• ESAE

Diversifying Partnership Revenue

The power of creativity and relationship-building


Dianna Steinbach, ESAE board member and Chief Strategy Officer of the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors, is sharing her valuable knowledge on diversifying revenue. The article was originally published by AMI Magazine.



Diversifying revenue is a good practice to expand opportunities while minimizing financial risk. Many associations begin to diversify by thinking of dues versus non-dues revenue, or to become less dependent on annual event income, but it can also be a way to branch out within these categories. That is where partner revenue - traditionally called sponsorships - can be an interesting area to explore. Wherever you are on the continuum, there are a few points to consider as you explore options.


The first step in expanding partner revenue is to start with your organization’s mission and audience. Inevitably, a focus will be on creating a professional community, providing networking or offering members a competitive edge. Partnering with the service and solution providers who support core member groups can enhance those goals, if done well. Evaluate new ideas based on how they support the core mission, to avoid straying too far from your organization’s focus. This ensures experiences will enhance or blend well with existing activities.


Partnerships need to bring value to all three sides of the relationship – the members, the association and the partner. That requires coming up with the right mix of sponsored elements, the right positioning, promotion and pricing to ensure a partner gains the best ROI and fills a member need in the process.


Creativity is integral to the process of building out partnership programming. Gone are the days of charging “admission” for suppliers or vendors to gain access to members in one format or another. There are too many avenues to access your members in the marketplace, so your partnership ideas need to bring unique value or exposure they can’t find elsewhere.


Long-term relationships require mutual support based on a partner’s unique business model and goals. Collaborating on joint research, sponsoring third-party expert speakers or supporting focus groups can give a company exposure while also providing specialized insights into key issues members are wrestling with.


A partner doesn’t need to be a specific industry product provider. If your organization is looking to do research, why not partner with a research firm that can provide in-kind services to your association in return for mention as the firm conducting the work? Then a revenue expansion could be to host a for-fee workshop helping members address the issues identified in that research. Are members trying to find business partners or successors to buy out their business? A technology firm offering a platform addressing that need could offer a private-branded version for your members or collaborate with your for a commission on any business you drive through it.


Expanding In-Person Options

Any time members gather, partner opportunities abound. During events, the most success comes in finding a way to bring providers together with core members without disrupting the peer balance. Too few members and too many partners can make your core audience feel they’ve been painted with sales targets and leads to too few peers to network with.


To not limit your options for event partners if an event has a limited audience, consider what other pre- and post-event connections or exposure can be included. A lead-up webinar, an infographic linked from your registration confirmation, or branding a follow-up library of the event’s content could work.


One association’s hands-on training workshop offered product placement for one partner in each category of tools used. Another auditing accreditation was able to partner with a software provider to offer a free 30-day trial of their platform so participants could access pre-populated real-world examples. In both cases, there was no product pitch, an independent educational expert was teaching the course and there were no endorsements.


On-site, what signage opportunities or unique product placement is possible? Hand sanitizer or device charging stations can create brand awareness for in-between moments, while wi-fi accessibility can include an interim landing page for partner messaging. Everyone has to go to the restroom eventually, so mirror or door clings also can catch attention.


Straight sales pitches also need to be replaced with strategic thought leadership. Instead of ads, leave-behind flyers or direct emails, consider sponsored case studies, asking partners to provide session-relevant tip sheets, or to include trend-focused videos featuring one of their customers or subject matter experts, to bring greater value. If attendees answer survey questions during the session, share the anonymous data for added partner value. Such soft approaches help showcase a company’s ability to connect with key hot buttons, which can be more effective than traditional sales and marketing materials.


On-site partnerships also can help an association reinforce a specific action or behavior while covering related costs. One event struggled to get enough exhibitors to creatively engage attendees, leading to a boring experience and shorter visit times. Organizers were looking to liven up the show floor and attract attendees to less trafficked locations. The answer was to build in options for exhibitors to partner on turn-key food or drink stations strategically located around the floor.


Options were given that could be placed directly next to or in the company’s stand or for them to brand a station in another area of the hall to double their exposure. This helped less creative exhibitors draw attention and it served to spread attraction points around the event. Some were so happy they reserved their “attractions” before they even knew the next year’s details.


If you want to tap into members’ growing social media activity and encourage word-of-mouth about your event, perhaps offer unique selfie backgrounds that have enough fun to attract use. An equally social media-savvy partner could work in branding or links. They also are likely to use their network to spread even more event awareness.


Collaboration is Key

When planning partnership options, engage various leaders in your organization. Education, membership or communications staff may not directly benefit from every partnership, but their insights could lead to creative connections outside of the more traditional badge-holders, signage, speaker sponsorships and advertising.


Brainstorming options together with potential partners also can strengthen the relationship and lead to higher success. Explain what the members core interests are, then ask what that partner’s business focus and goals are. What have they done elsewhere that has worked well? While set packages can fill member needs, a customized package may create a stronger loyalty, repeat business and often can carry a higher price because they see a greater return on investment.


Dianna Steinbach is a 25-year veteran of the international association and events world. She currently is Chief Strategy Officer of the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors. NAW is the “voice of wholesale distribution,” an association comprised of employers of all sizes and national, regional, state, and local line of trade associations spanning the $7.4 trillion wholesale distribution industry, which employs more than 5 million workers in the United States.