The Channel Adoption Curve

Just like Geoffrey Moore's product adoption curve and Everett Rogers' Diffusion Of Innovation theory illustrations, There is a similar pattern that describes the journey organizations go through when building their channel ecosystem.

graph showing the channel adoption curve
The Channel Adoption Curve

I hear from many newly formed partnership organizations in the SaaS space about their immediate desire to build alliances with well-established, large organizations. The product features are fantastic, the solution solves relevant issues in the market, and a few large enterprise companies have bought and are positively embracing the technology.

Logically CXOs think it is time to forge GTM alliances with the best and top-performing services/technology partners in the market. Unfortunately, this type of thinking creates unrealistic expectations within the leadership team and wastes valuable cycles going after such partnerships by not having the appropriate offerings, tools, and mindset.

No one wants to partner with you... at first

When building your partner ecosystem, it is imperative to be aware of the channel adoption curve and plan what you need (from a partner program's perspective) to advance efficiently through it.

The ugly truth is that at the beginning, no one will want to partner with you. Your product offering is unknown, your customer adoption is limited, it's unclear how your partners can monetize your solution, and there are tons of other existing technologies with more demand.

That said, I would like to share a high-level overview of two main levers you can adjust to change the current state of affairs:

  1. Your partner recruitment journey.
  2. Your partner program offerings.

Partner Recruitment journey & Partner Program offerings

Understand that partnerships will mimic a product's adoption curve: early adopters, early majority, late majority, laggards.

Each partner will join your mission at different times depending on your products' adoption. Prepare yourself to recruit them accordingly and set the proper expectations internally.

In addition to your product's success in the market, partners will look at your partner program offerings when deciding if an alliance is worth their time and effort. You need the right initiatives in place to meet minimum partner expectations. If not, you will not make any meaningful progress with them.

Early adopter partners

They are willing to partner with you before you even have a partner program or a partner team. These companies love your product, understand the problem it solves, and will be flexible, coachable, and easy to collaborate with. Their resources and reach are limited.

The recruitment strategy will be inbound led or via other partner referrals. These partners will evangelize your product and plant the seeds for a stronger partner ecosystem.

To drive momentum, at a minimum, you will need to have a partner program that provides baseline margins, pre-packaged sales pitch & marketing assets, and 101-level training for your products.

Early majority partners

They see your product as a complementary offering to their existing portfolio. These partners will be proactive and generate revenue from your product via services or margin.

They have a meaningful customer base, are easy to collaborate with, and drive demand generation, but usually lack enterprise-grade offerings. You can identify these partners based on their geographical presence, their vertical coverage, looking at your competitors' partners, or finding who your prospects are using as a service/tech provider.

At this stage, a more sophisticated partner program needs to include, in addition to previously mentioned features, deal registration & deal referral incentives, access to product APIs, access to engineering resources, demand generation funds (paid based on results), and self-serve delivery/implementation/professional services assets.

Late Majority Partners

They provide customized integrations with multiple products, can deploy their services/product at scale, have co-selling capabilities via a marketplace, and they can create GTM bundles with other parties.

These partners will only be interested if they can gain massive revenue from margin/services and will be reactive to customer needs rather than pitching change. You will need a clear and succinct message on how these partners can generate revenue together with you. Some of these partnerships will be established upon customers' request, or if they don't have you as a partner, their competitive advantage in the market is at risk.

To match partner expectations, your partner program would need distinct partner tiering offerings, marketing development funds (paid on execution), marketplace offerings, access to product engineering, and delivery/ professional services funds.


They have a massive global customer base, with large sales, delivery, engineering, and marketing teams. They are contractually difficult to establish an alliance with and sometimes will only work on a “pay to play” mechanism. These alliances are established via executive relationships bundled with investment offerings and a margin advantage above others in the market.

At this stage, you need a full-blown partner program providing partners with access to partner OPEX, SPIFF incentives, credits, favorable payment terms, and funded headcount.

Before pursuing new partnerships, take the time to learn the landscape, prepare the foundation for a solid partner program, and set the proper expectations for the journey ahead.
Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. – Abraham Lincoln

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