Current Affairs

Leverage Technology to Boost Sponsorship Revenue

7th September 2020

Boardroom's tech & community expert Marc Mekki shares his practical insights on how you can use technology to generate non-dues revenues. It can be actually more simple than you think.

Let there be no more doubt that a well-considered digital strategy is a matter of survival in the coming decade. A shift that was already accelerating has just taken on an Olympic sprinting pace. While a strong presence on more conventional channels like print and TV remain attractive for reasons of prestige and credibility – two considerable benchmarks – these must be complemented with a strong and future-ready digital framework.  

Youtube is now the world’s second most visited website where a staggering 500 hours of fresh video are uploaded by its users every single hour, twenty four hours per day. That amounts to just over 80 years (!) worth of new video being added to the index every single day. Two billion users visit Youtube every month to browse and view billions of hours of content, all to the detriment of conventional media. 

And that´s just Youtube. Add to this the might of Facebook, TikTok, WeChat and a handful of other high-performing content platforms and the writing’s on the proverbial wall; sponsors and advertisers expect your organization to be present on the entire spectrum of popular media. Expect this critical look at ad spend and sponsorship to swell in the coming years as a new generation of tech-savvy executives take over and start demanding proof of a growing reach.

This reality is a significant wake-up call to a large proportion of the association world where the loss of sponsorship money or ad revenue would simply make their operation economically unviable. And with a global health crisis ravaging the live events and conference industry, the conventional methods for incentivizing sponsors have just evaporated, forcing a shift towards the digital realm. 

Now, many of you reading this article are already intuitively aware of this unfolding transformation but that in most cases you simply do not possess the necessary skills or don’t have access to the necessary assistance and advice to do much about it. And why should you? Associations are human collectives; groups of people organized for a joint purpose. Rarely is that purpose to become a content publisher intent on dominating Youtube or any other digital media channel.

You have a choice to make: ignore the reality described above in the hopes it will work out just fine or grab this threat by the horns and eek out pole position in this volatile, uncertain world.  Personally, I don´t think there’s anything glorious about throwing your hands up and going down with the ship. You´ve worked too hard to create an environment where your peers, united by a cause, topic or expertise, can embrace fellowship and collaboration.

So what practical and achievable options are available to you as an association to at least make a small dent in this digital universe and keep your sponsors and advertisers engaged and committed? 

I mentioned a few paragraphs back that advertisers are abandoning conventional media in favor of platforms because that’s where they can increasingly reach engaged audiences. The keyword here is ´reach´, a criteria you will hear more of in the future and a core metric of any modern campaign.

Cloning your perfect audience

The first exercise is to understand and leverage the difference between your Audience and your Community. Your Community is the aggregate of your members and stakeholders, the people closest to your organization who fully grasp and are committed to your purpose. This segment is easy to reach but limited in size. Your Audience is the sum of your Community and everyone else who is or has been exposed to your brand; your social media followers, email list subscribers and anyone else who has a tentative relationship with your association.

From an organizational perspective, your Community is your worth and therefore deserving of the majority of your attention and efforts. However, from the perspective of a sponsor or advertiser it is your Audience that holds most of the value because, as mentioned earlier, ‘reach’ is a very important metric. Unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of effort is usually put into cultivating the Community reach to the detriment of the Audience reach, thereby constricting the potential upside for sponsors and advertisers who want to reach as many relevant people as possible.

Now, there are two ways to grow your Audience: brute force or leverage. Brute force implies going through the motions of being extremely active on social media channels like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn in the hopes that you capture enough attention to grow your following. The problem with this approach is that it is labor intensive to manage a myriad of social media channels on a daily basis and few associations have the resources to keep this up consistently. The other, more severe issue is that in the past five years or so, organic reach has been declining at a steady rate. The days where you could post content on social media and reach hundreds or thousands just on the merit of the content alone are long gone. Facebook, Google and now LinkedIn have been curtailing organic reach in favor of paid exposure to the point where organic exposure is all but dead. It’s all pay-to-play now.

