Naser Alubaidi is a growth marketer at Venngage, where he focuses on everything from developing top-of-the-funnel awareness to solidifying bottom-of-the-funnel retention.
Over the past few months, Naser has helped quarterback content partnerships with other tech titans like HubSpot, Unbounce, Wistia GoToWebinar, and dozens more.
Here’s how Naser comes up with these content partnerships, structures them, and executes to make sure they’re a success for every partner involved.
How (and why) content partnerships work
Content partnerships are just like any other kind of partnership or cross-promotion.
You find like-minded people in complementary, not competitive, spaces. You typically share the same type of customers and have different strengths or weaknesses. So you join forces to help complement each others strengths and make those weaknesses become irrelevant.
But while rev share agreements are tricky and major promotions expensive to pull off, content partnerships are like the lowest-hanging fruit.
They could include everything from guest posts to link building partnerships to co-branded ebooks, studies, or webinars.
The actual deliverables usually come down to what each partner wants and how you can structure ‘win-win’ deals for everyone involved.
“I’d say it really depends on the partner,” confirms Naser.
“So let’s say in the case of HubSpot for example, they usually want to host it on their website and they usually want to design it. So we’d provide the content, we’d take a few articles that they have and a few articles that we have, that we wrote in the past, and then we’d combine all of those and repurpose them to a giant or monster, guide/ebook/whitepaper and push it that way. “
The trick is to nail down all of these variables ahead of time, before even starting anything.
“It’s a collaboration between both companies but before we actually start the project we decide on who’s really going to own the content side, who’s going to own the design side, the landing page, and then obviously when it goes out we both push it and we both promote it together. “
However, content partnerships aren’t cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best campaigns. Naser recommends agreeing on a minimum lead goal from the outset.
“With all these projects, before we start we agree usually on a minimum lead goal. So let’s say 1,000 leads per partner and then once we push it out, we advertise it to our audience, they promote it to their audience as well. And we share the leads that we got and we reach out to their users and their audience and try to educate them about the specific topic and about how our services could potentially solve their issues and their problems and we push it that way. So usually there is a minimum lead submission that we have and we push it out that way.”
This type of structure works well if you already have big lists in place, though. That means enough brand awareness to develop a big email list or customer database.
“When I joined, [Venngage] already had a huge email list, they already had customers that are engaged with the content. So usually I just push it to that audience and in most cases, it’s enough and I don’t need to take that extra hustle or an extra step [using ads, etc.]. But in previous companies, I had to actually do a lot of paid promotions before that.”
It’s often an uphill battle to set these partnerships up for new or small companies that don’t yet have this track record. But the good news is that just one single win can be leveraged to land new ones in the future.
That’s exactly what Naser did after joining Venngage, getting a solid campaign with HubSpot off the ground, and then leveraging that early success to replicate these campaigns with similar companies.
“I think I was really lucky because when I first joined, the first partnership I led was HubSpot. And then everyone else that I reached out to after, I was just like, ‘We just partnered with HubSpot,’ and they just name dropped everyone and they just casually threw in our email list or how many users we have. And that’s usually enough to get the partnership. But in my previous experience, the best way I think to actually get people to partner up with you, even if you’re small and you don’t have the audience, is to actually just dive deep into who they are, what they’re trying to get and find some kind of win, some kind of thing that you can offer them.”
If possible, go past raw numbers and brand names into the concrete things your partner will get out of this relationship.
“So when you approach them, it’s not like, ‘You have a big audience or you have an established brand and I want to leverage that.’ It’s more of, ‘This is what I’m offering you, this is what I can give you and in return, this is what I’m trying to get.’ So let’s say Venngage’s early days. You know, Nadya, our chief strategy officer now. She was offering Guestographics. So basically reaching out to companies like HubSpot and Mention and SEMRush and all these companies, taking an existing piece of content that they have, and she just reaches out to them and she’s like, ‘We’re going to take that content and summarize it into an infographic. We’re going to design the infographic for you guys and in return, all we want is a link on another blog post.'”
That’s how Venngage’s partnerships got off the ground originally. Not with any special inside connection, but by helping to deliver some sort of value to someone using their own tool and core strength (DIY infographic design).
