If you’ve been in business long enough (and especially in marketing), you have been pitched to sponsor an event. When I ran an ad agency, I was approached frequently, and the first words out of my mouth were, “Show me your audience.” This is because, at the end of the day, an event sponsor is ultimately looking to connect with their target audience – whether to directly boost sales or leads, improve brand recognition/recall, enhance their image by being associated with a cause, or all the above.
Unfortunately, potential sponsors are often barraged with requests, some of which ultimately don’t deliver as promised, as Max Soni of DotComSEO explains. “Many events are over-hyped, and event sponsors get burned in the process. When it comes to attracting sponsors, and retaining existing sponsors, the industry needs to fundamentally change its approach.”
Because event sponsorships play such a significant role in event revenues – one recent study shows that 63% of event managers rely on sponsorships as a significant source of income – it’s vital that you give yourself and your events the best chance to attract the right sponsors. And it’s also critical that you have the right systems in place to deliver the value your sponsors are looking for.
So here are 13 easy-to-implement steps for how to find sponsors, how to ask for sponsorships and how to create long-lasting relationships with your sponsors.
1. Craft a Unique Selling Proposition
You should think of selling event sponsorships like selling a product or service, because the concept is the same. In the business world, the fastest way to demonstrate the value of what you can offer potential sponsors is through a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), which is a concise statement that outlines:
- Your event’s mission or cause
- What you offer that is of value to sponsors
- What differentiates your event from others
- What defines your event’s audience (size and key characteristics)
- How the sponsor will benefit from the relationship
Ideally, this Unique Selling Proposition should be no longer than a few sentences, and it should be written so you can include it in your initial communications to potential sponsors. Here’s an example of an event sponsorship USP:
“The Cross-Mountain Road Race is the only regional cyclocross race with men’s and women’s classes [differentiator] and benefits local Special Olympics participants and programs [cause/mission]. Our annual event draws ~600 attendees with an average yearly household income of $120K [audience], and we offer a variety of custom sponsorship options [value] that will give you 10-month continued exposure to these high-earning individuals [benefit].”
2. Build a professional brand image for your event
Think about how you evaluate a company or brand you want to hire or do business with. Often the first thing you do is go to their website or request/download their brochure to learn more about them and see if they are legitimate. The same goes for how sponsors first evaluate you. They are going to look you up online, visit your site and browse the Web for mentions to see if you are legit.
So if you have an old Website with broken links, what kind of impression does that make? And what if your logo and design look dated or your marketing materials aren’t up-to-date? Remember, by sponsoring you, they are aligning their brand image with yours, and if your brand doesn’t reflect a professional, clean image, they will probably take their sponsorship dollars to an event that has the polish and cache they seek.
This is why it’s worth it to either spend some funds on having a professional designer create your brand and marketing materials or, better yet, find a designer who will do this for an in-kind sponsorship (more on this later on).
3. Identify audiences and offerings that interest potential sponsors
At this point, you can start to define the specific things you can offer sponsors, like:
- Speaking opportunities and/or special audience access
- On-stage announcements
- Logo placements (on signage, mailings, programs, etc.)
- Website marketing
- Email marketing
- Social media marketing/mentions
- In-kind sponsorship opportunities (this could be a long list but can include food, beverage, printing, a/v, entertainment, transportation, decor/floral, PR, etc.)
- Complimentary or VIP passes
Many event organizers at this stage decide to divvy these offerings into sponsorship levels or sponsorship packages, and although it’s a sound idea to anchor your sponsorship program around top-level featured packages (Title, Headlining, Keynote, Platinum/Gold/Silver, etc.), you should really customize each sponsorship to each sponsor’s needs (more later on why this is important) and be flexible with these sponsorship categories from the outset.
With Planning Pod’s 30+ event management tools you can:
- Track all your prospective sponsor contacts
- Track and tabulate sponsor contributions and details
- Manage sponsor contracts and collect e-signatures
- Invoice sponsors and collect credit card payments
- Track tasks related to sponsorship obligations and follow-through
- And much more
4. Reach out to your personal network first
The lowest hanging fruit regarding potential sponsors are the people you already know plus their friends and colleagues. So your first outward action should be to reach out to them to see if they would be interested in sponsoring and, if not, if they can refer anyone to you who might be interested.
5. Build a list of targeted prospects that align with your USP
Not every individual and every company is going to be an ideal fit for your event, your audience and your offerings, so you should first create categories of prospective event sponsors – which could include specific industries, verticals or demographics – who would be receptive to what you have to offer.
Once you have done this, you can start researching organizations and individuals to place into these categories and use spreadsheets or a CRM to manage the information.
