This article is the second in a three-part series on optimizing association sponsorship programs to meet sponsors’ needs. In the first article, we shared key research findings about how sponsors’ needs are changing in the current economic environment. This month, we spoke with two experts on the front lines of association sponsorships. We hope you enjoy their insights.
Make no mistake — Your sponsors are feeling the current economic crunch, with marketing budgets stagnant or shrinking this year for 60% of B2B marketers. Even if their budgets have not yet been cut, three-quarters of marketers say their budgets are under scrutiny, forcing them to justify every dollar spent.
In such an environment, rinse-and-repeat sponsorship programs involving “benefits” like logos on event signage aren’t going to cut it. Competition for sponsors’ share of wallet is fiercer than ever, and associations need to adapt their sponsorship programs to align the value of their offering more closely with the marketing objectives and business needs of their sponsors.
Further, associations must demonstrate clear ROI to sponsors who are under increased pressure to trace their marketing investments to bottom-line results.
Last month, our team sifted through troves of research to understand the challenges marketers are coping with in the current economic climate. This month, we spoke with two experts — one association executive who is innovating to meet the needs of her sponsors and one consultant on the front lines of helping associations structure successful sponsorship programs. Following are their insights.
Bruce Rosenthal, founder of Bruce Rosenthal Associates, advises associations nearly every day on creating corporate sponsorship programs. He said they sometimes struggle to see sponsors as a knowledge resource and not just a checkbook.
Companies need to differentiate themselves as thought leaders, and they do not have time to wait. Sponsors now curate their own social media followings and are actively building their own professional communities, which makes them less reliant on association member rolls for their marketing initiatives. Rosenthal recently encountered one company with a network of 10,000 professionals they can reach any time they want.
Associations still have a competitive advantage, however, because of the trust and credibility they have among their members. But the one-size-fits-all, “heavy metals” approach to tiered sponsorship programs featuring bronze, gold, and platinum levels isn’t likely to attract sponsors as it did in decades past.
"Companies want to be part of the conversation, not just passively sponsor the conversation by getting their logo on a presentation slide or event sign," Rosenthal said.
That does not just mean having a speaker at a conference but also closer collaboration with associations. Rosenthal acknowledged that associations worry about appearing too cozy with a sponsor. However, a partnership does not have to be an endorsement.
When thinking about new, more innovative approaches to sponsor programs, Rosenthal counsels associations to start by targeting their members’ needs.
“Associations understand what their members want,” says Rosenthal. “This is where they truly shine. If the association goes to a company and says, ‘Based on our latest member survey, here's a top concern of members, and that happens to align with where your company has expertise,’ associations are likely to be much more successful.”
Given that members also now have access to more sources of helpful professional information — from LinkedIn groups to company webinars — sponsorship programs that drive deeper value, not just for sponsors, but for members as well will have the added benefit of fostering deeper engagement with the organization.
When building member-focused sponsor programs, Rosenthal advises associations to leverage another competitive advantage — their ability to segment members by demographics, title, and professional interests.
When thinking about their marketing program, companies are less interested in getting in front of the largest audience they can find than they are in reaching the specific members whose needs and interests align with their solutions.
Rosenthal offers a scenario of a company that had expertise in HR best practices. If an association in its industry worked with the company to build a program that targeted HR directors only, a smaller subset of their total member population, the program would drive the kind of value today’s sponsors are looking for without distracting the remaining members with information that is not relevant to them.
“Sponsors have a lot of expertise that can benefit members,” says Rosenthal. “With a creative approach to building sponsorships, associations become the connective thread between a sponsors’ need to share their expertise and thought leadership content with members’ informational needs.”
Denise Bethel, senior director of business development for the California Society of CPAs (CalCPA), oversees teams for sponsorship content in advertising and membership development. CalCPA is unique in its use of customized sponsorship programs, something only about 30% of associations do, according to Association Advisor’s 2022 Association Benchmarking Report.
Under Bethel’s leadership, CalCPA will create custom events and other sponsorship programs targeted to niche areas within the organization’s accounting community, such as agricultural or non-profit accounting.
First, however, Bethel counsels that you must really understand who your key partners are and what they’re hoping to achieve from their sponsorship program, and that starts with open communication. Bethel said that her more than 20 years of experience on both sides of the conversation taught her the value of direct interaction with sponsors.
Like Rosenthal, Bethel notes the importance of ensuring that sponsorship programs ultimately serve members’ needs and professional interests to ensure all parties benefit. When they sit down with a sponsor to create a bespoke program, they ensure that members’ needs and interests are front and center in the discussion.
“For the relationship with our sponsors to flourish, both parties need to feel like it’s a beneficial partnership,” emphasizes Bethel. “And that starts by working with sponsors to understand their unique needs and how they overlap with our members’ interests.”
Bethel and her team conduct regular check-ins with their largest partners to take a look at how the program is going and whether they need to make any changes. “If we have a partner who is not satisfied with the results they’re getting, we’ll make a pivot and explore how we can optimize the program so that they’re successful,” says Bethel.
CalCPA considers its sponsors to be an essential part of its community rather than mere sources of funding. In fact, the organization has a member category for its sponsors, and it encourages them to join and actively engage with the community. Bethel said she also encourages sponsors to join and participate in one of the association's 14 chapters across the state.
"The best way to network is joining a group and being there — not just as a sponsor all the time, but being there as a colleague or someone they can talk to," she says.
If members see a sponsor directly involved in what the association is doing, that commitment translates into trust, she said. When the conversation turns to business and what the sponsor can do for the member, they are more likely to go with the company as a business partner as well.
"I do believe that it's about showing up half the time and just being consistently showing up," she says. "And then also, when you do sponsor an event, it makes more sense to everyone and they see you're not just there to come and go. You're there for the long haul.”
Fostering deep levels of community engagement with sponsors not only increases the likelihood of success for their sponsorship program but also ensures that they’re likely to continue the relationship with CalCPA over the long haul.
"It's about building relationships with sponsors at all levels," explains Bethel. "It really is about being in the community and immersing yourself into that world. You're not a CPA, you're not an accountant, but [you can] show up and be there. When that happens, the sponsor is not just another company vying for the member's attention. The sponsor's staff are friends, providing something tangible to members, even if it is just their time."
No two sponsors are the same, and each requires attention to its specific needs. However, every company can benefit from establishing itself as a thought leader and interactive online Resource Libraries provide a way to do that.
Also called a “Knowledge Hub or “Resource Center,” a Resource Library hosted by Lead Marvels and white-labeled for your association drives deeper engagement with members, making their membership more valuable.
From your sponsors’ perspective, contributing thought-leadership content to a Resource Library covers multiple needs at once:
A Resource Library also provides associations with non-dues revenue, while generating high-quality leads for your sponsors — all at no cost to the association. Lead Marvels manages and hosts the platform, without the need for your organization to hire new staff or invest in new technology.
You can learn more about the advantages of your own Resource Library in our white paper, Growing Non-Dues Revenue With An Online Resource Library, or schedule a no-obligation demo with a member of our team.