Lead sponsors at association meetings have always wanted something more than a banner and a mention at the opening plenary. But as more associations and sponsors make their return to in-person meetings—and take some lessons from virtual events—the asks have become more sophisticated.
“Ten years ago, some sponsors were saying they didn’t want the 20-by-20 booth because they didn’t have time to staff it. They would rather be talking to members or wanted sponsorships beyond the conference,” said sponsorship consultant Bruce Rosenthal. “What the pandemic did was accelerate those trends.”
Now, he says, sponsors are looking for year-round opportunities to be featured speakers at meetings, trusted presenters on webinars, and points of contact for targeted segments of association membership that are likeliest to find value in their message. And many associations are delivering on these new expectations.
Sponsors are increasing the pressure on associations to help them connect with high-value prospects, but associations need to ensure value for members too, says Dr. Tina DeNeen, associate executive director, meetings and partnerships, at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
“We’re trying to match our members with our corporate partners so they can have productive conversations,” DeNeen said. As AACRAO returned to in-person meetings in the past year, it’s done more to create customized membership groups that sponsors can speak to and has become more comfortable sharing attendee lists from those events.
That kind of customization requires more staff attention—AACRAO has added a new director-level position to secure and manage new partnerships. This approach also requires more boundary-setting to ensure that members can connect with potential vendors but don’t feel explicitly sold to. “We want to make sure that members aren’t just being inundated with emails from people when they have no interest in what they’re providing,” DeNeen said. “It’s a matching project.”
To get that right, the association should set specific guidelines for sponsored focus groups, webinars, talks, and content, including that sponsorship must be clearly disclosed. And audiences should never feel captive to a sales pitch, says Dave Lutz, managing director at the meetings consultancy Velvet Chainsaw.
“You can’t hold attendees hostage in a general session with a sponsored pitch,” he said. “But if you’re doing 10 concurrent sessions, there’s nothing wrong with having two of them that are sponsored content.”