Chances are, your association’s sponsor engagement model revolves around your annual events.

You might have an entire stewardship and corporate partnership model, spending months nurturing 1:1 relationships with sponsors so that when the time comes, they will be ready and willing to support your annual event. Maybe you offer various packages for promoting your sponsors in exchange for their promotion of  the larger event, creating scalable solutions that work for everyone. And likely, you offer sponsors the opportunity to engage with your event attendees directly during the event via dedicated promotional collateral, sponsored or hosted conference sessions, or a table in a common area. 

So what happened when Covid-19 took the wind right out of your sails?

Smart membership associations took a digital-first approach, shifting their experiences – and sponsor programs – online. Savvy associations know that Covid-19 didn’t introduce an isolated, one-time need to switch to digital. It might have triggered change for some organizations, but it’s clear that digital-first is here to stay.

It’s time to take a new approach and leave the hard link between sponsors and in-person events behind. 

Consider how you might engage with sponsors year round using digital-first tactics to extend the impact and value of your sponsor experiences. Yes, sponsor engagement will always be a core component of your events strategy, but consider what programs and activities (both in-person and virtual) you might offer to bring value to sponsors and members all year long. 

Here are a few core components of a 360 sponsor engagement strategy: 

The majority of your sponsor offer will be digital

You don’t need a futurist to tell you that behaviors that were once physical are quickly becoming digital. Members may enjoy the occasional in-person networking hour or learning session. But the majority of their extracurricular professional development happens online - even more so as audiences expand to include the younger generation.

Your association, your sponsors and your members will benefit from developing rich digital experiences to help members grow professionally while engaging with your sponsors.

Don't be afraid to think outside the box - online membership resources might not be as highly regarded as an annual event for example, but by offering great content in diverse formats, you can prove their value and your value to members. 

Events are a small piece of the sponsor engagement pie

Don't let your annual sponsorship outreach turn into a once-a-year, "sponsor our event" money-grab.

Perhaps you offer your sponsors the chance to host an online webinar, blog post or digital learning module to build on the thought leadership shared at your annual event. The more opportunities you give them to get in front of your membership base, the more value they’ll get. At the same time, your members will be getting additional value, which keeps them engaged in the association. It also increases the likelihood they will endorse you and refer others to you, ultimately growing the membership.‚Äč

Diverse content rooted in thought leadership is a core component of your offer

Sponsors want face time with your membership. It’s an opportunity to showcase their offers, and nurture relationships. But you can’t just let them have the stage and run with it. It is important that they deliver content and perspectives that bring authentic, deep value to your members.

Overly promotional content will feel heavy handed and inauthentic. Your association must enforce high standards to ensure sponsor content meets your thought leadership expectations. No matter the content type - hosted webinars, content promoted across association marketing channels and social media, learning modules, in-person or digital conference sessions and round tables, or networking events - your sponsored programs must deliver thought leadership, not thinly veiled sales pitches.

When executed correctly a program like this is a win for everyone. Your members get more educational and inspirational resources and your sponsors get the opportunity to regularly and authentically engage your member base. For example, see how CRA created a sponsored content program that increased sponsor revenue by 40%.

A 360 sponsor engagement strategy benefits sponsors, members, and your internal operations

With a 360-degree sponsor engagement strategy, everyone benefits. Sponsors have the opportunity for authentic native engagement with your community on an ongoing basis. They have the ability to become not just a vendor, but an innovative thought leader, positively impacting an industry. 

A 360 sponsor engagement strategy offers the opportunity to gain exposure to your full community, beyond registered event attendees, on a consistent, ongoing basis.

Your members get regular and diverse thought leadership perspectives. They’ll get a variety of content and resources from various industry players, helping to enhance the overall benefit of your membership offering. And if they are getting more out of your network, they will tell others about it, growing referrals and new memberships.

There are also lots of benefits for you as an organization. Not only are there more opportunities for your audience to engage, but those opportunities will be varied and diverse, and perhaps bolder, as companies often have big budgets. These new experiences will enhance your reputation as an innovative and entrepreneurial organization.

Operationally, you can create more digital experiences without carrying the load internally (sponsors do it for you!). It is easier to collect data such as watch numbers and click through rates, so you can monitor efficacy and know where to focus. And ultimately it allows you to create better, ongoing relationships with sponsors.

Not sure where to start? Hum is here to help. Learn more about how Hum is helping associations generate non-dues revenue, or download a free copy of our executive's guide to Digital Transformation for Associations.