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Sponsorship Activation, It’s Easier Than You Think

by | May 2, 2024

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After taking the time to dream up assets and then painstakingly valuing and sorting them into properties, you might be feeling creatively spent. That’s not unfair, as valuation is one of the trickiest parts of the sponsorship process.

Take some time to recharge your creative batteries, because activation is a must-have component of your sponsorship program. Whether you are in cause, sport, municipality, education, or festival sponsorship, the reality is the same.

Sponsorship = activation. Period.

Still thinking of sponsorship as putting a logo on a building, wall, invitation, bottle of wine? Then you are missing 90 percent of the sponsorship world.

Putting logos on stuff is definitely part of sponsorship, but only a small part, and certainly not the most valuable part, or the most fun.

The best way to make your sponsors happy is to make your audience happy. In a nutshell, that’s what sponsorship activation is all about.

In this guide, I’ll explain sponsorship activation, share some examples of good and bad activation ideas, and load you up with lots of tips and best practices so your own activations knock it out of the park.

After all, your attendees should never have to endure sponsorship. They should see the value of what the sponsor brings to the table and actually enjoy it! I’ll help you do that, so let’s get started!

What Is Sponsorship Activation?

Okay, so let’s take it from the top. Exactly what am I referring to when I talk about sponsorship activation?

Well, I think of sponsorship activation as a way of “switching on” your sponsorship, so to speak.

Setting the figurative speech aside for a moment, activations are a form of experiential marketing.

Even if you think you’ve never seen an activation in your life, I can guarantee you that’s not true. Well, unless you’ve been living under a rock, that is.

You know how when you go to a concert or a sports game, brands will have contests and give out freebies? Those are activations.

Or how about when you attend an industry conference or expo, and you see an interactive exhibit that a company hosts? Guess what? That’s also an activation.

Activation isn’t just doing what you said you would, it’s actually about achieving the outcomes of your sponsors.

That’s the key.

Many sponsorship seekers think they need thousands of dollars or sometimes even hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull off a memorable activation for their sponsor.

If your activation achieves an outcome for your sponsor, then it’s doing its job.

In some instances, maybe that does require you to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. In many more cases though, you can spend thousands of dollars and sometimes even nothing and still achieve outcomes.

It all depends on what those outcomes are.

Of course, it’s not only about your sponsor. It’s about the people who are going to your event and seeing that interactive booth or signing up to win a car. Those people are your audience.

Activation is where audience goals and sponsor goals come together in a way that achieves the outcomes of both parties. The sponsorship seeker gets to charge a premium for all of the assets associated with the activation opportunity, delivering the triple win that everybody wants.

A Cautionary Tale About the Risks of Bad Activation

Activation, if not keeping your sponsor’s goals and your audience’s needs in mind, can turn bad in a hurry. Here is a personal experience I had with an activation gone awry several years ago that I still remember quite well.

My wife and I went to a 5K race. The race was a fundraiser for a specific charity. I wasn’t involved with the charity in any sort of sponsorship capacity.

Rather, we went to the event because we were training for another event on the same course and were treating it like a practice run. We came with our running group (25 people), all of whom were doing the same thing as us.

None of the event organizers asked us why we were there or why we signed up, so they assumed that we were there because of the cause.

The race was scheduled to start at 9:00 a.m., so we warmed up, stretched, ate, and went through our ritual for a race start time.

The race didn’t start at 9:00 a.m. Speeches did. And they went on for over 45 minutes.

Then there was a parade with bagpipes, then the national anthem…then another speech.

My wife and I left the event at 10:15 having not run the race (and so did most of the people we came with), and, as it turns out, a few hundred other runners!

We checked out social media after getting home to see if there was more information about the event. Maybe we misunderstood something, like the start time, for instance.

What I saw surprised me at the time, but it shouldn’t have.

The hashtag for the event was packed with complaints. Complaints about the event, how badly organized it was, and, worst of all (in my opinion), tons of complaints about the sponsors who spoke forever about products that nobody in the crowd cared about.

The event didn’t just flop, but it actually damaged the reputation of the charity and the sponsors.

