Years ago, rival retail chains began noticing that when they opened stores across the street from each other, both stores benefited. Lowe's began opening stores in close proximity to Home Depot locations, while CVS customers could see the nearest Walgreens by simply looking through the window. This practice has been compared to the thinking behind shopping centers and malls. When stores are gathered in one location, shoppers are drawn to that area with credit cards in hand.

At any point, one of these chains could have battled the practice, but instead, the stores seemed to embrace it. They may not have been working together, but customers quickly learned if what they wanted wasn't in stock, they could simply cross the street and find it at the rival store. It was a win for both of the rival stores, as well as their many customers. Shoppers may have considered it a fierce battle between two enemies, but by operating companionably, these chains found they could share the same space and thrive.

The Social Media Connection

So how does this apply to social media marketing? While they may not have partnered to plan it, this strategy worked for all of the chains involved. There was a perceived rivalry in being so close by, as customers imagined the store managers waving their fists in the air at each other. While many now expect to see a CVS near a Walgreens, for a while the practice had people talking, bringing publicity to both stores.

In social media, customers assume rival companies will stay far away from each other's pages. Nobody expects FedEx to post on UPS's site and certainly Qdoba and Chipotle aren't promoting each other's specials. Each business is busy building its own social media presence, and any notice of what competitors are doing is merely for self-improvement purposes.

Good-Natured Bantering

But some brands are finding that a little harmless bantering back and forth is not only okay, but effective, as well. Consumers enjoy watching the posts fly and they start to see the lighthearted, fun side of a brand, which often seems endearing.

As Ad Age pointed out last year, the practice isn't without its complications. Brands have to avoid the sticky legalities that come with publicly bashing another company, even if the jabs are meant in fun. When a business launches the first missile, that business often isn't sure if the competitor will see it as friendly or aggressive. One example of online bantering that worked was KFC's tweet that Cap'n Crunch's mascot was officially a "has been." Cap'n Crunch's social media team shot back that it didn't have time for small potatoes, adding, "Or boneless chickens."

Rivals Strategically Partnering Up

While fierce rivals may not normally schedule meetings, social media teams for those rivals could easily sit down over a cup of coffee and generate a social media strategy that's beneficial to both companies. This strategy could lead to a partnership or a short series of bantering posts, but either way, history has shown that it gets consumer attention and generates significant brand buzz, while also humanizing each brand, improving conversion rates and shaping the brand in such a way that encourages loyalty.

When looking for a partnership, don't just consider your rivals as options. Cap'n Crunch and KFC aren't direct rivals, so both brands could operate alongside each other both before and after the posts. Taco Bell, a company known for its comedic tweets, gained attention when it replied to a comment from non-rival Old Spice that asked why the fast food chain didn't make their fire sauce using real fire. Taco Bell replied by asking Old Spice, "Is your deodorant made with really old spices?" Touch.

Bantering isn't the only way competitors can form online partnerships. In fact, consumers might see competitors working together as good sportsmanship from both sides. Two companies in the same small area could join forces to support an important cause or invite customers to a big event in town. When conducted in the spirit of community, even two companies that are consistently competing for customers can come together to make good things happen.

Strength in Numbers

As MasterCard pointed out when it partnered with Travelex, a partnership between two companies can bring a financial reward that's bigger than the sum of its parts. In other words, two companies working together can achieve results that are much greater than they could get separately.

Partnerships can extend beyond simply posting about shared support of a project or cause. Some businesses have success in hosting contests and offering donated prizes as an incentive. Any mention of your brand by another company will gain exposure to that company's followers and, if those followers share the information, it reaches even further.

Legal Caution

One famous partnership happened when Kraft Foods partnered with Starbucks to distribute its coffee in stores. Kraft, which manufactures Maxwell House, seemed to have adopted an, "If you can't beat them, join them" mentality when it came to its coffee. The two agreed to a distribution deal that would have Kraft Foods distributing Starbucks coffee in grocery stores nationwide. But the partnership ended in a legal battle that was only settled late last year, illustrating that when rival companies work together, things can eventually go wrong.

In the social media realm, however, it's easier for brands to work together and achieve successful ROI without battles ensuing. Short-term partnerships for the sake of getting the word out about a promotion or big event can be more beneficial than long-term agreements that involve major funds.

Conclusion

By harnessing the power of their respective audiences to help each other, brands can have fun while also broadening their reach and building their customer loyalty. As major chains have demonstrated in recent years, when businesses can agree to work together in a way that benefits customers, everyone wins.

Published on: Sep 30, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.