Structuring Association Sponsorship Programs to Win

It’s no longer a given that companies that sell to your members will sponsor your association. Bruce Rosenthal, founder of the Partnership Professional Network, explains what you need to know now about structuring association sponsorship programs to win. 

Happy project manager holds financial report, shows rising stats and growing graphs to colleague, satisfied with great development rate, successful strategy, business growth, company success concept
Happy project manager holds financial reports, shows rising stats and growing graphs to colleagues, satisfied with great development rate, successful strategy, business growth, company success concept

What are corporate sponsors really thinking?

I’ve interviewed a lot of corporate sponsors over the years. Sponsors have expressed concerns like:

  • “Recognition is probably the least important driver of sponsorship value.”
  • “Our company markets 365 days a year; our conference sponsorship is only 3 days a year.”
  • “For the money, time, and energy [the sponsorship involves], I can create other opportunities.”

Now associations have a new challenge: During the more than two years that associations have been forced to cancel their conferences and expos – or present these events virtually – due to the pandemic, sponsor companies were pursuing alternative ways to market their products and services.

Companies have generated their own outreach and created lead lists with social media; presented educational content via company webinars on Zoom; and posted case studies and guides on their company website. Companies have also partnered with trade publications and for-profit webinar and expo producers.

It’s no longer “a given” that companies that sell products or services to an association’s members will sponsor the association.

Recommended Read: Looking for detailed advice on designing an event sponsorship package that will be competitive in today’s market? Download the free Sponsorship Strategy Guide to learn how💰!

Survey Reveals the State of Sponsorship Engagement

The Partnership Professionals Network and Dynamic Benchmarking partnered on a survey of association sponsors. The results – released in January 2022 – reveal some interesting insights.

Companies reported they are not achieving their sponsorship objectives; only 21 percent are achieving their objectives “most of the time”. One reason sponsors’ objectives aren’t being achieved is because associations don’t know sponsors’ goals; only 21 percent of the companies said “most” of the associations they sponsor to understand their goals.

The third related factor leading to sponsor dissatisfaction is that sponsors report only 30% of associations are asking sponsors for feedback on sponsor packages.

Taken together, these survey findings indicate a disconnect between associations and sponsors.

Why do Companies Sponsor Associations?

How can we alter these challenges to create successful sponsorship programs? One way is to understand why companies sponsor associations. 

Interviews, focus groups, and conversations with sponsors during the past decade consistently demonstrate that companies seek to derive three value propositions from sponsorships. 

  • Companies want to create business development and growth. This can take the form of access to a segment of the association’s membership or conference attendees; opportunities to generate leads; and driving traffic to the company’s website.
  • Companies want brand exposure and differentiation; they don’t necessarily want brand exclusivity, however, they want to be viewed differently than their competitors that are not sponsors. This can take the form of brand awareness to position or reposition the company; distinguishing the brand from its competitors; and establishing credibility by being affiliated with the association.
  • Companies want to be portrayed as thought leaders. This can take many forms, such as featuring sponsors’ educational content; including sponsors as faculty on webinars and workshops; interviewing sponsors on podcasts; and partnering with sponsors to produce research.

In addition, there are ways to achieve all three company value propositions, such as arranging for top-tier sponsors to attend brainstorming meetings with the association’s board of directors; organizing focus groups or roundtable discussions of members for sponsors; holding briefings for sponsors with the association’s staff; and featuring sponsors on social media posts.

10 Ways to Structure a Sponsorship Program for Success

Based on what we know about sponsors’ concerns and why companies sponsor associations, we can structure a sponsorship program for success. 

1. Members’ first

While a successful sponsorship program must meet the needs of sponsors, association sponsorship programs first and foremost must be in alignment with the association’s mission and the needs of its members.

2. Year-long:

While there will always be interest in “one-off”, transactional sponsorships of things like logos on name badge lanyards, many companies are more interested in year-long, integrated sponsorships instead of a series of tactics.

3. Customized:

Each company that might be interested in sponsoring an association has different business objectives and marketing goals. Therefore, customized sponsorship programs are of far greater interest to companies than standard Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze sponsorship levels.

4. Transition:

Companies are unlikely to be top-tier sponsors if most of the sponsor benefits are logo placements, visibility, and a shout-out from the podium at the annual conference. The goal should be to transition from these transactional benefits to transformational benefits.

5. Content:

There is a value other than revenue for associations to have sponsors. Companies have a wealth of market research, trends data, case studies, best practices, etc. that can be of value to the association’s members. This content can be bundled in a year-long, customized sponsorship package.

6. Educate:

Companies should be advised to use their sponsorship to educate members. A slogan to use as a guide is, “Educate to sell, don’t sell to educate”.

7. Conversation:

Historically, many associations have developed a prospectus with levels of sponsorships or lists of sponsorable items. Often the result is few top-tier sponsors and some low-fee sponsors. For companies that have been – or have the potential to be – top-tier sponsors, it’s best to have a conversation. Marketing agencies have exploratory meetings with prospective clients to identify each company’s needs; then the marketing agency develops a customized set of services for each prospective client. Associations should do the same: talk with each company about its marketing goals and challenges, how the company wants to impact the association’s members, and how the company defines a successful marketing initiative or sponsorships; then develop a customized sponsorship proposal.

8. Budget cycle:

Companies are more likely to find room in their marketing budgets for sponsorships if associations talk with the company when it is making budget decisions. Have conversations with company executives when they are developing their marketing budgets (not when the association wants companies to sign up or renew). 

9. Internal support:

Successful sponsorship programs have the support of the association’s board and staff. Companies are less receptive to associations that have one or two staff people “dialing for dollars” and more interested in associations in which the entire organization is providing value to sponsors.

10. Service:

Year-long, customized sponsorship benefits should be delivered purposefully. This is done most effectively when there is a single designated account executive at the association to service the relationship with each sponsor.

A Note About Virtual Conferences

While many associations have been challenged by the rush to virtual during the pandemic, most associations acknowledge that some type of virtual education will be part of their offerings in the future. 

Virtual conferences can offer significant value to sponsors because of the ability to derive detailed information on each attendee, which sessions they attend, which documents they download, etc.  These data are useful to sponsor companies that want to identify the segment of members who would be most interested in the company’s educational information. 

How Much to Charge Corporate Sponsors/Partners

It is important to cover the association’s costs: hard costs, staff time, etc. (However, if the association’s costs are high and value to the sponsor is low, it will be difficult to cover the association’s cost with the sponsor fee.)

Sponsor fees should be based on the return on investment (ROI) for each company. I once worked with a sponsor that was a bank; the marketing VP told me that if the bank obtained one new building financing from a member as a result of the sponsorship, that would cover the $100,000 sponsor fee for the year. 

Other companies might have a more “general sense of success”. Or the determination of value might be based on “moving the needle” on corporate social responsibility. 

When I have interviewed sponsors during the past decade, I ask the question, “if the association provided more sponsorship value, would your company pay more?” I consistently get the same responses:

  • One-third say “yes”
  • One-third say “maybe”
  • One-third say “I’m not sure”

I seldom get a “no” response, even when companies are paying $50,000, $100,000 or higher sponsor fees.

Striving for the Win-Win-Win

Successful association sponsorships are a win-win-win, providing:

  • Content that members need
  • Value for each corporate sponsor
  • Revenue for the association, plus membership and sponsor growth

Bruce’s Bio

Bruce Rosenthal has advanced corporate partnership programs for more than 20 years. He is a strategic advisor, consultant, and educator to associations and not-for-profit organizations, creating corporate partnership programs that increase revenue, add membership/constituent value, and foster organizational sustainability.

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