I’ve published a few sponsorship hacks over the years. Most of them have to do with a process shortcut – something to streamline or speed up a time-intensive part of your job. But this one is different. This is about a mindset shortcut – a way of thinking about sponsorship so you take the most direct route to getting great sponsorship returns.
In the early days of sponsorship, the thinking went something like this…
“If we connect our brand strongly enough with this property we sponsor, all the people who love that museum/event/team/whatever will transfer some of that love to us.”
Yeah, that doesn’t happen. There’s no research that supports it, but we don’t even need research. We’re all fans of something, and we know as fans that we don’t transfer our love like that, and as industry professionals, we’re probably paying more attention to those sponsors than anyone else.
In more recent years, best practice thinking has changed a lot. It’s become fan- and target market-centric…
“How can we use our sponsorship of this property to deepen our relationships and alignment with the fans and our larger target markets?”
That’s very sound thinking, exactly in line with the most important tenet of best practice sponsorship: That sponsorship should be win-win-win, with the third win going to the target markets. But some companies still struggle to translate the sponsorship – with a contract and all the mutual accountabilities yada yada – into forging meaningful bonds with actual people.
In my experience, the trouble seems to stem from the starting place – “How can we use our sponsorship of this property…?” Some companies just don’t get past that relationship between their brand and the property to the important, meaty part of the statement. They create brand perks and incentives – Let’s give fans a coupon! Let’s offer a sponsorship-driven prize for people who like us on Facebook! – but miss that the real benefit of the partnership to the brand is that you get the privilege of connecting with people through something they’ve already decided they care about.
So, my hack is simple. Let’s change the way we think about sponsorship – its basic premise – so that the driving force behind what we do with sponsorships aligns with the real reason we do it.
“We don’t sponsor the property. We sponsor the fans.”
This thinking de-emphasises the property relationship and puts the emphasis where it belongs: On the relationship between your brand and the people that care about what you’re sponsoring. It takes the focus off of the benefits you get, and puts it onto the benefits you can provide. Yes, you will still get brand benefits, but this hack makes it crystal clear how you should use them.
Putting this thinking to work isn’t difficult:
- Get some stakeholders in the room
- Introduce the idea of “sponsoring the fans”
- Reassure them that this doesn’t mean you’re giving up all your signage or tickets (or anything else they’re kicking up a fuss about)
- Ask them the questions I’ve outlined below
- Watch the light bulbs appear over their heads
Identifying your raw materials
This is the process for finding the raw materials for great, fan-centric ideas. Honestly, there are a bunch of other steps I go through with clients, but these should give you a huge, running start. (For the full process, step-by-step, get a copy of The Corporate Sponsorship Toolkit.)
Who are these fans and why do they care?
Everything you sponsor has fans, and it’s critical for sponsors to know who they are and why they care. How can you possibly do something meaningful if you don’t understand what’s important to them? Is their passion for a child cancer charity driven by a personal connection? Empathy? Gratitude for their own healthy children? Peer pressure? There are probably fans in all of these camps, and maybe more.
And don’t focus just on the most obvious audience; you also need to take into account the bigger picture. Some people are passionate about the property itself, some have passion for the sector, and some care about the larger themes. In team sports terms, this could be fans of the team, fans of the sport, and people who aren’t really sports nuts, but see it as a sense of local or regional pride. In cultural terms, it could be people who love that particular science museum, or it could be people who are just giant science geeks (like me).
Where are they?
It’s critical to acknowledge that only a fraction of people who care about what you sponsor are interacting in-person. So, that $300,000 on-site activation might be fantastic for the 19,000 fans in the arena or at the festival, but what about the hundreds of thousands – or tens of millions (think: Golden State Warriors fans) – who aren’t there? Sponsoring the fans means you should be thinking about adding value to fans, wherever they are, and however they interact.
What are the best and worst things about the fan experience?
Now that you know who these people are, why they care, and how they interact, think about what the best and worst things about their experiences. Make two lists, and don’t worry if some things appear on both lists. Some people love crowds, for instance, while others hate them.
What if you gave them a magic wand?
Then, think about why these people care – their motivations. If you gave each of those groups a magic wand, what would they want from that property? It’s a magic wand – it doesn’t have to be realistic. Make another big list.
From there, there are three big (sets of) questions:
- What can we do to amplify the best stuff about the fan experience? Make it bigger, better, last for longer? Showcase their passion?
- What can we do to ameliorate the worst stuff about the fan experience? Alleviate annoyances? Reduce challenges? Make them feel closer to the action?
- Can we give them what they want if they had a magic wand? Can we at least get them a little closer?
The ideas you get will be direct, powerful lines between your brand and the target markets. They’ll use fan passion to create meaningful bonds and alignment. And once you look at sponsorship this way, you won’t go back.
“Sponsor the fans”: Your new mantra.
For all you need to know about best practice sponsorship selection, leverage, measurement, management, and more, you may want to get a copy of The Corporate Sponsorship Toolkit.
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