How to grow your startup with content partnerships

December 14, 2022

Does this sound like your company?

  1. You found product-market fit
  2. Your next customers have been referrals from your happy customers
  3. You’re now trying to figure out where the next customers will come from

You don’t want to run ads — maybe there isn’t a scalable channel to reach your customers, or maybe you don’t want to rely on paid marketing so early on. 

You are open to investing in SEO, but you know it takes months to get results. 

You are ramping up a sales team but that doesn’t solve the top-of-funnel leads problem. 

You might have written some case studies or educational content on your company blog but there’s little to no traffic. 

One option that I’ve seen work to attract net new customers in a brand-accretive way is to set up content partnerships. 

Content partnerships are when your company writes an article that’s distributed to not only your audience, but also a partners’ audience[0]. The partner that you’re working with should have an overlapping audience with your company, while also having a lot of “net new” readers. 

A content partnership strategy is used either to increase demand for your company’s product (CTA: try product; talk to sales team) or increase company awareness (CTA: capture emails). Content partnerships are great for when you don’t have an audience yet but have relationships with company’s or communities who do have audiences. 

Many content partnerships are a win-win: 

  • Brands are accretive to each other
  • Both companies also get to send useful content to a new audience

In this post, I’ll walk through the content partnerships process I used at Compound. The post will be about:

  1. Choosing partners
  2. Outreach and initial call
  3. Make a firm proposal
  4. Write great content
  5. Promotion & distribution

Will finish up the post talking about metrics & tracking. Let’s get into it. 

[0] The article could be also distributed to your own audience and it can be hosted on either party’s website (more on that below). 

1. Choosing partners

To kick off content partnerships, we started by figuring out who we wanted to partner with. For this post I’ll be focusing on companies, brands, and communities instead of influencers and creators (for another post). 

Initially, we came up with the following criteria: 

  • Overlapping audience with your ideal customer profile (ICP)
  • Their brand and their brand values overlaps with your brand
  • You have existing relationships (often this is with our CEO, but sometimes it was with someone on content or partnerships)

Once we did several of the partnerships, we added to the criteria: 

  • Focus on email as a channel. We tried partnerships with a number of brands that had large social media followings and didn’t have as strong results as when we partnered with brands with email lists. Each email is worth multiples of a social media follower!
  • Size of the email list matters a lot. We asked about distribution before committing resources to writing a long article to avoid investing in something that was unlikely to reach a lot of people. 
  • Engagement of the email list matters. I was surprised with how many companies have thousands of emails (or more) that don’t get much (or any) engagement from their readers. This criteria is hard to screen before starting because there’s not an easy metric to ask about. Open rate was tempting, but there have been enough high open rates without strong  engagement for me to trust it in this situation. If there is something that worked, we would look at past email sends (they often post these publicly) and judge the quality of content ourselves.

Most of the above criteria was for our sanity as marketers. Our CEO already knew a lot of brands that he wanted to partner with and it was on us to prioritize which ones to write for and in which order. I’m guessing that many CEOs are similar as they typically understand their problem space quite well. (If you don’t have any ideas for partners, shoot me a note — happy to brainstorm methods to get ideas). 

2. Outreach and initial call

To get started with content partnerships, we needed to get in touch with partners and propose a partnership. 

To do the initial outreach, we often leveraged our CEO, investors, and champions of our product to get warm introductions. (the power users who loved us and were already making referrals). Just like any sales process, the channel and framing for how you enter the conversation matters as much as anything. Cold outreach works for some companies, but we focused on warm introductions first. Warm intros had a much higher conversion rate. 

For the initial outreach email, I found that writing in a casual tone worked better than writing in a formal tone. If you are using an intro from the CEO or investors to start the partnership, consider sending a separate email from you to the CEO and then they can forward. This makes it seem more like, “help me do my marketing team a favor,” rather than, “can you do me a favor?”

We always kept the value prop in the initial email simple. “Open to doing a content partnership?” Additionally, if you are getting intros from the CEO or investors, you’ll likely be intro’d to other CEOs. The CEOs won’t be involved in the execution of the content, so work with the marketing / content / partnership person on their side to set something up. 

Once we got on a call with their content team, we were both evaluating each other. Here are some questions we focused on in the initial call:

  • What are their content goals, and do they line up with ours?
  • What are the characteristics of their audience? 
  • How large is their audience? 
  • What content have they tried and what’s worked well? 
  • Have they done any content partnerships in the past, and if so, how did they go?

