Sponsorship Guide: Think Big

Let's just acknowledge right off the bat that many association staffs are strapped for funds to put on their events. And yes, they're short-staffed, too. Now what if there were a magical solution that resolved both of those problems?

There is.

Sponsorships could be paying for better programs. All it takes is some strategic thought to substantially alter this revenue source and align it more closely to the organization's mission. A small number of companies could be brought in as partners, resulting in fewer sales calls, less invoicing, and fewer promises and details for the association's staff to track.

But to get that small clutch of partners means sitting down with them one-on-one for discussions to devise programs lasting beyond a single event. After all, it's easier simply to sell from a menu of options for exposure at a trade show or conference. "The time crunch and the reduced staff unfortunately lend themselves to more of a transactional deal," says Brad Jersey, chief strategic officer and partner in Opus Solutions of Beaverton, OR, a company that helps other organizations improve their event effectiveness. "They're having a $5,000 conversation when they could be having a $50,000 one."

Staffs are thinking in terms of selling a traditional product, like a lanyard or a luncheon, says Buz Buzogany, principal with SAVVY-Strategic Resource Partners, based in Arlington Heights, IL, a company that helps nonprofits develop non-dues revenue, "[and] in effect everyone in association-land is offering something similar." The result is that the event that you've worked so hard to build becomes just a commodity, rather than a hot product.

The first key to devising a high-value sponsorship program is to change your sponsor's thinking about your organization. Look at your association's mission, it's membership, and what you have to offer—but from a corporate perspective.

Why They Want to Be There
In the past several years, while the marketplace became a global one, marketers have struggled to reach individuals with their sales messages. Consumers have responded en masse to do-not-call lists; they opt out of e-mail blasts; they TiVo past television advertising. The younger ones don't read newspapers; magazines are losing readership too. No advertising pipeline has the reach it once had—except your shows.

Trade shows and other face-to-face events, whether run by corporations or associations, are among the few places that marketers can count on holding dialogues with buyers that are qualified and interested. "[Marketers] want a one-to-one relationship. The more they believe they can talk to the members" at your event, the more they will be willing to get on board with your sponsorship program, says Buzogany. "That's what it's all about."

Marketers are looking for "some sort of joint compelling value," says Jersey. For example, the National Athletic Trainers Association, based in Dallas, has a program that focuses on a three-way win—for the association, the members, and the sponsor. Its top tier, Founding Sponsor, has just two slots: Johnson & Johnson and Gatorade. Those two companies have been important to NATA since the 1980s, when the organization was run by volunteers and hardly resembled the 30,000-strong association of today. In exchange for their sponsorship, says Teresa Foster Welch, assistant executive director of NATA, these companies get to specify what's important to them.

For example, Gatorade conducts ongoing research on hydration and heat illness. This information is important for athletic trainers, so dialogue at NATA's annual meeting is mutually valuable. "We'll go to [Gatorade] and say, 'How can we help you reach our members,'" says Foster Welch. With pre-conference mailings to attract members to the booth, articles in its publications, and other marketing tools, NATA's team has indeed solidified that partnership.

What marketers want is unique and individual, say experts. Goals might include getting a certain number of leads, holding discussions with top buyers, or making a splash as a new player in the industry. "If everyone has an exhibit booth, some are asking, 'How can I get beyond that?' " says Vinu "Joe" Joseph, senior project director of Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Services, a firm with both sponsor and seller clients. A vendor that provides business services, for instance, may want to position itself as a provider of solutions, or as a partner who is there to support the growth of the profession.

The association's task, once it knows what the marketer wants, is to value it and deliver it, but not just at the event. "The main thing," says Joseph, "is that sponsorship doesn't become just one more piece of inventory, but part of the entire solution." In short, you want to integrate the sponsor more into the association.

Beyond Partnership
If you're working in partnership with some of your supplier members, that's a good first step, but it's not enough. Associations need to become more strategic in their thinking. The sponsorship conversations need to focus on customized programs, and the association's top executives need to be visibly involved.

The Association Forum of Chicagoland, a 91-year-old association of associations, adopted a new strategic plan in the fall of 2003, and its approach to sponsorships totally changed from that day on. "As we began to operationalize that [strategic plan], we identified our culture and values, and how we wanted to position the Forum as a value proposition to our members and to the marketplace," says Gary LaBranche, president and CEO of the group.

LaBranche says the organization made a conscious attempt to become more entrepreneurial in its approach to the marketplace, "more open to new ideas and to meeting a marketer's needs." At the same time, the Forum began experimenting with a wider range of programs and new delivery systems for content. "We thought through how we might integrate sponsors into them."

