Fresh Ideas, New Tech: How to Reimagine Stale Sponsorship Models

Associations must employ a year-round approach across digital channels to sustainably serve sponsors, members, and themselves.

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that “don’t put all your eggs into one basket” is not just a saying — but solid advice.

Many association leaders, overly reliant on bringing in sponsorship revenue through once-a-year meetings, were left panicked as authorities deemed in-person events unsafe. Even those who pivoted to virtual or hybrid events faced challenges with exhibitor hesitancy — an unfortunate trend that nearly half of organizations surveyed by ASAE said continued into 2021.

As most associations return to in-person events, forward-thinking leaders are also diversifying their revenue mix (and engagement channels) through always-on digital strategies.

These integrated approaches go beyond the confines of a single event to build stronger relationships with sponsors and B2B marketers — ones that include year-round exposure opportunities.

“I’ve seen many cases where an association holds a big event, and then it’s like, ‘We’ll see you next year,’” said Matt Heinz, President of Heinz Marketing Inc., who has more than 20 years of experience in marketing, business development, and sales.

“You generate all this momentum, get people together, and make them wait 11-and-a-half months for the next one,” he continued. “Consider what you can do to continue that experience in between — all of the touchpoints you create to keep people engaged are opportunities for the association and sponsor.”

 A Modern Take on Traditional Sponsorships

Running an association in an increasingly digital world allows leaders to innovate on behalf of their sponsors. With the right technology, associations can serve up fresh ideas for boosting visibility and building connections beyond events, all while offering on-demand engagement, real-time data analysis, and fully branded program options.

Rather than limit partners to event booths, give them opportunities to have a presence on your website or chair community forums. Or allow them to share their expertise by hosting webinars that simultaneously spotlight their solutions.

Whether it’s through emails, sponsored content, or other channels, provide sponsors with ongoing opportunities to facilitate engagement, contribute to the conversation, and establish themselves as thought leaders. In doing so, association leaders elevate the concept of sponsorship from a simple revenue source to a successful, symbiotic relationship that extends member benefits.

“I’ve been told that consumer decisions are based on emotion and B2B decisions are based on logic,” Heinz said. “If that were true, [sponsors/B2B marketers] would have much easier jobs — all they would need is an ROI calculator. But emotions are part of it; relationships are part of it.”

Create Legitimate, Ongoing Value

Heinz said that associations are in an enviable position in that they’ve earned their members’ trust and attention over time.

“Associations have done the hard work of building their audiences — that’s a long-term investment,” he said. “It’s why, when you look at the playbooks of so many B2B marketing groups, you’ll find professional associations are at the heart of their programs.”

As trusted knowledge hubs, associations must put their reputation above all else, a rule that applies to all engagement channels, whether in-person, digital, or hybrid. “The question is how you continue to earn your audience’s attention,” he said. “You have to be careful about putting revenue and pitches ahead of your audience, because you may lose the credibility of your vehicle.”

The good news? Sponsor-contributed content allows associations to showcase a variety of ideas and perspectives. In addition to relevant products and services, each sponsor should be seen as a source of specialized industry intelligence.

“Some of the best content — best-practice guides, blog posts, videos — comes through vendors that know that if they can be the sense-makers in their space, they can capture attention, earn trust, and really become the incumbent when the prospect is ready to buy,” Heinz said.

To that end, Heinz said associations have an opportunity to guide sponsors on how to maximize year-round exposure opportunities through compelling content that doesn’t come off as a sales pitch.

“Associations can do the math and say, “When we went back and calculated ROI on a full year of omnichannel programs with our sponsors, we found those that pitched the least sold the most because they earned ongoing attention engaging with their prospect,” Heinz said.

Doing so will increase your sponsors’ ROI while elevating the member experience.

“If you lose your audience’s attention, it’s really hard to get back,” he said.

The team at Forj, an MX platform for associations and professional community organizations, thanks Matt Heinz, President of Heinz Marketing Inc., for his expertise in B2B marketing and sponsorships.