The Rightsholders’ Guide to Sponsorship in a Pandemic

 width=Back in January 2020 – three months ago, but feels like a year – I wrote “Recession-Proofing Your Sponsorship Program: A Rightsholder’s Guide“. I wrote it because we were overdue for a recession, some indicators were starting to look shaky, and predictions were that we could be in recession by the end of 2020.

But holy crap, people… this virus is something else entirely. We are surely going to suffer a serious economic downturn, and my recession advice still holds. But right now, rightsholders need to get through a pandemic that has seen most events and seasons cancelled – or at least postponed indefinitely.

And that last word is the kicker: “Indefinitely”. While we’re doing our best to keep ourselves and our families and our communities well, and to keep our organisations afloat, we simply don’t know how long this is going to last, and what our sponsorship world is going to look like, as we work our way back.

So, with that in mind, I’ve got some advice about how rightsholders should be managing their sponsorships and their sponsors through the pandemic, and what is likely to be a slow resurgence of our industry. The advice in this blog sits alongside “Recession-Proofing Your Sponsorship Program: A Rightsholder’s Guide”, as the longer-term impact on the economy and budgets will still be an issue.

Don’t sell

Yeah, I get it. You need revenue. But trying to sell sponsorship right now is a really bad idea.

Sponsors are dealing with just as much uncertainty as you are, and if you think your sponsorship proposal is going to get more than a passing glance, right now, you’re kidding yourself. And if they do pay any attention, what they’re going to be thinking is that you either don’t know or don’t care that they’re also going through a mountain of strife, and are in no position to be making decisions about sponsorship. Strike that. They are in a position to make a decision, and that decision will be “no”.

Right now, sponsors are regrouping. They’re trying to figure out what to do with a bunch of marketing assets, when the actual platforms they’re built on have all but vanished. They’re looking at a portfolio that was full of strategic investments, and trying to figure out how to stop their executive teams from categorising them as “sunk costs”, and devaluing sponsorship as a marketing tool. They’re looking at the looming economic fallout, and wondering whether the impact on the sponsorship budget will be cataclysmic, or simply bad. And they’re hoping (like the rest of us) that the recession mitigation efforts work, but they’re still having to prepare for the worst.

The time will come to sell sponsorship again, but this isn’t it. Right now, your priority needs to be on retaining the sponsors you’ve got.

Extend contracts, if at all possible

With everything up in the air, you need to assume that your event, program, or season isn’t going to happen this year, and roll out your sponsor retention plans accordingly.

The first thing you should try to do is extend contracts. Rather than stuff around with trying to put a dollar value on any benefits a sponsor does receive this year, and adjusting the fee, extend the contract for a year. Don’t charge more money, just extend the contract. So, if they signed a three-year deal, covering three festivals, they will still get three festivals. Take the approach that anything that happens this year – any benefits you can provide, any cut-down or virtual event you are able to mount – is a bonus.

If, by some miracle, you are able to restart before 2021, that would obviously be fantastic. But let’s be honest, it’s unlikely to be exactly what you planned, and may not be exactly when you planned it. This means the premise isn’t what the sponsor signed onto, they won’t have the benefits they wanted to leverage, and there’s every chance your ramp up will give them little lead time to plan and implement leverage around this new-look property.

In this case, help your sponsors get whatever benefit they can, as a gesture of good faith, while you’re waiting to run at 100% again. Treating whatever you manage to deliver as a bonus to your sponsors is a smart retention strategy.

Know what benefits are going to have the most value

The most valuable sponsorship benefits right now are also the most valuable in non-pandemic times. The problem is that they’re often undervalued by rightsholders, in favour of low-value, hygiene benefits, like logos, mentions, tickets, hospitality, and some kind of space or area on site.

It’s no longer about where you’re going to put their logo, because you don’t have anyplace to put their logo. You’ve got no tickets, no hospitality, and certainly no on-site spaces happening. You’re being forced to look deeper into your arsenal for benefits that still have leverageable value, and that’s a really good thing.

So, what benefits are those? It’s all about content, baby.

You should be focusing on giving sponsors the tools, so that they can continue to nurture their relationships with their target markets. You should be providing exclusive content to sponsors. Sponsors should be creating their own exclusive content, and platforms for fans to share theirs. Work with them to make the fans the heroes, and show genuine alignment to what the fans are going through right now. There are a hundred different angles. It’s your job – now, more than ever – to find those angles and help sponsors to use them.

For more, see “The Most and Least Powerful Sponsorship Benefits”.

Refocus on remote fans

Remote fans are fans of your organisation, your properties, or the larger themes around what you do, who – for whatever reason – don’t attend. They care, but they’re not there. This can be many, many times the number of people who actually rock up to your venue or gallery or event or game.

If you haven’t been good at engaging people outside of the direct fan experience, and the sales channels to get them there, you need to get good at it, and you need to do it fast. Why? Because ALL of your fans are now remote fans.

Take Manchester United, for example. According to Kantar research, they have 1.1 BILLION fans, spread all around the world. These people love the team, but most of them will never get the chance to attend a game live. They’ll never have the in-stadium experience, but they still have lots of value to ManU as viewers and passionate advocates.

Unfortunately, most rightsholders have devalued the remote fans, tending to focus only on people who will, or could, contribute to the bottom line – people who buy tickets and merchandise, members, donors, attendees, etc – and putting little, if any, effort into engaging with the broader fanbase.

