The traditional association sponsorship has grown up. Increasingly, partnerships are providing the stronger relationship and greater marketing value that many companies are looking for—and the financial support that associations need to carry out their missions. (Titled "Partner Up" in the print edition.)
Almost anyone who attends association events is thoroughly familiar with sponsorships, in which the name of a company that wants to reach the association's members appears on anything from a plastic water bottle to signage at a high-end gala. But in many organizations, this mainstay of nondues revenue is evolving into something more: the partnership.
"There is a greater need for nondues revenue, so we are seeing associations become much more sophisticated in how they solicit sponsorships," says William Chipps, senior editor of IEG Sponsorship Report in Chicago. "This, in turn, has increased total sponsorship revenue among associations." This year, Chipps expects association sponsorship spending to total $548 million, up from $532 million in 2011 and $514 million in 2010.
To leverage the trend, some associations are consolidating management of these relationships under a dedicated staff member or department, Chipp says, making it easier to bundle sponsorship opportunities into more robust partnerships that generate greater revenue.
According to a recent ASAE study of organizations partnering with associations, partner executives view these relationships as more strategic, deeper, longer term, and more mutually beneficial than traditional sponsorships, which they often see as "one-off" deals. As a result, partner organizations are investing more heavily in these relationships because they offer more bang for the buck, prestige, and growth opportunities than do many other potential marketing investments. (See sidebar below.)
Associations that understand this shift are moving quickly to increase the number and scope of partner relationships. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association developed a partnership marketing program that utilizes a dedicated website to showcase the B2B assets available to current and potential partners. Companies interested in joining ASHA's corporate partnership program must meet a starting threshold of a minimum $50,000 annual commitment, with different levels of financial commitment beyond that. The minimum ensures that the partner selects a cross-section of asset purchases that gives its marketing campaign the best opportunity to succeed.
ASHA's marketing program is designed to provide extra value to the partners by providing them more strategic marketing consulting and guidance rather than simply offering discrete products and services, like advertising or convention sponsorship.
"We strategize with the company and find out what their needs are, then offer them opportunities and services across the board to meet those needs," says Barbara Lecker, ASHA's director of assets and corporate alliances. The number of ASHA corporate partners currently stands at five, but the number has ranged from three to seven since the program was established in 2000. ASHA's current partnerships are both endemic (Pearson, for example, a company that provides speech and language clinical assessments, offers member discounts on their products and services) and nonendemic (Subaru gives discounts on buying or leasing a car).
The partnership program consolidates numerous sales activities and provides partners with one contact person. "We wanted to make sure someone could act as an advocate internally for partners and their marketing needs," says Lecker.
Partners also have access to additional benefits. For example, ASHA allows only its partners to use its membership email list for marketing purposes, and partners may use its corporate partner logo in their marketing outreach to members. "These partnerships can operate as a strategic marketing opportunity for the partner company, provide a revenue stream for our association, and most importantly, benefit our members in the form of discounts, incentives, or professional opportunities," says Lecker.
Meeting Partner Needs
Although the partner executives surveyed by ASAE note that partnership costs are increasing, they are willing to pay more for partnerships that are more customized and, as a result, more valuable. These executives covet partnerships that allow access, often face to face, to meeting attendees, and they want a sense that the partnership amplifies the brand and makes the partner organization look "best in class." Nine out of 10 executives in the survey rated their association partnerships a
9 or 10 on a scale of 0 to 10.
Flexibility is key to meeting partner needs. The International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine provides partner companies with a variety of benefits—such as a lower-cost exhibit space at the group's annual meeting, vouchers for their scientist employees to attend the event, and meeting time to hold symposia—depending the partner's financial contribution.
Like many associations, ISMRM assigns its 12 partners to certain levels based on their financial commitment. Because smaller companies often do not have the budget for the gold, silver, and bronze levels offered to larger corporate partners, ISMRM has also established an associate corporate member level.
"This gives these partners exposure to the MRI community to sell equipment and to support their research and development," says Executive Director Roberta Kravitz. "We want to get these companies into the corporate member program, because as their companies grow they will most likely increase their level of support."
Kravitz says customer service is essential to these partnerships. ISMRM has assembled a corporate member advisory committee that meets twice a year. The committee is designed to give partners a voice in the association's business, including planning for the annual meeting, developing efforts to facilitate better partnerships, and deciding where to target research grants and how to develop education programs in other countries.
"This customer service attitude makes partners feel that we have their best interest in mind and that the relationship is truly a partnership," says Kravitz. To that end, the association has pledged to respond within 24 hours to any request from a partner.
The Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) defines its partnerships broadly and focuses on opportunities that further the organization's mission.
"We evaluate business proposals based on how well [they fit] into our scope of work, including strategic planning priorities and priorities for a specific audience," says Norris Orms, HIMSS executive vice president and COO. "We also have to consider how well an opportunity fits within our existing staff competency and their capacity to take on something new in addition to the current workload."
Using these criteria, HIMSS has entered into partnerships with a variety of companies. One provides demonstrations showing how different hospital data systems can communicate with each other, another provides systems-related education for physicians, and a joint venture focuses on connecting radiological systems in a hospital setting. The joint venture has been particularly successful and has expanded to address "connectivity throughout the healthcare enterprise, touching on everything from business systems to emergency rooms throughout the whole health hospital system," says Orms. "It has led to the development of open source code that allows software manufacturers to establish pathways to integrate their systems with others."
HIMSS considers many other affiliations to be partnership programs—for example, offering other nonprofit organizations complimentary HIMSS memberships so they have easy access to HIMSS activities and knowledge and can participate in work groups. "Having that kind of openness with other not-for-profit organizations strengthens our ability to accomplish our mission," says Orms. HIMSS also offers an organizational affiliate program to hospitals and hospital systems; among other things, it provides an unlimited number of individual memberships to employees of the affiliate organizations.
Before taking on a new partner, HIMSS staff conducts a rough cost analysis of every activity involved, including time that staff and volunteer leaders will need to spend on maintaining the relationship. However, this is not the final consideration. "We will run a program that breaks even or even loses money if it is a mission-critical program," says Orms. He notes that some of its current partnership programs produce net revenue, but most are revenue neutral.
HIMSS is opening a for-profit arm to pursue more revenue-generating partnerships. "The world is changing so dramatically, so quickly," says Orms. "There were opportunities that we were not taking advantage of but that we should be paying attention to."
Staff in the new for-profit entity will approach these opportunities with a mindset focused on generating profit. They will also help HIMSS clearly distinguish mission-focused programs from revenue generators. "If the for-profit staff encounter a program that is worth pursuing but that is mission-focused and not a profit-making program, they can toss that back to the other side of the house," says Orms.
Listening to partner needs and measuring the impact of these relationships for both parties are essential to their continued viability, say the executives charged with ensuring their success.
"You cannot be cookie-cutter anymore," says Kravitz. "You cannot just give certain defined items in return for the partner's money. What you offer has to be much more specific to the partner."
Joanne Sammer is a freelance writer in Brielle, New Jersey. Email: email@example.com
More than half of the respondents in a recent ASAE survey of partner executives say they are spending more for partnership programs than in the past. Nonendemic partners were even more likely to say they will increase spending on partnerships, and none said they would decrease it.
Are you devoting more resources or fewer resources to partnership programs than you were a few years ago, or is your level of spending about the same?
About the same:
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