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.
"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."
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."