Last year, Ecommerce strategist Web Smith published a compelling case for why companies should partner with other businesses. For Entrepreneur, he wrote, “Over the course of my seven years as an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that it’s tough to be the kid on the playground without any friends. The same is true in business. You can survive alone, but you’ll only really thrive when you plug into the community around you. External partnerships can serve as a startup’s connection to an established community by making their product or offering seem more familiar and less risky. For small businesses and startups, building this brand recognition and affinity is critical.” Essentially, what he means to say is: To gain a competitive edge, companies should ally together and pool their resources to drive mutually beneficial results.
Of course, partnerships can happen in the most unlikely of ways.
In February, for instance, Amazon sealed a deal with U.K. supermarket Morrisons to not only expand its inventory of fresh and frozen products but to bolster both brands. Two years earlier, Etsy and West Elm brokered a similar deal. Though, instead of bringing West Elm’s products online and into the Etsy marketplace, select Etsy sellers began distributing their handmade goods through West Elm’s catalogs and retail locations.
For my Ecommerce business, Blank Label, marketing partnerships were critical in fueling our growth from a startup that sold five shirts a month to one that now generates seven-figures in annual revenues.
When I first launched our online store, I was determined to build big, bold and beautiful ad campaigns that would instantly attract customers. My ideal scenario was we would eventually advertise on national television and even secure ourselves a coveted 30-second spot during an upcoming Super Bowl. But that dream quickly vanished when I realized I couldn’t even spend $100 in Google AdWords credit profitably. So, I tried my hand at public relations (PR). Early on, I learned how to earn enough media coverage to cover our operating costs. Yet, I knew that as a bootstrapped startup it would be hard to scale our PR efforts.
As the company’s only marketer, I was already stretched thin as I worked with our team to regularly redesign our website and refresh our value proposition while consistently pitching dozens of bloggers and journalists every day hoping we would receive a handful of new press mentions each week. When I spoke with other Ecommerce startups though, it was obvious we simply did not have enough resources to produce meaningful marketing campaigns. Despite my best efforts, I alone couldn’t achieve as much as my peers could. The other marketers I knew had five-figure monthly advertising budgets and were also spending anywhere between $3,000 and $15,000 a month to retain a PR firm. I was an amateur at PR and, up until that point, our fledgling startup hadn’t even sold $3,000 worth of product.
The imbalance of resources felt unfair and it was obvious there was a bit of a catch-22. Without money, you can’t do marketing well; without good marketing, you can’t make any money. Of course, I quickly realized that while capital and human resources were critical to our marketing success, our organization didn’t have to be the one footing the bill. Friends of our company regularly lent us their marketing assets, knowledge and PR contacts to help us grow our business, and we reciprocated in kind. Suddenly, we had developed a tight-knit cohort of like-minded brands that shared marketing resources. Between us, we had nearly a dozen marketers and unlimited creative potential. Over time, these partnerships led to joint efforts that allowed us to secure media coverage in publications such as The New York Times, Inc. Magazine and Forbes. Through our co-branded campaigns, we acquired thousands of new customers for our respective brands. As the result of other cross-promotional initiatives, we referred each other tens of thousands of dollars worth of business.
Indeed, external partnerships help businesses thrive. To form productive partnerships that allow you expand your capabilities and leverage another organization’s resources, here are four steps:
1. Research: Find the right partners
With the launch of Blank Label came a wave of Ecommerce startups focused on empowering customers to design their own products, including some tackling menswear like us. However, we did not want to associate with our direct competitors. Instead, we developed relationships with other custom products businesses such as Chocri (custom-made chocolate bars), MixMyGranola (custom granola blends) and Rickshaw Bagworks (custom backpacks). Generally, partnerships work best when partnering companies operate in the same niche, target the same consumer but are not in direct competition with each other.
To identify the right marketing partner, ask yourself the following questions:
- What products or services complement the things I currently sell? And who are some companies that provide those products or services?
- Which brands, in my industry, do my customers admire?
- Is there an opportunity to offer mutual exchange? Do I have capabilities they do not yet have? Alternatively, do I have resources they need more of (and vice versa)?
- Will the partnership improve the perception consumers have of both of our brands? Or could this hurt our reputations?
- Has this company collaborated with other brands before? Was the partnership successful?
2. Contact: Initiate conversation
Partnerships are risky, and many brands will be skeptical about working with you at first. Before you can even address their concerns though, you need to initiate conversation.
Reach out to potential marketing partners on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email, or their store’s customer service portal with a quick introduction to you and your business along with an invitation to exchange ideas and experiences.
Over email or during a call, gather an understanding of their current marketing strongpoint, what their marketing needs are and how they plan to invest their marketing resources. Then, explain your marketing capabilities and needs to see if there is alignment between both brands’ marketing goals. Next, be clear about the value you two can offer each other to generate buy-in on the idea of partnering together.
3. Exploration: Propose campaign ideas
After you have found a willing brand partner, you both must decide on the specifics of your co-branded campaigns. A few types of co-marketing opportunities include:
- Co-sponsorships: Split the cost of airing a new ad, purchasing advertising inventory across the web or sponsoring a live event.
- Email cross-promotions: Plug brand partners in upcoming email newsletters. Feature some of their products too.
- Joint PR initiatives: Exchange blogger and journalist contact information or share introductions to warm media connections. Proactively pitch each other’s story and weave both brands into interviews with the media.
- Partnered contests and giveaways: Pool money for a cash award or products for a bundled giveaway and collect email addresses for remarketing campaigns later.
- Product collaborations: Develop co-branded products together and split the research and development costs along with the net proceeds from sales.
- Packaging inserts: Include a postcard with a special discount or offer from brand partners in each shipment to customers. Alternatively, you may include samples from partners your customers can try for free.
- Social media shout outs: Share each other’s content on social media and promote each other’s brands to help your partner boost their fan counts and drive traffic to their web store.
4. Optimization: Use best practices
For your first campaign with a new marketing partner, start small. Establish who the primary points of contact will be for both organizations. Then, set a due date for each party to provide deliverables and see whether or not everyone follows through with their commitments. When the deliverables are approved by both businesses, launch the campaign and promote it to a limited audience to gauge their reaction.
If customers have a lukewarm response, go back to the drawing board. Successful brand partnerships seek to mitigate risks for all the businesses involved. Small-scale marketing experiments allow brand partners to quickly conceptualize and execute new campaigns without spending a ton of time or money. So, if the campaign flops, it is a minor cost to write-off. When you do find a campaign customers respond well to, increase your promotional efforts to reach a bigger audience.
Later, take lessons learned from your first brand partnership and apply them to future collaborations with other marketing teams. Throughout each partnership, gather intel on your partner’s marketing strategies. Freely share your approach to marketing with your brand partners too. That way, you each develop a better understanding of ways you can weave your marketing message into your partner’s existing campaigns. Or you may identify new opportunities to fill in gaps within their current marketing strategy.