosystem will attract not only a wider range of potential partners but also inspire confidence and trust because of the company you keep. So, don’t be afraid to think outside the box!

Health checking your partnership ecosystem

So, what can you do to make sure that your partnership ecosystem stays healthy and productive?

Sharing the secret sauce

Everyone has their secret sauce that they want to protect. While keeping your cards close to your chest might seem like the best way to grow your competitive advantage, there are no winners in a zero-sum approach to knowledge sharing.

The reality is, that it’s impossible to be a thought leader or a trend-setter in your space if you’re always hiding your light under a bushel. If you’re worried about letting others know how good you are, how are going to persuade potential partners that yours is an ecosystem worth joining?

Humans love being reciprocal - it’s wired into our DNA. If someone goes out of their way to help us, we immediately feel bound to pay them back in kind. So, when you’re generous and ready to share your recipe for success, your partners will be more engaged and more satisfied in your ecosystem overall - and ready to share some secret sauce of their own.

Supporting all things great and small

To understand why this matters, we only need to visit nature once again. On African safaris, everyone is gunning to see the ‘big five’ animals, Yet the Savanna as we know it wouldn’t exist without the plethora of smaller animals that set the stage for those iconic species to flourish. After all, what would lions be without the zebra and gazelles that set the scene for Hollywood-worthy chase sequences?

In the context of partnerships, it’s tempting to pursue only big names in your industry that lend your network credibility. While alliances with influential brands are important, this shouldn’t come at the expense of less well-known solutions.

For every giant like Shopify or Bigcommerce, there are a hundred small but mighty offerings that can transform for customer’s business. Think about it: the Shopify App Store as we know it wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for the creativity and ingenuity of all those independent movers and shakers. It’s by bringing together all of these puzzle pieces that Shopify has made itself an irreplaceable part of the e-commerce experience.

Focusing on mutual success

Partnership should never be a one-way street. If one partner is doing all the heavy lifting, the tenet of mutual success disappears fast. This can end up setting unrealistic expectations with other partners that brands feel pressure to live up to. Over time, this results in unbalanced ecosystems where brands (and their partnership managers) are rushing to support everyone, all the time.

Of course, this is never sustainable in the long term. As well as putting partnership teams on a path to burnout, a lack of reciprocity can cause some partnerships to feel forced rather than a natural pairing (just like that awkward kid in class you were forced to sit next to).

This begs an important question: Is this partnership mutually beneficial, or something they (or we) are pursuing for the wrong reasons?

A healthy, balanced ecosystem is one of give-and-take, where partners support each other’s initiatives and brainstorm new ways to connect and show value. As your business continually orbits your industry, look for those solutions you are on a natural collision course with - the implosion will be out of this world!

Being more than a logo lockup

We all know the drill. The copy is crafted, the logo lockup is finalized, and (drumroll please) the announcement goes out—and then, radio silence.

Every partner manager has experienced a scenario when a partnership with great promise simply peters out or doesn’t follow through. But too many of these happen, it can put doubt on whether your ecosystem is everything it’s cracked up to be.

A powerful ecosystem imparts serious value to partners, whether through ease of scaling, referrals, integrations, co-marketing, or all of the above. If a partnership ends simply being words on a page or two logos joined in a flashy design, what incentive is there for solutions to get involved?

Ultimately, growing an ecosystem is all about demonstrating results. Whether that’s shouting from the rooftops about your latest partner-led e-book, how a partnership led to significant growth in sales for a customer, or simply what you got up to at a recent event, constantly showcasing all of the different ways your ecosystem imparts value is the key to building a self-perpetuating partner ecosystem.

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