Once you have your foot in the door, you can start ratcheting up the relationship to run bigger and better campaigns.
“That was how partnerships started at Venngage. As we started growing, that opened the door to other kinds of partnerships. That started the relationship with companies like HubSpot and then we were able to leverage that relationship more as it grew into a webinar, into an ebook, into research, a guide, whatever it is. So I think the beginning of any partnership is just finding a way that you can actually benefit that company first, provide value to them, provide value to their audience if possible. And then as you leverage or nurture that relationship, you’re going to find different ways that you can get something back from.”
How to identify potential partners without wasting each other’s time
Venngage recently ran a huge multi-company campaign, partnering with companies like HubSpot, Unbounce, and Wistia.
Naser had a few restrictions around what he can and can’t share about it, but let’s just say it went well.
“The way it started was all these companies attended HubSpot’s events in Boston, INBOUND ’18. And I got the chance to talk to them there. I met their partnership managers or their marketing managers at the event. They were all interested in some kind of partnership. We didn’t know what the partnership was going to be and we didn’t even know that it’s going to be a multi-company partnership. We just knew that everyone was interested in some kind of partnership.”
You don’t have to have the specifics ironed out initially. It’s kinda like sales in that respect. Your first goal isn’t to sell, but to determine whether or not each person might be potentially interested in buying.
After getting that initial buy-in, Naser proceeded with a smaller idea initially to test the waters.
“The next step was I needed to figure out the way to test that this would be valuable to them and this would be worth their time before anyone even invests time and energy to it. Because I can’t reach out to HubSpot and be like, ‘We’re going to work with three or four different companies and this is what we need from you. This is the amount of money you’re going to need to invest. This is the amount of personnel that you’re going to have to put in a project,’ without us actually showing them any results first. “
A huge, multi-company offer might be the ideal. But Naser started small with a simple blog post to see how the working relationship between everyone might shape up.
“We started by working on a lead generation post that I was personally working on. And I reached out to each one of these companies and I’m like, ‘There’s different parts in the post. It’s going to be a huge post, an expert roundup. And we can basically include you guys naturally and have you own different sections of that post.’ So for example, there’s a section in the post about the nurturing process. HubSpot is naturally the leader in that space. So I reached out to them and I’m like, ‘I’m working on this post and I think you guys could own this section.’ So they worked on the content for that specific part and then they added certain calls to actions. And UTM codes for all these calls to actions.”
Getting everyone to contribute so it’s ready to publish is one challenge. However, promotion is the Achilles’ heel. Accurately measuring all the results for each partner meant not only that this campaign would be successfully, but more importantly, the future ones would be as well.
“Once it went out, all these partners helped in promoting it by simply just sharing it on their social media or linking to it. And we started tracking the benefit to each of the partners. Once everyone was able to actually see that they got clicks and those clicks actually converted, for example, and like the audience that we share is relevant, this was the starting point to actually have a conversation that’d be like, ‘Okay, so this worked. What could we do next?’ At that point, you start building on the relationship and figuring out different ways that you could collaborate together. Whether it’s on an offer, an actual kit like a lead-generation kit or something more in-depth like an integration.”
It all comes back to that initial test, because not all partnerships are going to work. Not all partners are good partners to partner with. And you unfortunately don’t know any of that until you actually give it a go.
So use something you’re already working on to not waste too much time and energy.
“Yeah. That was exactly it. Like we use the piece that I was actually already going to work on as a test to see if a partnership would make sense. For other partnerships, you’d want to show them that you can provide value because essentially, there’s a different set of rules that companies are looking for when they’re deciding whether they want to partner up with you.”
“I’d say the first thing is you’d need to prove to them that there’s some brand alignment. So you guys share a similar audience or a similar set of audiences. In the case of HubSpot, Unbounce, Wistia, and Venngage, we all try to add a lot of value to marketers and our service caters a lot to marketers. That would be the first thing.”
“The second thing I’d say is you’d want to partner up with someone that has a sizable audience. So when you reach out to a company and they have, let’s say, a million users and you’re just starting off, chances are they’re not going to be interested because the value they’re going to provide you is way more than the value you’re going to provide them.”
