by Lisa McGrimmon
Can a business collaboration truly create valuable opportunities to grow your company?
Sometimes joint projects open up fresh opportunities full of potential.
Sometimes they are a colossal waste of your time.
As you grow your online business, and as more people become interested in influencer marketing, you'll get more offers to participate in joint projects. If you're thinking about getting involved in a business collaboration, the trick is to separate the better opportunities from the ones that aren't worth your time.
Imagine you sell handmade soap online. You've worked hard to establish traffic to your shop, and it brings in a good income. You have a strong presence on a few social media sites, you get traffic from Google, and you have an impressive and growing mailing list of interested customers. All of that success is a result of hours of your own hard work and ingenuity.
One day you're contacted by another soap maker - a random stranger you've never met - who proposes a business collaboration. She wants you to participate in a webinar she's holding about the benefits of using handmade soap.
Do you agree to participate?
You're a solopreneur. Your time is limited. It's the most precious commodity you have.
You realize that if you agree to participate, in addition to the time you spend on the day of the webinar, you'll also need to commit time to work out details with this person and time to prepare a presentation that will make a great impression. Ultimately, this project will require a substantial investment of your time.
You need to decide if this collaboration is a real business-building opportunity that is worthy your time.
I get requests like this for a variety of projects fairly frequently. Some are great opportunities for everyone involved.
Some are completely one-sided. The other person would benefit, but the project offers no benefit on my end to justify the investment of my time.
When someone proposes a joint project, the first two questions I ask myself are:
This is always my first question. Is this person a direct competitor of mine? Are we looking to promote the same type of product or service to the same people.
Does this person offer something unique that my readers would be interested in, and that I'm unable to offer them myself?
If I can't see a substantial difference between their business and mine, I'm going to be extremely skeptical of a business collaboration. It's not an automatic deal breaker, but other factors would have to be pretty impressive for me to move forward.
Instead, I like to work with collaborators who operate in related, but non-competing niches. I'm happy to collaborate with someone who offers value to my readers that I can't offer myself.
Going back to the soap maker example, imagine our soap maker uses only environmentally responsible ingredients in her soaps. It's a big focus of her business marketing.
This time, she's contacted by the owner of a website that teaches people how to live a more environmentally responsible lifestyle. They'd like her to participate in a webinar to talk about the benefits of using eco-friendly soaps.
Now that's the beginning of a collaboration that could have potential. Both businesses are focused on the same customer, but they have different products. They are not direct competitors. We might have a winner here.
The next thing I need to know before committing my time is, how will my business benefit if I participate in this collaboration?
Generally, once you build a bit of a following, people will contact you with business collaboration proposals because they want access to your audience.
If you participate in their project, they'll expect you to promote it to your audience. They see you have a good social media following, a strong presence in the search engines, and an active newsletter, and they want all of those people who find and follow your business to be exposed to their business.
If you're going to give someone access to your blog readers, newsletter subscribers, and social media followers - relationships you've worked long and hard to develop - you need to be getting something valuable out of the deal as well.
You need to research potential partners a bit to see what they bring to the table.
A collaborator who is offering a real win-win partnership should provide you with some basics about the type and size of audience they already have. Most don't provide that information, which is a red flag to me. But, I'll still take a little time to dig up some information if the inquiry piques my interest at all.
Here's how I do my research:
Start with their website (or Etsy shop)
Have a quick look at the quality of their site. You don't have to dive in too deep yet. There are plenty of gorgeous websites that get absolutely no traffic, and there are some unattractive websites that get loads of traffic.
At this stage, just have a quick look around to get a general feel for their work.
From their website, find the links to their social media accounts, and check them out. Ask yourself the following questions:
There's no magic number in terms of the size of social media audience someone should have before you'll collaborate with them. The size of audience that's acceptable to you will depend largely on the size of your own audience.
If you have 1,000 followers, collaborating with someone else who also has 1,000 followers probably makes sense. If you have 100,000 followers, you're probably not going to be interested in collaborating with the person who has 1,000 followers unless they have something truly special and compelling to offer or you really believe in and want to support their business.
You don't need to see huge audiences in all of the big social sites to make a business collaboration worthwhile. We can't be everywhere; we all have to focus our time on the most productive strategies. If, perhaps, they've focused their time on building plenty of engaged Instagram followers, but they don't have much of a Twitter following, that's just fine, particularly if Instagram users are a good fit for your own business.