That’s about the worst-case scenario in sponsorship!

So how did this happen? Bad sponsorship activation.

The sponsorship seeker may WANT the audience to care about their cause, but that doesn’t mean that the audience does. If you guess wrong at what your audience wants, you may have some angry sponsors on your hands (and some angry attendees too!).

Now, I can’t pin everything that went wrong with this event solely on the activation. The lack of clarity about the start time was bad as well.

If I had been told that I wouldn’t be able to run until 10:30 or so but the parades and speeches started an hour and a half before that, I would have planned my morning differently.

I want to be clear with this example that I’m not trying to vilify speeches here. A speech can be a very high-value asset. Like everything though, you have to know your audience.

Timing is important, as is the product you’re trying to sell. Maybe after the run when I was exhausted, if the sponsor had been talking about a protein bar or an energy shake, I would have been more receptive. With the way the event was organized though, the speeches left me antsy and angry.

If we reflect back to the event in my example above, a brilliant activation idea would have been a “competitive stream” where runners get access to a warm-up area and a start time just for them.

The “family stream” gets to connect to the cause more deeply and enjoy family activities while the competitive stream can come, do their thing, and go home (all for a premium, of course).

The best part of such an activation idea is that it would have let the event organizers segment the audience (runners vs. non-runners) and deliver a group of runners to sponsors who sell products to those people, leaving the event organizers with more revenue, happier attendees, and happier sponsors.

Instead, none of that happened. It was a huge missed opportunity!

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My Steps to Successful Sponsorship Activation

The best part about activation-focused sponsorship is that it’s easy! At least, it’s easy when you follow my method.

I’ve boiled down sponsorship activation into three simple steps that can transform how you approach this part of your sponsorship program. What are the steps? Let’s get right to it.

Survey Your Audience

A happy audience usually leads to a successful event, which means a happy sponsor as well.

If you haven’t recently issued an audience survey, then that’s what you have to do before you can come up with one activation idea that will stick.

An audience survey is super useful in your sponsorship program.

The data you’ll glean from the survey allows you to learn more about the brands that your audience consumes. Those brands as well as their competitors form the basis of your sponsorship prospecting list.

With the list of prospects that you selected based on your audience data, you’re likely to find a fit.

Audience data is also important in that the hyper-segmented audience groups you develop will be ultra-appealing to your sponsorship prospects.

I digress though.

In your audience survey, you want to quiz your customers or attendees about your latest events. Ask your audience what they love about your event, program, team, space, festival, etc. Ask them what they hate.

Yes, I’m serious. You need to take the good with the bad. How do you know what to change if you aren’t sure what your audience dislikes?

Ask them what they want more of and less of too.

Keep in mind that you’ll get some pretty disparate answers here. Just as you did when creating a list of the brands your audience likes to make your prospects list, you want to look for common threads.

For instance, if 350 people out of 800 said they hate how your events don’t have an app, that’s a significant sum. Your audience is telling you (well, most of your audience, anyway) that you need an app.

You should make an app!

Likewise, if 600 out of 800 people said they love your early-bird ticket pricing or your event maps, then you want to keep doing those things.

Talk to Your Sponsor About the Survey Results

Next, I want you to tell your prospective sponsors what you heard from your audience and ask them for ideas to solve those problems, add more value, and give your audience more of what they love.

Let’s use the app example again. You would sit down or talk on the phone with your prospective sponsor and say something like, “hey, I recently surveyed my audience, and 350 out of 800 people said they disliked that my events don’t have an app. What do you recommend?”

You might be able to work with the sponsor to add an app, but more so than that, the app can be a valuable asset.

How so? Maybe attendees have to be logged into the app to participate in contests, which makes it easy for the sponsor to build their email list.

Discuss Outcomes with the Sponsor

The third step of the sponsorship activation process is this. Ask your sponsors what outcomes they are trying to achieve.

By the way, “title sponsorship” is not an outcome. Neither is an exhibit booth. An outcome is something like “we want to increase the size of our email database by 12 percent” or “we are looking for warm leads among XYZ population.”

