Is Sponsored Content the Answer to Non-Dues Revenue?
By Jason Meyers, Director of Content Strategy, SmithBucklin

Here’s a question for board members interested in providing value to the members of their respective organizations: What if there was a strategy that, if implemented thoughtfully, could deliver additional non-dues revenue to your association as well as thought leadership intelligence to your stakeholders—without upfront costs or risks? Most board members would probably consider it. But they might be surprised by the strategy that can produce those results: sponsored content.

Indeed, a sponsored content initiative as part of an association’s overall communications strategy can be an effective way to accomplish those goals. And since McKinley Advisors’ 2017 Economic Impact on Associations Report found that generating non-dues revenue was the top priority among most of the 200 association executives surveyed, sponsored content could, in fact, represent the silver bullet many organizations are seeking to this challenge.

But the concept of sponsored content often carries a stigma: It is frequently conflated with the idea of native advertising, which is a form of marketing that’s essentially designed to fool an audience into thinking they’re consuming objective, curated content—when, in fact, they are being fed subjective, promotional content in disguise. Sponsored content is something very different, especially for associations. Sponsored content that is implemented thoughtfully and with specific guidelines that align with associations’ brand strategies and core missions can enhance their content and communications strategies and provide more value and more intelligence to members.

The Value of Sponsored Content

Content is valuable to associations if it provides a level of education, information, or insight to its intended audience that is not readily available from other sources. The audience could be association members or the larger industry. In that context, content might take the form of a member-contributed article, a case study about best practices, a Q&A with a conference keynote speaker, an informative infographic, or a video interview with an industry expert.

Consider this: Any one of those content types could be contributed by a sponsor and be just as valuable to the association’s membership as content generated by members, freelancers, or an association’s staff. In this scenario, there is the added benefit that it can generate additional non-dues revenue.

Sponsored content is, theoretically, a variation of paid advertising. But from the perspective of the target audience (an association’s membership or the broader industry it serves), it’s just another form of content. That audience’s primary concern is whether or not the content is useful or helpful—whether or not it provides a level of education, information, or insight that is not readily available from other sources. With that in mind, associations providing sponsored content should strive to ensure that it is timely, relevant, and useful to audiences—in short, that it meets or exceeds the same standards applied to any other form of content.

The Potential Pitfalls

It is, of course, possible for sponsored content to be implemented in a way that either sends the wrong message to the intended audience or compromises an association’s values and mission. Here are some of the snares to avoid when developing a sponsored content strategy:
  • Lack of transparency. Perhaps the most important thing about presenting sponsored content is transparency about what the content is and where it comes from. A phrase as simple as “sponsored by” or even “brought to you by” and a logo of the sponsor organization should be enough to make it clear. A disclaimer at the end of a piece of content makes it even more transparent.
  • Member misperceptions. Members of any association have the right to know and understand why their organization is purveying content from a sponsor, so be sure to have an explanation (and be sure that explanation truly is based on the value of the content to the intended audience, not simply on the value of the sponsors’ revenue). The reasoning behind publication of sponsored content should be just as transparent as the source.
  • Not consistently enforcing guidelines. As much as sponsors might claim to understand the necessity of the content being educational and non-promotional in nature, there’s likely still to be a rogue marketing professional within a sponsoring organization who tries to work in something that violates your sponsored content guidelines. A best practice is to ensure that the board approves of sponsored content guidelines, and that the staff adheres to them consistently.
A Smart Approach

Setting and enforcing the right methodology for a sponsored content strategy—one that aligns with an organization’s mission, values and even bylaws—is critical to success. Here are seven ideas to consider when formulating and refining a sponsored content strategy:
  1. Wholly understand the purpose of the content, and ensure its relevance to the audience.
  2. Hold sponsored content to the same quality standards as you would association content.
  3. Identify a staff member who is not affiliated with the sponsors to make sure sponsored content meets the association’s standards.
  4. Don’t let the promise of non-dues revenue cloud judgment about what content is appropriate.
  5. Make sure the organization clearly outlines and communicates sponsored content guidelines.
  6. Create customized sponsored content opportunities, but adhere to organizational principles.
  7. Ensure there are checks and balances by using an approval process that features multiple layers of staff and board members.
Conceived and executed correctly, sponsored content presents associations with a new opportunity for generating non-dues revenue. But beyond that, it can be a compelling, educational and rewarding component of your association’s content strategy. It’s one that members will appreciate because it delivers more useful, creative content that helps them advance in their professional lives.

  As director of content strategy for SmithBucklin, Jason Meyers works with associations to conceive and implement content initiatives customized to meet the needs of organizations and their members. Meyers has 25 years of content experience, ranging from editorial leadership roles in B2B and B2C media companies to founding his own content marketing firm. He joined SmithBucklin in 2016.

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