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Marketing partnerships can be one of the cheapest, fastest and easiest ways to grow your business and test new market opportunities. It can also be a black hole for resources.

During the Internet heyday, it was enough to identify a potential partner and a cool idea, sign a contract and "see what happened." But we've begun to realize that although a partnership has no up-front costs... it can be expensive in terms of time, resources and mindshare.

To maximize success, keep the following rules in mind.

Rule 1: Know what you want

If you want access to a particular market, don't partner with a company trying to sell you new technology. If you're trying to gain new customers, you don't want a partner to help with retention of the customers you've already got.

Before you begin talking to partners, know why you are seeking partnerships, and how you will measure success. Start with a small test first, to see if the results meet both parties' expectations, then roll out the partnership in a larger way.

Ask yourself:

  • What are you testing?
  • How big is the opportunity?
  • What economic terms will work?
  • What are your showstoppers—anywhere you can't be flexible?
  • What metrics will you be using to evaluate success?

You also might ask, "How will we know if this partnership is successful?" You can't expect the other side to know what is important to you—make sure that you know!

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Robbie Kellman Baxter is president of consulting firm Peninsula Strategies (www.peninsulastrategies.com).