Back when I started in this industry, visibility ruled, and the most powerful thing any sponsor could get was lots of logo exposure, and the bigger the logo, the better. Add a bit of hospitality, an athlete meet-and-greet, and if you were really forward-thinking, maybe a sales promotion, and that was really about as good as it got.
I remember it vividly… and cringe.
Thankfully, our industry has come a long way from there. Our understanding of how sponsorship works has been revolutionised. The sophistication of sponsors has grown exponentially, particularly since the Global Financial Crisis raised accountability to new heights. And technology and media fragmentation has meant that it is both easier and more difficult to connect with people in a meaningful way. All of this has had a huge impact on both the benefits available to sponsors, and the relative value of those benefits.
But with all of those options, many sponsors keep buying, and almost all sponsorship seekers keep selling, the same old, low-value benefits over and over. If we want sponsorships to perform, and the potential of our industry to be realised, this needs to stop, and both sides need to understand what benefits have real value and why.
Most powerful benefits
The most basic tenet of best practice sponsorship is that it is win-win-win. That third “win” is for target markets, and they get that “win” when sponsors add value to their fan experience – making the event, charity, museum, team, or whatever they care about, even better for them.
Sponsors, these are the benefits that will form the engine room of your results. They’re relevant, meaningful, and flexible. You can use them in a hundred different ways, over time, and across geographies. They’re relevant whether that fan is at the event or interested from afar. And they show people that you get what’s important to them. Once you are negotiating for, and leveraging, these benefits, those boring old hygiene benefits will fade into the far distance of your concern.
Sponsorship seekers, these are the types of benefits you need to be offering in your proposals and renewals. Provide specifics about how a sponsor can use those benefits – leverage the sponsorship – to align with and add value to their target markets, and your proposal will stand head-and-shoulders above the rest.
Benefits sponsors can pass through to the fans
This is a basic building block of a win-win-win, best practice sponsorship, and requires an understanding of the best and worst parts of the fan experience. These benefits are all about amplifying the best stuff about a fan experience, or ameliorating the worst, creating a “win” for fans.
When I work on this with clients, we start this process with two lists: What are all of the best things about this fan experience; and what are the worst. Then, brainstorm all of the ways that the sponsor can make the good stuff even better, and fix or reduce the worst.
It’s often easy to think of benefits you can use to add value to the fan experience on-site – at the festival, game, gallery – but don’t stop there. There are likely lots of people who are interested in what you’re sponsoring, or in the larger themes around it, that won’t be on-site. How can you add value to their fan experience? What would they like to see more of? Know more about?
Control or influence you can pass through to the fans
Another big “win” is giving the fans influence. Is there some aspect of the experience that the sponsor could crowdsource? Where fans or customers could vote? Fans take a lot of ownership of things where they’ve had an influence, and a sponsor who provides that opportunity is appreciated. But if you’re going to give them control, you either need to control the options or be willing to go with what they pick. Remember “Boaty McBoatface”, which, by the way, was a great name.
Customisable and/or experiential content
This might be more accurate if I said, “License or access to content that could be made customisable or experiential by a sponsor”.
This is all about getting access to information, images, stats, advice, or any other intellectual property that might be interesting to fans, so that it can be turned into content that genuinely adds to the fan experience.
A sponsor could, for instance, get license to use information pertaining to a team and their stadium, then create an experiential, augmented reality app that could show a spectator lots of extra information, stats, trivia, etc, as they pan around. And I loved the Carlsberg app that allowed fans of the Hong Kong Sevens to customise a (naked) human figure and virtually streak on Hong Kong Stadium during the event.
Durable and/or serialised content
An extension of the above is getting license to use or create content that is either serialised – delivered in either a series of discrete episodes, or as a story that builds over time – or will continue to be relevant well after the event or season is over.
Appearances (to create content)
Appearances by celebrities or athletes are much more powerful if the sponsor can use them to create content. This could be photos, voice recording, singing, video content, interviews, and so much more that could be made into a win for lots of people, not just the few that can be at a meet-and-greet.
While this would appear to be counter to the whole “third win” idea of small, meaningful wins going to lots of fans, how a sponsor uses them makes all the difference. There are two parts to this:
- Make nominating potential winners and selecting the eventual winner online and collaborative, so fans can nominate people to win, vote, comment, share, etc – all of which creates small, meaningful wins.
- Use the winner’s what-money-can’t-buy experience to create amazing, exclusive content, with the end result being even more wins for fans.
Finding the right experience to anchor both parts of this is important. Getting the best seats at the opera is not a what-money-can’t-buy experience. Being in costume and on stage is.
Let’s face it, the standard hospitality experience isn’t all that special. Almost everyone we know has been in a hospitality tent at least once in their lives. And the kind of people most sponsors want to schmooze spend half their lives getting their bums kissed at events.
What sponsors should really want is special hospitality – something out of the ordinary, even if it’s not posh. Shift the venue to some kind of inner sanctum. Make them sweat. Involve their kids. There are tons of options, and they’re all lots more powerful than handing someone a beer in a tent.
