What Sponsors Want, According to Experts (Part 2)

Optimizing association sponsorship programs in a tightening economy demands new ideas and closer relationships with sponsors.

This article is the sequel to another article in which we asked experts on the front lines of association sponsorships for their insights on how associations need to adapt to the changing needs of their sponsors.

When our team recently compiled extensive research on how companies are responding to the current economy, two common themes emerged that should catch the attention of all association leaders:

  • 1. Marketing budgets are under increased scrutiny.
  • 2. ROI accountability is intensifying.

Armed with these facts about your sponsors — not to mention the potential impact these trends could have on non-dues revenue — how should associations respond so they’re not caught flat-footed? In other words, how should associations adapt their sponsorship programs to retain and even increase non-dues revenue from corporate sponsors that may be under budgetary duress?

And beyond simply driving revenue, how can associations innovate their sponsorship programs in a way that adds value to members, while staying true to their mission and values?

As we did last month when we spoke to experts on the front lines of association sponsorship programs, we posed these questions to two more experts — a consultant who advises associations on optimizing their sponsorships and an association CEO who recently revamped her organization’s programs to better serve sponsors’ needs. Their insights follow.

Foster an open dialogue with sponsors

Lori Zoss Kraska, founder and CEO of Growth Owl, advises associations and nonprofits on generating sponsorship revenue. She is familiar with the challenges associations face working with sponsors, such as limited staff and time, lack of internal alignment on whether traditional sponsorship programs need to be overhauled, and other barriers to developing effective partnerships with sponsors.

Kraska says that association staff members are often hesitant about how they engage with corporations. Their reasons may vary, such as not wanting to appear to be selling out or uncertainty about which companies to approach. Still, the effect tends to be detrimental to sponsorship efforts and the revenue streams that many associations rely on.

"I find that if you don't have at least a majority of people that are wanting to do this, it's a harder road because, internally, you don't have the buy-in," Kraska says.

However, motivation is not enough by itself. Associations also need to focus their efforts on the most relevant sponsors, rather than trying to gather as many sponsors as possible. Associations need to understand which corporations are a good fit and who within those companies are the right people to connect with.

“You need to know what the right corporations are to be talking to, who is going to want to talk to you, and how you are going to approach them,” says Kraska, who often counsels associations to start with small steps by identifying just a few companies with initiatives aligned with your organizational mission.

That means doing your homework to select the right sponsors to concentrate on. However, it also means being ready to listen to potential sponsors and hear what they are saying.

Kraska advises that, “When meeting with sponsors, don’t be focused on how you are going to sell them a program; rather, approach the conversation with an exploratory mindset, looking for ways that the sponsor’s goals and objectives align with your association’s values and vision.”

Associations that approach sponsors with what she calls an “organic mindset” tend to be the ones that uncover opportunities that can lead to mutually beneficial partnerships.

White Paper:

A Framework for Evaluating New Sources of Non-Dues Revenue

It starts with member needs

When thinking outside the box about sponsorship opportunities, Kraska advises association leaders to always start from the point of member needs and build from there to stay true to organizational values. This approach not only helps to start the partnership off on the right foot but ensures the program is relevant and beneficial to both members and sponsors. It also can lead to unexpected avenues for collaboration and even additional sponsorship opportunities.

Kraska explains that mid and large-size corporations usually have multiple departments aside from marketing with budgets they may be happy to spend in collaboration with associations. If an association is hosting an event with a theme such as the experience of women in a specific field, for example, it is likely that some companies may share that particular focus. If the association can build a sponsorship program collaboratively that also allows the sponsors to share their own expertise for the benefit of members, everybody wins.

“Sponsors are looking for more direct involvement with members to share their expertise and build credibility and awareness among members, rather than just being on the sidelines watching,” notes Kraska. “Working with them to identify opportunities will benefit both sides and encourage that partnership to grow.”

Additionally, Kraska says that she’s seen this approach lead to new revenue opportunities for associations.

