Why Leaders Should Take a Close Look at Sponsorships

Sponsors want a better relationship with your members, and thought-leadership opportunities can provide them. But make sure that those sponsored talks don’t become a turn-off.

Meetings have evolved quite a bit in the past three years. The pandemic is a big reason for that, of course: Associations have moved their meetings online, tinkered with formats, welcomed new audiences, and rethought their tradeshows. 

That’s why it was a good time for Associations Now to assemble its new Deep Dive package around the new meetings landscape, from security to DEI to pricing and more. All are relevant to association leaders, not just the head of the meetings department. But I think it’s particularly of interest to take a look at what’s happening around sponsorships, because that has real implications for both an association’s bottom line and overall credibility.

As I point out in my Deep Dive piece on sponsorships, thought leadership has become an increasingly appealing option for sponsors and associations alike. Companies get prime spots at keynotes, dedicated sessions, and other content formats; a target audience of likely consumers; and opportunities to deliver their insights well beyond the time range of the meeting proper. The association gets a revenue stream and an authoritative source of expertise and content for its members. 

As sponsorship consultant Bruce Rosenthal told me, “a company wants to be known for its knowledge. If a company is known for putting out an educational white paper that offers solutions for members, that becomes a branding opportunity that can lead to business development.”

You can never sell your members out.

Dave Lutz, Velvet Chainsaw

Done right, it’s an obvious win-win. But thought-leadership sponsorship presents some tricky organizational and ethical challenges. Because sponsors want a more bespoke, customized experience, associations will have to staff up to manage the kind of a la carte requests that come in; one association I spoke with for the story has had to staff up to address exactly that. And the nature and content of thought leadership requires attention. It’s not automatically a problem when a medical-device company speaks to a medical association about trends in medical-device usage. But there can be a fine line between informing an audience and selling to it.

“Be careful when you go down that road, because you can never sell your members out,” said Dave Lutz, managing director at the meetings consultancy Velvet Chainsaw. “Your partner may have an idea that sounds great, but is it something that participants are going to truly like and appreciate? If they don’t, then it’s going to fail.”

Lutz recommends putting some guardrails around thought-leadership sponsorship programs. Sponsored sessions at events shouldn’t be so prevalent at in-person conferences that attendees feel that they’re attending nothing but. Ensure that the email lists that sponsors have access to include populations that have a genuine interest in the content. And don’t stress your own resources trying to create custom solutions for every potential sponsor. “There should be some good strategic sessions with leadership on both sides when you’re dealing with your largest sponsors,” Lutz said. “But it’s not practical to customize and build out packages beyond a certain point.”

People always recognize when they’re being explicitly sold to, and it’s always a sinking feeling. Which is why leaders should keep an eye on what sponsored thought leadership looks like at their organization. People come to your association looking for a trusted broker for how to handle their companies and careers; your reputation rests on the feeling that the information you provide is valuable and trustworthy.

How has your organization handled sponsorships around thought leadership? Share your experiences in the comments.

(cnythzl/iStock/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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