That’s especially true when one partner is much bigger than the other. You need to figure out how you can still deliver value, even though their existing presence might dwarf yours.
“You’d want to find someone that’s, I wouldn’t say it’s smaller than you, but a similar size or a bit bigger than you but then you’re going to have to find other ways that you can provide them value and provide them with something that, in their point of view at least, this partnership would be worth the time and effort. And you’d want to make it as easy as possible for them. If you can minimize their work or even eliminate their work, especially if they’re adding more value to you, then that would be amazing.”
“So an easy example for that is, if you’re trying to build links and quality websites with high DAs that are much higher than your website, then you can work on the guest posts for them. You’re providing them with content that’s not promotional, that’s actually valuable, speaking to their audience and all you’re doing in return is adding a link or two naturally within the post. I’d say those are probably the most important things you need to keep in mind when you’re reaching out to a partner. Focus as much as you can on providing as much value as possible to them and eliminating other work if possible or as much work as possible.”
3 ways Naser finds new potential partners
There are usually thre ways Naser strikes up partnership conversations.
First, is the good ol’ referral.
“Let’s say, for example, I worked with HubSpot. After we worked on them, if everything went really well and they had a good experience with us then by the end of it, I’ll ask the person for references. I’ll be like, ‘I saw that you guys worked with a company X, Y and Z, can you guys introduce us?’ For example.”
The second involves a little more manual digging, based on previous campaigns he say and liked.
“The other thing that I could do is simply go to their offers page or go to their contact page and see all the companies that they’ve partnered up with and manually see the ones that would work with us. That would fit those criteria that it should. A sizable audience, a brand alignment and so on. Try to find that person or the person in charge on LinkedIn manually, reach out to them and then the intro is going to be using HubSpot to break the ice. So I saw that you guys worked with HubSpot and we just pushed this e-book with them as well and I think that a partnership between us would make sense and then try to hop on a call with them and take it from there.”
Last but not least is conferences, because the in-person element is one of the best ways to build trust.
“Another place that I usually try to find partnerships is in conferences. So let’s say in the case of INBOUND, there were tons of SaaS companies all around, most of which share either the exact audience that we are targeting or a similar audience.”
Again, the emphasis is still to start small. This is a painful lesson Naser’s had to learn the hard way, after working with high maintenance or problematic partner personalities.
“So we usually try to test the waters just because we had some bad experiences in the past where we partnered up with people who were really tough to work with and our design team had to make 20 or 30 rounds of edits. Our content team had to do 20 or 30 rounds of edits. So you learn from these experiences and you tend to start valuing your time above everything else and try to actually find the right people to work with and people that would be worthwhile, the time and efforts of everyone involved.
Once you’ve done this for awhile, the warning signs start popping up pretty quickly.
“When you see how flexible they are, how professional they are as well and if you have to go back and forth with them, how their communication is and so on, that would tell you a lot. Usually, the first phone call that you’d hop with them on or the first meeting that you have, tells you a lot about the company. But I wouldn’t say that that’s the best way to actually test how they are as partners. The best way would be to find a quick win-win collaboration that you could start as a test and then slowly starts working on more in-depth partnerships.”
How Naser leverages other speakers at conferences to get introductions
Finding other marketers at a conference like INBOUND isn’t the problem.
The problem is that there are too.many.damn.marketers.
The hard part, then, is to figure out a way to slice through all the noise and zero-in on the specific people you want to meet.
Naser has a great tip for that.
“Usually, there’s at least one or two people on the team that are speaking in those conferences. They will try to intro us with other speakers. That would usually be the best way because you know who the person is, you know what the company is and you can do the research beforehand on what you could offer them, what you could get in return and whether it’s worth a test. That way you’re going to leave the conversation knowing exactly what you can offer them and what you can get in return.”
Contrast that with the usual approach which quickly leaves you nowhere.
“When you go there and you just randomly jump into different conversations, that tends to get overwhelming very quickly. Especially because most of the conversations you’re going to get into in conferences are people trying to sell you stuff. Agencies trying to get you as a client or people trying to sell you their services and so on.”
