5 steps to making sponsorship more impactful

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By Matthew Leopold, Director of the European Sponsorship Association.

Sponsorship partnerships can be a brilliant marketing tool. Nothing else in the marketer’s toolbox can generate such a positive emotional response from customers. It really can be the magic dust that transforms the way customers think about and engage with your brand.

Or sponsorship can be a massive waste of time and money.

Over the last few months, I have presented at a number of sport and sponsorship conferences around the world.  While preparing my presentations, I reviewed a range of high- profile sponsorships from the UK, Europe and around the world. Undoubtedly, some are very clever and creative. The sponsors understand how and why sponsorship can benefit their products and brand. However, a large proportion of sponsorships I reviewed are not impactful.  Investments in them underperform and achieve little.

I was discussing this a few weeks ago with my friend and colleague Ian Thompson (who leads the well-known partnership consultancy thePACL.com).  We concluded that there are five key steps that, if followed, would make sponsorship partnerships significantly more impactful.

1. Create a strategy

Just last week I was sent a sponsorship proposal promising me “a guaranteed 3:1 return on your investment in media value alone.” No! Just like every other element of marketing (or business), you have to start with a strategy. Justifying a multi-million-pound investment on a (rather dodgy) media valuation is not the place to start.

Sponsorship is marketing. So why do our brains turn to gloop whenever sponsorship is discussed? Start with the basics – what is the marketing (or business) problem you are trying to solve? How does the communications process actually work? What are the target customer segments? What is the key insight that will help you deliver? Then, and only then, ask yourself “could sponsorship help solve this problem?”  Quite often, the answer will be no. It is so easy to get caught up in the glamour and celebrity sparkle of sponsorship. Think business. Think customer.

It’s basic marketing and business theory. Ensure sponsorship is the solution to a strategy, rather than a strategy of its own.

2. Evaluate to improve, not to justify

Measuring sponsorship is not simple. There is no single digit answer or magic formula. Let’s accept that as fact and stop trying to justify sponsorships with irrational measures, such as media valuation or estimated reach. Is having 5 million views of your video really a justification for the money invested? Is it really a measure of success?

Rather than reporting against the outputs of sponsorship (the reach, the awareness, the number of attendees at events), let’s move our focus to the outcomes. In other words – the desired impact that the sponsorship has on the customer. We should be looking at how they feel and react towards the sponsoring brand. Output measures can help tactically, but should really not be used to justify or prove success in partnership marketing.

3. Meaningful connections are important

“Why should I care?” Can you easily and simply explain why you are involved in the partnership? The British Gas sponsorship of British Swimming delivered some brilliant customer and brand outcomes. However, they struggled to explain why they were partnered. This lessened their impact.  They had to invest more effort into explanation rather than activation.

But don’t fall into the corporate echo-chamber. You are speaking to customers, not corporates.  Explaining that your brand and the rights holder share common values is not a connection! Have you ever heard a customer say, “both the brand and the sport are modern, brave and resilient – of course they should be in partnership”? No, of course not! So you shouldn’t say it either.

4. Shake off the sponsorship mindset

Stop thinking sponsorship and start thinking ‘marketing partnerships.’ Sponsorship has long been seen as a transactional arrangement. This leads to the impression that it is expensive, unjustified and frivolous. Based some of the sponsorship deals currently in the market, the  impression is deserved. To be taken seriously, sponsorship needs to be treated just like every other element of the marketing mix.

Customer research, insight, measurement and evaluation need to be at the heart of all marketing partnerships. No brand would join a loyalty partnership with another business without significant research. Yet, millions of pounds are thrown at sponsorships based on nothing more than gut instinct. Sponsorship is a marketing platform – treat it like one.

5. Put the customer at the heart of content

Please, please – just because you have purchased brilliant assets and athletes, do not just create content. There is so much content, things are becoming cluttered.

Remember my first point? Create a strategy. Know what you want to achieve and then focus your assets (and content) on delivering it. Creating a lovely video might feel like a great thing to do, but if it isn’t relevant to your brand or to your customer, it will just get ignored and confined to the depths of the internet.

Be smart, not busy!

Sponsorship is not a simple tool, but used in the right way, it can be hugely successful. With some careful thought and planning, it can be for you too!

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