Helene Solomon, a principal in the Boston-based strategic communications firm Solomon McCown & Company embraces strategic alliances to establish her firm in prime industries. Solomon organizes an educational panel discussion series titled SM& Presents and, since 2003, has organized seven panel events comprised of Solomon principals alongside guest experts, showcasing topics that align with the firm’s expertise in strategic communications. “Our panel discussions cover a range of issues that position our principals as strategic thinkers to influential audiences,” says Solomon. “We invite panelists with existing name recognition and an existing sphere of influence, which boosts the value of our events, enhances our own credibility, and creates audience and media appeal.” Solomon chose the panel discussion model because it offered a low-cost, high-impact vehicle to tap new markets while establishing relationships with prospects, referral partners, and influencers in targeted industries. A recent panel, “Good Business Means Sometimes Having to Say I’m Sorry,” featured Ashley McCown, SM&. executive vice president, a partner from a Boston law firm, the vice president of an insurance firm, and a principal of the American Red Cross. The publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly moderated the discussion. “This event helped us reach a broad range of industries, from corporate CEOs, to health care, to attorneys who, when faced with a client crisis, recommend strategic communications firms,” says Solomon. “Our partnership with Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly gave us access to their mailing list, which helped us reach the Boston legal community better and more cost-effectively than we could have on our own.” The event attracted 150 participants, a perfect number to facilitate networking, and was covered in the Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor. The event was so well received that it was repeated for the Health Care Section of the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Newton-Wellesley Hospital Leadership Forum. The Many Types of Strategic Partnerships I’m always surprised that more businesses don’t take advantage of strategic partnerships, especially in a down economy. Strategic partnerships help you get more out of your marketing by combining your skills, resources, and capabilities with other businesses, organizations, vendors, even competitors, to help you cut costs, tap new prospects, land large clients, and create valuable inroads into new markets. The potential for profitable relationships abound, and can become a core component of your Slightly Famous marketing strategy. Partnerships can include cross-promotions, sponsorships, and cause-related marketing. Producing joint events is another option, as is sharing access to one another’s target market through joint teleseminars and co-branded alliances. While each element represents a different twist on the basic concept, each combines the efforts of multiple businesses or organizations to enhance the results for all involved. Targeting Large Accounts Setting up strategic partnerships can help small- and medium-sized businesses target larger accounts by combining capabilities that leverage strengths while offsetting weaknesses. Strategic alliances give smaller companies the chance to work with larger ones to develop, manufacture, and market new products. A cabinet manufacturer used this plan when his company had a chance to bid for a huge Disney World contract. The problem: he lacked the resources to complete the job in the 95 days promised. The solution: the cabinet manufacturer forged a strategic alliance with three competitors, which helped him land and complete the $2.5 million contract – but he never could have achieved this solo. Deal with Tough Times In a down economy, strategic partnerships can deliver strength through numbers. By forging mutually beneficial partnerships with other businesses within your target market, a well-conceived strategic partnership can help your company share marketing expenses while strengthening your overall impact. Because businesses with a Slightly Famous marketing strategy have a distinct identity, they have less to fear from competitors. This means the door is open to accept mutually beneficial business partnerships. The Sonoma County Woodworkers Association (SCWA) emerged when a handful of independent furniture retailers in Northern California banded together to survive the recession of the early 1990s through cross-promotion and buying strength. Together, the group bought advertising at local radio stations and newspapers, had combined special-prize events, and printed a shared brochure that included a map to all their locations with the headline: People You Can Trust. Because each retailer had a different focus, the group was able to work together to survive rough times. Co-Branding Alliances Co-branding involves marketing two or more complementary businesses together, thus allowing each partner to “piggyback” on the other’s reputation while expanding the potential marketplace for both. In a successful co-branding relationship, companies share resources to command more attention than either could individually. The Internet offers countless opportunities to forge co-branding partnerships with businesses that reach your target market. Target business Web sites with an established presence in your target market, develop cross-promotional relationships with influential bloggers in your niche, and interview (or be interviewed by) centers of influence that enhance your credibility and help you expand your reach. Getting Started in Choosing the Right PartnersChoose your partners on the basis of who they serve, not what they do. Thorough knowledge of your target market is essential for choosing the right partners and creating the perfect collaboration. Once you understand your common customers, you will begin to identify partners who complement your business. Your best allies are usually organizations and businesses that:
- serve the same customers, but do not compete with you
- serve people you want to attract to your business
- have a reputation that lends value to your partnership
- have buying cycles that complement yours
- are involved in similar activities or events to you
Describe your customers, clients, and prospects as specifically as possible. Then, isolate the industries, businesses, and organizations that might help you reach your goals. For example, a motel worked with a restaurant, an advocacy group, a specialty food producer, and a magazine (they all served the senior-citizen market) to cross-promote each other’s services to their common customers – at considerably reduced expense. Creativity is the key. Study what you already do to promote yourself. Identify complementary relationships and mutual concerns. Most businesses have several potential partners who already serve the same target market. Consider your current vendors, network at trade organizations, or introduce yourself to business owners in your area. Finding strategic alliance partners can be as easy as opening your address book. Never lose sight of your core business goals. When Helene Solomon organizes her panel discussions, she makes sure that each event reflects a core focus area for her firm and a topic likely to resonate with potential clients. “As we conceive events, we apply a three-question test: What are our business objectives? What potential partners will lend credibility and have a mailing list? Can we do something that no one else has done?” Solomon finds allies by researching business publications, trade associations, and charitable organizations.