If your association is like almost all other associations, you struggle to identify, cultivate, and secure corporate partners. Prospecting can be a huge workload and staff time burden.

When handled correctly, prospecting can lead to promising results, energized staff, and additional income.

Throughout our ongoing “Partnership vs. Membership” blog series, Elizabeth Engel and I are addressing differences between association partnership and membership.  This blog focuses on enhancing your corporate partner prospecting and the next post will address prospecting for association members.

Common “Time Wasters” in Prospecting

When it comes to prospecting for corporate partners to support, sponsor and fund programs, associations often fall into the habits of:

  • Targeting prospects without sufficient research and strategy.
  • Maintaining the tightest relationships with junior marketing staffers (i.e., exhibit booth coordinators) who lack budget and decision-making authority.
  • Continually and repeatedly reaching out to the same company with low dollar funding requests.

These common habits lead to wasted time and reduce your ability to raise your corporate sponsorship revenues. Don’t let this happen to you and your association!

I’ve helped 100+ associations fight these habits and build new prospecting programs. Below are topline tips to strategize, streamline and simplify your prospecting.

Evaluate and Prioritize Your Current Sponsors/Exhibitors

  • Do: Weed out “dead end” leads. Assess your current pool of sponsors, exhibitors, and advertisers.  Which ones have been consistent over time? Which are best positioned to invest at higher levels?  At most associations, your top prospects should represent no more than 10 to 12 companies.  These are the ones to target.
  • Eliminate this time-waster: Smaller companies with limited resources barely able to exhibit at your conference should not be on your partner prospect list.  While they may represent future potential as their business grows, take a pass on pursuing them now.

Learn from Your Top Sponsors…and Your Competition

  • Do: Scan your space. Keep your eyes open as you attend other trade shows/conferences, read industry publications, etc. Companies in your space with interest in your audience and with large marketing budgets will also sponsor and partner with other organizations beyond your association.
  • Eliminate this time-waster: If a partner prospect is not involved with any other relevant organizations, cross them off your list. While they may exhibit or express interest in your affinity program, don’t waste time chasing this low-level lead.

Conduct Your Research

  • Do: Understand your prospects’ approach to reach target audiences. Maximize your prospecting with the help of some simple research. Review the prospect of companies’ websites, marketing materials, advertising campaigns, press releases, etc. Are they sponsoring or producing webinars? White papers? Awards and scholarships? Surveys? Consumer education programs? With a few clicks on Google, you can gather helpful information to better understand your prospects’ current status.  Enter the prospect company name along with the above words (e.g. webinars, white papers, awards). You will be amazed at how quickly you gain valuable information on your top prospects business interests, how they are reaching their target audience, and how your association can play a role.
  • Do: Gain an understanding of your prospects’ current business challenges. Be in the know about problems that a prospect company may face.  Enter the company name along with words such as lawsuits, scandals, customer complaints, or employee problems. Additionally, visit sites such as Glass Door, Yelp, or social media channels where consumers – and sometimes employees – are giving voice to issues.  Being aware of issues and challenges the companies face helps build a prospecting strategy to establish partnership opportunities that address their specific business needs and offer relevant solutions.
  • Eliminate this time-waster:  Don’t spend too much time on research and delay contacting your top prospects.  When connecting with the right corporate contact, they will convey updated information which may be different from your research.

Effectively Leverage Board Member Contacts

  • DoTake advantage of introductions that board members can provide…if they are specific and actionable. Be specific with your requests and don’t simply ask ‘who has a contact that can support us?’ as this results in head nods and little follow-up. Structure of a deliberate and intentional plan to connect with their corporate contacts. Then, at the next board meeting, give credit to those that provided contacts and offer an update.
  • Eliminate this time-waster: Unfortunately, many associations (and I say this after years of experience) has the board member with the knuckle-headed idea of “why don’t you reach out to Amazon” (or Exxon, Microsoft, or another major company lacking a connection to the mission of your association).  The board member will say that the company has a lot of money and (obviously!) has an interest in your association.  Rather than be boxed into wasting time on prospecting calls with companies that make little strategic sense, instead aim to focus on fostering your boards’ understanding of your prospecting strategy. When these ‘ideas’ are raised, thank the board member, and ask if they have a contact for you to contact. While this can be somewhat humorous, it happens more often than you would think.

With these steps, you can generate a more strategic list of corporate partner prospects – both existing sponsors who can deepen their engagement and new companies.

Now What? Next Steps in Cultivating Corporate Partner Relationships

Generating a more strategic list of targets is of course only just half the battle. There are also strategic ways to approach and cultivate these relationships. Tips include:

Reduce Repeated Requests for Funding

  • Do: Focus on mutual business interests rather than repeated funding requests. Your association is not the only one looking for funding.  Corporate marketing staffers receive many funding requests. In fact, in interviews with corporate executives, the number one complaint I’ve heard again and again about associations is the constant and ongoing requests for funding. Executives say that often associations “treat us like an ATM machine” and “we feel like second class citizens.” Minimize discussions that solely focus on funding. Instead, steer those conversations to mutual interests and win-win opportunities.  It is much easier to gain involvement and commitment when first finding out about the potential corporate partner’s interests, goals, and challenges.  This enables you to better position your offerings.

Offer Value and Solutions

  • Do: Clearly articulate the value you can offer and the value they bring to you. Associations develop a treasure trove of value for their member base.  Articles, research papers, studies or surveys, and conference sessions are rich with content and information of interest to your members.  The ability to obtain benchmarking information, practice guidelines, or industry trends is every bit as valuable to the corporate sponsor community.
  • Do: Give them a real-world sample of the value that your association provides. Identify the information and insight you have as an association that is of value to your prospects and use as part of your outreach conversations. This is a way to establish rapport and showcase your interest. Importantly, this can open the door to better business-focused conversations, communication with higher-level executives, and opportunities for additional funding.
  • Avoid this time-waster: Most associations, under pressure to meet the budget for each event, continually reach out to the same prospects repeatedly asking for funding, without finding ways to add value. Instead, seek to understand which sponsorship opportunities resonate for the prospect and package offerings available throughout the year.

Put Prospecting to Action

We’ve addressed strategies to improve your targeting of prospects and provided “do this” tips to cultivate relationships with those potential corporate partners on your revised list.

Most associations will continually reach out to the same prospects repeatedly asking for funding.  Under pressure to meet the budget for each event, this results in a downward cycle of communicating with junior corporate marketing staff, declining support, and frustration as budget goals are unlikely to be met.  What will happen if you don’t change course?

Imagine what the future holds when you and your association are intentional with prospecting. Staff is more productive, your association steps up from sponsorship to partnership, and revenues increase.

Please share your prospecting experiences and results.  In the next post in our series, Elizabeth will address prospecting for association members.

Flax Associates helps associations and nonprofits establish mutually beneficial partnerships that enhance the value offered and result in additional funding. We help develop the strategy, structure, and ability to STEP Up from sponsorship to partnership. If you’d like to discuss your current sponsorship strategy and plans to boost your revenue, please reach out by email ([email protected]) or phone (202 266-2655).