Why Associations Suck at Sponsorship, and How to Fix It

My normal approach is to write blogs and other materials that are centred on the various skills, strategies, and pitfalls around sponsorship – things that are shared across categories of rightsholders or sponsors. It’s not very often that I take aim at one category of business, but I’m making the exception today.

Why? Because association sponsorship is almost universally terrible, and falling further behind best practice every day. You may be thinking, if all associations are equally bad at sponsorship, why should I worry about my approach? Because you’re not just competing with other associations for sponsor money, you’re competing with anything else they could possibly sponsor to achieve their goals, and on that front, you’re not competitive.

By not elevating to best practice, associations are leaving an enormous amount of revenue (and other) potential on the table. There’s so much value to be had by association sponsors, but the way it’s usually sold doesn’t create any vision for those sponsors. It doesn’t showcase the value there is to be had. It doesn’t demonstrate that you’d be a good partner to them.

So, let’s change that, shall we? Below, I’ve outlined a few of the most counterproductive issues with association sponsorship, as well as how you can fix them. This certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all for sponsorship, but it should be at least a wake-up call, and provide some direction for getting onto a more fruitful track.

Your exclusive access isn’t exclusive anymore

This is a huge one. The approach goes something like this:

“We have the biggest membership of financial planners in Southeast Asia. Sponsor us to get access.”

“Our members represent 90% of the motor traders in California. We can put you in front of them.”

“We represent over 12,000 physiotherapists in the UK. Sponsor us for exclusive access.”

Yeah, you don’t word it that bluntly, but you still know this angle is a big part of your pitch to sponsors. What you may not know is how useless that pitch has become.

Sponsors don’t need you in order to access your members.

Here’s the thing, sponsors don’t need YOU for access to your members. They can get to every active member you have, and more, just by mounting a targeted social campaign. They can buy a database of people in your field, or build one from business registration records. They can create their own content and communities, drawing people directly to them. And every time one of these things happens, an association loses out on both revenue and marketing collaboration.

Truth be told, there are other types of rightsholders that still sell exclusive access as part of their offering, but that approach is fading fast. But not with associations, where selling exclusive access has been the bedrock of sponsorship sales for decades, and shows no signs of abating.

You’re first generation

Going hand-in-hand with selling access is selling visibility. Here’s where you’ll put the logo. Here’s where their ad will go in the program and on your socials. It’s all about getting branding and marketing messages in front of your membership, but this just compounds the exclusivity issue.

If what you’re offering is primarily outbound communications – branding and ads – to your membership, what you’re offering is exactly what a sponsor can get more efficiently, probably cheaper, and with no relationship to manage, by going around you with a social campaign.

This visibility-based, outbound marketing approach is the hallmark of first generation sponsorship. The sponsorship industry is currently in the fourth, or last, generation of sponsorship, which is all about harnessing what the property – the association, the awards, the conference, etc – means to people, and adding real value to their experience.

For more on the generations of sponsorship, and why it’s critical you make the leap, read my white paper, “Last Generation Sponsorship Redux”.

You commoditise yourself

Commodity benefits are support players, at best. This is not where you value lies.

Our industry has a bunch of what are known as commodity (or hygiene) benefits. These are the ubiquitous, low-value benefits that form the backbone of many sponsorship offers, but don’t drive results for sponsors. They include:

  • Logos on things/guaranteed mentions in socials
  • Ads in programs, EDMs etc
  • Tickets
  • Hospitality
  • Official designation (sometimes)
  • A space onsite and/or a speaking spot

If that list looks familiar, I guarantee you’re underwhelming sponsors and underselling yourself, and it’s so unnecessary, when there are so many high-value, super-leverageable benefits you can provide. Here’s just a very small sample:

  • Benefits sponsors can pass through to their target markets, whether they’re your members, or attend your events, or not
  • Control or influence sponsors can pass through to their target markets
  • Durable and/or serialised content
  • Appearances (such as by a big keynoter) to create exclusive content
  • Special hospitality

Please note, I’m not saying you can’t offer those commodity benefits, and sponsors do expect some of them. What I’m saying is that they’re support players, at best. This is not where you value lies.

