Managing sponsor-provided content for mutual benefit
13 June 2018
Posted by: Katie Spackman
Sponsorship is a crucial revenue stream for associations. Without it many conferences would not take place at a reasonable price for delegates. We are constantly tasked with developing innovative sponsorship products and providing an opportunity to deliver content is just one of the tools regularly used.
Trends we see at conferences amongst other things, include an increase in demand for sponsored content opportunities from companies. This is combined with a move away from traditional “precious metal” packages towards bespoke opportunities, which I’ve also heard referred to as “make your own” package.
However, the increase in desire to use content as a promotional tool should be of no surprise. Most successful brands are now using a content strategy as a base for marketing because it is one of the most important influencing factors of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation).
Why do sponsors want to provide content?
Sponsoring an event is a very powerful way of aligning a brand with a trusted organisation such as a medical or industry association. Providing content allows companies to educate both existing and potential customers on their products. What better way to grow sales than to create a fully trained army of experts in their field using your product to solve problems?
For many years sponsorship has been difficult for companies to quantify. For many companies, it was a case of “well, can we afford not to be there?”. Nicole Leida, Head of Conference and Events at the National Cancer Research Institute believes that sponsored content offers one of the best opportunities to measure success.
“I think people struggle to measure return on investment (ROI) from other activities, and running a symposia within an existing conference makes a lot of sense. It is easier to measure the activity like this than, say, a logo on a brochure, and it ticks a lot of boxes in terms of impact and brand awareness as well.”
Sponsored content is also often better received by attendees than a sales push at an exhibition stand. Rose Padmore, owner of Opening Doors and Venues, a PCO based in West Midlands recently ran the 4th iteration of the West Midlands School Leaders Conference.
“The first 3 all incorporated an exhibition however increasingly at each event it was evident that teachers attend the conference to speak to, listen and learn from experts and each other and not ‘buy’ or ‘be sold to’. This year we decided not to have an exhibition and created a presentation opportunity on the main stage during the networking lunch”.
Restrictions on content from compliance
Whilst many corporates are free to sponsor events at will, continued modification of compliance rules can make it harder for pharmaceutical and medical device companies to provide content at conferences.
The Association of British Professional Conference Organisers (ABPCO) recently ran a Round Table event in Manchester entitled “Striking the Right Balance – Conference v Trade Expo”. Some of the outcomes of that event made reference to that fact that often sponsors cannot be visible in areas where Continued Professional Development (CPD) is being delivered. The group suggested that to counteract this, breakfast or lunch sessions should be offered as additional sessions that can be sponsored with “strong” content to attract attendees.
I have seen first-hand how valuable these sessions can be at congresses, having recently delivered a number of congress projects for a major pharmaceutical company. Attendees are generally engaged and seem to enjoy the “refreshing” yet scientific approach to delivery.
How they can add value
Academic and commercial research goes hand in hand and often the place they overlap is at conferences and congresses. The provision of both forms increases the relevance of a programme however sponsored content must be educational in order for this to work properly.
Two examples of this that I consider to be “best practice” have been demonstrated by both the Personal Finance Society (a previous client of mine) and the Association of Association Executives (AAE). The former, for quite some years, have integrated sponsored content into their programme as breakfast sessions with great success.
The AAE seem also to have struck a good balance on this point. They offer sponsors the opportunity to lead two 30 minute Expert Briefings covering a wide range of relevant subjects. I asked Damian Hutt, their Executive Director, about their programme.
“We are clear who is presenting, and we make sure that the presenters really are experts and the topics are of high value. We think we've struck a good balance for the sponsors and the delegates when it comes to sponsored content, and this is proven by the very good feedback we receive.".
Getting the brief to the sponsors and ensuring it is followed is of paramount importance, according to Leida.
“We always advise our sponsors that their content has to be educational in nature and not promotional in any shape or form. Transparency is key. Delegates want to understand what companies are working on and what are the challenges and opportunities for them”.
When can it go wrong
Delegates are not looking for a sales pitch and quite often sponsor companies need to contract experts in order to provide an impartial view point. This is not without its own dangers. I remember attending a pharmaceutical symposium last year for one of my clients where one of the experts went off on a tangent of data analysis for around 5 minutes in response to a question. Even the Chair having his mic turned off failed to stop him. Of course, this didn’t reflect well on the sponsoring company.
Padmore cites a similar recent experience with a sales rep delivering “too long a video and too much sales talk. Wish I could have written his script. My theory is that sales people just sell and don’t know how not to!”.
Dangers aside, there is no doubt that the importance of content opportunities to sponsors continues to grow. Associations should protect these opportunities by providing clear guidance in sponsorship agreements of behaviour that is and isn’t acceptable. Strong and educational content will encourage attendance at voluntary sessions, which in return will help to reinforce the incredible value back to sponsors.
By Rob Eveleigh
Rob Eveleigh is Managing Director a Brightelm, a Professional Conference Organiser based in Bristol, UK. Rob has over 20 years industry experience, the last ten of which have been predominantly working with membership and not-for-profit organisations.