Event Sponsorship Built on Attendee Mattering

Maricris Nonato:
January 23, 2017

Maricris Nonato

Sponsorship Built On Attendee Mattering Banner

Let’s begin with a tough truth: Many sponsorships don’t matter to attendees.

  • Will that sponsor logo on the hotel key card impact a future purchase decision?
  • Does anyone pay much attention to inserts stuffed in conference bags?
  • Are attendees wishing for a longer sponsor pitch at your Opening General Session?

These and other sponsorship misfires happen regularly at conferences and trade shows. Though well intended, conference organizers shine far too much light on logo noise and promotions, obscuring more valuable sponsorships that are better poised to drive revenue growth, attendee engagement, differentiation and value to the sponsor. Their investment can and should be spent more wisely.

Mattering: To be of importance or consequence.

But who determines what’s important? You serve many masters, but there’s one that ranks above all others…

People at a conference

Mattering Begins and Ends with Your Attendees

Without attendees, there is no conference or trade show. Attendees are the lifeblood of any event ecosystem. Attendees are the primary arbiters who determine what’s important and what’s not. And when you deliver experiences that matter to your attendees, everybody wins! Sponsorships built from the attendee up create win/win/win experiences.

  • Wins for your attendees (target market), as you improve their experience.
  • Wins for your sponsors, as you connect them and advance their positioning with their target market.
  • Wins for your organization, as the conference revenue diversification and value improves.

(Hat tip to Kim Skildum-Reid who developed the concept of the triple win and inspired many of the recommendations that we’ve applied to the conference and trade show industry.)

Skildum-Reid says, “It’s no longer…If you love the event, you should love our brand or worse pay attention to us (and our logos)!”

“Instead it’s… We know you love this event—we love it too!—And we’ve thought of a few ways to make it even better for you.”

Yet this cascade of wins stops abruptly if the first tier—the attendee win—isn’t satisfied. Before we explore the smarter route to win/win/win experiences, let’s start with the “What Not To Do” list.



Attendees don’t win when…

  • Every touch point is a sales pitch.
  • They’re overwhelmed by sponsorship email promotions.
  • Networking is haphazard, forced or forgotten.
  • Keynotes kick off with 10+ minutes of sponsor promotions.
  • Education is pay to play, laced with sponsor product peddling.
  • The sponsored freebies are meaningless (e.g., key cards, bus wraps, flyers, etc.).
  • Valued freebies are heavily promoted, but unavailable once the attendee arrives

Three filters to ensure the Attendee Win and attain premium pricing:

1. Choice: The attendee must have the opportunity to opt-in or opt-out. Sponsorships must never be forced on them. The faster/easier the opt in, the greater the participation.

2. Activation: This is what the attendee does or feels while engaging with the sponsorship.

  • Consume or appreciate it.
  • Take it home, share or apply it.
  • It provides passion or alignment with their values.

Activation is best realized when sponsors help make the best conference moments better—or help make the worst moments more tolerable.

3. Mattering: This is what the attendee gets from the sponsorship.

  • Entertained, engaged or educated
  • Surprised or something unexpected
  • Helped personally and/or professionally
  • Sense of feeling special
  • Utility—Food & beverage, special offers, convenience
  • Connexity—(community + connections)
  • Mattering multiplies when appreciation is high, without expectation of reciprocity.

Sponsor Booth Free Water

Bottom-line: Best-in-class sponsorships deliver experiences that matter highly to attendees.

The more the mattering, the more you’ll be able to charge for the sponsorship. If you can’t confidently state that about every item on your sponsorship menu, then change is in order.

Does Your Sponsorship Menu Need to Go On a Diet?

If 35% or more of your sponsorship inventory isn’t selling, that’s a clear sign it’s time to trim the fat. Ditto if you’re churning through sponsors. If at least 75% of your sponsorship revenue is not renewing, that’s a leading indicator that your sponsorship value prop is crumbling.

Before you start designing new sponsorships that matter to attendees, take a closer look at your current inventory. For each item, ask yourself:

Does this sponsorship help improve the attendee experience? 

To what degree does it optimize the three filters of Choice, Activation and Mattering? 

  • If you can confidently answer “Yes” to these questions, great—carry on.
  • If your answer is “No,” 86 it to make room for something better.
  • If you’re uncertain, consider bundling it with other items that matter.

Granted, these are tough decisions to make. And you might even have a few sponsorships that fail this litmus test, but they’re still selling. As sponsor sophistication grows, the shelf life of these investments is at risk. Wherever possible, smart organizers will help guide their investors to properties that deliver better results.

One More Important Caveat

If your sponsorship and/or exhibit offerings aren’t growing, you often have a bigger problem...attendance. Nearly every unhealthy program we’ve analyzed can make incremental improvements to move the revenue needle, but if the target audience doesn’t have enough juice and are not loyal to your conference or show, change efforts will fall flat.