If he can’t get a personal intro beforehand, Naser will roll up his sleeves and do the dirty work to get their info.
“I usually try to figure out a way to reach out to them. Whether it’s like scraping a list of everyone that’s gonna attend, sending that to a VA, getting their emails, reaching out to them beforehand, introducing myself and setting up meetings that way. And then as you get responses, you vet it and see who is actually worth going in a meeting and so on. If there isn’t a possible way of doing that, then it might be worthwhile to try to find Facebook groups or creating your own Slack groups and starting to invite people that are attending and they invite other people that they know and start the conversation before actually going.”
“After tons of networking events and tons of conferences that I attended, you understand that 80% to 90% of the conversations that you’re going to jump into are useless. But the problem is you’re not going to know they’re useless until like 5 or 10 seconds after they started and you can’t just turn back and walk away. So you have to sit there for 10 or 15 minutes and actually go through the whole thing. If you’re able to actually vet it beforehand, then, by all means, do that.”
If the initial target is the CMO who’s speaking on stage, they might not be the best person to discuss partnerships at length. For that, Naser will try to get a referral or move down the line to get in touch with others on their team.
“If there isn’t a partnership team, let’s say the best people would be either the growth marketers or marketing managers. Actually, I’d say it depends on the type of partnership. So if it’s a guest post or a link swap, then the content marketer, content marketing managers are the best people to reach out to. If it’s something more in-depth, like a co-marketing project or co-branded pieces of content, then it would be the marketing manager in most cases. CMOs usually are not gonna waste their time replying back to you. So I’d say managers are probably your best bet because if they’re not the right people in most cases, they do see the value of it, and they’re going to connect you to the right person in the team.”
Naser will try to avoid cold email pitches at all costs. But if it’s the last resort, the message is 100% focused on the (a) value they’re going to get and (b) namedropping past partners.
“I actually created a media kit with like everyone that we worked with and I usually use that because social proof actually works. If you reach out to a SaaS company in a certain space and you show them that the leaders in the same industry have collaborated with us, even if they don’t know who Venngage is or at one point didn’t know what Venngage did, they’re going to associate you like with success or with being a leader in the industry just because you’ve worked with all these companies.”
That subtle point is also one of the biggest reasons in doing content partnerships — beyond the links, traffics, or leads.
“I’d say that’s probably the main benefit of partnerships. It’s usually not just a one-time thing and it’s not just one benefit like acquisition or conversion, it really has a lot of different benefits. Like, let’s say you work on a webinar, it’s not only acquisition or lead-generation, even though that’s the main goal or target, it’s also brand building, personal branding. Establishing yourself as thought leaders in the industry, that gets you other benefits or in the case of content partnerships as well. Not only does it establishes you as a leader but it also has SEO benefits. It also has a traffic, lead-gen, creates more prospects and so on.”
“Partnerships have that compounded interest factor that I think other marketing channels don’t necessarily have and you can see that a lot with like not just SaaS companies, you can also see that with fashion brands. I usually use Supreme as like the prime example of how partnerships work, because when they started all the way to today, more than 20 years, that’s the main way how they grew. They started by partnering up with brands like Sarcastic, like small niche companies in the space. That got them access to the other brands’ audience, that allowed them to grow. And then they continued partnering up with bigger companies, Nike, Jordan brand, Lacoste, LD, and they just kept expanding and now they’re one of the biggest brands in the world.”
The same brand partnerships play out across almost every medium or channel.
“You’ll also see that with Instagram influencers, YouTube influencers. There is a trend where people now see the value of partnerships. So they try to find people to partner up with to get access to a new audience, get access to a new brand. And just by associating your name with those different brands helps you build your own brand, build more credibility, more social proof, and it just compounds that way.”
How to run partnerships if you’re an early-stage company with zero social proof
“I’d actually recommend using partnerships if you’re an early stage business, if you don’t have the email list, if you don’t have the budget to go after paid ads and so on. Because it really allows you to leverage channels or people that you wouldn’t be able to reach at an early stage or otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach in other ways. And then it would also benefit you in all these different ways. It builds your brand, builds your personal brand or personal authority, that gets you into more conferences. You go there and you establish more partnerships and it just keeps growing that way.”