Now create an opportunity that solves a problem of your audience (or gives them more of something they love) and attach your sponsor’s goal outcomes to that opportunity.

Congratulations. You’ve just come up with your first activation idea.

Let me give you an example here that will show you how to use these three steps to achieve more great activation ideas.

What if your audience wants networking opportunities? Then work with your sponsor to create a space and a contest to encourage networking!

If your sponsor wants to grow their email database, then run a contest to drive people to your sponsor’s email signup to come to a free VIP networking event.

Since your audience told you that they want networking more than anything else, you know they will respond to the opportunity and will actually show up.

More Tips and Best Practices for Coming Up with Great Activation Ideas

To wrap up, I want to share some of my best practices for sponsorship activations. If you follow the advice here as well as abide by the rest of the information in this guide, you can come up with activations that you’ll be proud to attach your name to!

Know What Your Audience Wants

I know this one sounds like a no-brainer, but it has to be said.

Don’t guess at what your audience wants. You have to be 100 percent sure.

In other words, this is yet another reminder that you can’t forego audience research entirely. I want to stress my points from before.

Having current, niched-down audience data is the only way to understand the value of your audience.

I always liken foregoing audience data to walking into a pawn shop with a valuable piece of jewelry but getting little for it because you had no idea what it’s worth.

A sponsor is never going to tell you, “I see you’re charging $10,000 for this when your audience is worth at least $30,000” because why would they? They get access to a great audience on the cheap. It’s their lucky day!

Failing to understand your audience will lead to fewer sponsorship dollars in your company or organization’s collective pocket, and you could come up with activations that don’t hit the mark. It’s a lose-lose situation!

Don’t Feel Like You Have to Reinvent the Wheel

Many sponsorship seekers get stuck when coming up with activation ideas because they feel like everything has been done before.

That’s far from true. This post on our blog with out-of-the-box activations shows that with a little bit of creativity and maybe a touch of zaniness, you can come up with some pretty wild activation ideas.

That said, I don’t want you to feel like you have to reinvent the wheel.

I have several posts full of activation idea roundups that you can use to guide you. Once you see what’s possible, you might have some unique ideas of your own.

Here is a list of event marketing activations. This one includes plenty of conference activation ideas.

But Don’t Copy Either 

As you peruse those articles, you will at one point or another see another company’s activation and think, “oh man, if only I had thought of that first.”

Well, who’s to say you can’t add to it? There’s nothing wrong with using another company’s activation as a springboard to launch your own ideas.

However, I would discourage you from directly copying an activation. The novelty factor wears off sooner than later, and your activation could be a big dud among your audience.

Forget Cool 

Plenty of my clients, when they talk to me about activation, are obsessed with how cool their activations are. This is probably because on the blog, I’ve talked about fire dancers and other truly epic activations.

Those examples are just to show you what you could do. They’re by no means what you have to do.

Remember, activations are supposed to fulfill a sponsor outcome and a need of your audience. If not that, then you want to give your audience more of something they love.

That doesn’t always require an ultra-cool activation.

Rather than judge your activations on how cool they are, judge them more on whether they meet the above criteria.

When in Doubt, Ask the Sponsor 

Planning activations isn’t something you have to do alone. I strongly recommend you contact your sponsor and say, “I have a few activation ideas. What can we do to make them better?”

Your sponsor wants to be involved in the process. They’re intimately knowledgeable about their pain points, so they can indicate which activations may get them the outcomes they want versus those that might not.

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5 Sponsorship Activation Mistakes You Might Be Making

You should be ready to begin brainstorming your own activations by now. As you proceed, ensure you’re not making these common gaffes.

Focusing Too Much on Activation Size and Visual Appeal 

This goes back to my point from before; cool doesn’t matter so much as functional does when ideating activations.

So many sponsorship seekers get stuck when creating activation ideas because they think they need to build a skyscraper-sized interactive element or a ginormous booth to get any traction.

Here’s the problem with that. If your activation is all flash but no substance, you’ll attract people to your sponsor all day, but you won’t drive any outcomes.

Why? People will realize the activation is a disappointment early on. They won’t want to engage with the sponsor, which means they won’t try free samples, or participate in the giveaway or contest, or purchase anything.

