How to Scale Sponsored Content to Build a Recurring Non-Dues Revenue Stream

Associations can generate non-dues revenue with a sponsored content program that provides more value to sponsors and deepens member engagement.

Associations looking to balance revenue generation with member satisfaction and retention face a delicate task. Most association CEOs and executives (70%) report they don’t raise dues on a regular basis. Not surprising when association leaders are concerned about members’ willingness to pay, according to McKinley Advisors — not just for dues but also for conferences, certifications, educational programs, and more.

Although raising the fees associated with these activities would generate revenue for associations, it could also put membership levels at risk. With this potential obstacle in mind, it follows that generating non-dues revenue (NDR) is the primary challenge cited by association leaders in Association Adviser’s 2023 Associations Communications Benchmarking Report.

But there is a path forward in the form of a more strategic and scalable approach to sponsored content. Most associations are already familiar with providing paid opportunities for sponsors, like native articles and sponsored webinars. The key now is to elevate and broaden these initiatives, transforming them into a significant source of revenue. Here’s how to grow non-dues revenue with sponsored content.

What is sponsored content?

Sponsored content, also known as “native content” or “branded content,” is produced by an advertiser that pays for the exposure to an association’s membership. It is typically editorial-style content and appears alongside an association’s content, though, according to best practices, it is labeled as “sponsored content” or something similar.

Companies seek sponsored content opportunities like articles, white papers, ebooks, videos, and more to gain exposure when members view their materials.

Unlike other forms of advertising, sponsored content done well doesn’t have a sales-focused approach but instead strives to provide value built around brand awareness and education. This type of content can help associations build a solid, long-term and sustainable non-dues revenue stream.

Why is content becoming increasingly important for sponsors?

Sponsors are looking for more ways to directly engage members beyond traditional advertising placements, such as print and digital display ads. Eager to leverage their subject-matter expertise, sponsors see the opportunity to showcase their expertise and position themselves as thought leaders in the eyes of an association’s members as one of the key benefits of association sponsorship, according to a recent Partnership Professionals Network/Dynamic Benchmarking study.

They often pursue the thought-leader mantle through event speaking engagements, but limiting sponsorship to these one-time opportunities is short-sighted, says Jeff Schottland, CEO of Lead Marvels. “Organizations pursue speaking arrangements at association events because they want to be perceived as thought leaders. Rightly so. These organizations do have valuable expertise they can share with members,” he says. “Sponsored content drives the same level of thought leadership but can reach a significantly larger audience online, and the opportunity exists year-round as opposed to a few days at an association event.”

Sponsored content also gives companies an edge over their competitors, says Lori Zoss Kraska, founder and CEO of Growth Owl. “Corporate sponsors know that thought leadership opportunities offering the chance to provide strategic insight for association members and stakeholders ultimately generate a competitive advantage,” she says.

It’s also mutually beneficial, adds Bruce Rosenthal, founder of Bruce Rosenthal Associates. “Thought leadership is the ideal solution for both sponsors and the association. Sponsor companies are featured for their expertise, and members benefit from this useful information,” he says.
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Best practices for sponsored content

Still, some associations are reluctant to offer sponsors paid content opportunities, fearing it may undermine their influence as “the voice of the industry,” and that their members may feel the association has “sold out” by allowing sponsored content.

These concerns are not baseless. Associations that don’t maintain ownership of sponsored content diminish their authority, and consumers who read or view paid content and find out after the fact tend to feel deceived.

Rosenthal notes, “Associations are concerned that content from sponsors will be commercial and salesy. Furthermore, if the sponsored content is in the form of a webinar or session for education credits, the association can provide guidance to sponsor companies on maintaining an educational focus.”

However, these concerns surrounding sponsored content can be readily addressed by following standards to preserve members’ trust. Keep the following three best practices for sponsored content in mind:

1. Be transparent

Branded content should always be labeled and differentiated from independent, association-produced content. Don’t try to sneak information past members with fine print or obfuscating language. Be direct and label paid, third-party content as “Sponsored Content.” You can also provide a disclosure statement, such as:

“We published this article from [sponsoring company] to give our members exclusive access to their expertise and knowledge. They may be compensated if a member chooses to take advantage of any products/services they may offer.”

2. Create value

Members are not looking for hidden sales pitches. Counsel sponsors on the association’s expectations for high-value educational content that is never self-promotional.

While some associations might hesitate to embrace sponsored content due to concerns about compromising objectivity and maintaining member trust, in Kraska’s experience, sponsors don’t want to jeopardize member perceptions, either. “Most high-level corporate sponsors understand that the content they bring to a thought leadership opportunity has to be educational in nature and not a sales pitch,” she says. “Also, associations are in control more than they might realize. By creating guidelines for the sponsor in terms of topics of interest and standards to follow, everyone is on the same page.”

3. Maintain control

Consider the topics your members are actually interested in, and create a content calendar that reflects those areas, rather than allowing companies to push their agendas. 

Rosenthal says sponsored content must cover essential topics that bring value to members rather than just promoting a service or product. “Associations have a great deal to gain from companies that share their expertise with members. To make this happen successfully, associations should coach companies to educate to sell, not sell to educate,” he says.

Traditional uses of sponsored content

Historically, the most common types of sponsored content have included articles published in an association’s newsletter, print magazine, or website, as well as sponsored virtual and in-person events such as webinars, podcasts, and “lunch-n-learns.”

However, these types of sponsored content are often limited in how and when they are available and accessible to members. More systematic ways exist to leverage sponsored content at scale to achieve a more comprehensive and longer-lasting reach.

By offering a complete library full of relevant and timely sponsored content, associations can provide easy access to high-value materials that not only align directly with sponsors’ needs but offer members a tangible benefit as well.
Case Study:

How the Association of Corporate Counsel Generated $1 Million in Non-Dues Revenue

How an interactive Resource Library can drive non-dues revenue

By creating a members-only library of exclusive sponsored content, associations can drive non-dues revenue growth and enhance member experience. Lead Marvels makes this process easy and profitable for all stakeholders with its turnkey online Resource Library program.

What is an online Resource Library?

An online Resource Library is a digital platform accessible on an association’s website that can host both association-generated and corporate-sponsored content. Members can search for content by topic category, sponsor, or type, such as articles, guides, white papers, infographics, webinars, and more.

All content is free for members. Members who download sponsored material become a lead for the company that created the content. This sponsor is typically a solution provider for the pain point or problem described in the content.

Sponsors pay a per-lead fee. This revenue is split between the association and Lead Marvels, generating a meaningful non-dues revenue without capital investment or burdening the association’s internal resources. Lead Marvels hosts and fully manages the white-labeled platform, and there is no cost for associations or members.

Interested in learning more about how an online Resource Library can grow your association’s non-dues revenue through sponsored content? Read our complete guide, then request a free demonstration today.

We hope you enjoyed this article. For more ideas, insights, and resources to grow non-dues revenue and increase member engagement, subscribe to our newsletter.

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How to Use Content Strategy as a Member Engagement Tool

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