Most companies build a sales team and expect them to self-generate leads; few have an efficient method to feed their sales pipeline.

Today’s guest, Ian Bellais, spearheads the partner marketing efforts as VP of Business Development at Verified First. With over 20 years of experience creating thriving, robust pipelines and revenue streams, Ian shares the power of partner marketing and what it takes to get any company into, and benefiting from, marketing through organizations to their end users in mutually beneficial partnerships, including:

  • How to structure a partner marketing arrangement 
  • The types of marketing events partners can provide 
  • How to identify partners that will be a great fit 
  • The keys to a healthy partner marketing relationship 
  • And more

Ian has created a system where almost 100% of his company’s pipeline is fed by partner marketing and that results in close rates as high as 65%. Listen in and learn how to boost your own numbers.

Mentioned in this episode:


Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered. Insider secrets for digital marketing success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.

Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success Podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. The topic for today’s episode is partner focused marketing plans. Here to speak with me is Ian Bellais who is the VP Business Development at Verified First, the premier background and drug screening company enabling companies of all industries to validate and verify potential employees. 

Ian leads the marketing, sales, channel partner management and product marketing teams. He has over 20 years of experience accelerating revenue growth in the technology products category and rocketing past goals with the application of focused holistic strategies that effectively target SMB, mid market and enterprise accounts. He focuses on linking channel sales, marketing, sales and products to create thriving robust pipelines and revenue streams. Ian, welcome to the show.

Ian Bellais: Thank you, I appreciate it. Steffen.

Steffen: Now Ian, before we before we talk about what is partner marketing and how should companies use that, let’s find out a little bit more about yourself. Tell our listeners about how you get started in your career and specifically how did you get started with marketing and came to the point where you are at the moment?

Ian: Well, starting with marketing that it’s good this is gonna make me sound super old but going back 30 some years in my undergraduate degree but it was there’s a degree in marketing and advertising. So I’ve always been involved in that and right out of out of college I opened up branches for an advertising agency called McCoy Advertising and one in Albuquerque, New Mexico and then one in San Francisco. So that kind of launched my marketing career. Now moving forward, specifically like with partner marketing, that started later when I was in the you know, I was in the telecom business at that point and I launched the partner wholesale partner program for a company called Global Crossing. And that’s that’s where I began to put together the idea of partnering with you know, an entity, an organization and and marketing through them. 

Which really is what partner marketing is right it’s it’s it’s, it’s partnering with organizations that you’re going to market through that channel to their end users or their customers. I’ve owned business that was was basically a lead generation business and that that was kind of like the next phase for me, learning how to generate leads through partnerships for a company. And it’s, it’s just kind of gone on from there. As I always say, like, my one one of my goals in life is I want to constantly build things and constantly want to learn things. So it’s, I’m constantly even now learning about what works, what doesn’t work, where the trends going, in terms of what’s effective, because that changes quite often. But that’s that’s my story in a nutshell.

Steffen: Now, was there a particular reason why you at some point started focusing on partner marketing? Was there a need out of necessity, because of the way how the business did marketing and then, you know, partner marketing was the solution to move forward?

Ian: Yeah, so I kind of consider myself as well rounded. You know, I, I’ve also played the roles as you know, carrying my own bag and selling product. Most of its been high end product in terms of, you know, selling products that were the contract values are in the millions of dollars. But one of one of the frustrations I’ve had as, as taken on a sales role is, you know, most companies really don’t have a good plan when it comes to feeding their sales teams. It’s really more of I’m going to build a sales team, and they’re going to self generate their leads, and we’re going to be super successful doing it that way. 

That kind of like direct sales model. But the reality is, that’s really not effective anymore. And as a salesperson, it’s really frustrated when you’re in that position. So I was always thinking about, like, how would I feed a sales team. If I had if I could do anything I wanted and really the partner marketing or partner management space, is what I landed on. It is by far the most effective way to do that.

Steffen: Now what makes it so different to a sales focus strategy?

