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Sponsoring_Events_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


Walk into some stores on Main Street and you'll likely see evidence of their sponsorship of an event, such as a banner for a local Little League team or a plaque commemorating a 5K fundraising race for the neighborhood hospital. Attendees at major business conferences and trade shows will see the names of sponsors prominently displayed in the program and meeting areas. In between these two extremes exists a range of events and activities that small businesses can sponsor and use as a visible platform on which to build their own sales leads and enhance their credibility. Before lending your name and support to an event, consider these expert suggestions for finding a venue that's right for your business.


Be pro-active

"What distinguishes corporate sponsorship from all of the other marketing media is that it's experiential. It provides and enables a face-to-face, heart-to-heart experience between the attendee of an event and the brand or product or service," says Gail Bower of Bower & Co., a Philadelphia-based marketing consultancy specializing in event management. "I always say it's the ultimate social medium."


Small businesses that want to sponsor an event should first figure out what they want to accomplish and who they want to target. A business-to-consumer company that wants to build awareness of their products and grow their mailing list could have a booth at a community fair. One of Bower's clients that operated a high-end sporting goods store wanted to get the word out that they carried upscale equipment, so they sponsored a biking event in town that attracted world-class cyclists.


After you determine your goals, it's important to be pro-active in reaching out to prospects. For example, Bower says a business-to-business service firm that sponsors an event should "get their business development staff out there to meet with people. They might want to leverage it with some great content at the event and have a plan about how they're going to follow up with people. You can't take a passive attitude."


Lastly, a small business should look for partners who are closely aligned with their own goals and objectives. "You want to work with partners who are responsive to the small business's needs. Make sure that they're going to provide value and listen to what the company is trying to accomplish," Bower says. "Be open and communicative so that the two organizations can really work together to co-create the opportunity." 


Set realistic expectations

For small businesses that are sponsoring for the first time, some experts suggest that they look for events with an established track record to see the type of results they deliver.  


"Look at past events that this organization is asking you to sponsor to see if they've run it before," says Simon Salt, CEO of IncSlingers, a Bastrop, Texas-based digital strategy firm. "Look at their previous sponsors and reach out to them. Ask them what they got out of it. Was it worth it? Of the people attending, what percentage constitutes your potential customers? Are any of your current customers likely to be interested in this event?"


Salt says that there are two kinds of events that small businesses should consider: those that attract your target customers and those that aren't necessarily part of your typical customer base. "You might not find your direct customer there, but you might find other businesses that are providing services or products to your customer base with whom you can partner," he says.


Salt takes his own advice. When he launched his company in 2008 and wanted to build awareness, he did not have the budget to be a sponsor at the big digital conferences. Instead, he sponsored an event at a smaller local marketing conference where he put up his banners, distributed fact sheets about his company, and introduced the main speaker.

"That led to a lot of credibility in that community," Salt says. "People came up to chat and one of those led to a meeting that led to a very healthy contract. I invested $1,200 to be the sole sponsor for the event and generated a contract worth about $12,000. That was a definite win."


Since it may be several months before a sponsored event generates a sale, there isn't a cut-and-dried formula for figuring out the return on investment. "Approach it as you would with any other marketing investment," Salt says. "Be realistic about what you think you're going to get from this and how long you wait before you cut it off in terms of ROI."


Sponsoring_Events_PQ.jpgSpread the word

Before being a sponsor for someone else, have a clear understanding of your commitment. For example, you may be required to give money, donate your products, or offer your services. Likewise, be aware of what the event organizer owes you.


"You want to make sure you're going to get exposure in return for your sponsorship," says Rieva Lesonsky, founder and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a Lakewood, California-based media and custom content company specializing in small businesses. "Where's your logo going to be placed? Are you going to be part of any marketing handouts that they do?"


Hosting your own event is a much bigger undertaking, Lesonsky says, that starts with a clear goal and structure. Instead of holding a standalone event, you could tie your event to something already established, such as Breast Cancer Awareness in October. "If you're a business that deals with women, you could host your own event like a run to show that you are invested in this case," Lesonsky explains. "You're seen as a good corporate citizen because you're doing something good for somebody else."


Small businesses with little or no experience hosting their own event should consider trying smaller activities that are both more manageable and interactive. For example, an accounting firm could hold a three-hour workshop on how to prepare for coming tax changes or a bridal store could host a tea.


"Invite bloggers or local newspaper people to come by," Lesonsky says. "Offer some kind of coupon or promotion to get people back to your store. They're more likely to do business with companies who give them some kind of deal. It's an event, but it can have a longer afterlife if you market it well."


