June 07, 2021

Affiliate vs Partner: What Program Is Best for Your Business

What is the difference between an affiliate and a partner? Find out their inherent merits and demerits, and which program best suits your business.


An affiliate receives a commission when a specific action set by you—the affiliate partner program owner—is completed. A partner is a more high-level figure and can be part of multiple programs, including a reseller program where they directly talk to prospects.

Both affiliate vs partner programs can be effective ways to grow your brand and increase sales, but what are their differences, and which one is best for your business?

The marketing and sales industry went through some pretty significant changes within the last several years. Email marketing and direct advertising seemed to be the go-to strategies for most online businesses but their efficacy is starting to slowly wean off.

Specifically, direct advertisements aren’t performing like they used to, with this Marketing Dive study showing that ad overload is the problem. In the report, 52% of the surveyed people stated that overexposure to ads negatively impacted their image of a brand.

As advertisement channels become oversaturated, companies have begun to shift their focus to indirect partnership channels to foster real trust.

As advertisement channels become oversaturated, companies have begun to shift their focus to indirect partnership channels which can foster real trust and long-term business.

These partner programs can help develop partnerships with other businesses, consultants, and people whose networks would otherwise be totally inaccessible without certain perks. 

The Difference Between Affiliate & Partner

Affiliates are partners, but partners aren’t always classified as affiliates. An affiliate is actually a partner type. Partnerships cover a wide variety of different channels and programs, and affiliates are just one of those options. Two other types of programs are effective:

  1. Referral partner programs

  2. Reseller partners

Affiliate programs are categorized by some sort of performance-based compensation package. The most popular form is a commission program where the affiliate is paid based on the amount of sales/conversions that are made through the affiliate’s channel.

For example: SaaS companies often share revenue with the affiliate for a certain time period and, depending on the affiliate program, they may do so for the entire lifetime of the customer, meaning that the affiliate doesn't just get a one-time commission but recurring commissions.

When the marketing term affiliate was first introduced, it mostly referred to coupon and discount sites that would get paid based on the actions traffic took on the sites they redirected them to.

These types of websites gained a poor reputation for being less than transparent and rather obnoxious. This negative "aura" is unfortunately still associated with affiliates but programs are clearly shifting to real value being delivered to those who choose to participate.

Who is an Affiliate?

Affiliates are individuals or businesses that grow and maintain a high-value audience in specific niches: data consulting, b2b marketing, payment processing—you name it.

affiliate vs partner program semrush take on benefits
The SEMRush affiliate program is simple to understand from the get-go

Some of the most successful affiliates spend time creating value for their audience through their content which establishes them as an expert in their niche and awards them trust.

Affiliates cultivate and grow a dedicated following that trusts their recommendations.

Finding the right affiliate for your business is all about aligning your affiliate program with the things that affiliates care about most: increasing cash flow and cementing their position.

There are a few similarities between affiliate marketers and influencers. 

Often, the two mix together (even in business, not just consumer industries) and affiliates might be seen as influencers or "thought leaders" in their own right.

Finding the right affiliate for your business is all about aligning your affiliate program with the things that affiliates care about most: increasing cash flow and cementing their position.

What Affiliates Care About Most

Since affiliate programs are primarily performance-based, it makes sense that the majority of affiliates are focused on conversions (i.e. turning loyal audiences into cash flow).

activecampaign agency program discounts
ActiveCampaign offers tiered discounts for agencies as a benefit

Affiliates seek out products that they believe they can sell to their audience effectively and in a timely manner. They also look for products that are innovative and interesting to pitch.

High-end affiliates will want to ensure that the product or service they are promoting provides their audience with value and isn’t just a quick sell. This value-based method ensures that their audience remains happy while also providing a good stream of dedicated customers.

How To Align Affiliates with Your Business Efforts

It’s important to remember that you are selling your product to an affiliate’s audience, not the affiliate themself. So you should focus on finding not only affiliates that align with your vision but also cater to your ideal customer profile (ICP) through them. This isn't an immediate process.

Focus on finding not only affiliates that align with your vision but also cater to your ideal customer profile (ICP) at scale.

You will need to have an established client base first. If you don't and you immediately jump onto the affiliate bandwagon, you may incur all kinds of alignment issues.

This is extremely important because even if you find a good affiliate marketer, if the audience isn’t interested in your product, then the partnership won’t go anywhere.

If you’re looking to attract high-quality affiliate marketers, it’s important to showcase the value your product or service can provide. They’ve spent a considerable amount of time building trust and authority with their audience, and selling a bad product could damage their reputation.

So it’s in their best interest to recommend things that are aligned with their mission.

Who is a Business Partner?

When you think about a business partner, you may think of a co-founder, investor, or primary shareholder. In this case, we aren’t talking about that type of partner, but the idea of fostering a relationship through a partner program is similar to that of having shareholders. In this case, we are talking specifically about referrers, resellers, MSPs, integrators, consultants, and so on.

