Improving Your Advertising and Sponsorship Programs

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

By Hank Berkowitz

Last week’s Super Bowl is officially in the record books, but the buzz lives on. Sure, the Giants’ 21-17 victory was a nail-biter that went down to the final play, but what many viewers are still talking, tweeting and posting about has little to do with the final score or the controversial coaching decisions in the game’s final minutes. Instead, they’re dissecting who won, who lost and who surprised the most in the annual battle of Super Bowl advertisers. That’s music to marketers’ ears.

  • Nearly half of associations surveyed are making non-dues revenue a higher priority in 2012.
  • Associations often lack the systems and skill sets needed to forge corporate partnerships.
  • Budget cycles and campaigns get shorter, but the lead time to get on a sponsor’s short list takes longer.
  • Many association websites make it difficult for potential sponsors to find what they need quickly.

Don’t forget to take our latest online reader poll. Find out what your peers are thinking.

Speaking of advertising and sponsorship power, there’s a tidal shift occurring in the association world concerning non-dues revenue (NDR). While NDR doesn’t play out on the same global stage as the National Football League, experts tell us it’s becoming “more tolerated” by association leaders as the notion of the automatic dues renewal fades into the rear view mirror.

NDR gets a bigger seat at the table

Nearly half (45 percent) of respondents to a recent Association Adviser reader poll told us that NDR would play a more visible role in their 2012 operating budgets. Steve Rappaport, knowledge solutions director of the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) in New York, is not surprised. “Our organization, like many others, is certainly more receptive to sponsorship than it was before,” he said. “The sponsorship has to have educational value, but yes, we’re quite aware of the economic realities facing the association world.”

Pamela Strother, CAE, principal at Sponsorship Specialists, agrees: “I am seeing everyone from the smallest to the largest associations getting serious about building professional corporate partnership programs for the first time in their histories.

How associations can work more effectively with sponsors

Naylor’s communication benchmarking research tells us that more than half of associations (56 percent) now ask their advertisers and sponsors “regularly” if they feel they’re getting their money’s worth. That percentage rises to 64 percent for larger associations (10,000+ members), who tend to have more communication vehicles than their smaller brethren. It’s a start, but our experts say most associations have a long way to go.

Pamela Strother, who for 10 years served as executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Journalists Association (NGLJA), said there’s still too much emphasis on short-term relationships and not enough on long-term relationships. “Partner relationships take time and should be approached like a marriage, not like speed dating.”

Bob Burris, a Kansas City-based expert on sponsorship sales strategies and training for associations and athletic organizations, lamented the fact that associations too often gear sponsorship proposals to their own needs rather than to the sponsor’s needs.

What’s more, “Not enough associations are taking the time to identify their true assets and place reasonable values on those assets,” he said. “Unfortunately, too many associations ‘give away the farm’ during the negotiation process. Until they learn how to leverage their own assets accordingly, this practice will continue,” he warned.

What sponsors need to know about working with associations

“It’s counterintuitive,” noted John Hudson, CPA, president of Hudson Consulting Group in Williamsburg, Va., and for many years an association marketing and product development executive. “Marketers try so hard to advance their brands, but if they do so too overtly in the association world, it will turn members off. So they have to do so under the umbrella of the association’s brand. That can be a difficult balance for both the sponsor and the association.”

According to Strother, members of associations have built deep and lasting relationships with their associations. “If you are an exhibitor, advertiser or event sponsor who is new, or who just pops in once a year, you are not showing the level of commitment that members make to the association,” she said.

Making your NDR opportunities easier to find

Strother said you can take 20 random associations and look up their online presence. “Most of the time you’ll find what looks like a restaurant menu (or check-off boxes) of sponsor-able opportunities that were created with a word processor,” she said. There is little attention paid to design, branding, messaging or storytelling for the potential sponsor. “There’s often nothing to engage and inspire a partnership. It is just ‘here is lanyard real estate for your logo and here is the price.’”

Strother and other experts we spoke to said associations have to make it easier for advertisers and sponsors to find the media kits and sponsor packages on their websites and not require so much contact information just to get those materials into their hands.

READER NOTE: Check out Dana Plotke’s tips for inspiring creativity in today’s issue.

Impact of Video

NDR is not only more complicated that it used to be; it’s coming from a wider variety of sources. Take online video. Last month’s reader poll found that nearly two-thirds of our readers (64 percent) are using online video or planning to do so this year—an increase from 40 percent at this time a year ago. And, video isn’t just posted for member convenience, it’s being sponsored, because that’s increasingly where members’ and customers’ eyeballs are.

