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In a time of ever-increasing competition and choice, the value of investing in smart partnerships is apparent. But what's not so apparent is that opportunities for collaboration are often hiding in plain sight—with your competitors.

Although strategic alliances with competitors may initially seem risky, they can also offer unmatched rewards. As long as the relationship benefits both sides, you can create a mutually profitable partnership to attract and retain customers.

Consider the media industry. As online readership replaces print subscriptions and attention spans wane, traditional media need to find new ways to compete. The New York Times reported that Facebook is in talks with media providers about hosting content directly within Facebook. (The deal has since been consummated.)

Facebook likes that this arrangement would keep readers within its universe; media likes the built-in audience offered by Facebook; and readers ultimately benefit from the reduction of site-jumping friction.

Rather than competing head-to-head, consider the players in your field and how you could combine efforts to help both companies and, ultimately, your customers.

Here are six steps to keep your "enemies" close.

1. Identify strengths, gaps, and goals

Start by outlining your partnership goals and defining what you need out of a collaboration: Do you want to enlarge your customer base by gaining access to a specific niche? Would your customers be more successful with new technology? Are these initiatives too cost-prohibitive to tackle internally?

Next, identify the unique assets your business brings to the table: Do you have a well-known brand, or a vast global audience? Outlining your strengths will help you build a strong bargaining position as you seek an ally.

In the affiliate marketing space, eBay (my employer) has partnerships with companies that were traditionally viewed as competitors. Rather than only allowing publishers to refer traffic directly though eBay's in-house affiliate program, eBay partners with networks such as Viglink and Skimlinks.

These collaborations give the smaller networks access to eBay's brand recognition and inventory; eBay gets additional distribution channels; publishers enjoy a greater choice of merchants; and consumers get a more tailored experience. It's a win-win-win-win situation.

2. Survey your landscape

Dig around to identify potential partners that could fill your gaps and benefit from your advantages. Gather suggestions from stakeholders, including your most trusted customers: They can offer a different perspective on experiences they've had with your competitors.

Though it may not make sense to partner with your most direct competitor, joining forces with a smaller competitor that poses less of a threat may help you collaboratively take mindshare away from larger market leaders.

Or you may even find that rather than working with just one company, it'd be better to build an alliance of multiple companies with varying strengths.

3. Initiate the partnership

After you've packaged your offerings in a way that will appeal to your competitor's deficits, you'll also want to anticipate and address any hesitations. The biggest hurdles tend to be emotional—a fear of losing control or actually trusting a competitor.

Trust, transparency, and ongoing communication play huge roles in any relationship, and they are even more important when keeping with the "enemy." Share your intentions and goals for the partnership, as well as standards and processes. Crucially, you must establish the rules of engagement from the onset.

Also, if one gains a significant advantage and the other won't see as big of a payoff, you'll want to consider adding incentives to sweeten the deal. The split of the revenue share, access to customer databases, and promotional support are just a few bargaining chips to consider.

4. Establish risk factors and guidelines

New frontiers require new rules. Each company will protect its own interests, and human nature can be tough to navigate.

Accordingly, clarify goals, policies, business models, and factors such as privacy and data ownership, and put everything in writing so expectations are clear. Make sure that employees understand what information can and shouldn't be shared with this new partner.

Anticipate any tricky scenarios and contingency plans so issues don't sneak up on you. Tackle subjects, such as future products and plans, that could affect the relationship, as well as how each works with other partners and competitors.

The reality is that this relationship may not last forever, so you'll also want to discuss an exit strategy and associated terms and obligations.

5. Maintain the partnership

It bears repeating: A healthy partnership that continually evolves and meets the needs of all parties requires trust, transparency, and open communication.

A leading cause of partnership failures is distrust, which has a way of sneaking its way into the relationship. Make sure to keep the lines of communication open with regular check-ins and updates.

Keep in mind that competition within the partnership may still exist, yet on a different scale, as the returns will not always remain even and balanced. Conflict can arise over who has the right to the rewards of the partnership, and it's key to address such concerns as they arise—or before.

6. Learn and iterate

This kind of partnerships isn't for quick fixes, and you don't want to enter into it lightly: The goal is to learn from your partner to gain knowledge and long-term advantages. By working together to identify mutual growth opportunities, you can steer both companies down new paths.

Aside from squeezing additional value from partnership, be mindful of how you can replicate it elsewhere. Learn from your successes and failures to think about how you could improve upon your current engagement to play nice with other perceived competitors.

* * *

By casting aside the emotion and ego that often accompany the competitive mindset, you can uncover uncharted opportunities that will really push your business forward.

Former competitors who are able to identify complementary offerings and build a team can offer a richer, more cohesive customer experience.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of John Toskey

John Toskey is the global director of eBay Partner Network, eBay's in-house affiliate marketing program.

LinkedIn: John Toskey