Meetings in the Post-Pandemic Era
Money Smarts

Sponsorship Options With Value for Everyone

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More member access, thought leadership opportunities, year-round conversations: Sponsors are looking for more than just signs and shout-outs at meetings. Smart associations are finding ways to deliver more value to sponsors and members alike.

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.

More Matchmaking

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.”

“Sponsorship bundles require deeper conversations with sponsors about what their marketing objectives are and then making those matches.” —Amanda Strombeck, Smithbucklin

Busier With Bundles

One prominent trend has been to move away from old-fashioned sponsorship tiers (like gold, silver, and bronze partnerships) and instead work to create customized sponsorship bundles. This approach requires “deeper conversations with sponsors about what their marketing objectives are and then making those matches,” said Amanda Strombeck, director of client service delivery at Smithbucklin, an association management company. “They can get really granular depending on what the sponsor’s objectives are.”

DeNeen says AACRAO now spends more time creating individualized sponsorship plans with year-round contracts.

“We work with partners more individually now,” she said. “We sell packages, starting with exhibit booth space at our meetings. But from there, there are a la carte options that we can mix into their sponsorship package.” A package might include sponsored newsletter articles, social media promotions, and other advertising. Big-ticket sponsorships typically involve live interaction with members and attendees from target demographics.

However an audience is customized, the goal is often to create an environment where the sponsor is viewed as a thought leader in an association’s industry. Presence at an annual conference is part of that, says Rosenthal. But sponsors want year-round opportunities to access key audiences.

“A company wants to be known for its knowledge,” he said. “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. They don’t want to just put their name on the conversation, they want to be part of the conversation.”

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.

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