How to Build Sponsor Relationships

There are people in this industry who will tell you that sponsorship is all about relationships, and that building personal relationships with sponsors is the key to sales, renewals, and fruitful partnerships. While I’m not averse to developing friendships with sponsors, I’m not a fan of this take at all.

First off, it creates the false impression that well-connected industry pros and networking animals are the only ones who are successful, when nothing could be further from the truth. It also de-emphasises the most important facets of developing and extending a sponsorship.

I’m not for a second saying that you shouldn’t do everything you can to develop a relationship with your sponsors, but it’s not about being pals and having beers together; it’s about demonstrating that yours is exactly the smart, insightful, trustworthy, responsive, and creative type of organisation they want to be working with.

So, here’s my advice for developing a real sponsor relationship – one that transcends the individuals involved – and why that’s absolutely key, whether you’re a long-time pro or not.

Understand their target markets and objectives

This is absolutely the starting point for sponsor relationships. If you don’t have this understanding, you can be as chummy as you like, but the relationship isn’t working. It’s like marrying someone without knowing their middle name or birthday. It’s that basic.

Before you ever reach out to a potential sponsor, you need to do the legwork. Review their social, their website, and their ads to pinpoint how they’re marketing the brand, what aspects of the brand  are focal points, and who they’re targeting – what kinds of people.

Bring this understanding into any discussions with them, and if you need clarification, just ask. If you can demonstrate you’ve done your homework, they’ll usually be happy to fill in any gaps.

If you’ve got existing sponsors, ask yourself how much do you really know about what they’re trying to accomplish and with whom? You may think they’re trying to align with your event or get exposure, but things like that are mechanisms, not objectives. Objectives are about changing or reinforcing people’s perceptions, changing or reinforcing their behaviours, and aligning with target markets.

For those existing sponsors, you need to do the homework, have a meeting with them to understand exactly what they’re trying to achieve, and you need to do it now.

Understand their challenges

In addition to their objectives, there may be environmental or industry factors that they’re dealing with. You can literally do a search on [industry] challenges, and start to get a pretty good idea. You can then include that in your discussions around objectives, saying something like, “With a shift to digital-first in banking, and some digital-only banks, is your focal point shifting at all? Or is the high quality of your locally-based customer service experience something you’re leaning into?”

If you ask something like that, you sound smart. You sound like you’re really trying to understand their business in the context of their industry and competition, and you’re likely to get a thoughtful answer that could play a part in your offer or renewal.

Behave like a peer, not a beggar

Sponsorship is a powerful and critically important tool for brands. It gives them a degree of personal relevance and meaning that no other marketing media has. Your property could be the perfect conduit through which they can demonstrate who they are and what they’re about, add value to their target markets, align with those markets, and imbue all of their marketing channels with passion and relevance.

If you’re selective in who you approach, and can make a strategic business case, then you’re a peer. Act like it.

You’re not looking for a handout. You’re a sophisticated peer with a valuable, meaningful platform from which they can achieve their objectives. This assumes, of course, that you’re not just sending out proposals willy-nilly, and you’re actually targeting well-matched brands. But if you’re selective in who you approach, and can make a strategic business case, then you’re a peer. Act like it.

Want more on how important sponsorship is to brands, and how you fit into that equation? Read my white paper, Disruptive Sponsorship.

Use the language used by brands

You may be a dead-set legend at festivals or professional associations or concert tours, but if you want to position your organisation as a brand ally and resource, you also need to speak the language of brand marketing.

You need to be across at least the basics, such as…

  • Cost of acquisition
  • Churn
  • Customer lifetime value
  • Incremental sales
  • Upselling, cross-selling
  • Share of wallet
  • Call-to-action (CTA)
  • Brand tracking
  • Brand positioning, brand architecture
  • Purpose
  • ESG
  • Personas/flagbearers
  • Net Promoter Score
  • Qualified prospect
  • Conversion
  • Sales funnel

That’s really just the tip of the iceberg, and different categories of business have many of their own terms, but if you at least understand these, you’ll look like you’ve gone through some effort to speak their language, which is more than most rightsholders do.

