Sponsorship 101: Different Kinds of Sponsors and Why You May (or May Not) Want Them

The different kinds of sponsorship for an event

Lately, I've been working on a ton of projects and events that require sponsorship (hellooooo every.single.event. I'm contracted for.).

And while sponsorship is a highly recommended way to finance a workshop, conference, or retreat, I find that most creatives go about it all wrong.

We see the dollar signs instead of the implications of accepting a particular sponsor. Or we only accept in-kind sponsorships, and don't have an idea of how that affects our bottom line. Or we wait for sponsors to come to us instead of reaching out to sponsors.

Because so many of the questions I get are around sponsorship, I thought I'd do a three-part series one what sponsorship is, the ways that you need to approach sponsors with your event, and how you can actually make sure you get a yes.

I did a post last year on asking for sponsorship, but because so many of the events I'm working on today have deep levels of sponsorship and go about asking for sponsorship in a really strategic way, I thought I'd pull back the curtain on some of the more mystifying aspects of sponsorships in the next few posts on the blog.

Ya dig? Good.


So, no surprise, sponsorship is asking companies, non-profits, and small businesses to give a certain dollar amount or in-kind gift (like donating food or beverage for an event) in exchange for "brand awareness" at an event.

Another sort of hidden benefit to sponsorship specifically for non-profit events is that companies that donate a decent sum of money get a tax write-off (and who doesn't want that?). So, for all you non-profitees out there, keep that in mind.

However, these days? Brand awareness is usually not enough, unless you're playing on a really national level with a huge amount of attendees. So if you're planning a conference for 15,000 people? You're probably golden with a simple ask for money in exchange for logo placement and "exposure".

But, like most people reading this blog post, if you're only planning a conference for 100 - 200 people...welllll, it may be a tough sell.

UNLESS! You offer more than just brand awareness (and this is where sponsorship creativity gets goooood). We'll go more into different benefits you can give your sponsors later, but today, let's discuss the different types of sponsors that you can have at your event and why you want a mix of a few of them.

Cash Sponsors

These are the ultimate in terms of sponsorship and, in my experience, a really rare thing in the creative conference world (and a very, very common thing in any event that actually makes money).

Cash sponsors are companies who, in exchange for a specific set of benefits (like logo placement, emcee rights, pre-event content creation and promotion, keynote speeches, sponsored posts on the event blog before the event, etc.) give money to the event. 

Pretty straightforward, right? For most companies, this is a marketing expense and, especially with larger companies, there is usually a line-item in yearly budgets for event sponsorship (which is why, if you're approaching bigger companies that have these line-items, you want to talk to them later in the year as budgets are turning over for the following year).

In-Kind Sponsors

In-kind Sponsors are companies that offer products or services for free in exchange for a similar level of sponsorship. A lot of times, in-kind sponsorship can save you a lot of money on your actual event, but it can get tricky when you're estimating the "tier" that these sponsors fall into.

With cash sponsors, if a company gives you $5,000, then they are a $5,000 sponsor. But for in-kind, if someone donates the equivalent of a catering proposal that's $10,000, the food cost may only be $3,000, but the business owner is estimating labor costs at $7,000. I'm not saying that those costs are NOT accurate, but it gets tricky when a sponsor estimates their in-kind sponsorship as equivalent to a cash sponsorship.

Media Sponsors

Media sponsors come in all forms -- sometimes, media sponsors agree to promote your event through their social channels, post about you on their blog/vlog of choice, or write an article in their printed publication in exchange for some other sort of benefits at your event.

Media sponsors can be helpful to spread the word about your event, but be careful and make sure that the media sponsor has a similar audience to the one you want to reach.

Promotional Partners

Promotional partners can be similar to media sponsors, but they generally are a singular entity that will help you promote your event. Think of big influencers, bloggers, or other individuals that don't have the multi-channel reach of an actual larger media company.

(Note: promotional partners may also be speakers at your event, in that they'll agree to promote your event for a speak slot at your conference).

The Ultimate KEY to Having Sponsors

The reason that you want sponsors is two-fold:

1) To help offset the cost of having your event

2) To lend legitimacy and authority to your event

The more well-known sponsors that align with your event, the more authority your event has (especially for first-time events) and the more individuals will trust your content before they even buy a ticket.

The key to GETTING sponsors though is this:

You must have a very well-thought out and architected message around your event in order to garner sponsor interest.


Because larger companies that are invested in brand awareness through events are hit up for money ALL. THE. TIME. 

They don't care about your creative conference unless you can really paint a good picture of what sort of person is going to be in the room. And the more narrow the better. 

Figuring out who exactly is going to be in the room means you have to architect a very, very clear message. If you can't talk about exactly WHY someone will come to your event, then you don't actually know who they're going to be either, which makes it a tough sell to sponsors as well. I know this seems vague. Don't worry, we'll talk about this more in a future post.

Why Having Sponsors May NOT Be a Good Idea

The last lingering issue with sponsorship is this: when you engage with sponsors, you are serving two different audiences -- your audience and your sponsors. Sponsors want air time; they want the ability to speak and engage with your people and their potential clients.

But no one likes to listen to a 60-minute pitch fest, which I've seen happen at conferences that have organizers who essentially sell their speaking spots to all their sponsors (not the worst idea from a revenue standpoint, but can be tricky to balance if you aren't checking in with your sponsors and making sure the content they're delivering is valuable for your audience).

So, there you have it. A basic guide to the different kinds of sponsors, as well as the benefits and concerns you may have in garnering them for your event.

Next time, we'll discuss the process you must go through in order to cultivate sponsorship, and then, I'll show you some sample benefits and sponsorship levels that you can offer sponsors of your next event.

Your turn! Have you ever been to an event with sponsors? What sort of presence have sponsors had at the event?