The need for sponsorships, long the financial backbone of events, has come into sharp focus to help keep rates affordable for attendees and fund new initiatives, but the name of the sponsorship game is changing as sponsors reevaluate their investments and clamor for clearer return on their ROI. Thankfully, a new model of sponsorship that boosts attendee interest in sponsors, sponsor satisfaction and association revenue is coming to the rescue.
No matter the audience, sponsorships large and small are a core part of association events. According to the IEG Sponsorship Report, in 2012, North American sponsorship spend was $19 billion. While general association fund-raising and marketing has undergone vast changes due to technology, the sponsorship side has changed in light of the culture that the same pervasive technology has created.
Sponsors need planners’ help in competing in today’s high-distraction, digitalized environment, and they expect a quick and clear demonstration of ROI. Meanwhile, attendees are tired of being constantly marketed to and are increasingly only paying attention to sponsors who clearly demonstrate what they can do for the attendee.
As a result, the very nature of sponsorship has changed dramatically since the first wave of sponsorship began more than 40 years ago with the idea that simply flashing your logo would lead to marketing returns. While the second generation of sponsorship focused on short-term, sales-based gains and the third generation honed in on integration of multiple marketing objectives, the current wave is about nurturing a brand’s connection with a target market by putting their needs first, according to Kim Skildum-Reid, author of the white paper “Last Generation Sponsorship.”
Last generation sponsorship is marked by a shift away from a number of brand exposures or logo-covered signage and materials to a win-win-win model. “For years, good sponsorship was defined as being win-win, that is, the sponsor wins and the sponsorship seeker wins,” said Skildum-Reid in her white paper. “While having this kind of mutual benefit is a great idea, this approach completely left out the most important part of the equation: the target markets.
“The most important connection in the target market’s equation is their connection with the event,” she continues. “Over the years, sponsors haven’t exactly had a glorious track record of enhancing their event experiences. As a whole, games and events have become an escalating battle between sponsors trying to draw people’s attention to their brands and people trying to ignore them, and those people are always going to win.”
As attendees have become highly practiced at ignoring logos, branding and other typical sponsorship avenues, planners can get caught in the middle of trying to keep two parties with competing goals happy. The way to marry these two previous disparate parties is not to try ever more convoluted ways of encouraging attendees to go check out exhibit booths or pick up sponsor materials. It’s to get the sponsors to enhance the attendee experience in a way they’re already yearning for and will appreciate.
To lure in and satisfy sponsors, it’s crucial to reach a certain horizon on event attendance. For many planners, in the light of recent economic issues, this is the first hurdle to generating sponsorship revenue, and creative approaches to drawing in more and more attendees are a top-of-mind issue.
For Alicia LeMasters, CMP, meeting coordinator for the Columbus, Ohio-based American Society for Nondestructive Testing, it’s matter of money, as most of her paid attendees come either from academia or government. “The issue is that money to attend is either nonexistent, in the case of education budgets, or severely restricted with government employees,” she explains. “We just did a conference, and most of the attendees were government workers. They were basically told they couldn’t come; there’s no money in the budget. I think this trend is caused by the restrictions put on government travel by the GAO and by sequestration.
“At Ohio MPI (where LeMasters is an active member), we are finding creative ways to get people to register,” she continues “In this case, what we did was try to have a sponsor register someone as a conference attendee. The sponsored buyer was a pet program of mine at MPI Central Ohio.”
Many of the events Gayle Weisman, CMP, senior conference planner with New York, New York-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Communications Society, plans also have a high academic attendance, and she finds her attendees often struggle to fit her events into their budgets. “They try to come in as a guest. I even had, at one conference in Belgium, someone leave an envelope at registration that was a badge they were passing on to someone else! Commonly, departments will only allow you to attend if you’re presenting a paper, but we can’t have everyone present. A lot of people are not able to attend just to attend.”
To help attendees justify the expense to higher-ups, IEEE began offering continuing education credits for attendance at its events. “We tried to offer CE credits, which is something we didn’t offer previously,” she says. “Now people can say, ‘I don’t have a paper, but they’re offering hours, so can I attend?’ More people attend that didn’t in the past when you offer that.”
One of the conferences Weisman manages is virtual, which saves attendees on transportation and lodging costs, but can still be hard to justify from a budget standpoint since it is a new concept, so she’s found new ways to encourage registration.
“The virtual conference is in its fourth year, but we’ve been having a hard time getting both attendance and exhibitors,” she says. “One thing we tried to do to increase attendance is that, for the chapters, if they sign up at least 15 people from their chapter, they get $500 for their chapter. It’s definitely increased attendance. Also, if anyone signs up a first-time attendee, they get 20 percent off their own registration.”
When asked why they didn’t attend an annual conference or other association event, association members often respond with one of two things: time or money. While creative attendance-boosting tactics can help with the latter, no amount of discount in the world can make time out of the office worthwhile for members who are simply too overloaded with work. Thankfully, the solution to the no-time problem opens up new revenue sources for meeting planners while including more members in programming.