Ian: Well, it’s its speed. It’s accelerated growth above and beyond what one individual can do you know, as a salesperson. It’s, lead quality. And because you’re you’re you’re you’re getting a referral from a company that you’re collaborating with. And that can come in a lot of different forms. In the case of Verified First, it’s really around integrating with that partner’s platform. And so the result is you’re getting a lead from somebody that’s fairly hot, it fits very precisely because it’s about that integration. In other words, the customer is trying to make their life easier through an integration that provides a much more fluid way to use our product. 

And what you find is like our closing rates on some of our leads coming from our partners as high as 65%. That’s, that’s very effective. So now, if you look at just a salesperson, self-genning, in other words, the old fashioned way, picking up the phone or sending emails and trying to find someone to talk to, you know, at some point, they’re going to create an opportunity or say they have a lead. But the closing percentages on those types of leads, are much smaller than that. They’re, you know, depending on the product and the company, but they rarely get to that level of 65%. And typically under 50%, in my experience, they’re well under that.

Steffen: Now I guess, you know, obviously, when you when you do partner marketing, that lead is already warmed up, when they when they come to you. When you do sales outreach, in whatever form you do that you will, in most cases, hit someone up that might not have heard of you, your service, etc. So you have to first start the conversation, identify if there is a need, or if they already use a similar partner or similar product, identify how can your product sell over the other? And some other things. So that’s kind of a much, it’s a much steeper mountain to climb than when someone comes in and and knows what they’re looking for. They’re interested in your solution, and basically, is ready to have an in depth conversation about your product.

Ian: Right. If you just take, if you just take that image for a minute of someone climbing a mountain, well, what is it? One, it’s harder than going down, then it is going downhill. And two, it takes a lot of time. So so this is really about growth and speed to market for me. You know, it’s about accelerating growth and growing faster. That’s what partner management and partner marketing does for us.

Steffen: Now, when you when you provide or when you apply a partner focused strategy, do you do the sales focused approach? Or do you completely give up on that?

Ian: Like, are you asking do we still have a sales team?

Steffen: Do you do do you do both? So you do partner focused marketing, as well as a sales approach a normal sales approach?

Ian: Oh, no, not really. Our marketing efforts are almost 100% focused on the partner marketing aspect of what we do. So the way I look at it is marketing is the core to the machine. It’s where everything starts. We have we have our partner management teams and our sales teams and marketing needs to be in total alignment with those teams. But really, our goal is to feed our sales teams almost 100% through the partner marketing effort. 

Now, I still ask my sales teams to do some self gen, because I want them to have more control over their pipelines and their funnels in the circumstance. In other words, they can target specific businesses that could be very meaningful to us. And so we ask them to bring in a certain amount of self gen every month, but it’s not a lot. And we generate about 300 to 400 SQLs, sales qualified leads, every month, out of the partner marketing effort, and that’s enough to keep our teams extremely busy.

Steffen: I see. Now how should someone structure partner management, marketing and sales so that they’re actually effective?

Ian: Well, again, it starts with marketing and it starts with your people. So when I’m looking for a marketing team, the first thing I’m looking for is I don’t want a marketing team that just throws leads over the wall and then walks away. Like I want them to be more aware than just of I’ve got to create a certain number of SQLs every month. I want them aware of the quality of the lead. Through specific measures. Like so what we do is we look at lead to ops conversion percentages. And that’s how we define how the quality of the leads that come in and and that, that having a marketing team that has a total awareness of the entire process from the generation of the lead all the way through the sales process all the way to the close, and all the way to revenue is a way to really tie these teams together. 

So they share some metrics. Now, obviously, sales doesn’t generate leads. But like, for example, they share the success metric of leads to op ops conversion, that’s a lead converting to an opportunity. And we have a certain percentage that we want to hit when it when it comes to our SQLs. Sales has the same goal as marketing does with that metric. So if they’re working in tandem, they have to work in alignment to make sure those percentages stay high. Marketing can control the quality of the lead, sales can control how they manage that lead. And then it just goes down the line. We also ask marketing to be you know, take on ops to close percentages. 

