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?