How to Build a Virtual Sponsorship Program



We receive multiple requests every day asking for help building a virtual event sponsorship program so I’m going to walk you through the process.
First, a little context. My friend Dean West at the Association Laboratory conducted a COVID Impact Study for Associations and here is what they found: the association business model is stressed, in particular the business model around meetings. Sixty-eight percent of association executives projected a decline in meeting revenue; the percentage of decline is estimated to be at 40%. Ninety percent of organizations will move to virtual or smaller events this year. Membership behavior is also changing with roughly 70% of association executives acknowledging that domestic travel reductions will occur and the number of the companies attending events will decline. Face-to-face meetings of volunteers will also be reduced with most moving to virtual platforms. Association executives are also aware of the fact that discretionary budget in their member companies will reduce and that’s going to have an effect on meetings, membership, and membership engagement in a lot of different areas. All of this is happening simultaneously as associations shift to virtual events, becoming more diversified with their sponsorship inventory and developing new prospectuses and 2021 budgets.
There hasn’t been an association meeting face-to-face with a large number of attendees in months and I don’t see it happening for the rest 2020, do you? I know a number of you still have in-person events on your calendar. Maybe it’s for legal obligations or maybe you’re going through the due diligence process to see what’s possible. However, I don’t see it happening as originally planned. How do you adapt? How do you change?
As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes of the Association Hustle Podcast, I believe that the virtual sponsorship component has a lot of upside to it because we’ve been talking about the diversification of sponsorship inventory for a very long time. Virtual meetings provide us the opportunity to do just that.
So, how do you develop this type of program? The development work falls into three areas:

  1. An in-depth review of your association. 2. Conduct an industry analysis. 3. Create a system for direct sales and reporting.

Direct sales will need to operate differently than what you may have been used to in the past because majority of your partners were renewing their sponsorships fairly easily, year after year. It’s going to be a different process once you develop this new program. You will have to sell the partnership all over again alongside new sponsorship inventory.

Internal Review
Have a clear understanding of your virtual event program, your event agenda, and the existing sponsor status of your organizations. Are you going to have to carry people over and convert them from your face-to-face meeting into a virtual opportunity? Get a real clear status check of where you are. Review your existing sponsorship sales and marketing process. Treat this as a relaunch.
Collect one year of sponsorship data that includes company participation, revenue from each partner, and the type of sponsorship that they purchase from you in the past. Did they partner with you for branding, thought leadership, or access to people? It’s important to know these things as you develop your new inventory. Then, conduct interviews with your education and meetings team about any barriers to virtual sponsorships and any opportunities that may be new as you convert to a virtual platform. Have a handful of conversations with your existing sponsors about the value they get from their existing partnerships with you and the expected return on investment. What do they think about your virtual offerings? One of the best benefits of a virtual sponsorship is data. Ask them what type of data they need from you. It’s really important to get an assessment from your association sponsors about how they see virtual sponsorships because, after all, they’re going to be the ones buying it. It’s important to know what they value from you most as you structure your virtual event sponsorship program. Compile what you learn and replicate it in a virtual format because your sponsors will become your business partners, if they’re not already.

Industry Analysis and Competitor Review
Take the time to examine existing virtual sponsorship models being used by other associations. We’re seeing groups that are using a hybrid model with a sponsorship program that is for an in-person meeting with a virtual component. There’s a lot of activity going on right now so it’s important to get an assessment, especially in your industry, of what other people are doing; you can learn a lot from the analysis. Compare sponsorship pricing and benefits from other associations and see what deliverables they’re providing to their sponsors. Get a sense of the meeting platforms that other associations are using. Different platforms offer a variety of different components and benefits that can be offered to a sponsor. We’re also collecting all of this information so that we can provide a better service to our clients.
Think about it this way: it’s like – back in the day – when we would go to different hotels to see what options the space offered and say, “Wow, if we did this over here, that would be a great sponsorship opportunity!” Or, “If we took this trip off site, we’d have an incredible experience and sponsors would want to be able to do that.”  Same thought process applies when it comes to virtual meeting platforms. Provide examples of virtual sponsorship programs to your colleagues and address the best practices that you’re seeing other organizations do. The industry analysis is an important part of creating your own programs. It allows you to collect information to share with your colleagues and get their buy in.

Sales and Reporting
The third piece of the puzzle is reporting and a direct sales methodology. Make sure to develop multiple scenarios for restructuring your sponsorship opportunities and inventory. This may include adding virtual meeting components not only to the event but to your annual partnership program. Your narrative should be one of listening to and providing of opportunities for your partners whether it’s a virtual exhibit hall or face-to-face meetings. Then, consider 30-day next-step plan to educate and inform your sponsors. I love the idea of being able to conduct demonstrations of the meeting platform and sponsorship inventory so that your sponsors can see how to navigate these new opportunities. Doing so will establish a solid sales effort.
Your meetings and events team are under a lot of duress. They’re having to convert in-person events to online platforms. You may need help – or extra bandwidth – on the sales side. If they were involved in the sales process in the past, they are used to rolling out the same prospectus and getting 80% of the sponsors renewing year after year.
Treat this as an invigorated relaunch program.
This process will lead to a long-term diversification of your sponsorship inventory. You can do this. This is an opportunity to create robust plans that will allow you to create a lot of value for your sponsors and build long term relationships as they become your business partners moving forward.

Check out Episodes 243-245 of the Association Hustle Podcast for an in-depth breakdown of the steps mentioned above.


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