So they have a goal there as well, same as sales. And again, they’re they’re totally aligned there. And their marketing is as responsible for the close as sales is. On the partner management side, it’s again, it’s the same thing, it’s that alignment. Partner management is, we measure their success through two important metrics. One is SQLs generated through very specific initiatives that they helped manage, so and I can go through those of you want me to. And then obviously we we measure them through total revenue generated. And my partner managers manage a book of business of between 400 to $1.2 million, every quarter. But but that that it’s that alignment, it sets understanding of all the metrics all the way through for all three teams that ensures that they’re working together in the right way.

Steffen: Now Ian, can you can you give give us kind of an idea of how these partner marketing engagements look like?

Ian: Yeah, so there’s, there’s different levels. So first of all, just to kind of clarify for everybody, like, there’s different terms for this out there, you know, you’ll hear channel sales, you’ll hear channel partners. You’ll hear like words like alliances, affiliates, obviously, partner management and partners. For me, they’re all different flavors of the same thing. And we do, we do almost all of that, to varying degrees. So to me, like a partner is an organization that there were, there’s a reason for us to work together. And that reason matters to the customer. So because there’s all these different flavors of partners, there’s different types of engagement. 

So for example, we have marketing events, where we ask our partners to sponsor those events. And as we’ve gone forward with this program, and we’ve we frankly, built more leverage with our partners through just trust and, and what we’ve been able to do for them, we now ask them more and more to commit to a part of marketing program for the year. So that program includes eblasts, to their customer base, really well thought out, you know, webinars that we manage, that is that will get marketed to their customer base. And the partner can can sponsor those events. We call them HR at the table, and we bring in very high powered thought leaders around the HR space. Mostly the CHRO level, VP level of, you know, large organizations. The most recent one that we’re going to be doing is the CHRO, who at the NFL. The one after that is the CHRO at Amazon. 

So it’s that that kind of, you know, I think strength in the talent that we bring to our HR at the table events that caused the partners wanting to get involved in that. We also ask them to share blog posts. We ask them to get involved in social media marketing with us as well. So those those are just some of the channels that that we use to market to through our partners to their customers. And it’s it’s a it’s a hand in hand thing where we work together to really impact each other in a positive way. So that and that can be lead generation For both for both entities. We will create leads for our partners. It’s obviously revenue generation, for both us and the partner. And a number of other things that matter. It’s even things like branding and strength of brand, through the partnerships, and creating through a collaboration, like a much more powerful product together. So it’s it’s all those things that matter. And that’s why they allow us to market through them. 

Steffen: Yeah, yeah. Now, in the partner strategy, what, what makes the marketing team most effective?

Ian: It’s really for me, other than the quality of the people, which I’ve already talked about, it’s then the structure of the marketing team. So the way that we structure our marketing team is a little different than others. Like most marketing teams, they’ll have content providers, they’ll have technical people that help manage, you know, our, our software solutions that we use to manage our marketing. So you know, for example, we use pardot, use outreach, we use drift, and a number of other tools. We, what we do, instead of that, it’s not that we don’t have those roles, but we also tie marketing people to initiatives. 

So for this year, with our partner marketing program, we have an AE initiative, for example, where we’re engaging with the AEs of our partners, and we have a marketing plan for that. And there’s a person that’s responsible to work with a partner manager to generate a number of things. Not just leads, but also engagement, that we can measure by those AEs. So that that’s one example we have a partner recruitment effort. And we have a marketing person that’s assigned to that for to help us recruit partners, and they’re measured through the, through the metrics of that program. 

And then we have an affiliate program or initiative that we’ve just launched, which is we’re now targeting much smaller partners. And we’ve automated the marketing process and the recruitment process. And we have, we have a marketing person attached to that. So it’s that kind of focus on these specific initiatives that drive the kind of metrics that we want, that makes them effective.

Steffen: Now what what’s the key to a healthy partner relationship?

