The business of event or association sponsorship is a complex, symbiotic meld of advertising, contribution, support and brand awareness for sponsors and associations alike.
This relationship is made murkier by the fact that it is neither pure altruism nor measurable in terms of return on investment (ROI).
But sponsorship of meals, services and other event elements are economic necessities for many conferences. And event organizers are quick to point out that the benefits to sponsors in terms of reaching their intended audiences can be enormous.
A survey conducted by Tradeshow Weekly indicates that event organizers may be right.
The research showed that the sponsorship of events or services, such as meals and award presentations, was ranked the most effective form of promoting exhibits by 42% of exhibitors polled - more than any other single tradeshow element.
Typical sponsorship benefits include:
Tradeshow Consultant Peter LoCascio said most corporations sponsor events to gain additional exposure tied to a new product introduction or new branding strategy.
"While having an exhibit at a major tradeshow is important, a carefully selected sponsorship event could further spread a message to a larger segment of show attendees, maximizing the communications effect at the event," he said.
Industry events are not only complicated to put on, but they can also be expensive. Particularly for new or regional organizations or shows, sponsors are key to making the event a success.
"For a start-up association, sponsors are imperative," said Vicki M. Daughdrill, Executive Director of the National Association of Payment Professionals (NAOPP).
"Without them, you cannot get off the ground. NAOPP was very fortunate with its founding sponsors."
But, she said, the start-up period can be a painful Catch-22. "During the first years, while membership is building, sponsors provide all of the resources required to operate the association," she said.
"Without benefits, members won't join. Without members, sponsors won't participate. Without sponsors, we don't have the funds to provide member benefits," she added.
Ken Elderts, the new President of the Western States Acquirers Association agreed. He said sponsorships "are critical to making the show successful - being able to allocate monies to better food selections, door prizes to keep attendees involved, and premium speakers."
Linda Noble, a board member of the Midwest Acquirers Association, said the annual conference could occur without sponsorship, but it would definitely not be the same event as it has been in the past. "The sponsors are a keystone to providing the space for the event," she said. "This is what makes it possible for the quantity of companies, their representatives and the salespersons to collect in one space.
"The information sharing in this concentrated venue is the value the sponsoring companies make possible for everyone."
Sponsors may benefit from the regard audience members hold for the organizations they help. Small associations may likewise benefit when large or well-known corporations visibly show their support with sponsorships.
Sponsors have substantial direct interest in ensuring the success of an event. Therefore, they tend to supply technical expertise, networking muscle and marketing dollars.
In addition, they often help promote the conferences they support to their clients and associates.
Sponsors may even offer mailing lists or mention in their printed materials or on their Web sites to event organizers.
Sponsors of start-up organizations' endeavors take a bigger risk: An event may fail to gain traction or may bomb outright. And the first few events often experience the usual snafus that occur with any new venture. But the gamble could pay off.
Sponsors of young events or organizations not only support fledgling industry groups whose goals likely mirror their own, but they also get to be bigger fish in a small pond. This provides certain advantages:
Association and Tradeshow Consultant Steve Miller said sponsorship for meetings or events is probably a misnomer.
"They are not typically like a Nascar sponsorship," he said. "They are really more often about awareness marketing. A true sponsorship has more components than just an ad in the program and a banner at the event."
He encourages his association clients to create ways to get their sponsors more involved.
"A sponsorship by itself is nearly impossible to evaluate in terms of ROI," he said. "I encourage corporations to make that just one part of an integrated marketing campaign, and to look for ways to connect the dots in a more personal way."
Miller spoke of a client who sponsored the keynote speaker at a conference. He suggested the company ask for more than a banner and the right to introduce the speaker.
This resulted in the client's holding a private meet and greet with the speaker directly after the keynote.
"Thousands of people attended the keynote, but only a hundred people who were hand-selected by the corporation were invited to the private function," he said. "It was very congruent with the rest of their strategy for the show, and was more meaningful than a banner."
LoCascio advised against expecting any one tactic to deliver results immediately.
"To achieve the best possible results and better justify the time and money invested in event and activity sponsorships, one must launch a complete, comprehensive and creative campaign that supports common sense and shows a creative and clever connectivity," he said.
"All sponsorship opportunities are valuable - to the right exhibitor," said Susan A. Friedmann, Tradeshow Coach and author of Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies. "There must be a good match between the exhibitor, their goals and objectives, and the results the sponsorship can deliver."
Friedmann suggested that to leverage their investments, sponsors offer added value to attendees.
These include promotional items or knowledge-based events like seminars or workshops, promoting the show heavily to the audience they hope to reach and partnering appropriately.
"By cooperating with companies who are in the same industry (but not your direct competitors) it is possible to sponsor an event at a greater level than you could manage alone," Friedmann noted.
"This is an option to explore if you want to achieve a high level of visibility at a given show, but don't have the budget to do it all on your own."
There are many tangible, if not measurable, benefits to sponsorship. But some of the intangible ones may be the most important.
"Good will cannot be readily measured, yet openly supporting the education and networking opportunity that helps all of us 'sharpen the saw,' as Steven Covey [author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People] describes it, results in individual professional growth," Noble said.
"Isn't this growth what every company ultimately wants, knowing it leads to business growth?" she said.
Indeed, it is.
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