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Sponsoring an Event? Tips to Maximize Your Return

Don't just slap your brand on a banner and call it a day. Here's how to get the most from your event marketing dollars.
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Hoping to gain exposure, build good will, and connect with a specific audience? (Who isn't?)

Sponsoring an event might be the perfect approach.

Here's another in my series where I pick a topic, connect with someone smarter than me, and we discuss. (There's a list of previous installments at the end of the article.)

This time I talked about sponsoring events with Greg Fisher, the Marketing Director of Bike Monkey, a professional event organizer and magazine publisher best known for Levi's GranFondo, the 7,500 rider mass participation cycling event held annually in Santa Rosa, CA and hosted by professional cyclist Levi Leipheimer. (Don't bother trying to sign up this year; it's already full.)

In theory, sponsoring an event can do a number of things for a brand. But I know business owners who walk away wondering if all the expense and effort were worth it.
Everything starts with determining your goals.

For example, you don't come to us just so you can generate a ton of related Tweets. That's valuable, and we can deliver that, but that's not the core product we provide to sponsors. When you sponsor an event your focus should always be on the quality rather than the quantity of brand impressions.

Take Levi's GranFondo bike ride. Participants are having an exceptional experience... and your brand is right there. People recognize and remember that your brand helped them have their best day of the year on their bike.

That assumes participants had a great, or meaningful, or in some way memorable time (for good reasons).
Every event provides an experience. The key is to partner with events that provide an experience people will associate positively with your brand and further characterizes and adds depth to your brand.

Then you need to leverage that experience. Take, for example, Road ID. They were a presenting sponsor in our inaugural year. But they didn't just slap their logo on our event.

Road ID's approach to their sponsorship was, and is, to really engage the audience by providing discounts to participants, integrating their sponsorship with their own promotions, feeding charitable discounts back to us... they aligned their sponsorship efforts with our goals.

That's a very efficient way for a company to leverage a partnership.

I live in a small town; there are very few possibilities for local businesses to get involved with an event.  Sometimes the answer is to create your own, which is what Levi did with you guys a few years ago. Tell me about that.

Levi was riding with a friend, noticed the words "gran fondo" on his jersey, and asked about it. His friend explained that a gran fondo is like a big celebration of cycling, is all about the rider for that day... and Levi thought hey, we should do that here.

The thinking that first year was that it would be fun, it would be great for Santa Rosa, and if we were lucky maybe a few hundred people would show up.

We were wrong about the numbers. We sold out the first year and we've grown steadily every year since.

So why not open it up to more people?

A lot of gran fondos focus on quantity: The more riders the better. Our goal is to always balance scale with quality. That's why we cap participation. We only bite off what we can chew well.

I've done other large organized rides. It's a bummer when you go by a rest stop and the volunteers are still trying to unload the truck. Where organization, supplies, route markings, preparation, etc. are concerned, we try to turn things up to 11. It costs us a lot more. We spend a lot more per rider versus what other events spend.

While that does impact the amount we give to our charities, our goal is to make the event sustainable.  If the product suffers so will our event--and so will our charities.

Still, participant numbers are one way to measure success. For some events it's the only way they measure success.

Success, to us, means putting on an event that will meet our standards 20 years from now. We don't want to have to close up shop because we made decisions that service the business rather than the event. The event is the core product we have to sustain. We'll keep making it better.

We want to be the event you really look forward to, not the filler in-between.

Numbers aren't as important to us, to our sponsors, or to our participants as relevance. This year we have 7,500 people riding; whether we have 20,000 people riding 20 years from now or 7,500, if we're still relevant we're successful.

Most charity events are lucky to break even their first year; just like in business it takes a while to build a "customer" base. What made yours successful right away?

A combination of hard work and good luck.

Plus I like to think we bring a genuine sincerity that our participants really pick up on. Sure it's a ride, but how we really see the event is an opportunity to host people. We love where we live and love riding bikes so we created an event that showcases the best our area has to offer.

And we also decided to just be ourselves. We don't try to be something we're not. We don't know how to do it any other way, and people have responded really well to that.

And don't forget Levi's impact. He lives here, trains here, shares, and lives the values of the event, is utterly approachable... so it's a perfect fit. Unlike some people that act as figureheads, this really is his event. That naturally makes ours an experience you can't get anywhere else.

Say I have options for events I can sponsor. Walk me through the basics of choosing the right event, and then maximizing what I get out of my participation as a sponsor.

Here goes:

1. Make sure the event represents the culture you want to promote with your brand.

Take our event: If your goal is to promote a messenger bag to an urban demographic, you're missing the boat. Our participants are generally male, generally from a good income bracket, into gear, into training, and into performance. While our event is somewhat broadly inclusive, most of the people who come to our event are serious cyclists.

Know your audience: Know their interests, their opinions, what they care about. Don't waste time trying to force your way in front of an audience that won't care.

2. Then make sure you like how the event is run.

If the event is poorly run, the participants will extend their disappointment to your brand. That may not be fair, but that's how it is.

3. Make sure you know what you receive for your investment.

Different events offer different levels of sponsorship. Know exactly what you will receive, and if you're looking for exclusivity (like you want to be the only sponsor from your particular industry), make sure you will get it.

Sponsorship is an investment, so make sure you know what you will get for your investment.

4. Decide if your brand adds something meaningful to the event.

Maybe it's a product, or experience, or resource. Maybe you can put a branded water bottle in each swag bag, one that's not for sale. That's perfect: Participants will see it as a trophy, one they'll take home and use proudly.

Make sure your brand can be an integral part of the event, even if only in a small way.

5. Don't forget the community impact.

Levis' event helps drive economic growth in the community; along with the Tour of California, we represent the leadership of a whole new sector of revenue for Sonoma County. Levi was named Sonoma County Businessman of the Year after our first gran fondo.

Every year all the hotels are sold out, the restaurants are full, you can't get a parking spot downtown... the business community appreciates the impact the event makes, and I hope we will always be worthy of their affection.

6. Don't just cut a check; make sure you can (and plan to) engage.

Simply cutting a check is fine, but why stop there? Some sponsors use events like ours as a corporate retreat: They bring 30 employees out for a great wine country weekend.

When it's a great event that supports worthy causes, participants feel good about themselves. What better time to engage with them or with your team?

Check out other articles in this series:

Last updated: Sep 25, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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