Ian: It’s got to be trust, and I don’t like when I say that, like this is I think some of my folks think I’m kind of weird. But But trust and being liked are not the same thing. And I tend to use, like a marriage, you know, sometimes my marriage as an example of that. So you can’t build trust, for example, if you haven’t had any conflict, you know, it’s through conflict, that you learn to trust each other further, as long as it’s managed in the right way. So, so I, I want our partner managers to be able to see conflict, not not chase it down, or like, you know, artificially create it, but see that conflict and know how to manage through it in a way that’s good for both of us. 

And that, that is what really creates more trust than anything else. If you’re willing to go through a little bit of a hard time every now and then with a partner, and come through it on the other end better off than you were before. That’s, that’s what makes, in my opinion, a strong partnership. We have to be fair, right, we have to have their best interests in mind. We cannot be self serving. And I make a big deal out of that, like I don’t want self serving messages going out to our partners, everything we do has to have value to them. And that means we need to understand what is valuable to them. 

And then really, getting wide and deep with your partnerships, right, really knowing all the players within those organizations that influence any decision made around a partnership. We want to we want to do that. We want to know the technical people that are responsible, for example, on API, integration with a partner, we want to know the marketing people in that organization. We want to know the sales people in the sales leaders in that organization. We want to engage with the CEOs as much as we can to understand their strategy and how we fit into it. So it’s that kind of wide and deep relationship that we are constantly trying to build out.

Steffen: Now when you when you engage in those partner marketing activities, obviously it’s important that both parties get something out of the relationship. How do you create that win win situation where neither party feels that they are being taken advantage or they’re not getting enough out of this relationship?

Ian: So that’s it. That is a really good question. For those that well, let me just start here. I’m a Miller Heiman fan. And for those that don’t know, Miller Heiman is a sales strategy. And within that sales strategy, or that relationship strategy, we talk about what we call win results. So there’s two aspects to that. One is we have to be creating a corporate result that our partner wants. And we need to know what that result needs to be. Sometimes, sometimes it’s revenue. So like our partners make revenue from our business when they refer someone over to us. And when that when that business closes and begin to bill, they earn a certain percentage of the revenue and that revenue continues to grow. 

Sometimes that’s all it is for them. Other times it is the marketing effort. They want ways to expand their brand out to more people. And if you think about it, every partner we bring on in increases our ecosystem. So right now with all the partners that we have, we have about 131 partners, we’re looking at a customer base. And when I say this, this is a customer base, we’re aware of, of about 400-500 thousand customers. So that’s that’s an ecosystem that the partners can can take some advantage of, you know, in a careful way. But they can get their their brand and their name out in front of that ecosystem through our relationship. And that that is often the most powerful thing for them. You know, other times, they frankly, want us to help them generate their own leads. 

And we do that like with all our webinars with the HR to table webinar series, for example, for anyone that sponsors that we make sure that they they see the data on the registrants and the attendees. And we talk to them about how to appropriate appropriately use that but it’s their opportunity to increase their MQL, marketing qualified lead data, and their SQL data. So those are those are like the three main reasons why a partner would want to work for us sometimes, or with us, sometimes it’s, it’s, it’s even a little deeper than that. Sometimes it’s the collaboration and the strategy behind their business that makes us a good fit. And it’s just the value add that we bring. 

So you know that it’s important to be aware of that stuff. So those are the results. The wins often are personal. And we want to know what for each of those influencers that I talked about, when I say go wide and deep. We want to know why they want us to succeed on a personal level. Like it’s kind of like the what’s in it for them thing. So we work very hard at understanding that and we want to make sure for each of those influencers, we’re delivering that to them. In other words, it’s more than just this corporate thing. Partnerships, our personal relationships are personal, we need to make sure we understand these individuals, and in a relatively significant way.

Steffen: How do you identify partners and are there specific characteristics that you look at in order to say, well, partner A is a great fit Partner B not so much.