Mattering Mojo Buckets

Which conference experiences matter most to today’s conference audiences? Consider these three experiential buckets, each well suited to get a meaningful boost from sponsorships:

  • Thought Leadership
  • Attendee Experiences
  • Exclusive VIP Experiences

Thought Leadership/Education:

Sophisticated sponsors and exhibitors are embracing content marketing. As defined by the Content Marketing Institute, content marketing is “non-interruption marketing. Instead of pitching your products and services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent…they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.” In essence, it’s a mindset shift—from Push to Pull marketing.

It’s about helping over selling. As it applies to events, the sponsor either delivers or sponsors the thought leadership. Instead of selling from the podium, the speaker embeds the sponsor as someone who cares for and understands the profession.

Breakout Session Group

Thought leadership examples: keynote or luncheon speakers, whitepapers, webinars, awards, education tracks or sessions, show floor theaters, video interviews, industry research, seminars, workshops, etc. Thought leadership is not pay to play.

According to the B2B Content Marketing 2015 Benchmarks, Budgets & Trends study, video is commanding a larger slice (76%) of the B2B content marketing pie. Conferences and trade shows are fertile ground for capturing video that matters  highly to attendees and sponsors.

Attendee Experiences:

Take a moment to look at your event through the lens of your target market attendees. They’re navigating a new city, a new venue, and a hectic conference and trade show filled with options. They’re away from the creature comforts they enjoy at home, too. They’re counting on you (and your sponsors) to help make their conference experiences better and more memorable.

At the top of their wish list? Anything that delivers comfort, joy, nourishment, fun, community, connections, direction, shortcuts or rescues them from the inevitable snags that come with business travel. Attendees are riding an emotional rollercoaster as they move about your event, with a mix of high energy, dazzling moments and quiet pauses. The more you can position sponsors as helpful and thoughtful experience stewards, the more they will matter and be appreciated by your target audience.

Charging Station

Attendee Experience examples: Attendee Mobile App, WiFi, charging stations, networking experiences, wayfinding kiosks, lounges, photo booths, maps… plus F&B, prizes, samples, keepsakes, unique activities and entertainment.

Exclusive/VIP Experiences:

Scarcity and exclusivity take mattering to new heights. Inviting targeted groups to a special gathering that’s not open to everyone makes them feel special, even privileged. Add a few VIP experiences to your agenda and watch mattering and sponsor ROI soar.

VIP Lounge

VIP Experience examples: Leadership reception or dinner, VIP lounge, VIP gathering or back-stage pass to meet/photo opportunity with guest speaker or celebrity.

Much like a restaurant will categorize appetizers, entrees, sides and desserts, sponsorship seekers should also organize their menu around the Attendee Experience, Thought Leadership and VIP Experience categories. Making this change will immediately help potential sponsors align your offerings with their marketing objectives.

Scarcity and exclusivity take mattering to new heights.

“Easy Sell” Categories Could Be Hurting You More Than You Realize

There’s one more sponsorship menu bucket and unfortunately, it’s where most sponsorships currently fall: Promotional Opportunities.

The Promotional Opportunities bucket would include aisle signs, website banners, hotel key cards, badge lanyards, tote bags, pens, bag inserts, room drops, shuttle bus wraps, pre- or post- conference email blasts, registration confirmation emails, and so on.

Another apt name:  The Low-to-No Mattering bucket. 

Typically, promotional opportunities are viewed by your sales teams as easier to sell, but attendees fail to notice or care, so there’s lots of churn. The cost to acquire new sponsors is steep and getting steeper.

Are these “easy sells” helping to improve your long-term revenue picture?

Perhaps it’s time to reallocate a portion of that sales time to secure sponsorships with more staying power?

While some promotional items are necessary, if only to reduce hard dollar costs, many fail to deliver meaningful value. Path forward, you might consider bundling some promotional opportunities with premium packages available only to your largest investors.

The exception to this trim back promo rule?

Maintaining a short list of low cost booth add-ons opens the door for onboarding new sponsors. We like to call this the “would you like fries with that booth?” sale. These work best when your exhibitors are given opportunities to optimize their exposure with an online booth listing, show specials and new product showcases. With attendees wielding smart phones and tablets as they navigate your event, featured listings and increased visibility on your mobile app and event microsite deliver an appreciable boost in booth traffic, plus it improves the attendee experience. Give ‘em what they crave and coach exhibitors on best ways to leverage this added exposure.

Promotion and Advertising Does Not Make an Emotional Connection

When most of your sponsor benefits are about placement and impressions, you’re selling advertising, not sponsorship. Online channels are much more capable of measuring the ROI of that spend. Face-to-face sponsor investments must make the brand feel like a market leader, have high engagement with elite existing customers (and others like them) and generally advance enterprise deals. Falling short of these makes it an unsustainable donation.