Three Steps to a Successful Partnership Marketing Strategy

I spend a lot of time with founders and small business owners. And when it comes to building a marketing strategy, I am always asked the same question: “What should my strategy be and will I even hit my goals on a shoestring budget?”

The digital and social media age has made proving marketing ROI (return on investment) easier, but measuring ROI doesn’t matter if your marketing budget is ten dollars. Enter partnerships. Whether you’re a media company, emerging fashion brand, or B2B tech platform, there is incredible growth potential in barter partnerships (aka, NOT pay to play opportunities). Here are three steps to a successful partnership strategy, using case studies from brands I have worked with for over the past decade.

1. Your brand strategy should define your partner strategy

When I was the VP of Marketing and Communications at the New Republic, partnerships were our saving grace during a critical time. In 2015, we were in the process of a complete rebrand, which also included reaching a new target audience. As a marketing department, our job was build the brand, protect the identity, and grow awareness with our new target audience. Once the brand strategy was defined, we created a list of companies with a shared vision and audience that embodied the brand we were building. This ranged from museums like the New Museum to media companies like Mic. This list of companies actually helped us visualize the brand, and ensure internal alignment. In just a few months, we launched partnerships (some informal, some formal) with Fusion, Slate, Huffington Post, N+1, New Museum, Audible, and more. Our partnerships were responsible for a 20% increase traffic, and drove 20% of our sales pipeline. The cost? $0.00

2. Ensure both parties benefit

With partnerships, it is important to identify your value proposition. What do you bring to the table, and why should the brand partner with you?

When I led the AOL Artists program for AOL, we commissioned over 100 emerging artists to create over 250 digital works of art for the AOL brand and advertising opportunities. We would work with arts organizations and release the digital artworks in collections of 25-50. In between these collection launches, we needed a way to stay in the cultural conversation with a budget of zero.

We launched a monthly guest curator program as a solution. The program invited a leader in arts and culture to curate a capsule collection from the existing artworks, highlight their favorite works of art on our digital platform, and produce 2 blog posts on their favorite artists. The program provided AOL essential brand alignment, and give us content between collection launches.

The value for AOL was clear, but before I could launch the program, I needed to clearly identify the value for the partner. We landed on a promotional plan for each guest curator that would highlight their company/organization on AOL.com, the AOL Artists website (RIP), and through a co-hosted event within the AOL offices with VIP attendees. This meant that by becoming a guest curator, there was massive earned media for both the person and their company.

The program launched with the Arts Evangelist for Tumblr and went on to feature to founder of Northside Media Group, the Arts Editor for Huffpost Arts, and more.

3. Leverage partnerships for creation as well as distribution

NewsCred wanted to become the leading authority on brand storytelling. When I was working for NewsCred, content was the heart of our marketing strategy and we wanted to create an interactive whitepaper on visual storytelling to arm our audience with tips and best practices.  But as many marketers know, great visuals are hard to find. We approached Getty Images about co-authoring a whitepaper on the future of visual storytelling. The idea was that we would do the heavy lifting when it came to writing the content and building the site, and they would provide the expertise and data on visuals, as well as compelling imagery. Once we launched the whitepaper, we also distributed the content through our respective networks and co-hosted an event for our clients. Not only was this an impactful lead generation tool for both parties, the content itself was better because of the partnership.  

While partnerships may come with zero cost, they do require an investment in creative energy and time to do them right.

When you are working for a small start-up, time equals money, so prioritize partnerships that embody your brand, will move the needle, and align with your goals. Create a clear benefit for your partner, and be realistic about the partners you go after. It's fine for it to be a stretch, but if it's a stretch; ensure your promotional opportunity leans in the partners favor.


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About The author

Erika founded Tactile to #changetheratio in business. The agency helps ambitious women build ambitious brands and launches products that aim to support women globally. Before diving headfirst into running an agency, she spent close to a decade in brand marketing and communications across media, tech, and the arts. She was the VP of Marketing & Communications for The New, led brand marketing for The Guardian and NewsCred, built an artist program for AOL and was the brand manager across all of their media properties. In a previous life, Erika was an independent curator and ran an arts magazine for emerging artists. She grew up in the Bronx and currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and puppy.