Ian: Yeah, yeah, there absolutely is we, we have a list of characteristics that we’re looking for in a partner. And we actually when we’re when we’re recruiting a partner, will will rate them from negative five to positive five, in how and where we think they’re at today. And then when we look at those, like the partner match with us, the thing that we ask is okay, for those that are in the negative space, will we be able to change that? So those things are like, cultural fit. Are they an aggressive company or passive company? Because we tend to be pretty aggressive. We’re not a passive organization. Are they involved in partnerships today? And do they see that as a main or core way of going to market and growing? We look at other aspects, like the actual product itself, like what what do they offer? And how well do we fit with that product? 

So an easy one for us is our application tracking solutions where you’re managing candidates, you’re recruiting candidates and managing through the recruitment process. Background screening and the assessments and the drug screening, and even like some of the the I-9 verify stuff that we do, that fits really nicely with an ATS. We look at their technology. So is there technology older technology is an emerging technology? And how does it fit with our technology? And then we look at their customer base, and how does their customer base match up with ours. So really, we’re trying to hit, for us organizations of about 7000 employees to about 100. 

We don’t, we don’t really go up into that really high end enterprise level. And we don’t really want to go down to that really small, small, SMB level. So we’re looking for partners that match that so that our customers fit. And we’re not getting leads that don’t fit for us, and vice versa. So we literally give a score to all of those things. And then as a team, we’ll talk about them when we’re recruiting. And we’ll we’ll go through the strategy of okay, can we can we move those numbers up? Do we think that’s possible? Or are they so entrenched in what where they are today that we can’t? That’s how we make those decisions.

Steffen: Yeah. What would you suggest to a company that, you know, or if someone had listened to this, this this podcast episode and said, hey, you know what, partner focused strategy is interesting. But where do I start?

Ian: Well, so the easiest place to start is, is looking for partners with a specific kind of product. So for us, it was the application tracking solution. So that’s where we started. Now only, you know, of all the partners we have, I think it’s about 30% are actually ATSs today, but at the very beginning, which was about five years ago, that was all we were recruiting. And we knew that was a good decision, because we knew just from looking at the market and what other companies were doing that that was a good, those platforms were platforms we wanted to integrate with. 

We have a very unique integration solution that makes it pretty easy for those platforms to do that. And we just knew right off the bat, that was going to be a good fit. Now through experience later on, we have found other types of partners to be as effective. And those include like payroll platforms, job boards, human resource information solutions, and human capital management solutions. So we’ve expanded on that. But first, start with one category, just start there and focus on recruiting your first partner. And then once you recruit that first partner, put all your energy into it. Make sure that you’re covering all the bases, that that that partner sees a ton of value in you. Work with them extremely closely so you can develop a repeatable model for the next partner you recruit in that same category. 

I mean, that that’s how I did it anyway, that that’s what made sense for me. And like I still it took us six months to recruit our first partner. So it’s hard when you don’t have any. They’re asking like, why, why should we trust you, you don’t know what you’re doing. And, but once you do that, once you get that first partner in and it starts to work, it becomes easier and easier to recruit the next one.

Steffen: Well Ian, thank you so much for for sharing your thoughts on partner marketing here at the Performance Delivered podcast. Now, if people want to find out more about you, and Verified First, how can they get in touch?

Ian: So there’s three ways to get in touch with me. I’m on LinkedIn, you know, again, my name is Ian Bellais, that’s I a n. B as in boy e l l a i s. I’m pretty sure I’m the only Ian Bellais on LinkedIn anywhere so I’m easy to find that way. You can also email me. Ibellais@verifiedfirst. So that’s i b e l l a i s and or you can call me on my mobile, which is 480-263-0562. And I’d love to talk to anyone about partner marketing, partner management if you guys have questions about that. Also, if you’re interested in what Verified First does, which is we consider ourselves an HR tech platform that delivers background screening solutions, drug screening solutions, verifications, I-9, and we were continuing to expand that list of products all in the HR categories.

Steffen: Perfect. Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you’d like the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us. Or leave us a review on iTunes, or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital you can visit us at or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.

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