An activation shouldn’t be ugly, as visual appeal matters. You need to interest people during a crowded event, program, or opportunity. However, you can’t get so caught up in looks or coolness factor that you leave everything else by the wayside.

Not Customizing Your Activations

Are you guilty of stuffing assets and activations into the same gold, silver, and bronze sponsorship packages? Maybe it’s what you believe you should do, or even what you were taught to do. Perhaps you saw your competitors doing it, so you figured you had to as well.

Whatever the reason, shackling activations behind tiered sponsorship is an outdated, incorrect approach.

There are several reasons why sponsors hate these kinds of packages. For one, it tells them right off the bat loud and clear that no, they’re not getting any custom activations and assets from you.

Secondarily, they’re also stuck buying activations they don’t really want to access the one or two they’re interested in.

It’s a bad approach all around and could be why your sponsorship prospects seem gung-ho at first, then gradually less interested, perhaps even to the point of ghosting.

Failing to Value the Activation Properly

Valuation is as important for you as it is for the sponsor. This is the part of the sponsorship process where you determine what your opportunity is worth as a whole, which will in turn help you know what the sponsor will pay you.

Incorrectly valuing your assets and activations is as bad as not valuing them at all. However, I recognize that it’s easier to value some assets than it is activations, and here’s why.

Valuation is all about researching market value for a service and comparing the caliber of your services against the baseline. That’s easy to do for a bundle of social media posts or an interview, but what if your activation is against the grain?

Then it’s tougher.

I would recommend generalizing your valuations, like researching the average value of a contest or livestream. Then, if your activation is so unique that you can’t find pricing for a service like it, you should charge more, because clearly, the activation is worth it.

Not Getting Good Footage of Your Activation During the Event

Sponsorship activations don’t only serve your current sponsor; you can use them to secure future sponsorship deals if you present the activation compellingly in a case study. The only way to do that is to have data. Ideally, you should have hard numbers of participants and what kinds of results you drove for the sponsor.

In the immediate future, the images and videos of the activation can be used in your fulfillment report. What is a fulfillment report, you ask? It’s a post-event report you write out of courtesy for your sponsor to showcase all the promises you made and what you achieved.

A fulfillment report is for more than the sponsor’s immediate benefit. It’s also valuable for you, as you can open the door to sponsorship renewal, if that’s something you’re interested in.

You’ll probably be busy during your event, program, or opportunity doing event things, so ensure you have a photographer, videographer, or even several of each to capture the necessary footage to put into your wrap-up report.

Reusing Activations 

I can understand the attitude that if something worked once, it’s worth dipping back into the well for a second time.

If we’re talking about generalized activations like contests or photo walls, then sure, you can reuse the idea, but not the activation itself. That must always be new and customized to a sponsor’s needs.

By the way, that applies to sponsorship renewal as well. Some sponsorship seekers are surprised when I tell them that you can’t use the same assets and activations if you launch a longer-term deal with a sponsor.

Their needs will have changed, which requires a discovery session, ideation phase, and valuation before pitching new activations.

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How Can I Make My Sponsorship Activations More Unique?

Interactive experiences are sure to capture more people’s attention, such as interactive installations. Embracing today’s new tech, like VR and AR, is another way to draw more people into the activation.

What Is the Least Valuable Activation?

That depends on what you bring to the table, as your services are different from any other sponsorship seeker’s. The only way to be sure about the worth of your activations, including the most and least valuable, is by valuing them.

Are Photo Walls Still a Good Activation Idea?

They can be! Remember, the goal of an activation is to fulfill a sponsor’s need and audience’s need. If your audience wants to take some killer selfies, they’ll appreciate a photo wall. If you’re worried it’s too standard, jazz it up. Add a refreshment station or selfie mirrors and lighting.


Are you struggling with sponsorship activation? It doesn’t have to be difficult anymore.

Survey your audience and ask what they like about your events and what they want to see more of. Be clear on your sponsor’s outcomes. Then find a way to dream up activations that take a little from Column A and a little from Column B!