I just scheduled a meeting with a well-known, well-funded company to discuss partnership opportunities for marketing, referrals, and revenue sharing. These discussions did not come about overnight, nor will they immediately result in millions of dollars in sales. Not yet.

I know exactly what I want from a business partnership with a major company, and I’m betting it’s the same thing you want: Press releases, your logo on their website, coordinated sales efforts, and most important, a flood of new customers being referred to your business. 

That’s all possible, sure. But here’s the thing. Successful partnerships don’t happen like lightning in a bottle. They’re more of a slow burn. If you go in with guns blazing, promising high conversion rates and loads of new customers, the partner likely won’t take you seriously. 

All of the exciting stuff needs to wait until you can show traction with the partner first. How do you do that? You break down the partnership into the following three phases, each one building trust and creating revenue opportunities along the way.

1. Discounts and Due Diligence

Here’s the first question you should be asking yourself: Is this a partnership worth pursuing? Because I guarantee you that’s the first question your potential partner will ask. 

Of course, their size and reach makes a sales or marketing partnership with them seem like a no-brainer. But their size and reach is also something they’re very much aware of, and they’ll likely want to use that size to swing the deal in their favor. That could result in a very good deal for them and a very bad deal for you.

The way to test both the structure and the dynamics of a potential deal is to start with something that’s easy to set up, inexpensive to run, and straightforward to track. 

You’ll need a pricing model that accommodates partner discounts, and then to build the hooks for a simple discount trade. Your customers get a discount on your partner’s product or service and vice-versa. If possible, use tools you already have, like coupon codes, referral links, and partner landing pages. If you don’t have them, create them.

Offer the partner a program that can be started with zero friction and fanfare, and, most important, one that requires no costs on either side, like technical integration or legal review. Propose some basic co-marketing to make current customers aware of the offer, maybe something as simple as a trial email campaign on each side.

Then track how well the program works. You’ll want to know how much traffic your partner’s marketing efforts will bring and how much of that traffic converts to a sale. You’ll also need to be able to show that your own customers and prospects are a solid market for your partner. You’ll want your own data for this, so you don’t have to take your partner’s word for it.

Experiment with messaging, audience targeting, even the scope of the offer, until you start to see traction on both sides. Once you get that traction, you can make more informed decisions about how to expand the program. 

2. Automate and Accelerate

Now that you’re getting data, you’ll be able to at least guess at what kind of return you can expect from any time or money you spend accelerating the partnership and acquiring customers. 

So now you’ll want to spend that time and money.

Without changing your technical or organizational infrastructure, create ways to capitalize on the traction you’re seeing by automating what works and ditching what doesn’t. The goal is to break down the walls and reduce the clicks from your partner’s customer to your product, and vice versa.

This is a great place for no-code tools and third-party tracking platforms that you can bolt on to your current infrastructure to enhance and accelerate your partner programs. Zapier or web hooks, for example, can be used to send requests directly from one entity to another. Also reporting tools, to be able to quickly tally partner results and revenue. Better yet, create a dashboard where they can see their own results. 

You want to get the partner interested in working as hard for you as you’re willing to work for them. This is also where you want to encourage partner spending on the program, now that you have actual data that they can use to calculate an expected return on that spend.

3. Integrate and Announce

With both the trust and the infrastructure established to accommodate high levels of traffic and sales, it’s time to pull out all the stops, and go for those levels. 

You might create dedicated sales offerings and packages specific to the partnership. Develop marketing and messaging that highlights how “you + them” brings value to the customer that is more than the sum of the parts. Now is the time to build technical and operational integrations between your storefront and their storefront, reducing all the barriers and friction for unlocking that additional customer value.

This is also the time for press releases, social media campaigns, logos, or even dedicated partner pages on the website. Because now all those badges and blasts mean something. 

Let me leave you with this. When you have a plan to go big, aim for big partners. Smaller partners are OK too, of course. The good news is that as you adopt the tools and methods to accommodate these three phases with large partners, you can re-use the same tools and methods to take on smaller partners without much additional effort.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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