Finding sponsors for meetings and events takes planning, tenacity and a lot of hard work. Just ask Dan Melesurgo, vice president of strategic partnerships for ASAE, the Center for Association Leadership. He believes the biggest challenge in finding sponsorships is meeting partner expectations.
“Our partnership program has been very successful for 10-plus years, and with that success has come greater expectations on the ROI front from our partners,” Melesurgo says. “Our partners are also seeking more and more unique elements to ‘own’ and continue to push us in the sponsored content space as they want to be seen as thought leaders and content providers.”
While ASAE doesn’t create traditional sponsorships as they have a very structured Alliance Partner Program, they do develop comprehensive and customized partnerships that allow for access and connection points throughout the year. These partnerships encompass their meetings and events as well.
“Our partners are also seeking more and more unique elements to ‘own’ and continue to push us in the sponsored content space as they want to be seen as thought leaders and content providers.”
— Dan Melesurgo
“It’s important to identify all the assets and opportunities that are ‘sponsorable,’ ” Melesurgo says. “Then you need to know how to put together highly meaningful opportunities for sponsors that also contribute meaningful value to the organization’s event. Sponsors should be contributing to the event and organizational mission, not undermining.
For example, ASAE’s most recent strategic partner is YourMembership, which has committed to the Alliance Partnership Program for the next three years. The new partnership includes a collaboration to create new learning initiatives aimed at senior association leaders and technology officers.
JP Guilbault, president and CEO of YourMembership, said in a statement, “We are pleased and confident that the three-year effort between YourMembership and ASAE will help increase engagement and prepare associations for the shifting expectations of nearly 170 million Generation X and millennial consumers, and that our investment in research and education through the ASAE Foundation will continue to strengthen future leaders, the association community and the world.
Experts agree that locating and securing sponsorships can be a difficult task at best. And Jim Fowler, CAE, president of the Atlanta Apartment Association, realizes that when creating sponsorship packages that sell, it is important for association planners to provide flexibility to customize the packages to meet specific needs of suppliers.
“Companies today are looking to differentiate themselves from the field, and the same goes for their marketing spend,” Fowler says.
Historically speaking, the methodology of sponsorship sales also has changed in recent years, thanks in part to the advancements in technology.
Kevin Smith, corporate sponsorship manager for the Denver Film Society, a membership-based organization, says that with the digital marketing world being so fast-paced, it is critical for an association to stay abreast of current trends to provide the assets that potential sponsors and partners are looking for.
Melissa Forziat, event planner at Seattle-based Melissa Forziat Events, has worked with several associations on sponsorship packages. She also notes that planners have to keep up with technology, as it develops very quickly. “Each year there are new ways to reach the audience, and there are other methods that become obsolete,” she says. “There is a ‘new kid on the block’ every year when it comes to apps, social media platforms, etc. There is a lot of press about the latest popular thing and with it comes pressure to stay current.”
That said, Forziat stresses that the core principles behind sponsorship acquisition fundamentally should remain the same regardless of what tools you use.
“At the end of the day, you need to understand who your audience is and how you reach them effectively,” Forziat says. “Then, you look for sponsors who are trying to reach a similar target market or achieve a similar mission, and you show them all the ways that sponsoring your project can help them do that.”
A few of the main challenges for sponsorship include adapting assets to the marketplace, understanding the current status of industry segments, timelines of sponsorship discussions with prospects and in general, being able to sign multiyear deals.
“Truly understanding everything you can about a potential sponsor or partner to ensure that in those initial conversations you are able to bring valuable assets to the table is very important,” Smith says. “From there, working with a potential sponsorship partner on identifying what they see as the main components of a sponsorship program that they are looking for and finding out how we can work together to develop the program is our key.”
Generally speaking, the Denver Film Society likes to prospect companies and organizations that have the potential of becoming long-term partners. In year one of a partnership, they work to show ROI as well as other intangible value to the partner, along with sharing data to ensure that the goals of the partnership were exceeded.
“From there the goal is to sign a multiyear deal so we can focus on adding value to all constituents involved and less time on negotiation,” Smith says.
For the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) Chicago, Melissa Lagowski, owner of Chicago-based Big Buzz Idea Group, has created year-long partnership options along with event-specific sponsorship opportunities.
“It was very clear that some companies wanted to engage with NAWBO Chicago on a year-round basis, and thus corporate partnership was an ideal fit for their organizations,” Lagowski says.
NAWBO Chicago hosts multiple events each year including two signature events, which then opens up additional sponsorship opportunities. Each event offers different attendees, different geographic locations and different types of engagements and opportunities.
“This allows us to have a meaningful conversation with a sponsor and identify which event would best meet their goals,” Lagowski says. “Are they looking to connect with members and corporate partners? Are they looking to connect with the largest number of members possible? Are they looking to connect with members in a specific geographical region? Are they looking for an opportunity to speak and share their expertise? Do they have budget limitations for supporting the organization? All of these questions help us drill down with a sponsor and match them to the opportunity that helps the organization and the sponsor find success so that they will hopefully develop a long-standing partnership.”