3. Make a firm proposal

When we got on calls with another company that wants to do content with us, a lot of times neither party had a firm plan or proposal. Making the decision about what to do was part of our value. If we came to the meeting prepared with content ideas, a timeline, and a promotion strategy, it made it a lot easier for the other party to say yes. 

A few other notes about making a proposal:

  • Write down the plan. I’ve found success outlining all the details in a shared Google doc. The sections can be as simple as: Goals, Audience, Content Headlines, Publishing Timeline, Promotion Plan. This helped us solicit a firm “yes” or “no”. Often it was “yes”. Even if it was a “no”, it allowed us to propose something new. 
  • Use social proof. When you execute a partnership, the two brands associate with each other. The value for the partner will be your brand — oftentimes at the early stage the brand of your startup has a lot to do with the founder, early customers, early hires, and investors. Eventually it extends to other things like the types of brands that you’ve already partnered with. Given this perspective, we often highlighted the other aspirational brands we were working with as social proof. 
  • Convince yourself of the value. Partnerships that worked well for us were truly win-win. We would generate leads and brand awareness, and the partner would get free valuable content (and often additional email subscribers) for no work. When I truly believed this, the conversations became easier because it wasn’t “selling” as much as it was “partnering”. This is a bit fuzzier than the other bullet points here but had a big impact on the success for me. 
  • Follow up. It’s easy for these partnerships to become deprioritized or not happen at all. To solve this, we weren’t afraid to follow up in a polite tone. A partnership isn’t complete until it’s complete!

4. Write great content

If the last section was about the “partnerships” side of content partnerships, this section is about the “content” side. 

To kick off a partnership, I often suggested a few topic ideas for posts (and sometimes a few bullet points per post). Coming up with ideas for content partnerships posts wasn’t hard. Often there are 3-6 key themes that we talked about in our own blog. We could use one of those themes and combine it with the partner’s audience to create a topic. 

For example, I wrote this post for Compound and The topic was “equity in your tech job offer”. This topic was one of the key themes that Compound often discusses (tech employee equity) mixed with the audience that was focused on overall tech compensation. 

Once you have agreement on the article that you are going to write, you have to write the article. Writing content deserves an entire blog’s worth of articles to explain, but here are a few principles that are particularly relevant here:

  • Interesting or useful. I always had the goal of an article to be interesting or useful (or both). My favorite definition of interesting is: “interesting theories which deny certain assumptions of their audience, while non-interesting theories are those which affirm certain assumptions of their audience”. In other words, make a credible case against something your audience assumes is true. Useful is straightforward: giving the audience tools or knowledge that they didn’t have before. 
  • Lead with the punchline. Instead of “A, B, C, D cause X”, write “X, because of A, B, C, D”. Business people have short attention spans, give them the key information first. I’m not the first to write about this and if you want to learn more about this concept, I really like this post
  • Repurpose existing ideas. If you’ve written a lot for your own company blog, then you have the content already. It just needs to be re-framed into a package that makes sense in conjunction with the new audience. 

5. Promotion & distribution

The final step is to figure out promotion and distribution of the post. There are basically two main questions:

  1. Where will the post be hosted? 
  2. Where will the post be distributed? 

When I did content partnerships, I typically offered to both write the post and have the partner host it on their website. In exchange, we would send to both email lists (usually the partners list was larger), share on both companies’ social media accounts, and rehost on our website a few weeks later with a link back to the original post. 

Your mileage may vary but this has worked well for me. 

Metrics & tracking

The goal will determine which metric you track for partner content. 

Goal 1: trust. Sometimes partner content is building trust — maybe the partner is a leader in the space and it’s a priority to place your logo next to theirs rather than drive a certain amount of traffic, leads, or revenue. These are valuable because prospects and leads 

Goal 2: brand awareness. In this case, your goal is to get in front of as many new prospects as possible. Your KPI here will be either an impression metric on the post (page views or email opens) or new visitors to your own website. 

Goal 3: leads. In this case, leads will be your main KPI and you can back into conversion through website traffic. 

Just like with any growth strategy, we used these metrics to understand if it was working (continue) or not (stop). There are other ways to build a brand and generate leads, but this could be useful in your growth strategy.

If you want to chat about content partnerships at your startup, feel free to shoot me a note at adam [at] adamkeesling [dot] com.

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