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Develop a Winning Sponsorship Strategy

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Conference sponsorships need to bring value to not only sponsors and attendees but also associations. Here’s how associations can shift their offerings to keep sponsorship dollars flowing and sponsors happy.

With companies becoming more selective in how they spend their marketing budgets, some associations are rethinking sponsorship opportunities—finding that flexible and personalized options promote greater participation and boost revenue.

Associations that offer more interesting options reap the benefits, says Dave Lutz, managing director at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. New sponsorship options should provide a significant ROI to sponsors—and provide value to attendees in alignment with higher conference experience expectations. Lutz pushes associations to focus on “attendee mattering”: what attendees will take away from the sponsorship.

Lutz recommends creating sponsorships that allow for attendees to opt in or out; that provide something experiential, such as education or entertainment; and that integrate some form of appreciation—whether it’s something attendees take home or consume, or that makes them feel like a VIP.

Sponsorships should create a win-win-win scenario, with sponsors, attendees, and the association all benefiting, said Will Engle, assistant director of education and events for AMR Management Services. Engle recently led an overhaul of the sponsorship program at the Nursing Organizations Alliance (NOA), scrapping some of the more traditional offerings and creating a new menu of 10 sponsorship opportunities that focus on attendee experience and sponsor ROI.

Rewriting the Menu

So, what types of offerings meet the “we all win” criteria? While traditional coffee or refreshment breaks are losing traction, Lutz says “surprise-and-delight” pop-up events are trending. In such an experience, a sponsor hosts a previously unannounced event—such as ice cream for the first 500 people—where attendees opt in to enjoy an unexpected treat.

Also effective are opportunities that boost sponsors’ interactions with VIP members. To achieve this, Lutz recommends sponsorships of board receptions, executive lounges, and emerging leader events. This option can also work well for small associations, which can offer “exclusive opportunities” that facilitate access to the most influential names within the organization. “Sponsors will spend a lot of money to spend time in a room with the movers and shakers,” said Lutz.

"Most companies are looking for direct leads and direct stakeholder contact.”—Will Engle, AMR Management Services

Similarly, Engle’s research at NOA demonstrated that potential sponsors hope to target specific subsets of association members that align with their own missions and goals. “Most companies are looking for direct leads and direct stakeholder contact,” he said.

Lutz also sees growth around sponsorships that enhance the attendee experience—for example, headshot lounges, where attendees can walk away with a professional headshot that they can use to build their personal brand in places like LinkedIn.

In addition, sponsorships related to thought leadership continue to resonate. These offerings allow a sponsor to introduce or provide a speaker for a session. Some associations offer sponsorship of an entire session track, where the sponsor is a presence and makes introductions throughout the week. For those associations offering hybrid conferences, Lutz recommends creating “packages that provide thought leadership both in person and virtually.”

Choose Your Own Experience

Beyond a revamped menu, flexibility will also allow for new and improved sponsorship experiences individualized to company needs. Associations should welcome custom suggestions from sponsors—recognizing they can veto ideas that won’t provide value to attendees or the association.

NOA welcomed fresh ideas from sponsors at its 2021 Fall Summit and hit a home run with its wellness sponsorship. The organization allowed Minnesota’s Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic, to adapt the opportunity by providing a nutrition and wellness expert from Mayo to lead a 15-minute movement activity, preceding a break in the expo hall.

“Once the activity was over, the expert teased a takeaway that could only be picked up by visiting their booth,” said Engle. “Rochester had a line of attendees at their booth the next break.” Even better: NOA sold that sponsorship for four times the price of a booth in 2019.

Flexibility also led NOA to rethink the traditional exhibit hall configuration. Sponsors may choose to be creative with their expo space and consider varying booth sizes and experiences, unconstrained by the standard 8-by-10 booth design.

When designing your next list of sponsorship opportunities, “keep it open ended,” said Engle, “so sponsors can suggest involvement that you might not even have considered.”


Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Virginia.

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