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Finding Fiscal Friends

by 1185308 Elaine Pofeldt | Jul 03, 2012
The SEO of securing sponsorships in tough times: specificity, exclusivity and originality.

When the Association of Residential Cleaning Services International (ARCSI) looked for a company to sponsor its annual meeting—part of the ISSA/INTERCLEAN Las Vegas 2011 trade show—no one was beating down the door, according to Derek Christian, volunteer vendor relations chair for the group.

“The premier, top-level sponsorship didn’t sell,” Christian said.

That didn’t mean the show was a wash for his group. Indeed, the association took in almost double the amount of sponsorship money over the previous year. The ARCSI teams up with two other cleaning industry groups to hold the event, which attracts about 15,000 attendees.

“Sponsors showed up at the same dollar level, but sponsored a lot of little things,” he said.

For instance, there was great demand for sponsorships of gift bags, roundtable discussions and awards. And a bidding war broke out over sponsorship of the member’s lounge. The winning sponsor, Clean Team, got the exclusive right to set up a table in this coveted gathering spot, where its representatives offered samples of its cleaning supplies and talked with attendees one-on-one.

“They were looking for things that had a much more direct ROI,” Christian said.

He understood their point of view. He owns a cleaning business in Cincinnati and Dallas, following a career at Procter & Gamble.

“I know what they want,” he said. “They want people in their booth. They want people trying their product. All of our sponsorship opportunities were tied to that.”

After a few disappointing years, there’s some good news for organizers selling sponsorships these days. Sponsorship spending is up around the world, according to IEG Consulting, a Chicago firm that tracks this information. Spending by North American companies grew 5.5 percent in 2011 to US$18.1 billion. Globally, spending on sponsorships rose by 5.1 percent to $48.6 billion.

But as the ARCSI discovered, the sponsorship landscape remains considerably different from what it was before the global financial crisis. Many sponsors are watching their budgets closely—and when they do spend, they’re continually evaluating how well their efforts are helping them to achieve company goals.

“It’s a combination of the economy and recognizing that some of the old ways we used to market don’t work as well as they used to,” said Shannon Cherry, a marketer who advises businesses on promoting themselves at events and teaches an online course called Sponsorships Made Simple.

Indeed, corporations are increasingly demanding the kind of one-on-one contact that translates into sales, conversions of prospects into customers and media exposure they can track. Otherwise, they’re likely to walk away from the table.

“Everybody has, since the recession, looked at everything in their budget and started to weed out things that aren’t really delivering an ROI,” said Gail S. Bower, president of Bower Consulting, a firm that advises nonprofits organizations on raising their profile, and author of the book How to Jump-Start Your Sponsorship Strategy in Tough Times.

One reason, notes Bower, is that many sponsors are facing shorter sales cycles in concert with greater difficulty in reaching prospects by phone and email in a crowded marketplace. As a result, sponsors are looking for events that will help them cut through the clutter and reach these prospects.

“The sponsorship program needs to generate clear results and have some pretty solid outcomes,” Bower said. “[Corporations] want to partner with organizations with which they can make a difference and making money for their investment.”

Addressing these needs can require a lot of creative thinking by organizers. However, there’s a silver lining. Sponsors are willing to pay well for what they want.

“Sponsorship pricing is based on value,” Bower said. “The stronger the value, the more the sponsor is willing to pay.”

Closing the Deal: 2012

One essential way to close deals with sponsors now is to offer category exclusivity on options that provide the ability to reach small subgroups of attendees at an event in meaningful and memorable ways.

“We’re a very segmented society now,” Cherry said. “They want to be in front of a specific niche.”

That may mean they want to reach everyone at a conference who uses Facebook or all of the folks who happen to be mothers, so it’s important for organizers to be able to deliver options like this, she says.

Once they’ve secured such opportunities, more sponsors are looking for chances to send representatives to speak directly with attendees in a setting they may not have tried before, such as lounges, private lunches or a single discrete presentation at the event.

“Sponsors are going to be investing in more intimate spaces,” Cherry said.

That holds true for the ARCSI—the association sold its largest sponsorship to Moody Insurance, for an individual speech on customer service by an executive at online shoe retailer Zappos, by offering a deal in which Moody’s first got to talk with attendees individually.

“Our members had to get a ticket from their booth on the trade show floor,” Christian said.

Many sponsors want direct contact with attendees that continues after the event is over. Cherry says some sponsors, for instance, appreciate the opportunity to have attendees complete brief pre-event and post-event surveys, to measure what attendees have learned about their company.

“Here is where technology is great,” she said.

Sponsors are also expecting organizers to give them exposure outside of the immediate world of the event. That’s helped to sell sponsorships at Nolcha Fashion Week New York, an event that showcases up-and-coming fashion designers, according to Arthur Mandel, president of Nolcha—the company that runs it.

When Mandel approaches sponsors, he offers them traditional options such as having their names on VIP goodie bags and giving out product samples, in addition to putting their logo on the pressboard that serves as a backdrop for photo shoots. But, on top of this, he does the legwork to make sure the event is well attended by journalists and fashion bloggers and has arranged coverage by its media partner, the celebrity-centric cable network VH1. Result: The show, going into its sixth year, has attracted sponsors such as American Airlines, Glaceau vitaminwater and Vitabath, he says. The show typically sells seven or eight sponsorships in the $15,000 to $25,000 range.

“It’s very important for sponsors to meet people who are going to write about their products,” Mandel said.

Many sponsors track the media mentions and online readership that result—and share that information with him, he says.

Also essential to sponsors is being able to reach the community around an event through its social media channels.

“Sponsors definitely want more of an online presence,” Mandel said.

To that end, he has built a combined following of more than 20,000 people on Facebook and Twitter—and, along with event information, he tweets information about sponsors to this group which consists mainly of those in the fashion industry.

“They influence so many others,” he said.

Being willing to customize sponsorship options in this new environment is, of course, essential. Sponsors expect organizers to be ready to slice and dice their offerings to meet their specific goals in a far more collaborative way than ever before.

“Gone are the days when [organizers] can offer the gold, silver and bronze package,” Bower said.

Today, the focus has to be on what the event producer and sponsor can co-create together to help the sponsor achieve its business goals, she says.

“It’s not a one-sided approach,” Bower said. “It’s got to be a two-way street.”

Mandel says that even when working with the largest corporations, he cultivates a very close relationship with frequent phone conversations.

“You treat them almost like a family business, like a family pharmacy,” he advised.

Customization has worked well for the Simmons Leadership Conference, an April event that has attracted sponsors such as Goldman Sachs, Novartis and HP, according to Nancy G. Leeser, corporate relations officer for Boston-based Simmons College. For instance, while many sponsors respond well to offers of tickets to the 2,500-attendee conference for their employees, some find that they must limit the number of in-person attendees because of tight travel budgets.

“They send employees to the conference but can’t send everyone,” Leeser explained.

For the two top levels of sponsors, Simmons has, for the past two years, offered the option of having their employees back at the office attend the event virtually via live streaming or with an on-demand webcast available for 60 days.

“They really like that benefit,” Leeser said.

And for Simmons College, being accommodating pays off in more than sponsorship dollars. Many of the attendees come from sponsoring companies. And at the last event, sponsorship opportunities were sold out. One+

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