According Forrester Research, advertising in (and sponsorship of) digital video will more than double over the next half decade to $5.4 billion by 2016 from about $2 billion today. Forrester’s forecast was largely attributed to “quality, brand-safe video content, a proliferation in video-friendly devices and the maturing of younger, online adept consumers.”

That’s just the environment we live in today, said ARF’s Rappaport. “People would rather watch TV than read. Vendors and suppliers will sponsor your videos if it’s a really relevant topic that members want.”

Tim McNichols, a publisher and business development director for NaylorNet and former executive for a metals industry association said you can’t just throw videos out there on your website (or on public venues such as YouTube) without having a plan, topic and focus.

“Doing videos poorly is worse than not doing them at all,” he said. “While there may be some potential in getting sponsorship for your videos, also think about using videos to enhance relationships with existing sponsors, such as short ‘speed-dating’ style video interviews with exhibitors on your show floor.”

Monetizing Web events

Webcasts, webinars, webisodes and video podcasts are some of the fastest growing platforms that savvy associations are using to develop (or expand) sponsorships with industry partners. But, just because you decide to hold a webinar about a hot topic for your members, doesn’t guarantee that attendees or sponsors will come knocking down your door.

“Sponsors don’t have the money anymore just to throw their name around an event,” said Rappaport. “They need leads and they need ROI. They also want to be a lot more involved in the process, including the marketing and the content. ‘I want to be a thought leader not just a sponsor,’ they’re telling us. ‘I want to be onstage.’”

John Hudson, who has been managing and moderating webcasts for accounting and financial associations since 2002, concurred. “Seven or eight years ago when it was the Wild West, everyone was throwing money around and not having to show any accountability for their sponsorship decisions,” he said. “Now every event has to show qualified leads and referrals for the sponsor and a quantifiable cost per lead. It’s not just enough to show how many attendees you had. Sponsors want to see contact information and demographics. What size company does the attendee work for? Do you have their name, address, phone number and shoe size?”

ARF’s Thought Leader Series, which is done in collaboration with NetVibes, DrumCircle and other vendors is a good example, said Rappaport. “They want to team up with the association to give their message additional credibility. We still say ‘sponsored by’, but it’s jointly presented by the sponsor and Advertising Research Foundation. Everyone wants to be a partner, not just a vendor who’s trying to sell you something.”

Content that works best for sponsored events (live and Web-based)

NaylorNet’s McNichols said webinars can be great for members who can’t travel, especially when they can earn continuing education credits. But you have to have the right topic, the right market and also something that has visuals to bring it to life—interior design, for example—and not just talking heads on a screen.

Margaret Cervarich, vice president for communications & public affairs for the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), said her organization is seeing good response with 45- to 90-minute individual sessions that cover a single, technical topic (see full Corner Office interview with Margaret in today’s issue), but broad-based topics, or lengthy programs such as virtual conference attendance are a much tougher sell.

Hudson agreed: “Members are so pressed for time, you’ve got to make sure you’re delivering topics that are very practical things they can “operationalize” in their jobs. It’s getting harder and harder to get attendees for “pie-in-the-sky theoretical topics about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

READER NOTE: My colleague Marcus Underwood has more about content marketing in today’s issue.

Importance of leads, ROI

Association business teams should focus on selling the quality of the lead, not the quantity of leads, said Hudson. “That’s an association’s competitive advantage,” he said. “The audience is pre-vetted by the association’s membership requirements. Commercial trade publishers and for-profit web destinations can’t match that kind of audience quality and integrity.”

According to Strother, sponsors don’t care about your 20,000 members per se, they care about the 2,000 most likely to hire them or buy from them. “This puts pressure on associations to be data savvy and invest in deeper knowledge about members and the technology to extract that data for revenue generating purposes,” she said.

As with a championship football team, everyone at your organization needs to be firing on all cylinders with both their individual assignments and their collective team goals in sync. Vince Lombardi, the Hall of Fame football coach who won the first two Super Bowls, once observed, “The dictionary is the only place you’ll find that ‘success’ comes before ‘work.’” He also frequently barked to his players, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

So let’s plan to work hard for our partners, suffer a little and then win big in 2012. As Friedrich Nietzsche, the great German philosopher, famously quipped: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Or as my teenage son’s snowboard friends like to say, “Go big or go home.”

Next month we’ll look at ways that associations can monetize social and mobile media.

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.

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