Selling Sponsorships

The number of companies paying to sponsor events held by the San Mateo County Association of REALTORS® has increased each year since 2010, says Dalen Gilbrech, the association’s lead visual designer who also manages sponsorships. The 2,600-member association had 32 individual sponsor companies last year, including mortgage banks, lenders, and home inspectors. Gilbrech is aiming for more not only to help the association fund and grow its events, but also to build other association programs. 

The money is out there, associations say, at companies eager to buy the opportunity to build business relationships with REALTORS®. The challenge is developing an easy-to-manage program to attract sponsors and deliver value to them in exchange for their funding.

What do sponsors want from associations?

The value of a sponsorship comes from the relationships it facilitates. Sponsorship opportunities that provide in-person engagement with members are the most in demand, associations say. 

At the 4,000-member Boise Regional REALTORS® in Idaho, sponsorship offerings have evolved to provide more opportunities for backers to engage with members, says Shari Fernandez, the association’s director of communications. “We tailor our partnership packages to give sponsors time in front of members at all four of our major annual events. We also offer an education partnership package, which provides speaking opportunities at our classes throughout the year.” Affiliate members pay $1,000 to $8,500 for these annual partnership packages, which include free tickets to events, logos on signage, promotional materials in classrooms, and a host of other perks, she said.

The Boise Regional REALTORS® generated roughly $90,000 from its 50 affiliate-member sponsors in 2016, which was up from previous years, says Fernandez.

“What sponsors want most are two things: advertising in our monthly print newsletter and face time,” says Jean Sawtelle, communications director at the 2,600-member Plymouth and South Shore Association of REALTORS® in Massachusetts. “We have a new member orientation every other month where we invite our sponsors, who pay for the luncheon, to staff information tables and speak at the podium for a few minutes each.” Sponsors, which are affiliate members, include banks and lenders, cleaning services, insurance agencies, and inspection services. 

Sawtelle surveys the association’s sponsors and tweaks the contents of her sponsor packages according to what affiliates find most valuable. “I also drop features that turn out to be taxing for me and not well-received by the sponsors,” she says. “I thought sponsors would like a monthly social media post, but it turned out to be too much work to solicit posts from them, and they didn’t see the value in it.”

Sponsors at the 800-member Outer Banks Association of REALTORS® in North Carolina most appreciate making live presentations to the membership, says Karen Pierce, membership and marketing director. But the association also offers other ways for sponsors to get their company name in front of the membership, including web ads, social media posts, banners with logos, presentation opportunities, and golf teams, she says.

Besides face time with members, recognition is a key element of any sponsor package, association representatives say.

“We provide exposure and acknowledgment, which costs the association very little,” says Gilbrech. “Most of our recurring annual sponsors are mortgage banks, including credit unions, but we also have real estate offices and property managers, moving companies, painters, media, and our local MLS, which is a separate organization in our market. Sponsors like seeing their logo up on the screen at our monthly meetings and in our office lobby.”

“The Plymouth and South Shore Association recognizes sponsors at every event, says Sawtelle. “We make sure that our members know that our sponsors, not dues dollars, pay for events, and we make a point to thank our sponsors every time. I reiterate to members that it is because of the sponsors that our events are possible.”

Meghan Weinreich, communication director at the Charleston REALTORS® in South Carolina, cautions associations to avoid allowing events or programs to become too focused on sponsor visibility or sales pitches. “Over time you’ll find the right balance, where partners communicate with members on the value of the services they provide and members feel it’s a benefit.” 

In addition to underwriting a cocktail reception, industry companies are eager to participate in the association in a meaningful way, says Julie Carriger, events and sponsorships director at the 1,500-member Fredericksburg Area Association of REALTORS® in Virginia, which brought in more than $100,000 in sponsorships last year. Sponsors, who are all affiliate members, can sit on the events committee, the education committee, and the community service committee. The association recently voted to set aside one affiliate member’s seat on the board of directors.

“One of the main things I tell sponsors when I’m selling them sponsor packages is that the value won’t come though logos and advertising,” says Carriger. “Relationship building will come only when members recognize sponsor involvement in the association, at events, and on committees.”

How to cut down on the work of attracting and managing sponsors

“Before I came on board here, staff members were scrambling to chase sponsors for each event,” says Sawtelle, “so they never knew how much money they would have going into an event, and they spent a lot of time that could have been focused on organizing the event itself.” Sawtelle established a program to sell annual sponsorship packages with an incentive to sign up in January so the association had the money up front and had less work throughout the year.