Least powerful benefits
The benefits listed below are some of the most common, but least powerful, sponsorship benefits on offer. Collectively, they go by the terms “hygiene benefits” or “commodity benefits”, because everybody offers them, and they’re basically interchangeable.
Sponsors, these benefits lack meaning to the people you’re trying to connect with, and meaning is the basic foundation from which a strong sponsorship is built. These are the benefits you should be willing to minimise or forego, in order to get more of the powerhouse benefits, listed above. And if you do get some of these commodity benefits, don’t fixate on them, as they’re not where your results are going to come from.
And for the sponsorship seekers, commoditising yourself is never good for the bottom line, so you need to move away from using these as the backbone of your proposal. You’ll also notice that a lot of things on this list are things you can only offer in limited amounts, so minimising the focus put on those benefits is good for you.
Official designation or endorsement
No one thinks a sponsor is higher quality (or whatever) because they’ve got some official designation.
Think of your own fan experiences. Do you think an insurance company is better or more trustworthy because they’re the official insurance of a 10K race? Of course you don’t. All that designation says is that they paid the money.
This is another one of those things that a sponsor may receive as part of a package, but understand – like the fans do – that this benefit has extremely limited value.
If you accept the idea of win-win-win (and you should), the lack of power in non-VIP tickets is apparent.
A sponsor isn’t going to get enough of them to create a “win” for very many people. Even if they get a couple of hundred tickets, or a couple of thousand over a season, that’s a drop in the bucket when compared to how many fans, customers, or potential customers they’re targeting. And in a lot of cases, it’s not all that expensive to attend and it’s not sold out, so the perceived value is low.
If a sponsor gets a ticket allocation, often their best option is to do something for staff, and then give the rest away to one or more charities.
Naming rights or presenting sponsorship of something no one cares about
As part of sponsorship packages, some sponsors are offered naming rights to sub-events, specific days or areas of an event, or some other inconsequential component. I went to a Christmas festival last year and saw, “Santa’s Elves, presented by…”
The inanest one I can recall is a sponsor who took up naming rights to the foyer of a theatre, solely because their competitor was naming rights sponsor of a big arts festival, and people would have to walk through their foyer to buy tickets. It wasn’t leverageable as a sponsorship, nor was it effective as an ambush, because no one cared.
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to have some kind of epicentre for leverage activities, but the designation itself isn’t powerful, and unleveraged, wouldn’t deliver any results.
As noted above, most hospitality is essentially interchangeable. The decision-makers targeted by one sponsor are also being targeted other sponsors, all of whom offer the same experience. This substantially reduces its power, as a relationship-building tool.
Signage and other exposure
The fact that signage can cost a lot of money doesn’t mean it’s powerful, and there is study after study that shows logo exposure doesn’t contribute to changing perceptions and behaviours around a brand – in other words, “marketing”.
Sure, there are still sponsors that haven’t seen the light. Some senior executives can be too preoccupied with corporate ego. And still other sponsors know signage does nothing for them, but are too lazy to actually change anything. All of these bolster their faulty view with media equivalency “reports” and other useless propaganda churned out endlessly by logo-counting dinosaurs trying to remain relevant. But that doesn’t mean it’s valuable to a brand.
In any case, there’s no need to get your undies in a bundle. Sponsors can still have signage; they can still get their logos on stuff. Just understand that this is not where results are going to come from. It’s window dressing. That’s it.
Thinking signage is powerful is wrong, but not actually detrimental to the fan experience. Interruption signage is.
Interruption signage is signage that is specifically designed to take a fan’s attention away from the experience she or he is trying to have. Ever been annoyed by moving, lit up signage right next to the field or court at a game? That’s interruption signage, and the annoyance you felt at the sponsors who are making the game harder to watch is the annoyance all fans feel. That’s not good for a sponsor’s brand.
When a sponsor invests in a sponsorship, they are investing in the privilege of connecting with people through something they care about. Great sponsors understand, respect, and add value to the experience. Selfish sponsors disrespect the fan experience, and that’s bad for everybody.
This understanding has gained traction in the past couple of years, and sports and teams are starting to change their approach, requiring that signs are static while the game is in play.
Like interruption signage, sponsor speeches are not only low value, they are almost always counterproductive.
People hate it when sponsors speak. Hate. It. And, frankly, you know that, because you don’t like it either.
You don’t like it when sponsors interrupt the festivities of an industry awards dinner to waffle on about how they’re “So proud to sponsor an awards program that showcases the kind of excellence our company is known for. From the day we opened our first office in Columbus, Ohio…” Kill me now.
You don’t feel like your $1200 conference registration fee was totally worth every penny after you’ve sat through a tone-deaf, 45-minute pitch for some sponsor’s brand, disguised as an educational session.
Sponsors, you may or may not be able to get your senior executives and/or sales division to stop doing these things, but at the very least, understand that sponsor speeches are not powerful brand drivers.
As for you, sponsorship seekers, just bloody stop selling sponsor speeches! Nobody benefits, particularly not your audience.
Need more assistance?
For sponsors, 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.
Sponsorship seekers, you’ll find all you need to know about sponsorship sales and servicing The Sponsorship Seeker’s Toolkit 4th Edition. You can also download a copy of the Generic Inventory of benefits from the book, to get you started.
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