For a giant list of possible benefits you can offer, download my Generic Inventory template and customise it for your properties.

You offer sponsorship levels

Every time you offer gold-silver-bronze (or similar) sponsorship levels, you’re telling a sponsor you’re unsophisticated. Either that or you’re lazy. Or inflexible. Or maybe you really don’t care what sponsors need. You may be none of those things, but that’s what your sponsorship levels are telling a sponsor.

Sponsors want real customisation. They want you to think about their brand needs, and their target markets, and create something that works specifically for them. They want ideas for how to use the sponsorship – how to leverage it – to achieve their goals. The second you change your approach to one of full customisation, your value to sponsors will skyrocket.

My strong advice is to shift from set packages arranged in levels, to designation bands, where you have lots of flexibility, while maintaining some hierarchy. Using some totally arbitrary numbers, here’s a sample of what that could look like:

Principal sponsorship

  • Sponsorships of over $150k per annum
  • 3-year minimum contract
  • Maximum of three sponsors in this super-premium band (which includes naming rights and presenting sponsorship, if you offer those)

Major sponsorship

  • Sponsorships from $40-150k pa
  • 2-year minimum contract

Supporting sponsorship

  • Sponsorships of less than $40k pa

These financial cutoffs are just an example. Yours could be much higher or much lower, but should be broken down in a similar proportion.

Two important points:

  • Unlike gold-silver-bronze levels, the band is a designation you are selling. Being able to call themselves a “major sponsor” is worth something, and the floor on that financial cutoff is the least you’ll take for that privilege
  • You can mix and match, creating a fully customised package that could include major sponsorship of the association, principal sponsorship of your annual conference, and supporting sponsorship of an awards program

You use a prospectus

Following on from the previous point, setting your levels out in a pretty, glossy prospectus may look very professional to you, but to a sponsor, it’s just reinforcing your inflexibility around sponsorship packaging. One of the best things you can do is to drop the prospectus altogether. Get rid of it. Detonate it. It’s not helping you.

Instead, create a strong sponsorship proposal template – something done in Word or Google Docs, so you can make it highly customised. Obviously, put it on letterhead and make it look professional, and feel free to add graphics and photos, but give yourself the scope to give sponsors what they’re looking for. They’d much rather have a utilitarian, but fully customised proposal that’s about them and about their relationships with their target markets, than a flashy, uncustomised prospectus.

For more on what goes into creating a sponsorship proposal, watch my YouTube tutorial, “Sponsorship Proposal Basics in About 15 Minutes”. There are lots of other sponsorship tutorials on my channel, as well.

You sell “sponsorship of…”

This is a two-parter. The first part has to do with offer customisation.

If there’s a more ridiculous sponsorship in the world than lanyard sponsorship, I don’t know about it.

A lot of associations offer options for sponsorship “customisation”, even within a prospectus. But there’s nothing “custom” about it. Instead, it’s a menu of extra things a sponsor can bolt onto the standard package for their level. They can be a silver sponsor, but also take sponsorship of a cocktail party. They can be a gold sponsor, but also sponsor morning coffee. They can be a bronze sponsor, but also take sponsorship of the lanyards. If there’s a more ridiculous sponsorship in the world than lanyard sponsorship, I don’t know about it.

As previously noted, sponsors want fully customised offers, not some extra place to slap their logos.

The second part of this is about selling sponsorship of a particular property (like your annual awards), or sub-property (like an award category), without any broader benefits going across your organisation.

In addition to wanting real customisation, sponsors want consistency. They want sponsorships that are leverageable in multiple ways, across many weeks or months. The way an association delivers that is to ensure that every sponsorship is overarching – that is, sponsorship of the whole association – using specific events or other properties as epicentres.

You don’t understand a sponsor’s leverageable markets

One of the big blind spots for associations is in understanding who the sponsors are targeting, and that it’s not the same group that the association is targeting.

