Finding the right sponsors for your events doesn’t have to feel like torture.
Landing sponsors “is really difficult for a lot of planners who hate to sell,” said Shawna Suckow, founder of the Senior Planners Industry Network (SPIN), who also used to run sponsorship and meetings companies. “But if you change your thinking that you are helping them to reach their ideal audience in a captive way, then you are not asking them for charity. You’re providing them with a solution.”
That shift in thinking “will change the way you write your prospectus, the way you write your email, the way you make that call,” she said.
Don’t think of assets; think of audience, said Joe Waters, founder of Selfish Giving, which works with nonprofits and businesses to build partnerships that raise money.
“It’s not that you have a run or walk or meeting or conference,” Waters said. “This type of audience is going to the event; that’s what you want to sell.”
It’s imperative for planners to deeply understand the audience that will attend or has attended the event, he said. Once you know your audience, you can start searching for the right sponsor; and then you can pitch those matches. And once a planner lands a sponsor, it’s about coming up with creative sponsorship opportunities, delivering those activations and measuring the results.
Sell Your Audience
When looking for sponsors, start with people you know: the vendors and partners with whom you or your client already work. Waters said it’s like a target symbol: Start at the bull’s-eye and work your way out. Most people start from the outside and work their way in, and “that’s a lot harder.”
Once you have a couple of sponsors committed, then you have a much stronger case as you approach others who aren’t familiar with your organization.
“Start with the familiar, not with the unfamiliar,” Waters said.
And that’s true even for other conferences. Suckow looks for similar conferences and researches their event sponsors because they may also want to reach your audience.
“It will give you an idea, at least, of the types of companies, if not the exact companies, you can reach out to,” she said.
She also suggested using social media, email or surveys to ask attendees what companies constantly market or sell to them because those companies likely want to reach your audience.
Nann Philips, owner and CEO of Scurry Street Meeting Management, usually starts by asking the client the following: Who are your stakeholders? Who do you do business with? Who would you want to be involved in this program?
But she, too, looks at sponsors of similar industry events and professional conferences. Then, she said, “get proficient in LinkedIn stalking” and pay for the upgrade so you can message people; or ask for introductions from your client or anyone who can connect you firsthand.
“It requires some work, but I think that’s the better route for higher-potential sponsors because they’re already invested and prevetted somehow,” Philips said.
After you’ve signed some sponsors, ask them for referrals; they’ll usually know another organization that would be a great fit for the event.
Pitch the Package
When approaching sponsors, most event organizers have the standard “Gold, Silver, Bronze” package. While a “medal menu” is probably necessary, planners also need to be flexible.
Suckow said having the standard levels is fine, but organizers should consider including a “pick list” with a few different options under each level to allow sponsors to customize.
Waters said although those levels may be necessary, a shorter list of laser-focused offerings will excite the sponsor and make postevent measurement easier.
“The best sponsorship packages are a la carte,” Waters said. “Sometimes, that can mean even more money for you if they can choose and put together a package that they’re more interested in.”
When approaching sponsors, instead of saying, “Here’s what we have, do you want to buy any of it?” start by asking what they’re looking for, and build on that, Philips said. Some will know exactly what they want, and others will have no idea. Offer a range of sponsorship levels, but combine those with an open mind and a blank slate.
“I would create a prospectus as a guide, but it’s not ‘last and final,’” Philips said. “Let them know ‘This is just to inspire your own ideas, and we want to talk to you about any other things you want to do.’”
You Can Sponsor It All
Sponsors want more than their logo on a bag. But what can be sponsored? Anything, really.
To start, walk the venue with the five senses in mind. Walk it with attendees in mind, and walk it with other people in tow to think of creative sponsorship opportunities.
“A lot of planners do banners and shine a logo on a wall, and they stop there,” Suckow said. “But if you work through the senses, it really stretches you to think from a different perspective.”
An event could offer sponsors the opportunity to introduce speakers or sponsor bands. Instead of sponsoring an entire meal, an organizer could break it up into more affordable and more interactive chunks, like a cooking station or a dessert table. One event branded all the steaks with the sponsor’s logo. A signature drink that’s only available at the sponsor’s table guarantees both foot traffic and word-of-mouth.
At a conference that attracts mostly men, a shoeshine station worked well because the sponsor wanted quality connections and deeper conversations, and the station was “a captive audience within a captive audience,” Suckow said.
A local Meetings Professional International chapter in Minnesota came up with a “brilliant” sponsorship of the weather for a golf tournament. If the weather was good, the sponsor got kudos; if it was bad, they got good-natured ribbing. “Either way, they got attention,” Suckow said.
Sponsorships can start before an event and continue outside it. One event played a recorded welcome for event attendees over the airport train public-address system, an idea that could be scaled for hotel elevators or event shuttles, and sponsored, Philips said.
Measuring Return on Investment
Not all sponsors care about how many business cards they collect in a fishbowl. Planners should always look for meaningful ways to measure results for sponsors, such as tracking how many people went into that breakout room or counting how many signature drinks were served.
If planners start by asking sponsors what they’re looking for out of a sponsorship and what a successful sponsorship means for them, “your measurement becomes easier because you know what they want and what to measure,” Philips said. “Then, when you provide that postevent report, you’re giving them exactly what they asked for. Here are the things we talked about, here’s how we measured it, and here are the results.”