For its magazine, it created a Signature Story that focuses on a different association every month and describes how that organization made a difference in the lives of its members, its constituency, and society. "As we thought about that," says LaBranche, "we saw that it strongly articulated the vision of the organization, and we also saw that as a great opportunity for a marketplace partner to get in front of our audience if they shared those ideas and values of advancing the association movement."

Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, which signed on as that sponsor, is a Chicago-based corporation and seemed a logical sponsor, with its long involvement with the associations market. In addition to the exclusive position in the magazine, Hyatt got participation in the honors gala, additional booth space, and other valuable offerings. According to Buzogany, whose company consulted on the idea, "to get Hyatt onboard we sat down on three separate occasions to explain what we were doing, to tailor it to what they wanted. From inception of the idea to actually signing the deal, the process took 15 weeks.

Members Benefit Too
You don't want to give the impression that in landing a high-priced sponsorship, the association simply sold out to the highest bidder. Every deal must make sense and must afford value beyond the money it provides. Part of a strategic program to evolve top-tier sponsors to where they have involvement in all facets of the association should include a communication program, to blunt any skepticism. To those associations that struggle to raise money to pay for programs, and to those staffers who sit in on meetings with partners and vendors, the value sponsorships bring to the association might seem obvious. But an overcommercialized environment at the association's meetings can raise eyebrows and perhaps even hurt credibility among members.

The Self Storage Association (SSA), based in Alexandria, VA, found that a new program begun in the fourth quarter of 2005 actually uncluttered the trade shows and made staffers' workloads less complicated. Lee Matthews, director of corporate sponsorships and national accounts for the SSA, says that after hiring IEG as a consultant to look at the whole organization top to bottom, "we bundled our benefits together into three [sponsorship] tiers." Prior to that, "we were doing what a lot of trade associations do—selling fragmented sponsorships, like breakfasts, pins, bags, and so on." All those small-potatoes sponsorships meant a lot of administrative back-end work, he says. The organization was bringing in about $72,000 per year from "lots and lots of relationships," and had to invoice sponsors and resell them for every show.

EG interviewed vendors—and learned they felt SSA had no understanding of their marketing goals. Further, vendors felt that "they were being nickel and dimed," says Matthews. Plus, they might spend a few hundred here or a couple of grand there, and "sponsors didn't have a handle on how much they were spending."

Now, SSA's top sponsorship, called SSA Partner, costs $60,000 per year, and there's a two-year commitment for the eight slots offered. Partners get "pages of benefits," says Matthews, including category exclusivity; a full list of benefits can be found at www.selfstorage.org/PDF/partner.pdf. The second tier, SSA Patron, is a one-year commitment for $30,000, and again, there are eight slots. Benefits are essentially the same as for Partner, but these sponsors do not get exclusivity.

Finally, there's event sponsorship, of which there are just four slots for each of the two shows SSA does each year. Cost is $8,000. "[These sponsors] get visibility and promotion centered around that event. Before, we were selling every little thing individually: someone to sponsor the breakfast, someone to sponsor the cybercafe. . .We bundled all that together. Some of it the Partners get, some the Patrons get, some the Event Sponsors get [such as signage]." And because there are never more than 20 sponsors, the show environment is less saturated, so sponsor signage makes a bigger impact, says Matthews.

The bottom line: In less than 18 months, sponsorships resulted in close to $900,000 in revenue that's being invested in new programs—about nine times the old programs' revenues. Not bad.

The Fiesta San Antonio Commission uses SponsorshipPRO+ software from eBranded Solutions for its follow-up reports to sponsors. The 10-day citywide party with more than 100 events put on by nonprofits relies on Commission-sold sponsorships.

The annual St. Mary's University Oyster Bake, for instance, raises money for scholarships during Fiesta. Once the Commission learns how many tickets were sold by St. Mary's, the number of eyeballs that saw a sponsor's banner there is easy to figure. "We go around and take pictures of the banners, billboards, a booth, or a table at [each] of our Fiesta events," says Anne Keever Canon, publicity and events manager.

Patty Gonzales, project manager, uploads photos into SponsorshipPRO+, along with stats on "eyeballs." She digitally scans local newspaper ads and includes them, along with circulation information; TV spots are included as an MPEG file, along with viewership figures. Sponsors get a CD containing all the data, clips, and photos, as well as a binder with the hard copy of the report.

"ROI can be boiled down to a number, like a Nielsen rating, a cost per impression, or a cost per click," says Tom Stipes, president of eBranded Solutions, headquartered in Atlanta, GA. "But for sponsorships it's a lot more convoluted."

"You're never going to be able to tell the sponsor, 'This is the ROI that you generated,' " agrees Vinu "Joe" Joseph, senior project director for Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Services, which has its own event valuation service using proprietary methodology. "You just have to ask, 'What information do you need from us in order for you to measure your results?' The true ROI analysis is done more from the sponsor side."

Originally published June 01, 2007

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