Businesses don't want to sponsor your event any more; they want to participate in your community.

by Douglas Rushkoff | May 11, 2011 | (0)


“Gold Sponsors pay US$10,000 and get signage over the stage, a full-page ad in the program and a mention before each keynote,” he explained. “Silver Sponsors pay $5,000 and receive signage on the sides of the stage…”

“Excuse me,” interrupted the target VP. “But we were hoping to do something real.” 

“Pardon?” asked my friend, fumbling through his presentation, utterly flummoxed.

“Can’t we sponsor something?”

“The after party…” 

“I meant something real.” Past tense: The sale was lost. “Something we’d want to say we’d done.” 

My friend said he only had a sales rate card with him, but that he’d talk to the organizers and follow up with her by email, and in so doing, punted away the biggest funding offer he’d ever see. 

Et voilà, the impact of transparency on business. Companies no longer use their money to create banners to hide behind. They want to create activities and results that they can stand behind and take credit for. They do not want to sponsor your event anymore. They want to sponsor the community and activities that your event supports, and they want to do it in a way that demonstrates their real participation in your world. 

Traditional sponsorships are not simply outdated; they’re counterproductive. What does ad space around the stage of, say, an advertising conference really mean? That some corporation feels the need to make sure everyone knows it is “central” to what’s going on in that space. And the way to accomplish this is by paying to say so. But do people paying $495 a head to be at a marketing conference feel particularly subsidized by this corporate largess, or do they know, quite consciously, that the money went directly to you organizers?

The companies spending the money you’re looking for already get this. Their social media consultants have shown them what earns “likes” on Facebook and what doesn’t. The things that spread online and off—especially through a target community—are those that matter: opportunities, jobs, competitions for innovative work and exclusive access to unaffordable places. As our VP well understood, money spent on these sorts of things pays off. Money spent on empty ads doesn’t.

The business world is changing, everyone wants to be worthwhile and you have the ability to make that happen. Events get paid for in three ways: by the organizations hosting them, the people coming to them or the companies sponsoring them. If you’re throwing an event, don’t waste your time looking for subsidies. Your event is a gift for your clients (do those sorts of events still exist?). 

If you’re funding through admission, then you already know not to get stuck in that weird middle-ground where you put what amounts to ads or “sponsored panels” in front of your paying audience. To the attendees, it feels like watching advertisements on HBO (which, if it happens someday, will be the end of that model). 

But even if your registration prices are partly or entirely subsidized by sponsorships, you don’t have carte blanche to advertise on their behalf. Your sponsors understand this. So, create opportunities for every sponsor to add value—visible value—to your events. How? Consider these:

Scholarships. Invite a sponsor to pay for students, artists or the temporarily unemployed to attend your event for free or at a great discount on the regular ticket price. Create an online form for people to apply, and let the sponsors pick who it wants to fund. Put the sponsor’s logo on the badges of these scholarship attendees, and thank them from the stage. 

Depending on how advanced the sponsor is, consider letting it choose the kind of attendees it wishes to support, so that it can meet its overall giving strategy. Do they want to support international travelers? Engineering students? Women? And of course, feel free to charge 30 percent for administrating the sponsorship opportunity. 

Competitions. As long as we’re at it, create a competition tied to the content of the event. People can work before or during the conference to come up with solutions to the challenge. Academics can submit books or deliver papers, businesses can share case studies and delegates can vote on the winner. A particular sponsor can “own” the competition for the price of the prizes, plus whatever overhead you want for administrating and providing the forum. 

Marketplaces and Meetings. Most sponsors tend to pay for ancillary, even competing parties along the margins of events, during “dead” times after dinner and before genuine nighttime activities. They waste their money on outrageously overpriced hotel liquor and finger foods, leaving you with little to show for it and the rest of your event to fund. Turn the main events of the day into sponsored meetings. This gives the sponsor the chance to be the force behind getting things done. The marketplace or meeting is branded, and the sponsor can point to this activity as the yield of its funds. 

Content. At the very least, opening and closing keynotes can be sponsored by corporate patrons. This doesn’t mean putting their CEOs up there; it means bringing in an expensive speaker you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. 

Imagine if my friend told the VP that instead of just purchasing an ad, her company could sponsor an international celebrity, fund the participation of 50 brilliant students or brand the first innovation competition in a particular sector? He would have made the sale, helped the sponsor, funded the event and initiated a virtuous circle that everyone could be proud of. One+

Douglas Rushkoff
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF speaks and writes about communication, values, culture and organizations. His upcoming book is "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now." He can be contacted via
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