Associations market to members and prospective members, potential attendees of your events, and you probably also have some ancillary social followers that don’t fit into the other categories. This is in contrast to the markets a sponsor could and should leverage a sponsorship to. These groups include:

  • Fans – People who care about what you do, and participate in your events and other properties
  • Remote fans – People who care about what you do, or the broader themes of what you do, but for whatever reason, either aren’t members or don’t attend your events
  • Customers/potential customers – Sponsors want to be able to leverage sponsorship of your organisation into their own customer base, adding value to their relationships

Depending on your type of organisation, they may also want to leverage to their staff, or their communities.

If you market your sponsorships by framing the audience as just the people to market to, you’re underselling yourself. It’s even worse if you market your sponsorships by framing the audience as just the people who show up.

You don’t provide leverage ideas

Sponsors don’t buy benefits, they buy a leverageable platform to create results.

I’ve mentioned leverage a number of times. Leverage is what a sponsor does with a sponsorship to turn it from an opportunity into a result against their objectives.

Smart rightsholders include customised leverage ideas in the proposal. They put themselves in the potential sponsor’s position, and come up with a range of ways that sponsor can use a sponsorship to achieve their goals with their target markets. This is where a sponsorship offer gets sold. Sponsors don’t buy benefits, they buy a leverageable platform to create results. If you can demonstrate how they can use that platform, you are head and shoulders above virtually every other rightsholder – and certainly every other association – that’s hitting them up for sponsorship.

Importantly, great rightsholders come up with those ideas before deciding what benefits to offer, and then they create a benefits list based on what a sponsor needs to make those ideas happen. (Use your inventory!) Add a few of the expected commodity benefits, and – as we say here in Australia – Bob’s your uncle!

Result: You’re being relegated

The upshot of all of this is that association sponsorships are now being relegated by sponsors to a cost-of-doing-business. If a sponsor decides they need to make an appearance at one of your events or programs, they’ll sponsor as low as possible, and then do nothing with it to actually meet their marketing objectives.

“Oh, don’t worry about the association sponsorships. They’re just a cost-of-doing-business. Politically, we have to do them, but they do nothing for our brand.”

How do I know this? Because I work primarily with corporate sponsors, and when we go through their sponsorship portfolios for the first time, there are invariably at least a few association sponsorships. And nine times out of ten, the client tells me, “Oh, don’t worry about those. They’re just a cost-of-doing-business. Politically, we have to do them, but they do nothing for our brand.”

Is that really what you want to be? A low-level cost-of-doing-business, of no consequence to their results? Geez, I hope not. Because if you’re okay with that, you’re never going to tap into marketing investment-level money, and you’re never going to benefit from what the amazing leverage a sponsor can do for your organisation and your members.

How to fix all of this

While I’ve included a number of resources for you in the body of the blog, I haven’t really addressed the elephant in the room:

You need to stop getting your information about how to do sponsorship from the association industry.

Don’t get me wrong. I want you to be able to get top quality, credible sponsorship skills from your own industry governing bodies, but there’s no indication they’re on top of the massive changes needed to ensure you’re getting the most money, from the most engaged sponsors, in productive, multi-year deals.

Instead, I strongly recommend you look at resources from the broader sponsorship industry. Do a workshop or online training with someone super-credible. Attend a sponsorship conference. Buy a good sponsorship book. Trawl around websites like mine and others in the industry, reading the blogs and white papers. If you find a credible site with lots of sponsorship content, don’t get overly hung up on the specific sector – there are tons of transferrable skills from festivals, sport, the arts, and more.

Finally, if you are a member of a society for association executives, ask them to raise their game on sponsorship. Tell them it’s a potentially huge source of revenue, and you need skills that will allow you to compete not just with other associations, but with anything else a brand can sponsor.

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 white papers,  “Last Generation Sponsorship Redux” and “Disruptive Sponsorship“.

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 Sponsorship Systems Design for large and/or diverse 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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