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The Art of Sponsorship Prospecting: Targeting the Right Brands for Your Niche

by | August 1, 2023

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Sponsorship prospecting is not selecting names out of a hat or picking a sponsor based on perceived budget. It’s a dedicated process that can yield targeted sponsorship outcomes. I’d even say it’s an artform.

This guide will explore how to fine-tune your sponsor selection steps.

Why Sponsorship Prospecting Is Important

The most controversial sponsorships aren’t those with big oil producers or edgy brands. Instead, they’re the deals with the biggest disconnect between sponsors and a company’s audience.

I often use overt examples to illustrate the concept, such as a meat company at a vegetarian conference or a soft drink manufacturer at a health expo, but it’s not always so black and white.

For instance, let’s say you’re hosting a business expo. Attendees come from far and wide because your events are known for their fantastic networking opportunities.

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You decide to work with a copier company as a sponsor. It seems like a good fit because it’s a business expo and people use copiers for business.

Then your event happens, and the copier company barely gets any engagement. You had promised signups for their upcoming copier, and you didn’t deliver.

What happened? The last time you took any audience data, your attendees largely worked in office environments. Since then, they’ve begun working remotely or hybrid, so they don’t need as much office equipment as they once did.

When you don’t bother to prospect for the right sponsors, everyone goes home disappointed. Your audience didn’t get as much use out of your event as usual, which means they’ll question whether they wish to attend next time.

Your sponsor certainly didn’t get as much value as they should have. They won’t want to work with you again.

Targeting Sponsors – Prospecting Begins with Audience

Sponsorship seekers often use two criteria for selecting a prospect: name value and money.

However, this is the incorrect approach. You’re not focused enough on your audience if you only chase sponsors for the money.

At the end of the day, your audience doesn’t know how much a sponsor paid you, and they don’t care. It has little bearing on them and their enjoyment of the event.

Name value isn’t that big of a deal at the end of the day either. The biggest name brand in the world can’t overcome a mismatch in needs or values. Coca-Cola coming to your health conference tells your audience not to bother attending.

So what do you use to select sponsors? You need audience data.

Audience is the heart and soul of sponsorship, so it should come as no surprise it’s central to your prospecting efforts.

Your audience will tell you which brands they like if you only ask. Those brands are the ones you want to build your prospecting efforts around. Your audience already has a connection to them, so they’ll be tickled pink to see their favorite brands at your next event.

How to Prospect for Sponsors in Five Steps 

Bearing that in mind, here is how to collect and use audience data to build your list of sponsorship prospects.

Step 1 – Survey Your Audience

An audience survey tells you relevant demographics, geographics, and psychographics.

I’m sure you probably already have this information to some extent, but how current is it? If you haven’t surveyed your audience in years, you could end up in a scenario like I described in the first section with the copier sponsor.

People generally don’t move every year or change careers frequently, but these things do happen, and if you don’t know who your audience is, it’s impossible to serve them.

You must ask the right kinds of questions to get meaningful data. I recommend some questions to add to your audience survey in this post.

The brand loyalty and preferences questions will be the most important for prospecting. You should still ask the other questions on the survey, but those are the answers to pay attention to.

Focus on brands like travel, retail, insurance, automotive, telecom, credit card, food, and financial services when asking about brands your audience uses. Those industries cover pretty much every basis of consumerism.

Step 2 – Add Brands Your Audience Mentioned to Your List

You’ve sent your survey to your audience. Now you must wait two to three weeks for them to complete it. 

You can send an email or make a few social media posts reminding them to participate, and please make sure you have a cool prize to motivate participation.

You can make something out of the data, whether you have 100 or 1,000 survey responses. It’s better if you have a larger response pool to work with, as you can ensure more brands to add to the list, but a smaller list will do.

Look at the brands your audience mentions, especially in the questions about their brand loyalty and preferences. 

Which brands keep coming up? Make a note of them. Put those at the very top of what is now becoming your prospecting list.

Organize the brands mentioned from the most to the least recurring. You might have five brands, and you might have 10, but I would wager it will be somewhere between 30 and 40.

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And if your list is a little short? Don’t panic. You’ll add to it.

Step 3 – Continue Building Your List

Next, it’s time to flesh out your prospects list. 