While affiliate programs are primarily focused on conversions from a wide audience where the affiliate may not know them personally, other partnerships are more focused on associating with the right people and bringing attention to the brand on a 1 to 1 basis.

How Business Partner Relations Work

Partners typically use avenues such as sponsorships, endorsements, indirect marketing, and even long-term content distribution agreements to connect with a brand.

hubspot solutions provider program for business
HubSpot offers white-label content to their partners for increased engagement

Sponsorships and endorsements have been used as effective marketing techniques for a long time. These are quite common in sports and other highly watched activities but there's no reason why they shouldn't work in business-to-business partnerships either.

Referral and distribution agreements are also an effective way to grow your brand by using the sales networks of other businesses and services. Partners will typically retain a percentage of sales or purchase items from you at discount in exchange for giving access to their network.

Why Affiliates ARE Business Partners (But Not Vice Versa)

Affiliates are business partners because they are a part of your business’s sales channels. By pitching your product, they are associating themselves with your brand and company. 

This lends their credibility and support to the business, but it can also go in the opposite direction if they aren’t very reputable, or if they are shady about their practices.

activecampaign agency partner program example affiliate vs partner
ActiveCampaing's Agency partner program is a great example of a reseller program

Due to the performance-based metrics and focus on cost per action (CPA) metrics, not all partners will or should become affiliates. Just like in a normal workplace, not everyone wants to work for a commission. Certain partnerships offer advantages beyond just sales. 

Resellers are also business partners but they may want to receive other perks such as product discounts that they can then mark up with their own services on top (this is typical of service providers using certain technology platforms) or "vanity" perks such as badges and events.

Affiliate vs Partner: Which Program Fits Your Business Best?

Partnerships provide a great way to expand marketing and sales efforts and grow your brand through representation by other people. 

As a subset of partnerships, affiliates provide a more direct approach with performance-based compensation to encourage continuous sales. Both programs provide their own unique advantages and can significantly benefit businesses that implement them correctly.

When Does an Affiliate Program Work Best?

partner vs affiliate lead tracking for affiliates
Lead tracking is an important part of working with affiliates

Affiliate programs are best suited for marketing efforts that are focused on high conversion rates and pushing sales to a specific product offering. Since these programs are incentive-based, partners are encouraged to sell as many of your products or services as possible. 

Finding the right affiliate marketer will allow you to pitch directly to your ideal audience meaning higher conversion rates and a more dedicated customer base.

How a Long-Term Partner Program Can Benefit You

partner vs affiliate deal registration for resellers
Resellers want powerful deal registration tools that they can trust

Establishing a long-term partner program can provide quite a few advantages to you and your business. Quality referral and reseller partners lend their image and reputation to your products which can add credibility and legitimacy. This can be much more valuable than just an affiliate.

Long-term partners offer access to much of their networks and audiences (whereas affiliates have a closed-garden approach to getting access to their audience) which can expand brand awareness, reach, and provide a platform for continued business growth.

A referral partner will most often refer someone they know. With a reseller, it's similar but a lot more sales-driven rather than word-of-mouth-driven. An affiliate doesn't really know the potential end customer personally; they speak to a wide audience of people who may convert.

Design a Partner Program That Works Great for Your Business

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Designing a partner program is no easy task and can take considerable upfront work to get it going. But the benefits and rewards partnerships offer can be game-changing. 

Consider which partnership might benefit your businesses the most and then strategize around that. Set up a budget and test out a few different methods before launching your program.

Once your partner program is established, it’s time to manage and maintain it. It does take some time to pull off so be patient in the process and keep it focused.

Once your partner program is established, it’s time to manage and maintain it. It does take some time to pull off so be patient in the process and keep it focused.

This can be a considerable amount of time and work without any tools. 

That's why platforms like Kiflo were designed to simplify the process of designing your programs and save you a considerable amount of time. Kiflo automates much of the day-to-day work required in a partner program so you can focus on other parts of your business.

Try a demo in the link below!

See the difference Kiflo makes in your partner relationship management efforts with powerful Deal Registration

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is the difference between affiliate and partner?

Affiliates are a subset of partners and are categorized by performance-based compensation that can come in the form of commissions from sales or other actions performed by the traffic from their channel.

Is an affiliate a partner?

Yes, an affiliate is a partner type, but not all partners are affiliates.

What does it mean to be an affiliate partner?

An affiliate partner is a partner that focuses primarily on cost-per-action marketing. This is a performance-based marketing method that focuses on conversions and sales. The important thing to know is that affiliates always talk to an audience of people whereas referrals and resellers usually target potential customers on a 1 to 1 basis.

Do partners get more than affiliates?

Both partners (referral, reseller...) and affiliates can make a considerable amount of money. For partners, it’s entirely dependent on the size of their audience and network channels. Businesses look at this and base their payments on the value they feel the exposure is worth. Affiliates have a more direct compensation package as their earnings are entirely performance-based.

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