Making Sponsorship Special Again

Once upon a time sponsors were afforded pretty decent value for their cash contributions to an event or program because they were granted almost exclusive access. Then some enterprising executive or committee member got the idea that we should begin to auction off every split second of visibility on TV, at a conference, or during a program in order to generate extra revenues.

I’m hard pressed to attend a meeting or conference without finding myself bombarded with sponsor logos within minutes of arriving (on banners, on my hotel room key card, on my name badge, on yet another bag that will soon be trashed, on the notepads and trinkets stuffing the portfolio, and many more). I half expect the association president to open a general session sporting an outfit covered in sponsor logos (do not, I repeat do not, run with that idea).

Since we are an advertising savvy people, I believe almost all of these efforts to attract our attention to a company’s name or products go almost unnoticed. Since almost everything is sponsored, almost nothing gets noticed. As Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck noted in their book, The Attention Economy, everyone suffers from some form of attention-deficit disorder given the myriad of messages bombarding our senses all day long.

And that has become a very real problem for organizations that sold the farm in terms of sponsors. Now that the coffers aren’t quite so plentiful, companies are (shockingly!) less interested in paying $1000 to have a sign next to the free coffee being offered outside of a general session at a convention. Heaven forbid, they would want something that might actually yield some form of real return on investment for their hard earned dollars.

I’ve always been amazed at the ridiculous amounts of cash people have ponied up for moments of visibility that certainly could not have positively impacted their bottom line. Sure, some organizations aren’t looking for a quid pro quo in terms of sponsorship. They offer dollars simply to support the industry or to have their name attached to an event or program that has a positive reputation. Some do it because of “guilt by omission.” Not being listed as a sponsor might cause negative attention to be sent their way.

But many businesses actually do need to obtain some meaningful exchange of value when they write their sponsorship checks, and they are seeing it more aggressively than in years past. So organizations used to a sponsorship gravy train are really caught in a double bind, and in my opinion, quite rightfully so. They got too greedy and forgot that sponsors deserve a reasonable return on their investment. And I mean one a bit more meaningful than being listed in the program booklet in 10 pt. type and being thanked from the podium in a Powerpoint presentation that no one in the audience is watching.

Perhaps even more egregious is how organizations have conditioned their members and customers to get great products or programs at a reduced cost courtesy of others’ doing the underwriting. As a result, the registration fee or product cost individuals have been paying hasn’t had to carry the full value proposition of the event or product itself. With less sponsorship dollars coming in the door, organizations now need to pass on more of the real cost and finding members and customers balking at the higher rates. Well isn’t that a huge surprise.

Now is a good time to be rethinking how the value attached to any meetings, programs, and services we are providing and the monetary commitment we ask of members and customers to receive that value. We need members and customers to pay a greater percentage of the real costs of a product or program so we can more accurately assess the market’s perception of the value propositions we offer. We need to meet individually with potential sponsors, learn about their business goals, and then create meaningful bundles of value for a more limited number of sponsors (at least for an individual event or program), ones requiring appropriate compensation for what should now be more significant value. Finally, we need to be cautious about using sponsorship dollars to pay for services or programs that are really baseline expectations from members. It's an unsustainable approach that distorts how members perceive the value they are receiving in exchange for dues, registration fees, or other common charges.

What would you do to make sponsorships special again?


Scott Oser said...

Hey Jeff,

I think this is a very interesting conversation. It is even more interesting now that the NBA has agreed to put small ads on uniforms. Money is one thing but I wonder how much value the Cokes and Nikes of the world will get from those little ads.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

At some point I have to think that logos everywhere just become noise instead of meaningful messaging, but others mileage may vary.

But if one of the fundamentals of sales is helping your clients achieve their objectives, the way many organizations approach sponsorship has room for improvement.

Sue Pelletier said...

The smart thing to do would be to become almost an agency for the sponsor, figuring out how you can leverage the various aspects of the organization to meet the needs of that sponsor. But even then, how much are they really getting for their financial support?

Injecting sponsors even more into the program with product theaters, etc., might be another possible solution. But with the signal-to-noise ratio already so poor, and we attendees already so good at filtering out all the marketing being thrown at us at every turn in a meeting and in everyday life, I'm not so sure how effective that will be.

The best would be to find ways an organization can be a real conduit to relationship building between sponsors and attendees, then monetize it. Don't ask me how, but I think that's what's needed to cut through the cutter and provide real value.

And OMG Scott! I hadn't heard that the NBA was going NASCAR.

Shelly Alcorn, CAE said...

Jeffrey -

What a great post! Very timely for BCSI right now!


Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Sue: Love the powerful way you framed this: becoming an agency for the sponsor and helping develop a strategy for them to realize their relationship goals. Sounds like something we should have been doing all along.

Anonymous said...

I love the NBA, and it seems to be part of David Stern's international push. Look at soccer/futbol jerseys and see the brands stand out.

EventJuice published a short article on how mobile apps are adding value to sponsorships and for organizers.

Unknown said...

Jeff, we are finding all of the above and then back again. We have been trying to create partnerships that really provide access to our members, with speaking opportunities and the like. Then we get push back from at least once sponsor that just wants to sponsor lanyards and something else and has no interest in actually getting in front of the members.

The other scenario we are seeing are some companies wanting access to our members by partnering with us to get our name or endorsement, but want to no part of any type of cash payment. They think they can give us stuff, which in most cases is useless to us.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

A good reminder that value doesn't necessarily have to imply speaking opportunities or getting in front of members.

Value is whatever we can offer that will achieve a sponsor's objectives that also is ethical and consistent with the organization's and event's purpose and brand.