6 Steps to Partnering With Great Corporate and Local Sponsors
Several months ago, I’d never made a cold call in my life. I shuddered at the thought of calling someone I didn’t know and asking for money or donations. Making my first call, I began dialing and stopped before I got to the last digit. I’d put a script together and been talking to myself in the car for days getting ready for this, but I still hesitated. If it weren’t for Mason Music, my retail business that I cared so much about, I might have never finished dialing the number—and opened the door to a world of sponsorship opportunities.
1. Getting started.
Corporate sponsorships are a great way to boost your company’s revenue. The best news is you’re probably doing something already that’s similar to sponsorships, where you’re raising additional funds by partnering with other businesses and companies. If not, think through your programs and events to see if there’s something that would be attractive to a corporate sponsor. Or, maybe you have an idea for an event and need to get corporate sponsors on-board to make your dream a reality. Set a goal, be strategic and be persistent (but not too persistent).
Before you approach any potential sponsor, you need to know what you’re offering. Where are you creating value for a sponsor? Is it through simply being associated with your brand (e.g., logo placement on T-shirts or banners for an event)? Or, is it something else? Get creative, and think of ways that your sponsors will benefit from their monetary contribution or donation. Ask yourself what’s in it for them. We offered some of our upper-level sponsors the opportunity to have an article in our newsletter, which is distributed to nearly 2,000 people in a high-income market. Our sponsors loved this idea and immediately saw it as a unique marketing opportunity.
Develop a tiered benefits package, and give each level a name to convey its value. Traditionally, this has been bronze, silver, gold and maybe platinum, but feel free to be creative and give it your own spin. Use names or items that have significance to your brand or business—and that grab the attention of a marketing director or CEO who may be reviewing your materials. Tip: Stick to three or four levels of sponsorship at most. Keep it simple. I recommend that you provide brief, well-written copy outlining your vision for the event, organization or program that’s being sponsored, a menu-style list of the sponsorship levels with clear wording describing the benefits of each level, and a summary table that serves as a quick reference for someone deciding what level of sponsorship to choose.
2. Create your call list.
Don’t just pick up the nearest phone book and start calling people. First, define your ideal sponsor. What kind of companies do you want to partner with? You’re putting your reputation on the line for these companies, and by having them listed as sponsors, you’re also endorsing them. At least make sure that you do basic homework before approaching someone. You don’t want to find out later that Company X, one of your sponsors, stands for something that isn’t aligned with your business values. Don’t spend a lot of time here—just make sure you think through the reputation of the companies you are seeking as partners.
Make note of businesses that are currently sponsors in your area. These companies are already convinced of the value of corporate sponsorships. You won’t be working to sell them on the concept—you’ll be selling them on why they should sponsor your program or event.
Also, consider what sectors of business may have an interest in reaching your audience. Tip: Create a spreadsheet, and include a “Category” column that lists the various types of businesses that may have an interest in what you’re offering, such as financial, insurance, realty, construction, restaurants and gyms. Include columns for Company Name, Contact, Phone Number, Email, Address and whatever else you want to track.
3. Make the call.
Don’t use email for your first point of contact. Trust me. As a business owner, I can tell you that most of the emails I receive about sponsorships get ignored or deleted. Phone calls or in-person meetings are your best bet to pitch your idea and get the message across. Whenever possible, reach out through someone you already know. If you’re on LinkedIn, work through your existing connections to find people you know working at the businesses you are looking to connect with. You can also find the names of marketing directors at many companies this way, and when you call the corporate office, you can ask for the person by name. Most importantly, connect—don’t just communicate.
4. Make the ask.
When you get the right person on the phone, make sure you have a persuasive pitch ready to go. Don’t be too sales-y; just show them how partnering with your brand through sponsorship will benefit his or her company. Be passionate about your program, and explain why you are calling them specifically. Tip: Start your call list with the companies you’re approaching for the presenting sponsor level. If you can get that locked down first, other companies will be more likely to take you seriously.
For companies at the higher levels, offer them exclusivity if it makes sense for your program. Some sponsors will ask for this anyway, but it’s better to discuss it up front than to connect with two competing sponsors and find out that both are unhappy.
At some point in the conversation, be sure to get their email addresses and let them know you will be sending a PDF of your benefits package. (Make sure it’s a PDF. If it takes more than 2 seconds to open, it will get ignored). Mention a deadline for decisions on your sponsorship in the initial conversation and in the email.
5. Follow up (and be prepared for “no”).
Keep detailed notes on how your phone calls, meetings and emails go, so you have a contact history. Make small notes on your spreadsheet (use Google Sheets, so you can insert a note in any cell that stays hidden until you mouse over it), and be sure to include the date and summary of your conversations. After you’ve pitched your idea and sent the PDF via email, give each contact a week or two to consider before following up. Depending on how the initial call went, use either email or a follow-up phone call at this point. Be prepared to hear “no.” Companies work extremely hard to earn their revenue and are very strategic in how they spend it, especially when it comes to advertising and sponsorships. If they don’t think it’s a great way to reach potential customers or build value for their company, they won’t agree to it. In my first round of fundraising, I heard “no” (or crickets) 43 times. Still, I heard “yes” nine times and was able to raise nearly $20,000 from those nine partners.
By the way, here are some common ways people say “no”:
• “We have already allocated all of our budget for sponsorships this year.” Sometimes this is true, and you should ask when it would be good to reach out with a future opportunity. If they’re truly interested, your initial call won’t be in vain, and you’ll have a chance to win them over next time.
• “Honestly, I’m covered up with business right now, so I hesitate to do anything that would generate more new leads.” This could be a way of getting rid of you, or it could be true. Either way, let them know to reach out to you if things slow down, and call them again next time.
• “We decided to pass on this.” This is a direct way of saying “no,” but it doesn’t give you much information. Ask a follow-up question, so you can learn how you could have done better or how you can restructure your sponsorship to win this company next time. You might ask something along the lines of, “Can I ask if there was any interest on your part? Is there a way that we could do something differently to win your sponsorship next time?”
6. Follow through.
Once you’ve made your calls and gotten your commitments, make sure you under-promise and over-deliver big time—especially if it’s your first time offering corporate sponsorships. You want sponsors to be so satisfied that they renew their sponsorships again and again. This not only creates a lasting relationship between your brand and theirs but also saves you the time and energy of finding new sponsors for every event or season. Collect data on how your campaign goes, and ask sponsors to let you know when they get calls from your customers. Also, be sure to thank your sponsors! We hand-deliver thank you packages with T-shirts and backstage passes to them at the events. Anything you can do to go above and beyond goes a long way. Some organizations make plaques or send photos—the important thing is that you do something thoughtful to thank them.
OK, so there you have it. These six steps will help you get started creating mutually beneficial partnerships with corporate sponsors. Be passionate, be bold and stay organized, and you'll be able to raise significant funds to benefit whatever your cause may be.