Harvard Business Review

Six Steps to Successful Sponsorships


Posted on Harvard Business Review: July 28, 2011 3:50 PM

by William Rosen and Laurence Minsky

Why is one of the oldest marketing tactics—sponsorships—currently in vogue to the tune of $3.37 billion a year and growing? It seems that every major marketer and most minor ones are engaging in some sort of sponsorship marketing. As marketers continue their shift from building brands to "activating" them, sponsorship marketing’s ability to connect with people’s passions and deliver inherently social content is only going to make it a more important tool in marketers’ arsenals.

Sponsorship marketing typically feels good, but it frequently delivers less than optimal results for the marketer. The reasons are myriad, but more often than not, they can be traced back to treating the sponsorship as an end in itself, rather than as an enabler of marketers’ broader strategies and objectives.

So how do marketers utilize sponsorships, partnerships, and tie-ins to increase their marketing value? One key is to look beyond the typical objectives of reach and affinity to leverage the sponsorship’s ability to create value for consumers in a way that can drive behavior change and reinforce the brand. This can be achieved by employing the inherent appeal of the property to create unique opportunities for experiences, access, self-expression, entertainment, connection, or contribution to the social good—all of which, when properly conceived, can deliver sufficient value to consumers to incent a click, visit, trial, extra purchase, trade-up, or opt-in.

Bing’s sponsorship of the release of Jay-Z’s autobiography last fall provides an interesting example. Aiming to increase visits and "intent to use" among an audience that was younger and more coastal than their middle-age, Midwestern core users, Bing created a culturally relevant opportunity for entertainment, access, and unique experiences. Via a digital gaming experience built on Bing’s Search and Maps, they offered millions of Jay-Z fans the ability to assemble the autobiography before it hit stores by discovering pages in media spaces around the world. The offer not only increased Bing’s relevance to its target audience, it drove behavior: in this case, in the trial of the product, because the game required the use of Bing’s search and maps to play.

Bing reported that visits to its site increased by 11.7% during the campaign, a jump that was achieved without the support of other advertising during the program period. What’s more, by driving trial—and therefore overcoming the lack of familiarity that can be a barrier to future usage—participants reported that they planned to continue using Bing after the game.

This sponsorship was successful because it remained focused on clearly defined goals and worked on multiple levels. Bing and Jay-Z created value and participation with consumers and drove them to engage with or rethink their products. What they also did, which is critical to maximizing the value of any sponsorship but particularly one that may have multiple partners, was to create territory within the sponsorship itself that accrued affinity and equity to the marketer’s brand.

To begin increasing the effectiveness of sponsorship programs to build both brand and business, try the following:

1. Clearly define your objectives. Determine which of your current goals or strategies the sponsorship can help achieve, versus creating new ones.

2. Identify your equity opportunity. Find the space you can actually "own" and what you can achieve with it.

3. Assess your partner’s equity fit. There’s nothing worse than partnering with a property that doesn’t align with your current brand or where you want to take it. Make sure your partner will enable you to reach a key target and reinforce—or define—what you stand for.

4. Value what you bring to the table. Every successful sponsorship also helps the promotional partner. Jay-Z’s Facebook page increased by one million fans during Bing’s promotional period, which helped his book reach #2 on The New York Times best seller list the week after launch. Use the value you bring to the table to negotiate opportunities; otherwise, you may overpay.

5. Look for ways to activate the sponsorship across all relevant channels. By understanding all of the ways your target moves toward transaction, you can utilize the sponsorship to create value and drive key behaviors. You can also utilize the sponsorship to activate your sales force, retailers, distributors, and internal departments—all of which add return to your investment.

6. Capture data and measure results. Clear objectives should drive opportunities for measurement and optimization, which will be the key to quantifying and improving sponsorship ROI moving forward.

Done properly, sponsorship marketing can offer much more than mere affinity and "eyeballs." It can also play a starring role in activating consumer behavior and motivating an entire system to do the same. People’s passions—whether they’re causes, competitions, music, or movies—offer myriad opportunities for engagement, content, sharing and value. Find the right match and unlock its power to build passion and business for your brand.

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