The leverage approach, while not free, is decidedly more appealing as it maximizes results for the lowest possible spend. Rather than shouting into the void with the hope that someone is listening, the leverage model presents your brand and message to those who are most likely to respond to them. Now, we agree that few people will be more interested in your association than the members you already have: But what if you could use that existing membership to model the perfect Audience, to create an archetype of the ideal target profiles you´d like to reach?

Turns out you can do exactly that. In digital media parlance we´re talking about ´Lookalike Audiences´, `Affinity Audiences’ or ‘Similar Audiences’, depending on which platforms we´re targeting. Simply put, after you upload an existing list of member names and emails to the advertising backend of the chosen platform, highly sophisticated algorithms will analyze the list and work out what the most common overlapping characteristics are to create a profile of the perfect target audience. It then uses that profile to find among its vast user base – millions or even billions of people – those who match this profile so you can get your message in front of the right crowd. This data-driven approach yields quicker and more affordable results as you’re no longer blindly spending on undefined audiences in the hopes someone out there is a good match.

If you use this approach you can achieve amazing results at relatively low budgets. I would highly recommend deploying sponsored messages on Youtube while targeting Similar Audiences as the cost-ROI ratio is still very compelling, especially when compared with legacy promotional channels. Your reach will inflate significantly which will make your association so much more attractive to sponsors. Content on a channel like Youtube is ‘evergreen’, which simply means that once uploaded, it has no expiry date and will remain on the site permanently, racking up views. 

Interactive Conversational Engagement

Email is a very old technology. The first email was sent in 1971 on a military communications network called ARPANET, the ancestor of the modern global internet. And yet email has proven to be an incredibly resilient information exchange method, so much so that most of us still depend on it for our day to day work. In fact, the majority of associations use email newsletters as their standard mass communications medium.

There’s nothing wrong with email newsletters per se. The problem is that most associations send the same newsletter to every member on the list and fail to build in any interactivity. We can only reasonably speak of ‘communication’ when there is some form of interaction between both parties, which is rarely the case with newsletters. Sure, we track opening rates and views but we’re rarely expecting a dialogue to ensue from sending out a mail blast. 

And yet those two factors, personalization and interaction, are exactly what the modern consumer has come to expect. Netflix spends unspeakable piles of money on fine tuning its matching algorithm so that relevant content finds you rather than the other way around. Just about every modern website has a little chat box floating on the page so that visitors can engage in dialogue and receive personalized assistance.

But not email. Email newsletters largely remain a one-way channel, completely ignoring the growing personalization trend taking over the digital world. It works, but not for much longer.

The technology is not at fault here however as there is no technical reason why email shouldn’t be conducive to interaction, engagement and personalization. The problem is that few have been taught to think in those terms about news distribution. A magazine, TV ad or tote bag can’t initiate a conversational engagement with an interlocutor, but emails and websites can.

Rather than shortlist a series of topics for your next newsletter and blast those to your entire list, I´d like you to pause for a moment and consider the segments of people inevitably hidden within your list. They may all be members, but they probably do not all live in the same place, carry the same title or all have the same set of interests and priorities. Start the process of segmenting your Community into smaller segments, each containing groups of people with common characteristics and interests. Then prepare content for those segments instead of for your entire email list. 

The next step is to build in a conversational flow so that your newsletters are no longer just a one way medium but a reinvigorated communications channel that provides much more personalized value to the members and at the same time delivers compelling data insights to your association which you can use to improve your overall communications and, once again, deliver more value to sponsors and advertisers.

There are many email automation and email interactivity platforms on the market; Activecampaign, Drip and Pardot, just to name a few. The challenge is not so much of a technical nature than it is of a creative nature. The first step is to stop thinking about emails and websites as one-way communications channels but as conversation starters.

Not to leave you with purely abstract advice, I thought I’d give you a simple, lighthearted taste of what such a conversational flow could look like. Please click here to get started. Let your imagination and creativity run wild… create experiences, don´t just flog content. Good luck!

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