“Our annual sponsor packages sell out and have been extremely successful in part because of the exclusivity,” says Sawtelle. “I offer 20 packages at most and it’s first come, first served. I send the offer out to all the affiliates at the same time, and I limit how many companies can buy at each level.”

Sponsorship packages are convenient for the association, but the sponsors appreciate them too, says Pierce. “We tried selling event sponsorships separately as á la carte options, but it failed,” says Pierce. Having to repeatedly ask their corporate offices for funds defeated the purpose of the program, sponsors told Pierce.

Although sponsors like the convenience of a package of benefits, be flexible in building sponsorship packages, says Fernandez. “Not all sponsors want or need all the things you are offering, so give them the ability to make the sponsorship work for their needs and their budget.” Last year, only 14 of the association’s 50 sponsors choose the annual sponsorship package option, she said. 

To cut down on the work of managing sponsorships, Pierce sells annual sponsorship packages just at the beginning of the year. The association sells discounted sponsorships year-round.

“I also would limit selling one-off event sponsorships to companies that are nonsponsors, those that have not signed onto one of your sponsor packages,” advises Pierce. “It’s a fine line to walk with promoting your year-round sponsors and one-time sponsors.”

Deliver value for the investment

“As new technologies and communications vehicles become available to our association, we always keep in mind how we can expand sponsor recognition, which helps keep our sponsorship program strong year after year and provides existing sponsors with an increasing sense of value,” says Gilbrech. “It’s important to make sponsors feel special with a ‘high touch’ approach, including direct outreach from staff, ideally interacting with the same dedicated staff person.”

One consistent result of Sawtelle’s annual sponsor survey is that sponsors appreciate frequent reminders on how and when to take advantage of the package features. 

Sawtelle also recommends that associations not underestimate the value of having a thorough, well-designed, and easy-to-understand sponsor brochure or webpage.

Attracting sponsors, coordinating the benefits, and managing the relationships can feel like a job in itself, yet the work is most often absorbed by association marketing, membership, communication, or finance staff, or the AE.

Pierce, at the Outer Banks Association of REALTORS®, says at least 25 percent of her job is selling sponsorships and managing sponsors.

In Boise, Fernandez manages the sponsor packages but also enlists the association’s event planning committees to secure event sponsorship.

At San Mateo County, association staff manage all sponsorship customer management and solicitations in-house, says Gilbrech. “All staff are generally familiar with sponsor benefits and who our sponsors are, which helps with solicitations and providing exceptional customer service.”

Sponsorship programs are not out of reach for the small or single-staff association, says Carriger. “I would start with finding one local mortgage company, maybe a new company or one wanting to push its name. Then maybe a title company that works with that mortgage company will sign up, and your sponsor program will grow from there.”

“I would encourage anyone developing a sponsor program to take it in stages,” says Weinreich, who says the Charleston REALTORS® had its most successful year for sponsors in 2016, collecting nearly $100,000. “You don’t have to offer everything the first year. Poll your current affiliates or partners and learn what is valuable to them. You’ll also want to ensure that your members find the connections to these companies meaningful and valuable; it definitely needs to be a reciprocal relationship.”

5 Tips for Selling Association Sponsorships

  1. Be clear about what you’re selling: access to members. The Fredericksburg Area Association of REALTORS® boasts its program provides companies “unparalleled opportunity to directly market and advertise to our more than 1,500 real estate professionals, managers, brokers, and owners.”
  2. Have clear and detailed sponsor materials. Printed and electronic sponsor marketing materials should clearly list what sponsorship opportunities are available and at what price. Always have sponsors sign a written agreement detailing the arrangement.
  3. Build relationships by reaching out to potential sponsors in person. Solicit members to help identify potential sponsors or sell sponsorships. Don’t forget to follow up with sponsors regularly to ensure that they’re getting value for their investment and adjust the sponsor program when necessary.
  4. Don’t sell sponsorships to everyone; choose relevant companies that members are interested in. “Ensure that your members find the connections to these com­panies meaningful and valuable; it definitely needs to be a reciprocal relationship,” says Meghan Weinreich, communications director at the Charleston REALTORS® in South Carolina.
  5. Be on the lookout for new ways sponsors can reach members. As new programs and products develop, always offer your existing sponsors the right of first refusal on the opportunity to sponsor, then seek out new companies.
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