The problem with early-stage companies, though, is that you often have nothing to leverage. You can’t deliver tons of traffic or leads to a company. And you don’t have the social proof to get them to trust you.
So how do you create a compelling pitch?
“Let’s say link building, for example, because that’s usually the best kind of or the simplest way to partner up with different companies. I just got an example the other day where a company reached out to me and they had a very low DA. And usually, if someone wants a link swap or wants to write on our website and they’re a very low DA, we try to push that away just because you don’t want that to hurt your website or hurt your domain authority and so on.”
“But the way he approached me though was very different than everyone else. He wasn’t like, ‘I want to link on your website and in return, I’d give you a link on my website.’ It was like, ‘I’m writing all these different guests posts and I have three that are upcoming and a DA 60, 70 and like 40 something. I want a link on your website and in return, I’ll mention you on all these guest posts.’
If this person came to a huge brand with their tiny one, the conversation would go nowhere. Instead, he’s smartly offering the big brand other big brands in exchange. So it makes sense.
“He’s not leveraging his website because he knows that’s not going to be attractive enough for companies. He’s leveraging other partnerships that he’s doing. So he’s combining all these different partnerships together and trying to get the maximum value out of them.”
This is also the problem with all of those “I created this guide” or “I can give you a guest post”-type outreach emails.
The messaging is all wrong.
“So I’d say at an early stage, like there isn’t a handbook of steps to actually follow. You really have to be creative in the value that you’re going to add to companies. But once you start thinking about the other company first and think about what you could provide them first before you actually reach out, I think like that’s probably key for early-stage partnerships. The common mistake is you’re going to reach out with what you can get out of them. You’re going to reach out to a company that’s 20 times bigger than your company and you’re going to be like, ‘I want this, this, and that from you.’ Or, ‘I wrote this article and I want you to add that to your blog post.’
“They have absolutely no reason to do that for you. So just try to think of what can I give this company, what can I give that company? And even if they’re not going to give you anything in return immediately, you’re nurturing a relationship, you’re building a relationship. You’re starting by doing a favor or 2 or 5 or 10 to a company if it’s worth it. And then eventually if you continue doing that and you’re actually adding value to them, they’re going to find a way to add value back to you.”
Now, there are even tools to manage this type of personalized outreach. Tools like Respona automate your ability to focus on value for the outreach target first, rather than yourself, resulting in higher success rates.
Partnerships might be one-time events. Here’s how to make them evergreen producers.
Many content partnerships start out as one-time events.
You publish a. post, swap a link, submit a guest post, deliver an ebook, or perform a webinar.
And then? It’s done.
So what about all of the classic, ‘evergreen’ considerations like keyword research or landing page content to make sure you’re still getting value from each page long after the partnership is finished?
“In a lot of cases I’d say the problem with lead-gen projects is you’re dependent on a landing page, for example. So you’re going to have to host that project on the landing page, which usually doesn’t perform well on Google. You’re just going to push traffic and like paid traffic to that page and then once the project is done, it just dies out. We’re actually working on something within Venngage that is trying to tackle that issue and allows you to use lead-gen projects and content-gating projects, making them evergreen and just embedding them on your website versus needing a landing page.”
“So for example, we created a Christmas holiday kit with a company last year and that project was done but we’re still planning on pushing that to our users again this year because it’s still relevant, it still works for that audience and it still adds a lot of value to them. And we spent tons of time working on it, so might as well like keep using it if it’s adding value to people. Maybe it’s not going to be as beneficial as it was when the partnership was live or during that partnership campaign period, but you can still use it by all means. You can still add it to a blog post and get that to rank and get some organic traffic that way.”
It all comes down to the incremental costs at that point.
The bad news about content partnerships is that there is a lot of up-front work. It takes a lot of time and energy and commitment from everyone to successfully get it live and off the ground.
So have a Plan B after that initial burst of referral traffic dies out.
Because if you do it right, you should be able to dust it off at least once a year and still use it to drive traffic, leads, and sales for years into the future.