Forziat encourages association planners who are seeking sponsors to remember that the best sponsorships are long-term relationships. It is not about asking people for favors.
“If it is a favor, it may not be in alignment with the sponsoring companies’ goals, and you will inevitably lose that relationship,” Forziat says.
Sponsorship packages also should be reasonable and justifiable. You can’t just put a number down on paper because that is the amount of money that you wish to raise. You need to offer a package that provides value to the sponsor.
“Gone are the days when people can freely allocate money out,” Lagowski says. “These days everyone has to justify expenses and the value associated with those expenses so if you can document a clear case why a corporation should support your organization, they will have an easier time taking it up the chain of command for approval. And better yet, if you follow up with a sponsor post-event and show how the sponsorship benefited them, you are more likely to secure a renewal or identify a growth opportunity with a sponsor.”
Before any solicitations are made, time should be spent researching companies that are active in supporting projects that have similar missions or audiences. When you see that a company is coming up numerous times in a certain sphere, you can assume that your project is already in alignment with their objectives to some degree, and the ask becomes much more natural.
“From there, it is about finding the right contact at the company and wooing them,” Forziat says. “Show them all that you have to offer to them, because ultimately that is what they are interested to know. Spend minimal time talking about what they can do for you and maximum time talking about what you can do for them.”
Most companies have specific business goals in mind when deciding what projects to sponsor in a given fiscal year. It has nothing to do with what your organization wants or needs.
In fact, the best way to design your sponsorship package is to address for the company, in one document, all the important things they need to know to compare your project to the dozens or maybe even hundreds of solicitations they have received.
“There are some things to make clear to them up front: your mission, your team, stats on your audience across each medium, a clear set of sponsorship levels with as many different categories of benefits as you have,” Forziat says. “Make it a clean, appealing document that looks professional and has compelling visuals.”
Also find all the ways you can to showcase your project in the best light. If you can, give them a range of programmatic, social media and event benefits, because some companies cannot sponsor certain types of projects by policy.
“Once you have the most appealing first introduction, communicate it via email so it can be forwarded to all the right people in the office easily,” Forziat says. “And once your conversations are underway, the most important thing is to be flexible. Be interested in their needs and find out immediately what type of projects they look to support, what types of benefits they are looking to receive, and what tools and media are relevant to them to reach their audience. Tailor your partnership with them around that.”
When creating sponsorship programs, Fowler creates a “suppliers council” or “sponsorship advisory committee” for the purpose of gathering feedback on a regular basis around how to continue adding value to the sponsorship program.
“Also, be sure to have an annual dedicated appreciation reception or event recognizing sponsors of a certain level and up, specifically for them, paid for by the association,” Fowler says.
David James Group works with a variety of associations providing full-service marketing services.
“When we help set up sponsorship programs for our clients, we try to be as forward thinking and creative as possible,” says David Laurenzo, founder and president of David James Group in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. “For example, one of our association clients, the Society of Women Engineers, was looking for a way to provide more value to their dedicated sponsors, so we came up with a unique package that utilized some of the clients’ strong digital assets to provide a new avenue to spread the sponsor’s message. Our client has an extremely strong following on social media and on their blog, so the package allows our sponsor to incrementally use these spaces to push out their message in the form of valuable content.”
Specifically at conferences, Laurenzo set up social media sponsorship packages that do very well.
“Social media has become a key component in marketing, and with our client’s strong, dedicated following, we’re able to create packages that are very valuable,” Laurenzo says. “For instance, at their last conference for women in engineering, WE15, we set up a sponsored tweet wall — a place where attendees can see their tweets streaming live throughout the conference. We’re also working on a sponsored social media lounge for this year’s conference, WE16.”
Smith says association meeting planners need to avoid common mistakes that are made in developing a sponsorship program, which can include:
“Sponsorship is, plain and simple, about selling stuff,” Lagowski says. “You need some money. Therefore you need to create value for those who might buy what you have to offer. The only way to do this is to ask questions. I find it highly ineffective to create a highly detailed, big and glossy thing that details multiple levels of sponsorship. You do need to have some guidelines, but you also need to have the authority and flexibility to deviate from that. Be sure that you have some guidelines from the director on what the parameters may be for negotiation and let the potential sponsor know that you have the authority to negotiate on everyone’s behalf, but that final approval of the sponsorship terms rests with the director.”
It also is imperative that organizations spend some time to identify what type of companies would make the ideal fit. For example, small organizations shoot for the largest corporations, and there just isn’t a logical fit, so the answer is “no,” and then the team gets discouraged.
“Don’t waste time and resources on companies that are not the right fit for your organization,” Lagowski says. “And if a potential sponsor does say no, be sure to ask them why. You can gain so much knowledge by asking follow-up questions. Was it budget limitations? Timing issues? Should you submit your request at a different time of year next time? Or was this opportunity just not a good fit for this company? These answers help to plan for future success.” AC&F