One place to look for potential event sponsors is to research who has sponsored events in the past. As Evan Harris, co-founder & CMO of SD Equity Partners, explains: “When researching potential sponsors, some great information to know is how a business has sponsored events in the past. This information is important to include in a pitch as well because it shows you have done your research and are committed to making the event a success for your potential sponsor.”
He recommends that a great method for finding these organizations is by going to Google and using the advanced search operator commands: inurl:our-sponsors + “INSERT_INDUSTRY_HERE”
6. Make first contact via email and social media (not phone calls)
You would think calling potential sponsors would be a more personal and effective method of introducing yourself to them, but in fact many sponsors prefer the first contact be online so they can vet you before talking to you.
“We receive most sponsorship requests by email,” says Rachel Stephens of Totally Promotional. “Email is my favorite way to receive a sponsorship requests because it gives me time to do the appropriate research before responding.”
In addition, many event organizers also first reach out to potential sponsors via social media, again because it is a more casual, less intrusive approach that allows the organization to do some initial due diligence on you.
“The best way to start forming relationships with sponsors is through social media,” says Julie Austin, CEO of Speaker Sponsor. “That’s where I find a lot of new sponsors. I’m always surprised about companies that are out there that I didn’t even know existed who are perfect matches for my events. Social media is a good way for you to find out more about them and for them to find out more about you through the content you post.”
7. Be personal and concise in your initial approach
As part of Step 5, you should have collected intelligence on your prospects as far as their organizational focus, mission and potential needs regarding sponsorships. Now this information comes into play when crafting a customized introduction to them via email or social media.
“Make it personal, and let the business know why you chose to reach out to them specifically,” says Rachel Stephens. “If you did not spend much time crafting a message specific for the company, they probably will not spend much time evaluating your request.”
Once you have their ear, don’t beat around the bush about who you are and what you are requesting from them. Note that your Ultimate Selling Proposition from Step 1 is the perfect opening statement.
“When you originally contact a potential sponsor it is important to be direct, concise and provide them with the necessary information,” says Stephens. “If you are seeking a monetary donation, specify that right away. If you are looking for a product or in-kind donation, let them know which product would best suit your needs.”
She also recommends that you don’t just let the prospect guess at what they could offer but instead direct the conversation. “Sometimes an organization does not have something specific [in mind], so it is best if you suggest a few ways to become a sponsor and state that you are open to suggestions.”
8. Pitch prospects information and data that hits their sweet spot
Once the conversation is rolling, you need to ask the prospect some probing questions about what they are looking for regarding event sponsorships and what they want from the relationship. Once you have specifics on these, you can counter with details and data points that will blow away their objections (because every sponsor has objections that they usually don’t divulge upfront).
One way to do this is to focus on the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that resonate with the prospect. “You need to focus on the sponsor’s KPIs, not generic numbers,” says Max Soni. “If the sponsor wants a specific segment of influencers, then in your pitch to the sponsor specifically mention which influencers will be at your event, and use concrete numbers regarding the influencers’ social media presence.”
Another way to demonstrate tangible value is to be open and transparent about all your event marketing efforts. “Many events fail to properly highlight all the marketing support and collateral that they are doing,” confirms Soni. “The last thing sponsors want to do is sponsor an event that has no support at all. Show the amount of marketing lift you’re providing for the event, and attach a dollar amount to each every item. If you tell the sponsor you’re doing pay-per-click ads, search engine optimization, magazine ads and an online banner campaign – with an accumulated spend of $50k to promote the event — sponsors are MUCH more likely to help you. Show them, don’t tell them.”
Finally, the more data you have on your audience, the better when convincing sponsors of their value. “Understanding your participants’ purchasing power is one of the keys to negotiating with and securing event sponsors,” says Evan Harris. “Companies that sponsor events like to know exactly how their investment will pay off, and the more information you can provide about the type of people, their industry and their influence, the more likely sponsors are to agree to your terms.”
The best way to gather this information is through an online questionnaire sent out to attendees just after registering for your event. You could add these questions to the online event registration form, but ideally you want to ask as few questions as possible in the form to minimize drop-offs.
9. Always, always follow up with prospects who didn’t respond
We all lead busy lives, and I will be the first to admit that many emails I intended to respond to will quickly find their way to the bottom of my inbox, never to be seen again. The same thing will happen to many of your initial sponsorship request emails and social media messages, so it’s vital to reach out to this audience at least once more, if not twice.
There are a number of great tools that can automate this task of scheduling and auto-sending follow-up messages to unresponded emails, but our favorite is the Boomerang plugin app for Gmail.