If that describes your approach to remote fans – if you haven’t been good at engaging people outside of the direct fan experience, and the sales channels to get them there – you need to get good at it, and you need to do it fast. Why? Because ALL of your fans are now remote fans.

This is definitely the time to press “pause” on any events that require people to physically gather in groups, but it’s definitely not the time to press “pause” on the fan experience, because they’re still having a fan experience. They still love what you do, and love being part of the community that surrounds you, even if it’s currently virtual.

Help your sponsors connect with those remote fans

Again, this is something you should have been doing all along. Up to now, those remote fans might have barely been in your organisation’s sphere of interest, but they have always had enormous, leverageable, commercial value to sponsors. Now that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, helping your sponsors connect with those remote fans in a meaningful way has become your most important sponsor retention strategy, because it’s really all you’ve got.

You need to identify who these remote fans are, why they’re passionate about what you do, how their fan experience has changed, and how they’re feeling about being a fan right now. Are they mourning the loss of something they love? Are they frustrated? Are they hungry for any scrap of connection they can get? Are they feeling unloved and unheard? That’s the information you can use to help sponsors connect, create content, and align with those fans. That’s the information that sponsors can use to add value to their new fan experience – to amplify the best things, and to improve some of the worst.

Throw the net wide. Include people who might be interested in the larger themes around what you do, not just prospective attendees or viewers, because those themes are also leverageable for sponsors.

Use this time to regroup

Sponsors are regrouping, and you should too. With many of your operational commitments on hold, this is a great time to do the high-level stuff that you need to do, but don’t always have time for.

Get on top of the trends

Spend a little time getting your head around the big trends in sponsorship, because when the market reopens, and sponsors are flooded with all manner of proposals, your degree of sophistication and creativity will be a big factor in how successful you are. Two great starting places:

White paper: “Disruptive Sponsorship: Like Disruptive Marketing, Only Better

Case studies: Activative

Revisit your marketing plan

How long has it been since you’ve addressed your marketing plan from the ground up? When was the last time you really analysed all of your target market segments, including your remote fans? Does the current brand architecture reflect what your properties are really about, or do they need freshening? Do you even have formalised brand architecture? Revisiting (or creating) all of this isn’t complicated, and is a must for doing sponsorship well.

Get your hit list ready to go

When we’re out from under the worst of the pandemic, and sponsors start to make decisions again, I can guarantee that the shotgun approach of sending the same proposal to as many potential sponsors as possible just isn’t going to cut it.

Take this time to craft a hit list that is both concise and meaty. Know exactly why each of the brands on that list would be involved, why it’s right for them, and the hot buttons you’re going to need to hit. Your list may be only a couple of dozen, but they’ll be the right sponsors to target.

Formalise your inventory of benefits

You’ll be well-served by thinking more broadly about what you have to offer, because frankly, the boring benefits that make up the backbone of most sponsorship proposals are off the table. Turn that thinking into a big list of things that you could offer to the right sponsor, at the right price point. For a huge, running start on this, download my Generic Inventory template (MS Word).

Overhaul your proposal template

Your proposals need to be bespoke, but the framework you use, and the way you describe your property and your fans, will be similar from one to another. Before you start selling again in earnest, spend a little time getting that framework right, so when you populate it with sponsor intelligence and your bespoke offer, it follows the tight story arc that will help you get to “yes”.

Revamp your offer development process

The most important part of a proposal is the leverage ideas you provide a sponsor, illustrating how they can use their sponsorship to achieve their objectives and create meaningful bonds with their target markets. These ideas are the anchor of your proposal.

Finding the ideas isn’t difficult, but there is a process for getting to the level of strategic thinking and creativity required, and for getting your team and internal stakeholders involved. (And yes, it’s possible to do this by Zoom. I’ve facilitated lots of these, remotely.)

The processes, examples, and templates for offer development, proposals, and all of these high-leverage activities are detailed in The Sponsorship Seeker’s Toolkit 4th Edition. Hot tip: Buy it hardcopy, as it will end up being a desk reference.

Skill up

If your organisation can manage it, try to do some quality online learning around sponsorship, while you’re stuck at home. This will help you to keep your skills sharp, manage through this extremely difficult time, and prepare for the big challenges that lie ahead.

Keep the faith

Sponsorship the one marketing media where the entire premise is built on passion and meaning. This forced break in play has neither dimmed that passion, nor dwindled the meaning, and when the time comes for events and sports to restart, for cultural organisations to throw open their doors, fans will be back in droves.

This is a horrendous time for the world, our communities, our industry, and for all of us, but we’ll get through it. What we do with the time we’ve suddenly got will impact how well we come out the other side.

But, we will come out the other side. We do sponsorship – the one marketing media where the entire premise is built on passion and meaning. This forced break in play has neither dimmed that passion, nor dwindled the meaning, and when the time comes for events and sports to restart, for cultural organisations to throw open their doors, fans will be back in droves.

The upshot

I like to write blogs that are useful for a good long time, but I really hope this one isn’t. I hope the world and the economy rebounds faster than anticipated, and all of this advice can just fade into the ether.

What I hope doesn’t fade into the ether are the skills this new reality has forced you to learn, the powerful benefits you’ve created, and the less powerful benefits you’ve re-evaluated, and the focus on your broader relevance – your broader fanbase – and the enormous value this provides to sponsors.

The changes you make, as a result of this pandemic, will serve you well when times get better. That’s the silver lining for our industry, so don’t waste this time making cat videos.

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“.

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.

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