Look into the advertisers of each brand on your list. Who are they? Come up with at least one to two advertisers for every prospect on your list, but more if they seem pertinent.

You can continue to expand your list of warm prospects even further. For instance, now that you’ve seen the brands that advertise to your audience, what kinds of companies should advertise to your target audience but don’t?

Again, add another company or two per prospect on your list. Essentially, you’re increasing your prospects list by 2x to 4x.

However, I’m not done yet. You should also research the direct competitors of every prospect on your list, adding several of these brands for each prospect.

You could have close to 100 prospects by the time you’re finished, which is certainly not outside of reason.

I should note that the hottest or likeliest prospects are the ones your audience mentioned directly. Each group you add becomes gradually cooler. These brands have the least connection to your audience. 

That doesn’t mean they won’t end up becoming your sponsor, but it’s less likely.  

Step 4 – Research Your Prospects

Now that you have a robust list of prospects, what comes next? You have to go through and research them all one by one.

I know you’ve taken a lot of time to prospect already, but this is arguably the most important step of the entire process, as you’re ensuring the prospects pass your sniff test, so to speak.

What kind of research should you do? I recommend reading over the company’s website, looking at its LinkedIn page, and maybe combing through a press release or two.

You’re looking for any kind of information that goes against your values or gives you pause. Let’s use the vegetarian conference as an example.

You’ve eschewed meat producers, but let’s say another brand you find is a general foods brand. One of their biggest partners is a poultry brand. 

Does that pass the sniff test? That’s up to you, but it would give me pause.

Think about it from an attendee’s perspective. After all, if you can publicly find this information, then so can they. 

This questionable partnership could affect attendance and should be strongly considered from all angles before proceeding. 

Step 5 – Eliminate Irrelevant Prospects

Next, it’s time to sort through the prospects that made you feel reluctant about proceeding and set them aside.

You don’t have to remove them from the list of possibilities entirely, but I recommend separating them from this sponsorship property. 

You’ve already established there’s a disconnect between your audience and the company, or perhaps the issue is with your values and this other brand’s beliefs.

The latter situation might be more insurmountable, but the former means an opportunity could exist as your audience and sponsorship opportunities evolve.

Reducing your prospects according to these criteria should shorten your list but not drastically. You might cut it down by five or 10 prospects, but I’d be very surprised if it was more than that.

How Many Sponsorship Prospects Is Enough?

Sponsorship seekers often ask me about the number of prospects required to move on to discovery. There is no magic number.

I’ve had clients who have used my prospecting strategies and generated 60 new prospects. I’ve had others who have had more than 100. It all depends on the diversity of the brands your audience mentions.

You should have more than 10 prospects, but that won’t be a problem once you begin digging into advertisers and competitors of advertisers. Really, though, the more the merrier.

I know having a robust prospects list means taking more time to research each one. However, it’s worth your while.

As you begin meeting with prospects and learning more about them, you’ll naturally eliminate some. This is in addition to the round of eliminations you did based on your research.

Why might you eliminate some prospects after talking with them? For all sorts of reasons. 

Perhaps the prospect has a much deeper or more complex challenge than your assets or activations can reasonably solve.

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Prospecting following my methods shouldn’t produce those scenarios often, but it’s always a possibility.

More than likely, you’ll hear disappointing news, such as that your prospect has spent their sponsorship budget for the year or has no available sponsorship opportunities this quarter or year.

You’ll often hear nothing at all, as prospects get too busy to respond or hope you’ll get the picture by not replying to you.

It will be devastating not to hear back if you pin all your sponsorship goals on this one prospect. That’s why a long prospect list is so important.

You can move on to the next prospect without derailing your sponsorship program. You especially need that kind of efficiency if you have a time-sensitive program, event, or opportunity.

Bottom Line  

Sponsorship prospecting is not the easiest task. You can get sidetracked by big-name brands or perceived promises of large dollar amounts.

Prospecting is all about your audience. They’ll tell you which brands you should pursue, and their recommendations will spur new brands to look into based on competitors and advertisers.

Try prospecting by following this method the next time you have a new sponsorship opportunity. You may be pleasantly surprised by how many more prospects want to talk to you.