10. Customize sponsorship packages based on each sponsor’s needs
Not only do you need to customize your pitch, but during negotiations you also need to customize the event sponsorship agreement based on each event sponsor’s particular needs. “Instead of selling them a one size fits all program, get to know them first and find out what they want out of a sponsorship,” confirms Julie Austin. “A sponsorship is a relationship. Find out what their future plans are and how you can help them get there.”
Sometimes the best fit for a sponsor – and most valuable sponsorship opportunity – is something that is related to their line of business. Says Shane Pliska, President of the Planterra Conservatory in Michigan, “We’ve noticed that associations and non-profits have the most repeat success with tying a sponsor to a specific element of the event. For example, valet sponsorships are popular with car dealer sponsors, as it gives them an opportunity to park a new car next to the valet station with front-and-center exposure.”
Once you have agreed to terms with the sponsor, it’s critical to put everything down in writing so there are no disagreements later on that could cause friction. “Let the potential sponsor know exactly what they can expect in return,” says Rachel Stephens. “Be sure to state precisely how the event sponsor will be featured or promoted including social media recognition, links from your website or event signage.”
11. Deliver and over-deliver
It goes without saying that you should follow through on every promise and commitment in your sponsorship agreement with each sponsor, because not only do you want their repeat business, but you also REALLY want to avoid word getting out about reneging on sponsors and the possibility of a lawsuit. A great way to stay abreast of all your commitments is to use a task management tool like the one provided in Planning Pod (which lets you build task list templates that you can import into events over and over again) or a stand-alone tool like Remember the Milk.
A great “over-delivery” idea is to include a complimentary sponsorship to another event. “One great tactic is to create a lower-tier sponsorship that can be leveraged as an add-on for future events,” says Evan Harris. “For example, if a company is the main sponsor for Event A, the deal would include free lower-tier sponsorship at future Events B and C. This tactic not only works to secure a sponsor for a longer period of time, but you can use this information when pitching to other potential sponsors, showing that your spots are already filling up.”
Also, when negotiating with a sponsor, always hold something back that you were willing to give and don’t mention it upfront to the sponsor. Then just give it to them anyways leading up to the event … it could be something as small as an extra 30 social media mentions or as big as giving them a booth or table at the event. It’s gratis value-adds like these that show your sponsors that you are truly committed to helping them accomplish their sponsorship goals and shows you are going above-and-beyond your original agreed terms.
12. Keep sponsors involved and informed throughout the process
Your relationship with your sponsors extends far beyond a mere transaction. In essence, they are your biggest clients as well as your partners, because a successful event benefits you both.
Hence, it’s critical to keep them involved in every step of the process. “The hardest part about sponsorship is getting the sponsors in the first place,” comments Julie Austin. “so if you are lucky enough to have a sponsor, make sure you treat them right and don’t ignore them. Keep them involved in the whole process of your event. They might like to hear about behind-the-scenes information, or an interview you do with one of your keynote speakers, or some PR the event gets. Treat them like a member of the team.”
13. Share hard ROI data after the event
There are dozens of ways to measure return-on-investment (ROI) for every event – headcount, influencer attendance/outreach, social media mentions, press coverage, attendee data collected (satisfaction, pre/post awareness, etc.), unique website visitors, revenues, donations, leads and sales, just to name a few. A good rule of thumb is to select three primary metrics to measure your overall event ROI and another three metrics to measure sponsorship ROI.
So, for example, if you determine that the best ways to measure your overall event ROI is to use event net profit (total revenues minus expenses), attendee satisfaction (via surveys) and headcount, you could also designate three metrics to measure the ROI for sponsors, like number of event website hits, social media mentions and press coverage/mentions. Once you have this data, present it in person to your sponsors a week or so after the event as part of a thank-you presentation to show your appreciation. That way if they have questions or feedback, you are there to respond personally.
14. Continue the sponsorship after the event is over
Year after year, event sponsors’ expectations grow as they seek more and more value from their sponsorships, and this includes post-event coverage. “The one thing that sponsors want to ensure is that they will receive exposure during the event as well as after the event,” says Apryl Roberts, Past-President of ILEA-Hampton Roads Chapter and founder of Memorable Events. “This could be implemented with social media posts and electronics newsletters to the attendees.”
However, you can do this one better and blow away your sponsors’ expectations by offering to include them in your promotional updates during the off-season between events. These days, event marketing doesn’t just include promotions leading up to the event date but also keeping your audience informed and aware of your event, cause and mission with periodic content marketing, email updates and social media posts. You can include in your event sponsorship agreements that you will keep your sponsors displayed on your website and emails and mention them in social media posts up to a certain number of months before the next event.
In the end, the secret to how to get event sponsors is to understand their needs and be flexible enough to meet them, and the key to keeping event sponsors is to deliver on your promises and foster an ongoing relationship with them that lasts long after the event is over.