In sponsorship, we talk all the time about “audiences.” We take great care that the sponsor’s customer base matches the rightsholder’s audience. That audience can be the attendees of a sports event, participants at a 5k race, or fans of an athlete.

Technically, an audience means “assembled spectators or listeners at a public event.” However, an audience is not a static group of attendees, as the definition implies. They chose to attend an event, be a part of a music festival, or root for an athlete. Something compelled them to be there. Often, that motivation stems from wanting to belong to a community. Attendance at an event is proof of devotion to the community.

Great definitions of a community come from the online world.  A community “builds personal relationships and networks of trust, brings together people with common interests or profiles, and engages these specific groups of people.” Audiences are really communities out of a desire to belong, which has deep psychological roots.  Whatever the reason, sponsors should remember that the property’s audience didn’t accidentally show up. They decided to participate together.

New members rarely just show up in a new community. Community members may view strangers with suspicion at first. Forgetting that the new sponsor is a stranger to a community, some start talking to the audience the way a singer might walk out on stage and start belting out a song. It’s up to the sponsor to properly join a community to enjoy its benefits, like improved brand consideration or increased product sales.

In sponsorship, there’s a three-step process for new entrants to become full-fledged community members with the benefits that come with it:

New members ask permission to enter the community.

When my kids were growing up, they used to ask permission to visit a friend’s house. However, sponsors often just show up at a sponsored event without doing the same. They put up signage, start Tweeting, and place program advertisements without permission from the community they just entered. They mistakenly assume that their rights fee gives them the right.

When entering NASCAR Cup competition, Toyota made great pains to ask permission from NASCAR fans to join their community implicitly. To show their commitment to campers and camping, an important facet of the fan community, Toyota outfitted their flagship pickup truck with ice makers to deliver free ice to NASCAR’s camping fans. The “Frozen Tundra’ was one of Toyota’s ways to ask permission, in much the same way that a new neighbor brings a homemade cake with them when going next door for the first time.

New members bring real value to the community.

It is expected that new members of a community bring something to the table. There is value in having a new member join. Sponsors should be cognizant of providing something of value to the community, justifying their presence among it.

A great example of value given comes from Honda’s sponsorship of the Honda Indy Toronto street race. Honda’s activation area includes multiple value points, expressing this sponsor’s appreciation for acceptance into the community of Canadian race fans.  Free popcorn, racing simulator sessions, and mini-bike lessons are among the elements of value that Honda delivered.

It is expected that the new members will engage with the community.

Sponsors do not engage when they place advertisements alone. When they do not actively engage with the community, sponsors may never lose their status as outsiders. Engagement can take many forms, but social media frequently offers the best opportunities for communicating with a community. As a sponsorship practitioner, I frequently point to Procter & Gamble’s “Thank You, Mom” campaign as the master class in community engagement around the Olympics.

Additionally, engagement should be seen as a process that extends beyond a sponsored event to maximize community engagement opportunities. Sponsors have used multiple engagement tools to remind communities of their presence, including off-season travel photo contests, draft parties, fan fests, and trivia contests.

Final Thoughts

Sponsorship audiences do not exist for the benefit of the sponsor. They are communities of people aligned around common interests and beliefs. Like strangers, sponsors who don’t seek to join the community will be viewed with the same suspicion as a door-to-door salesperson. Sponsors who remember that they are joining a unique and special community with each sponsorship will be rewarded with sponsorship success.


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