"Many companies have somebody who is overseeing inclusion and equity, somebody that's overseeing accessibility, somebody that's overseeing sustainability, or CSR — corporate social responsibility," she says. “Oftentimes, these divisions have their own budgets, separate from marketing that associations can tap into.”

Kraska explains that once an association establishes that level of strategic collaboration with a sponsor, more often than not, it builds the foundation for a long-term partnership.

Coaching sponsors toward mutual success

Under the leadership of CEO Carey Goryl, the Association for Advancing Physician and Provider Recruitment (AAPPR) recently shed its traditional tiered sponsor program that involved a preset menu of benefits. In its place, Goryl has been growing collaborative partnerships with sponsors by positioning herself as a coach to help sponsors understand what AAPPR members are looking for.

Like Kraska, Goryl believes that it is imperative to work directly with sponsors to understand what they’re trying to accomplish. In restructuring the association’s sponsorship programs, Goryl returned to square one, starting by interviewing sponsors about their objectives. She reviewed their spending on projects, programs, and events, and looked for insights from each sponsor on how that spending could be more effective.

Although AAPPR has fewer sponsors now, the deeper partnerships they’ve developed are much more beneficial to the organization and its members. Further, instead of leaving sponsors to fend for themselves with pre-set packages, Goryl and her team coach sponsors to help identify effective strategies that engage members. She follows up on how they are measuring their success and, when needed, offers advice on adjusting their strategies to connect more deeply with members.

Having fewer but more relevant sponsorships makes it easier for members to develop worthwhile relationships with reputable solution providers in their industry as well. Additionally, a less transactional, partnership-oriented approach works both ways, fostering relationships with sponsors who are also vested in the association’s success.

"This approach also puts ownership on us to make sure that we continue to deliver value for our members in terms of what our members want to see or experience from our sponsors,” explains Goryl. “Plus, coaching our sponsors on what our members want — understanding what is happening in their professional lives — helps everyone. It ensures our sponsors' messaging resonates because the members can already see the value, and it helps ensure our sponsors’ success as well."

Case Study:

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

Unlocking sponsors’ thought leadership and expertise

Like Kraska, Goryl points out that sponsors have a great deal of expertise to share with members. When collaborating with sponsors to build innovative programs, Goryl looks for ways to channel that expertise for the benefit of members. Doing so helps sponsors achieve an important goal shared by every corporate sponsor — Building trust.

“One of the reasons companies support associations is because it helps them build awareness and brand credibility among our members,” points out Goryl, who notes that brand awareness alone is no longer sufficient motivation for ROI-conscious sponsors. “Sponsors want to actively engage with our members by sharing their expertise as solution providers,” she says.

"We can leverage credibility and trust if we are intentional and thoughtful about it," Goryl explains. “Sponsors get to align with our brand credibility, but they know they have to earn it and keep earning it by having our members’ needs at the forefront.”

Programs that enable sponsors to leverage their expertise and knowledge for the benefit of members are incredibly valuable for sponsors determining how to allocate their marketing budgets.

How to build a bridge from member needs to sponsor goals

As our experts point out, the key to developing innovative new sponsorship programs is to target the sweet spot where members’ professional needs overlap with sponsors’ business objectives. Interactive digital Resource Libraries are one solution that provides value to members and sponsors alike.

A Resource Library showcases curated, thought-leadership content supplied by corporate sponsors in the form of white papers, guides, ebooks, reports, research, podcasts, on-demand webinars, and more. The resources featured in a Lead Marvels Resource Library are indexed, searchable, and targeted to members’ professional needs and interests. And when a member registers to download a sponsor resource, they opt-in to become a lead for ROI-focused sponsors looking to grow their business.

Plus, Lead Marvels’ Resource Library platform is a turnkey solution for our association partners. There is no cost to the association and no need to invest in new technology or staff. Lead Marvels white labels the platform for its partners’ websites, hosts the platform, and fully manages the sales effort, providing a recurring non-dues revenue stream for our more than 100 association partners.

To learn more about how the Lead Marvels Resource Library partnership program works, schedule a no-obligation demo.

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