You wouldn’t go to the bank for a loan without a fine-tuned business plan or approach a fundraising prospect for a major gift before learning everything you could about their interests. With so much riding on sponsorship revenue, it’s surprising that our industry partners don’t always get the special treatment this important relationship deserves. Rolling out the red-carpet to make a sponsorship request isn’t as second nature as it should be.

The need to deliver value in a virtual setting forced most groups to think creatively about how to offer meaningful interaction in the low-touch environment. But our perspective still needs to make another significant shift. Corporate marketers have moved beyond business as usual. They are looking for a seat at the table, not down the hall.

To cultivate that more parallel relationship, associations must realize that a sponsorship request reverses the roles. Our vendors become our customers. In order to deliver value, we must understand their needs in the same deliberate way we approach our membership initiatives. This idea may be a leap for some, but our sponsors are part of the family. Although there will always be boundaries in these partnerships, the benefits of collaboration outweigh the possibilities for compromise.

Look Beyond Vanilla

If your organization’s post-pandemic strategy is a return to offering a set of one-size-fits-all vanilla benefits, that’s a recipe that won’t inspire much appetite. Even before the pandemic, selling booths in the exhibit hall as a stand-alone benefit could feel a bit like trying to push real estate in Death Valley. A “gap year” makes the path up that hill even steeper. If you have yet to scrutinize your sponsorship initiatives with fresh eyes, don’t wait to begin.

.orgSource has been studying how to maximize the association/vendor partnership for some time. We are fortunate to have a unique perspective. We have played both roles in this transaction. As a consultancy, associations often request our support or participation in events and activities. On the other hand, as the founders of .orgCommunity, a networking and educational organization, we sometimes find ourselves on the asking side of the equation.

Deliver Impact Through Understanding

To deliver red-carpet service to vendors we need a better understanding of what they want from the relationship.

The pandemic brought questions like these into sharper focus. How can associations:

  • Improve return on investment for their sponsors?
  • Offer higher-quality networking opportunities?
  • Deliver leads that convert to sales?
  • Provide impactful benefits?
  • Establish continuing partnerships?

.orgCommunity has been a laboratory for much of our research surrounding these issues. Over the last two months, we collaborated with Scott Oser, President, Scott Oser Associates, and Lewis Flax, Principal, Flax Associates, to facilitate a series of Think Tanks with association leaders about these topics. Lewis and Scott both have years of experience in helping associations grow their relationships with industry.

Those conversations confirmed our belief that in order to deliver that red-carpet service for our vendors, we need a much better understanding of what they expect from the relationship. Superficially, the requirements seem straightforward. Sponsors want visibility for their brand. They would like name recognition to be strengthened by thought leadership. Promotion plus credibility should equal leads, which ultimately result in sales. That formula has not changed.

Look Beneath the Surface

The simplicity of that dynamic may be part of the problem. For too long, associations have been treating their sponsors as a monolith, offering companies with very different agendas and products the same packages. Just like each of our member groups, every business is unique. The best path to helping a company achieve its sponsorship goals is the one that considers those differences. It’s your job to discover the nuances and ensure that your customer gets the kind of service that makes an impact.

Gaining that level of understanding takes some leg work and intention. Think Tank participants realized that to uncover what motivates their corporate customers, there was a constellation of information they needed to collect. They wanted answers to questions such as:

  • What are your organization’s marketing objectives this year?
  • What experiences have you participated in that simply did not work?
  • Given the pandemic and economic impact over the past twelve months, how have your company’s goals and priorities changed?
  • Are you looking to increase, decrease, or maintain your company’s sponsorship budget in 2021?

Build a Dynamic Relationship

The group developed a survey that includes 16 questions. If each of your potential sponsors completed the survey, you would be well on your way to establishing relationships that leverage the best interests of both partners. But, as I said earlier, getting to know your customers should be a deliberate process. I see an even greater value in asking these questions in person, and ideally knowing the answers well in advance of any request for support.

Companies want to promote their own activities almost as much as they want to learn what makes your members tick. Once we return to in-person meetings, take the opportunity to do outreach that makes a significant impact. Instead of a phone call–

  • Schedule a face-to-face meeting with your corporate representatives.
  • Invite them to tour your office or to be guests at member events.
  • Request a tour of their facilities.
  • Give them opportunities to present to your management team or your board. Make time for dialogue that goes beyond show and tell.
  • Demonstrate genuine interest in their business challenges.
  • Spend time with rising stars as well as the big dogs—the corporate landscape changes quickly.  

A great first step in getting to know some of the companies who serve the association industry better is to visit the .orgCommunity Solutions Center. We’ve invited our preferred vendors to post the latest information about their businesses and their products.

The pandemic gave us a taste of how the digital marketplace could transform sponsorship initiatives. There is still much uncertainty surrounding how these partnerships may evolve. In that shifting landscape, bringing a red-carpet attitude to all your sponsor interactions will be the key to keeping those relationships growing and strong.