Sponsorship Leverage vs Activation: The Difference and Why It Matters

I recently wrote a blog about the longstanding issue around whether to call what we do “sponsorship” or “partnership”. So you know, the correct answer is “sponsorship”.

This issue got me onto thinking more broadly about terminology in our business, and how some of it isn’t doing us any favours. Springing immediately to mind was leverage vs activation.

Ten years ago, the terms were basically interchangeable, referring to the activities a sponsor undertakes around a sponsorship, to turn that opportunity into the results they need against objectives. Fast forward, and the meaning of “activation” has, for many organisations, morphed into something completely different.

This isn’t the case with all organisations, but I’ve had one after another client where the meaning of “activation” has narrowed so much that it’s seriously affecting their results. What I want to do with this blog is to outline how that definition has narrowed, and how narrowing that focus has fundamentally changed both the approach and results for the worse.

What is sponsorship leverage?

Leverage is everything that a sponsor does with a sponsorship to achieve marketing and business goals. It really is that broad.

The graphic below is one I use in workshops to illustrate how sponsorship operates as a catalyst, making initiatives in every other marketing channel more relevant, meaningful, and effective. In this context, I’m using it to illustrate the broad range of leverage options.


sponsorship leverage vs activation

These activities aren’t tied to a specific location or time frame, as creativity and the right strategic framework can make local sponsorships deliver on a national level, and a two-day festival into a platform that can be legitimately leveraged for many months or more.

What is sponsorship activation?

For some organisations, “activation” is still synonymous with “leverage”, and the wide net that it casts. For those organisations, you’re good. Just use whatever term works for you.

For others, however, the term has dramatically narrowed, over time, leading them to focus their efforts primarily on…

  • Activities they do on-site at the property – in areas often designated as “activation spaces”
  • Social media run in a very tight time frame around the property

How did this narrowing happen? Sponsorship professionals get on stage at conferences and present about the amazing activations they do with their sponsorships. Industry media love case studies about the often jaw-dropping on-site sponsorship activations, which then get liberally shared around sponsorship networks. Activation agencies, more often than not, are all about designing and manning the on-site “brand experience”. Sponsorship proposals talk about activation ideas and activation spaces, focused almost exclusively on-site. There’s nothing nefarious about it, but this multi-pronged focus on these sexy, high-touch, often high-tech activities have, over time, shifted what “activation” means.

To be clear, I have absolutely nothing against sponsors doing super-cool things on-site, and in social media right around that time frame, but if the focus has narrowed to the point where those are more-or-less the only ways a sponsor is leveraging, and the only ideas rightsholders are presenting to sponsors, there is an enormous lot of opportunity left unrealised.

Why does it matter?

At risk of putting too fine a point on it, I’m going to canvas a few of the problems, inherent to the above view of activation.

Activation ignores the remote fans

In my view, this is the biggest problem. Whether it’s a conference with 400 attendees, a basketball game with 20,000, or a festival with 200,000, the number of people who attend is a fraction of the number of people who are interested – who are fans – but for whatever reason, aren’t there. These can be fans of the property itself, or of the larger themes. For instance, a team sponsor could add value to people attending a soccer game, people who are fans of the team, but who don’t attend on the day, and soccer tragics, who just love the sport, no matter who is playing.

Nurturing relationships with those remote fans can be an extremely valuable exercise for sponsors, multiplying the impact of any given sponsorship. It’s not even difficult, if you’ve got a creative process in place that takes them into account. But if the focal point is on-site, it’s not going to happen, and you’ve wasted the opportunity.

Activation can be inefficient

Creating on-site activities can be expensive. Manning those activities can be expensive. You can absolutely do these things, but if it’s eating up your whole budget, you might want to think twice.

When your focal point for activities is activating on-site, you’re like an elite marathoner volunteering to start from the back of the pack. You’re going to have to fight your way through a crowd of other sponsors – who are just as committed and creative as you are – to get where you’re trying to go.

For the amount of money it takes to create and deliver a quality VR experience in your activation space, you’ll add value to the fan experience of what… 200 people per home game? A few hundred people at a festival? It may be amazing, but it’s not very efficient, when for the same amount of money, you could do something else that’s relevant and meaningful for thousands – even millions – of fans.

It’s not actually either-or, though. You could do some great activity on-site, and create a relevant way for remote fans to get in on the action. The incremental cost of that would be minimal, and your efficiency would skyrocket.

Activation is playing in the most cluttered space there is

When your focal point for activities is activating on-site, you’re like an elite marathoner volunteering to start from the back of the pack. You’re going to have to fight your way through a crowd of other sponsors – who are just as committed and creative as you are – to get where you’re trying to go. You can certainly do it, but don’t forget you also have dozens of other channels and hundreds of other ways you can leverage a sponsorship.

What can you do about it?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be leveraging your sponsorships on-site at events or games or whatever. But if your organisation’s focal point for activity and budget is on-site activity – if that’s the default starting point for your sponsorship plan – you’ve fallen into the activation trap. Thankfully, resetting isn’t difficult.

Say something like, “We’ve got this on-site activation stuff nailed. Now, we need to concentrate our efforts on the broader leverage of this property.” Use the term “broader leverage” liberally. Talk about activation as being a “component of a broader leverage strategy”.

Ensure you’re discussing how to add value to remote fans, fans of the larger themes around the sponsorship, your customers, staff, VIPs, and intermediary markets. If you come up with a sexy activation idea, immediately shift to, “Great idea. How can we scale it to involve more fans, remote fans, and other markets?”

The idea is that you’re reframing what you do around sponsorship, removing the false limitations that the term “activation” may have engendered, and reclaiming both the breadth and depth of what sponsorship can do for your brand.

Need more assistance?

You may be interested in my white papers, “Disruptive Sponsorship: Like Disruptive Marketing, Only Better” and “Last Generation Sponsorship Redux“. Want to build your sponsorship skills and strategies fast? I’ve got comprehensive online sponsorship training for both sponsors and rightsholders. Get the details and links to course outlines and reviews here.

If you need additional assistance with your sponsorship portfolio, I offer sponsorship consulting and strategy sessions, sponsorship training, and sponsorship coaching. I also offer a comprehensive Sponsorship Systems Design service for large, diverse, and decentralised organisations.

Please feel free to drop me a line to discuss.

© 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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