“Only about one-third of our members attend our conference, and many are not able to because they cannot get away from the office,” explains Rafael Rivera, CMP, executive director of the El Segundo, California-based Professionals in Human Resources Association. “At times cost is a factor, but the No. 1 reason we hear from people who would like to attend is that they cannot get out of the office, so if the material was made available at a later date or on demand, they could take advantage of that.”
Digital conferencing options allow association event staff to recapture both lost income and find new income by segmenting conference sessions into new products. “We are offering recordings of our conference,” he explains. “It’s a conference-on-demand product. Those that have purchased can watch or listen to the sessions they could not attend, since we offer at least seven concurrent sessions. They can access the material two weeks after the conference and a minimum of six months of access after the event.”
Rivera continues, “Right now, we aren’t yet doing it in a best practices way,” he continues. “In 2015, it will be our third year, and we will offer that product at our initial point of purchase. We’ve found that the best way to package it is earlier at the registration process so individuals only make one purchase. Otherwise it becomes cumbersome to make that upsell, because it might be difficult for those who are already registered to justify the upsell to their supervisor.
“Making the resources, products and services available to members and guests at one point of purchase, we’re able to generate greater revenue than chasing after individuals later after that lost opportunity,” says Rivera. “That would be our No. 1 opportunity we see. We’ve also had conversations with third-party providers to repackage those products for a virtual attendance at a later point in time, so attendees could consume the continuing education piecemeal, so they don’t have to sit through three days of sessions.”
He adds, “I’ve seen other associations within our industry go a step further. Instead of offering a bundle, they’re breaking out by sessions, so they’re able to potentially see people purchase just one session. So if they only care about compensation and benefits in China, they’re going to buy that one session at a higher price since it’s split from the bundle.”
Weisman also has found that she can still gain exhibitor revenue from digital events. “In general, we have a problem with our regular patrons and exhibitors, because we don’t have the kind of exhibits that are selling things,” she says. “They’re there to network with authors. So, last year with the publishers, we tried to really explain to them why it’s beneficial to exhibit at the virtual conference. You don’t have to spend the money on traveling and shipping. It’s much cheaper than exhibiting at a regular conference.
“You have an hour a day when attendees go into virtual floor space, chat with exhibitors and download flyers,” she says. Last year, Weisman set up a game designed to increase attendance for the exhibitors. She explains, “We ask questions that they only would have known the answers to if they had gone to xyz publisher.”
Even if your association is not yet ready for the investment of creating digital conference products, you can dip your toes slowly into the event app space and still see sponsorship dollars.
Says LeMasters, “Last year was our first year using an app at ASNT, and we got 30 percent of attendees to sign on, so we’re going to start using it at our spring conference. Last year, we gave sponsors a free trial to put a splash page on the app. This year, we’re selling spots on the app.”
Whether you focus on in-person or digital sponsorship opportunities or a mix of both, the key to helping fill in the third win in the win-win-win equation is identifying areas of attendee need that sponsors can help fill. To do this, association meeting planners need to work both before sponsorship proposals come in and in the review process to assess the benefit the relationship will bring attendees.
Part of guiding sponsors to areas most likely to create a positive and lasting impression on attendees involves simplifying the sponsorship menu to zero-in on predetermined opportunities best suited to your audience. In turn, offering sponsors more limited options also helps bring in sponsorship dollars by eliminating the paradox of choice, in which too many menu items delay decisions and cause the quality of those decisions to suffer.
A traditional revenue model for association events revolves around 85 percent income from booths and 15 percent from sponsorship, but new sponsorship opportunities can flip that ratio. “One thing we’re doing this year is a very cool concept where the company comes to your conference and does a mini TV show,” says Weisman. “They get the university and corporations to pay for it, and we get a cut, or all the proceeds after a certain number of sponsors. We don’t have to do anything. All we had to do was give them the list of past sponsors, not even their contact info.”
Though an unusual concept, the win-win-win is clear. “They do interviews, and it’s exciting because everyone loves to be on TV and have their 15 minutes of fame,” Weisman says. “Attendees like that sort of thing. The sponsor also gets to keep the video and use it moving forward. Let’s say the University of Illinois makes this video, they can use it in the future to attract potential graduate students, because it talks about how they’re doing xyz thing.”
Wrapping technology into sponsorship opportunities is an ideal way to offer clear benefits to attendees, but it’s important to keep the tie-in to the brand clear as well to create an understandable connection for attendees. Sponsoring additional power outlets, particularly at outdoor events, to help keep mobile devices charged while attendees are on the go all day offers clear value to attendees, but finding the right company for that match is key. At the world-renowned Glastonbury Festival, the telecommunications company Orange sponsored phone recharging facilities and DIY recharging areas like a dance-powered charger.
Though it can take some time to identify the most synergistic touch points and sponsorship options, win-win-win sponsorship ultimately reaps highly tangible rewards for associations.
Adding more value for attendees, especially when you are able to reduce attendance costs, will help grow your event year after year, while satisfied sponsors ensure you have the means and bandwidth to continue exploring new ways to enhance the attendee experience. AC&F