Branding_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


For some small businesses, building their brand might seem like an afterthought or something that only well-known national advertisers do. Why should they invest time and money into strengthening their brand identity when the business has been doing well without the added effort? But a clear, thoughtfully executed branding strategy plays a key role in business growth and market dominance, as the experts below demonstrate. 


Be consistent

Branding can be an elusive umbrella concept made up of many parts. "From the customers' perspective, it's how they perceive your company. That includes visual aspects, like the colors you use, your logo, and your typefaces," says Bryon McCartney, a founding partner and creative director of Be Brilliant!, a Fort Myers, Florida-based branding, marketing, and visual communications agency. "But it also encompasses how your employees treat your customers, the experience those customers have when they're in your store, and the messages you're communicating to them, whether through brochures or articles on your website."


McCartney suggests coming up with a set of guidelines that "define the brand experience for the customer. This needs to be communicated to employees so they can be stewards of that experience and help cultivate it" to ensure a consistent voice and image through every customer touch point, from marketing material to customer service.


"When you enter an Apple store, for example, someone will ask you what you need [and direct you to the right place]," McCartney says. "But they're also repeating that by walkie-talkie to someone in the back of the store, who's going to casually come up to you. This seamless hand-off is part of the experience that Apple wants to create in their store."


McCartney says that small business owners should determine the type of experience they want customers to have when they interact with their brand and train employees in how to deliver that experience time after time. "If you have multiple stores or multiple salespeople, you don't want your customers getting a different experience at each of those points," he explains. "That is not to say that every word should be scripted, but creating guidelines for how to treat customers should be an important part of creating a consistent and positive brand experience."


To be successful in articulating your brand, it's vital that you understand the core of your business—what you do well, who you are, the language and images that capture your essence—and then set goals with a realistic timeframe for achieving them. McCartney tells business owners to think about their expectations and then work backwards. "The people who are putting effort into helping their business grow in a focused and directed way are the ones that stand out," McCartney says. "The others tend to look like they're doing things on a shoe string or they're struggling somehow. Don't over think it, but be consistent with your brand."


Branding_PQ.jpgHave a distinctive logo 

Coming up with a striking logo that captures the essence of your business in a memorable way is often considered the first step in building your brand.


"That's the foundation upon which everything else is going to be driven from," says Dan Antonelli, president and creative director of Graphic D-Signs, a Washington, New Jersey-based ad agency focusing on branding, web design, and marketing services for small businesses. "It helps deliver a brand promise and establish a basic expectation of value from your particular company."


Antonelli says that most small businesses do an inadequate job of conveying their brand experience. Customers and prospects have either a neutral reaction—they are neither thrilled nor turned off about doing business with you—or a negative response, where the company comes across as unprofessional or not worth the money.


"We see a lot of guys who go in [charging a premium], but none of their branding matches that perception," Antonelli explains. "It's harder for them to make the sale because the consumer doesn't feel like there's a reason they should be paying more for their products and services versus someone else's."


Businesses that do pay attention to burnishing their brand image can see astonishing results. This was the case with Timo's Air Conditioning & Heating, a Palm Springs, California-based business that wanted to rebrand their image. Antonelli leveraged the contractor's well-regarded reputation by creating a retro-themed design, including hand-drawing a new icon and typography to reinforce a blend of trust and modern service. According to Antonelli, Timo's saw a 60 percent spike in business within one year of the makeover.


"[It's been said that] ninety-five percent of every small business has a poor brand," Antonelli says. "If that's true and you're in that five percent, right off the bat you're doing something that no one else is doing and you're standing out. That's the beauty of a great small business brand."


Spread your brand far

"By not branding, you're sending your market a message that you don't think your brand is worth spending time on," says Heidi Cohen, president of Riverside Marketing Strategies, a New York-based consultancy that provides marketing and content services. To help business owners get a firmer grasp on shaping their brand, Cohen recommends these five questions to help them define the unique character of their company:


Why are you starting the business? "Think holistically about what you want to accomplish in terms of work, family, finance, and other outside exercises."


What does your company do? "If you're offering services, consider how you can make them more tangible. What is your point of differentiation? How are your products positioned in the market?"


What is your company name? "Can you incorporate your product or location into your name? Is there another name association you want to leverage? Are the related sentiments positive or negative for your objectives?"


Who are your prospects and customers? "Create a marketing persona so that you have some basic concepts about your buyers and their influencers."


What makes your firm unique?: "If you have a difficult time figuring out what makes you different, chances are so will your customers. Sometimes, it's easier to approach this topic by examining your competitors and what you do that they don't."


Business owners can also follow Cohen's 21-point branding checklist. "Branding provides small businesses with the ability to be recognizable and to cast a bigger shadow," she says. "It should be part of every image and message that's incorporated in every interaction you give across owned, social media, and third party platforms."

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