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Sponsorship vs. Partnership 

by | July 7, 2021

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You know the classic line that goes “I say to-may-to and you say to-mah-to,” right? Usually, when someone utters this phrase, it’s to argue over semantics. 

Sometimes there truly are two ways of saying the same thing, such as “last stop” versus “destination.” Or sponsorship and partnership. 

I know what you’re thinking, there’s no way a company can be both a sponsor and a partner, right? You may be surprised! 

Today, I want to talk about what sponsorship and partnership are and how they may be more alike than they might at first seem. 

What Is a Sponsor? What Is a Partner?

I’ve had not just one client confuse sponsorship and partnership, but many. I remember a coaching call with a client a couple of months ago where they said, “Chris, I don’t want sponsors anymore. I want partners.”

To me, this was a little odd, so I decided to ask the client how they defined both terms. They told me that a sponsor is someone who purchases packages from your sponsorship pitch deck. In exchange, you get cash. 

Then this client told me that a partner is someone who will work with you to create an opportunity that engages an audience and converts them into loyal followers. When I asked for more elaboration on their definition of a partner, my client said that partners meet with you regularly to provide feedback so your campaigns can be more successful.

I thanked the client for their input then proceeded to tell them that they were defining not a partner, but a sponsor. Yet I also had to mention that their definition of a sponsor was woefully out of date.

Like 50 years out of date.

If this is how you think of sponsorship too, I can’t necessarily blame you. After all, when you look it up in Oxford Dictionary, the definition of a sponsor is “an individual or organization that pays some or all of the costs involved in staging a sporting or artistic event in return for advertising.”

Is it technically accurate? Yes. Yet that definition also sort of makes sponsors sound like an ATM. Insert your asset here and get money out of the machine. 

That can be more detrimental than you might realize.

The Importance of Viewing Sponsors Like Partners

Transactional relationships are often very impersonal. Outside of the ATM, think of all the other transactional relationships you have in your everyday life. For instance, you walk into a store and buy something. The greeter says “hi, how are you?” The cashier might ask the same as well. 

Mostly though, you hand the cashier money, they give you your item, and you’re out the door. A few pleasantries are exchanged, but it’s nothing significant.  

That’s a perfectly acceptable type of relationship to have at your favorite department store, but it’s not a good way to build business relationships. Why?

Well, when you view your sponsors as nothing but walking ATMs, you’re thinking of only one thing, how to get your money. Sure, you’re fulfilling the target sponsor’s goals, but only the bare minimum. You don’t put any extra thought or effort in because they’re not a business partner, they’re a sponsor

This leaves your sponsors unsatisfied, so they decide not to work with you again. This is disadvantageous for you in a few ways. For one, you’re losing out on potential future sponsorship opportunities with that company. More so, you’re locked out of all the other benefits of having a business partnership.

You know, like future non-sponsored collaborations or introductions via the sponsor to other companies that could become new sponsors of yours. These things all pass you by, and it’s not just with one sponsor, but all of them.  

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Tips for Building Professional Relationships That Leave Sponsors Coming Back for More

Having a fantastic sponsorship program is one way to get repeat sponsors now and for your events to come, but you also have to foster professional relationships with genuine rapport. Here are my tips for doing that.

Remember That Sponsors Are People Too

That person who works at the sponsor company who you’ve been in touch with? Like you, they have a life outside of work. They have a family and friends, maybe some pets. They also have hobbies and interests that have nothing to do with sponsorship. 

I know it can be hard to see that when you’re in the thick of doing audience research or evaluating assets. You can also forget when you’re exchanging emails or making phone calls. I recommend reminding yourself often that the person on the other line is a real, live, breathing human just like you and me. 

This little reminder can change quite a lot. You’ll sound brighter on the phone. You might write emails that come across as a little less formal and stuffy (but are still professional). You’ll get more invested in the sponsor company’s goals because you know these are real people who are depending on those goals being fulfilled. 

Have a Common Connection Between Your Company and the Sponsor Company 

This is something I recommend quite a lot, especially lately on the blog, but you can never underestimate the importance of a good connection. If you’ve ever gotten a job interview because of someone you know or even upgraded your seats to a baseball game because of a connection, then you know how valuable they are.

A connection to the sponsor company saves you from having to send a cold email to the target sponsor. More so than that, at least from the perspective of building business relationships, you get a chance to glean some useful intel.

You can ask your connection all about the target sponsor. What are they into? What matters to them? If you can then somehow find a way to weave that information into your initial communications with the sponsor or even your sponsorship program, you’ll win major points with the target sponsor.

For example, let’s say you’re a nonprofit that’s seeking sponsorship. Your connection told you that the contact at the sponsor company loves dogs. If your nonprofit recently worked with a kennel to adopt dogs, you can drop a mention of that in your first email to the target sponsor.

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Remember to Break the Ice

Listen, sponsors are intimidating people. They have the power to decide the fate of your event, which is scary stuff. If you’re feeling nervous ahead of your first meeting with the target sponsor, I ask you to remind yourself that this person is human just like you.

What do most humans appreciate? A good joke or at least an icebreaker to do away with any lingering awkwardness. In my post on how to ace the first sponsorship meeting, I also suggest bringing up anything that you and the person at the sponsor company share in common. Maybe that’s dogs or something else.

While icebreakers are great, they can harm more than help if you’re not careful. Keep your icebreakers or jokes tasteful, aka no sexual, religious, or political topics and no raunchy language. 

Have a Sponsorship Renewal Plan

While you’re basking in the glow of your wildly successful sponsored event, make sure you’re being future-minded as well. A sponsorship renewal plan is crucial, and this plan should have been approved by the sponsor ideally before the event ends. If not then, then bring up the renewal plan when delivering your fulfillment report.

A sponsorship renewal plan tells your sponsor that you appreciated working together once and that you don’t want it to be the end of the business partnership. 

Please don’t assume that just because the sponsor loved working with you that you can call them in eight months and they’ll be readily available. Their schedule will have almost assuredly filled up between now and then, leaving you without a sponsor when you really need one. 

Keep the Relationship Alive 

Since you didn’t go without a sponsorship renewal program, you know that for your next event six months from now that you’ll have a sponsor to work with. What do you do between now and then? Well, besides plan for the event, you can keep the professional relationship going in other ways.

If you see an article or infographic that’s relevant to the sponsor company, send it in an email. When opportunities arise that would be a good fit, suggest them. 

This is just like how when you and a friend went off to separate colleges, you sent each other memes or funny videos to stay in touch. It’s a good way to keep the relationship active until you eventually reconvene. 

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Some of my clients have thought they wanted a business partner when what they really needed was a sponsor. If you’re treating your current pool of sponsors as little more than walking ATMs, it’s also time to change your approach. 

I can help with other areas of your sponsorship plan with my free training called How to Grow Your Sponsorship Program. Since it’s free, why not check it out today? It’s the only way to see my nine-part sponsorship blueprint!