Six Lessons I Learned from Listening to Partnership Professionals

Written by Bruce Rosenthal on September 29, 2017

We can learn a lot from listening. When you are looking for guidance, searching for inspiration, or hoping to educate yourself, it is a valuable and worthwhile enterprise to listen to the voices in your professional community.

The DC-Area Partnership Professionals Network (DC-PPN) is a group of association and not-for-profit organization professionals who focus primarily on corporate partnerships and sponsorships. Committed to providing ideas and solutions to improve partnership and sponsorship programs, we recently conducted a survey of our members about the nature of their programs.

I have shared the findings below, because they each represent important lessons for partnership professionals, to support the development of your programs and to equip you to make the changes you need to your strategy.

“Your Potential for Revenue”

Survey: Two-thirds of survey respondents said their revenue from corporate partners had increased in the past year (though we didn’t ask how much it increased). This is, of course, good. However, one-third said their corporate partner revenue had decreased or stayed the same in the past year.

Lesson 1: If your partnership revenue remains the same, or decreases, year-to-year, your program is not maximizing its potential. Since many companies are looking for new and innovative marketing strategies, your corporate partnership program should be expanding with new opportunities for these companies … and more partnership revenue for your association.

“You Need to Review”

Survey: Half of the survey respondents reported they have not undertaken a review of their corporate partnership program in the past three years.

Lesson 2: All association programs should be reviewed periodically. Most associations carefully review evaluations from attendees and do a staff debrief following each major conference. Shouldn’t the same rigor be applied to programs as important as corporate partnerships? As rapidly as business needs and industry trends change, it’s imperative to conduct a review of your corporate partnership program every year or two.

“Have an Involved and Engaged Board”

Survey: Survey findings showed that board members are aware of corporate partner revenue, and that many board members recommend companies to be partners. However only one-quarter of boards meet with corporate partners, while another quarter have no involvement with corporate partners.

Lesson 3: Association board members can add significant value for corporate partner programs. Board members should: Know who your corporate partners are; thank corporate partners at every opportunity; brainstorm with corporate partners about your association’s industry; identify prospective corporate partners for your association; and consider doing business with corporate partners.

“What Do Your Partners Want?”

Survey: All associations offer basic recognition and logo visibility to their corporate partners. Only half or fewer associations offer deeper engagement like meetings with association leaders, content development and research collaborations.

Lesson 4: Corporate partners often have a real sense of affinity with the associations they sponsor. However, partnership has become much more of a business decision. Many companies see little value in paying tens of thousands of dollars in partnership fees to have their logo appear on a web page and a sign at conferences, lost amidst many of other company logos. Companies are looking for ways to demonstrate their knowledge to help members by providing educational content at conferences, in webinars, and in whitepapers; they would like to participate in brainstorming sessions with board members and facilitated networking with members.

“Facing – and Overcoming – Challenges”

Survey: When association executives were asked to rank challenges their corporate partnership programs face, the top items were (a) “risk to the association’s reputation”, (b) “lack of support from the association’s staff”, and (c) “lack of value for members”.

Lesson 5: Since these partnership program challenges are probably legitimate, what should these associations do? Let’s address each of the three concerns:

a) Be sure relationships with corporate partners are in alignment with the association’s mission; this will strengthen the association and make it more attractive for members and corporate partners.

b) Staff should understand the reasons the association has a corporate partnership program: revenue, content for members, knowledge-sharing between the association staff and the partners. It is also helpful for staff to consider how corporate partners can align with their specific program area.

c) This relates to Lesson #4; if the primary benefit offered to corporate partners is logo visibility, there’s not much value for members. On the other hand, if corporate partners have opportunities to participate in webinars and contribute white papers to help members solve problems, members will see the value.

“Know Your Competition!”

Survey: Most associations report there is competition for support from their corporate partners … competition from other associations and other marketing channels.

Lesson 6: Recognize that while companies have an affinity for your association and they want to reach your members, companies have options. When the head of marketing for one of your partner companies is deciding how to spend their marketing dollars for the upcoming year, they are looking at a variety of options. What will be the result – the ROI – of paying your corporate partnership fee vs. the company hosting a client forum on their own, launching an advertising campaign, or other marketing campaign? (By the way, companies almost always consider partnerships with associations a marketing expense, not philanthropy. This helps us understand what they should expect in return).

In order to provide the most value to your partners and sponsors, and to get the most out of your partnership programs, it is important to pay attention to this kind of feedback. Strong and solid relationships are those in which both parties feel mutually benefited from the exchange, and an effective partnership program is one in which your association’s vision and mission are reflected in your partner relations.

DC-PPN conducted the survey in August 2017; 64 responses were received (85% associations; 14% charitable organizations).

Does this topic intrigue you? Bruce spoke on this subject at SURGE 2017, a free virtual summit we hosted November 7-9th. Click here to access the replay of the session.