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Sponsorships: Waste of Time and Money or Essential to Good Client Relationships?

This scenario will be familiar to any marketing staffer in a large law firm: the phone rings and it’s someone asking why you haven’t sent them the firm logo for their program. You have no idea what they’re talking about, but apparently your firm is sponsoring their upcoming event and if you want your contribution acknowledged, they need your logo ASAP.

After wasting your morning trying to track down who initiated this sponsorship, you discover that it was booked three months ago by a partner in the firm. Many of the benefits in the sponsorship package have passed, except for attendance at the event and the firm’s logo in the program. The partner doesn’t plan to attend the event next week and oh yes, you’d better start looking for eight people to fill the table.

An exaggeration? Any law firm marketer who administers sponsorships will have a raft of similar stories. My particular favourite involved the partner who committed the firm to sponsor a conference organized by one of his dominant clients. The benefits included having a firm speaker on the program, presenting an award at the gala dinner, and having our logo in the preconference advertising and gala program. The first I heard of it was from a lawyer whose area of specialization was the precise topic of the conference. A client had asked her if she could get him a complimentary ticket to the conference since our firm was a sponsor. My ear caught fire when she called to ask why she hadn’t been told about the conference!

Sponsorship budgets in large firms can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even in medium-sized and small firms, the money allocated to support community and client initiatives forms a significant part of the overall marketing budget. Worse, the time consumed trying to select which events/activities to sponsor is often wasted.

So, should the sponsorship line item in marketing budgets simply be erased? Or can more value be extracted from these initiatives? Even more important, is there a rational way to select which initiatives to sponsor?

If certain sponsorships can’t be avoided, at least maximize the value your firm receives. If you have a marketing department in your firm, let them negotiate the sponsorship package with the organizers of the activity. You wouldn’t want your marketing staff writing a factum, would you? So don’t attempt to negotiate a sponsorship package if you’ve never done it before and have no idea what constitutes value.

Here’s how my above example should have played out: after receiving the call from his client, the initiating lawyer should at minimum have called the Marketing Department to notify them of the sponsorship. At best, his answer should have been, “Love to help you out, Mr. Client. Can I get my marketing people to talk to your marketing people and see what we can do?” We would have leapt on the speaker and award opportunities, maximized the advertising placement or even traded it for something else, ensured that the firm’s logo received premier positioning, and seen to it that the firm’s table was strategically allocated to the right mix of lawyers and clients. The lawyer wouldn’t have had to do a thing.

But what about choosing the right initiatives from among the myriad opportunities that land on most lawyers’ desks? Doing something “because we’ve always done it” is seldom a good use of marketing funds. Even the smallest law firms can benefit from an evaluation of their sponsorship spend. This can be as sophisticated as an assessment tool that scores each opportunity or as simple as asking “What do we get for our money?”

As with everything in marketing, it helps to have a goal against which sponsorships are measured. You may want to increase your clientele from a certain industry, or obtain more work from an existing client, or increase referrals from a referral source. Does a sponsorship offer opportunities to support those goals?

The biggest bang for the buck comes from firm visibility, so it’s important to assess how the firm will be visible. By having your logo in the program? Pfffftttt. By having a lawyer introduce a speaker? Now you’re talking. Especially if important firm clients and referral sources are seated at the firm’s table, which is prominently positioned towards the front of a room filled with people from the industry/client group that you’re targeting. And what if every lawyer present at the event collected business cards, fed them into the firm’s database, and followed up promptly with each new contact??

Pinch me, I’m dreaming.

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