Social engagement is particularly important to check on sites like Instagram that can be easily "gamed" with software. If someone has a following of 50,000 people, but only 100 people regularly like their posts, that tells you they don't have 50,000 real followers. They have 50,000 followers gained by gaming the system. I'd much rather partner with someone who has 5,000 Instagram followers who are real people, engaged and interested in what that person is posting, than someone with 50,000 robots following their account.
Next, you can check out their website traffic.
People often aren't forthcoming with the amount of traffic their site gets. It's kind of personal, like asking someone how much money they make or how much they weigh.
So you'll need to dig a bit.
Here are some free resources to give you a reasonable picture:
You'll need to create a free account to access the free tools on SEMrush. Once you have your free account, you can research up to 10 sites for free per day.
Type in the URL belonging to your potential partner's website, and SEMrush will give you reasonably accurate data including:
Search your own site's URL while you're there to see how your numbers compare with theirs.
Are they close?
If your traffic numbers are far higher than theirs, then you need to wonder if they can really offer you exposure to an audience that's worth your time. If the numbers are close, it might be a good fit. Alternatively, if they reach an audience that you don't currently reach but would like to, the collaboration might be a great opportunity.
SEMrush is the primary source I use to get a sense of a site's traffic from search engines, but if you want to take your research a bit further, you can also check the following:
Alexa can also give you some insight into the popularity of a site.
There are approximately 200 million active websites online. (source netcraft.com) That means, if a site ranks at 1,000,000 on Alexa.com, is in the top .05% of all sites on the entire internet.
Getting a website to rank in the top 1,000,000 on Alexa is a big accomplishment, particularly for a solopreneur. You don't have to demand someone have that kind of traffic to their site, particularly if your own traffic isn't there yet, but it's a baseline I like to use when assessing Alexa rankings.
SimilarWeb is another useful place to gather information about the popularity of a website. When you search a site here, you'll find its Alexa ranking as well as information about where the site's traffic comes from.
If you want a general idea about whether a site gets most of its traffic from Google, or a specific social media site, or from email, you'll find that information here.
Archive.org will give you an idea of how old the site is. It won't always give you the full picture of a business if, for example, a company has changed domain names, or if someone else used the domain name in the past, but most of the the time, the information will be accurate.
Go to google, and search for "site:urlyouwanttoresearch.com" but leave out the quotation marks, and replace urlyouwanttoresearch.com with the actual web address you are researching.
This search will tell you how many pages Google has indexed from that site. That gives you an idea of how active the site owner is in posting content and how dedicated they are in building their business.
If you're happy that the person who wants to work with you isn't a direct competitor, and you've determined they have an audience that you'd like to reach, the next thing you need to do is assess who you're working with.
Are they reliable? Do they have a track record of creating quality material? Are other people involved in this project?
Remember when you were forced to do the dreaded group project in school?
There was always that one person in the group who didn't do their fair share. They created drama and caused more work for everyone else in the group and then got a great mark on the back of your hard work.
Trust me. You don't want to find yourself in that kind of situation in your business life.
At this stage, I want to try to assess two things:
At this point, I'd dive into their website and read a few of their most recent posts. I'd have a closer look at their social media and check the quality of their posts. I'd also Google their name and see what comes up.
You can never be 100 percent certain that you and your partner will be a great fit, but a little bit of research here will give you some insight into the quality of their work.
If you're considering a large scale project, it might involve other experts in similar niches. An organizer will often name drop people who are already committed to the project in order to entice you to join. If there are others involved in the project, you can quickly check them out as well.
Use the same strategies outlined above to assess the size of their audience and the quality of their work. This will give you a sense of the people you'd be working with and the potential for exposure to new customers.
The right business collaboration can provide an excellent opportunity to grow your business. The wrong collaboration can be a giant waste of time, or a ploy by a competitor to try to gain access to your audience.
I have worked on some collaborations that were productive and wonderful win-win projects for everyone involved. I have worked on other collaborations that benefitted the other person but were an immense waste of my own time. I've learned from that experience to assess a project carefully before I dive in.
When you receive offers to collaborate on a project, it's up to you to decide.
Ultimately, when someone contacts you to partner in a business collaboration, what they really want is access to your audience.
Your audience is precious. It's the foundation of your business. You've worked long and hard hours to develop those relationships. Don't give all of that away lightly. Do your research, avoid collaborations that don't seem to be a good fit, and have a great time working on those business collaborations that are truly a win-win situation for everyone involved.