If you’re speaking with a sponsor, and they throw out a term you don’t understand, just ask for clarification. If you’re hit with a term in an email or other report, google it. And if you’re pitching to a major sponsor, one of the smartest things you can do is dive into a couple of industry association or media websites, just to get a handle on some of the key industry issues, trends, and terms.

Make their internal sell easy

Smart sponsors integrate sponsorships across many departments and channels. As such, your contact may need to socialise the proposal and get buy-in across many departments. They may even work with those stakeholders on a draft leverage plan – which is always my recommendation – before they start negotiations with you. (For more on this, read A Sponsor’s Guide to Getting Buy-In.)

What they need from you is to make that process easy. They need a well-structured proposal that lays out a comprehensive business case for why the sponsorship makes sense for them, including creative ideas for how they can leverage it to meet multiple brand and company objectives. They need all of the information in that proposal to assess the opportunity, ideally do a draft leverage plan, and get internal agreement to negotiate.

The thing is, that’s not a deck. You can present a deck to your contact, but they need more detail than you can fit into a deck for their internal sale to people who weren’t in the room. Just get over that boo-hoo-MS-word-isn’t-pretty thing right now. They’d much rather have a complete proposal than a super-pretty one.

For more on proposals, and making the internal sell easy, here are some resources:

Know who the decisionmaker is, but respect everyone

As with any kind of sale, you want to be dealing with the financial decision-maker. As noted above, however, there are probably a lot of decision influencers, as well. And if you do sell the sponsorship, there’s every chance you’ll be working with someone more junior on the actual delivery.

Don’t disrespect these people. Don’t ignore them. Don’t go over their heads. If there’s an issue that needs sorting, discuss it with them and take the issue up the chain together, if required. There are very few exceptions to this.

Instead, do your very best to make everyone you work with – from the decision-maker to the implementer – into a hero. You can even ask them about their KPIs, their challenges. You never know, you may be able to supply some data or insights or something else that will assist.

For an example of getting the hierarchy management wrong, read Anatomy of an Ugly Sponsorship Renewal.

Add value to the sponsorship, not the individual

Following on from making your contacts the heroes is this extremely important point…

The marketing function has by far the highest annual turnover of any corporate job category, at around 17% per annum. This means that for your average three year contract, the person who signed off the first time, and the people you worked with to deliver the sponsorship, may very well not be there at renewal time.

My very strong advice is that, rather than adding value to your personal relationships, you spend your time, effort, and servicing budget on adding value to the sponsorship. Provide some added-value benefits, do sponsor education or networking events, do a slate of research that incorporates your key sponsors, facilitate sponsor cross-promotions. All of those things add value. All of them help the sponsor get a better result from the sponsorship. And all of these value-adds are relevant and defensible no matter who’s making or influencing decisions at renewal time.

The upshot

Through all of this, I’m not saying you can’t be friends with a sponsor – that you can’t have lunch or invite them to a skybox or whatever. That’s absolutely fine.

What I am saying is that building a sustainable relationship between your organisation and theirs goes way, way beyond that. Do the things on this list, and watch those relationships change for the better.

Need more assistance?

For all you need to know about sponsorship sales and servicing, you may want to get a copy of The Sponsorship Seeker’s Toolkit 4th Edition. You may also be interested in my latest white paper, “Disruptive Sponsorship: Like Disruptive Marketing, Only Better“. I’ve also got a self-paced, online sponsorship training course, covering the whole sales process, with lots of inclusions. Interested? Check out Getting to “Yes”.

If you need additional assistance, I offer sponsorship consulting and strategy sessions, sponsorship training, and sponsorship coaching. I also offer a comprehensive sponsorship capacity-building service for large, diverse, and decentralised organisations. Please feel free to drop me a line to discuss.

Please note, I do not offer a sponsorship broker service, and can’t sell sponsorship on your behalf. You may find someone appropriate on my sponsorship broker registry.

© Kim Skildum-Reid. All rights reserved. To enquire about republishing or distribution, please see the blog and white paper reprints page.

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