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How to Activate a Sponsorship to Achieve Content Marketing & SEO Goals

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How to Activate a Sponsorship to Achieve Content Marketing & SEO Goals

It’s a content marketer’s worst nightmare.

You’re called into a meeting and asked for your input into a sponsorship agreement. Your eyes light up but soon fade as you’re told the agreement is 99 percent complete.

You have no opportunity to contribute to the rights but are merely left to check over a paltry agreement to include a link on the sponsored property’s website.

It’s an experience that I’m sure many of you will have encountered or heard of in your time working on content marketing and SEO.

Working with a sponsorship partner can and should be so much more than this so let’s dive into how to maximize sponsorships to help you to achieve your content marketing and SEO goals.

Research the Sponsored Party’s Assets & Access

The aforementioned website link is the bare minimum. You get a link from what’s likely to be an authoritative website and one that’s impossible for your competitors to acquire. But as content marketers, we need to think far more expansively about the opportunity.

The bottom line is that if done correctly activating a sponsorship will provide results at a scale that few other activities can compete with.

Before we get into the details, the importance of being part of the team generating the rights package is integral to your success. If you’re not part of the conversation then you’re likely to be underwhelmed by the assets and access that are provided to you.

Taking another step back, being part of the conversation requires you to be continuously evangelizing the virtues of content marketing so decision-makers are aware of the benefits.

While this article won’t go into detail about how to do this it’s a good example of why you should be promoting your worth to the right people. For many, it is only when an opportunity passes them by that they realize promoting their work is worthwhile.

Assets and access are the basis of a successful sponsorship activation. This can mean many things depending on the type of sponsorship and the partner you’re sponsoring but often it boils down to

  • Tickets
  • Merchandise
  • Access to unique locations (backstage, stadium usage, etc.)
  • Access to influential people (sports stars, celebrities etc.)
  • Website coverage
  • Social media promotion

The one largely unquantifiable factor at this stage is how much of each asset you will need. My advice is to significantly overestimate your needs for three reasons:

  • The things you’re asking for are relatively low cost when compared to the naming rights that are the core part of the agreement – don’t worry about your demands inflating the overall cost.
  • The sponsored party will negotiate down from whatever you ask for. This is inevitable.
  • Anything that is left over after you have allocated the assets to your marketing plan will always find a good home, whether that’s through staff giveaways, charity donations, or other competitions.

Alongside these tangible assets, you’ll also gain access to the sponsored property’s intangible assets, namely their perception and cultural standing amongst the target audience.

This will become the basis for your positioning strategy and tone of voice. More on this later.

Define & Measure Brand Communication Goals

Brand sponsor events, teams, and personalities because of the association it can create in the audience’s mind. Every successful sponsorship transfers the values and perception of the sponsored party onto the brand.

This is the goal of every brand investing in sponsorships. Branded content is the route to cementing this perception in the audience’s mind. A logo on a jersey will not suffice.

The key to activating the sponsorship from a branded content perspective is to decide what values you want to extract from the partner. This should be part of the selection process so often there’s little extra work for you to do.

Invariably, the brand will want to transfer a specific sentiment from the partner. For example:

  • A new brand will partner with a trustworthy establishment to confer trust.
  • A small brand will partner with a large organization to confer credibility.
  • A brand trying to make itself more relevant to a younger audience will partner with people, events, and organizations that have a standing within the target community.
  • A brand that wants to appeal to a certain lifestyle will partner with properties that define that lifestyle.

Once this sentiment is agreed you’re committed to creating content with the assets and access provided in the partnership to persuade the target audience that the brand embodies that sentiment too.

A word of caution at this stage:

When developing content ideas you must stay true to what is authentic about the brand and find a way that the sponsorship can act as a vehicle for conveying this message. People will see straight through content that portrays the brand unrealistically.

GoPro got it spot on with this Real Madrid activation, their product enhanced the story without being intrusive

This is why so many people find brands like Coca-Cola sponsoring sporting events disingenuous. As huge brands, they get away with it but it’s not a strategy to emulate.

While not every activation has to convey this sentiment (say a Twitter ticket giveaway), the overall effect should be a significant and long-lasting change or reinforcement of brand perception in the target audience’s mind.

Too many brands waste their sponsorship rights on ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ content that may get millions of views but leave zero residual branding in the audience’s mind. This is the easy option but won’t help you to achieve the desired change in customer perception.

Use brand uplift and sentiment studies to measure campaign efficacy.

You want to find out:

  • Has the target audience consumed the content?
  • How did they discover it?
  • What was their prior impression of the brand?
  • Has the content changed that impression?
  • How they would describe the brand to a friend – great for getting a genuine view in the audience’s language of brand sentiment?

The optimal way to do this is a pre- and post-campaign study.

Measuring the change in awareness and sentiment will enable you to assess whether the sponsored property’s perception and values have been transferred to your brand. Every sponsorship activation should aspire to this goal.

A Word on Positioning & Tone

Branded content is not like traditional advertising. While you’ll understand this, some colleagues will see it as just like a TV ad — merely an exercise in creating mass awareness for the brand.

Successful branded content is purely editorial in tone and style. Working with a sponsorship partner gives you permission to enter that community. Treat it with respect by providing content that the audience wants.

Don’t compete for attention with the partner, instead aim to enhance the audience’s experience of the sponsored partner. If you can achieve this then you will garner far more positive sentiment and consequently far more engagement.

Publishers will understand this dynamic, too. If you create content that they know their audience will consume then they’ll be far more willing to carry the content and provide a link.

Getting the Most from the Sponsorship Demands Strong Relationship Management

Just because you’ve signed the deal doesn’t mean the hard work is over. And while you probably enjoyed the benefit of requesting “lower cost” rights the downside might now start to become apparent.

Let’s assume the deal was done mostly for naming rights (jersey, stadium, event name) the access you’ve secured is secondary to that.

This presents a potential challenge because you’re counterpart at the sponsored party is always going to prioritize delivering on the naming rights over and above your needs.

Added to this is the likelihood that you’re one of many brands that have agreements and, worst of all, you may not be in the top tier of brand sponsors.

Bottom line: working with a sponsored party can often be a battle. Throw into the mix the uncertainty that is created by working with celebrities, sportspeople and live events and you have a potent mix of factors that can upset even the best-laid plans.

Here’s how to mitigate against those risks:

  • Develop close links and regular structured meetings with your account manager.
  • Ensure they know exactly what your rights are. You’ll be surprised how often they don’t know what’s been agreed with each brand.
  • Plan activity well in advance and consider the sponsored parties own calendar. Knowing when they’re going to be busy or times, when they’re less likely to provide access to talent (for example, in the lead up to a big game), is crucial.
  • Assess the risks. I was due to shoot a video with a star football (soccer) player but he got injured the day before. The shoot was planned around his background and skillset so we had no option but to cancel. Always have a back-up plan.
  • Make the content ideation phase collaborative. Not only will this engender a more open relationship it will reduce the likelihood of the sponsored party vetoing your ideas.
  • Ask about their goals and consider how your plans can contribute. What is their engagement strategy, what content tends to work best for them, how do fans usually react and so on.
  • Ask about the community – fans can be fickle! The sponsored party will know how to best to approach the fanbase and topics that are likely to upset and enthuse them. Heed this advice.
  • Share the results and successes. the sponsored party will want to know how the reaction to the content, if only from a brand protection point of view. Share regular updates and always pitch success as a team effort.

Your counterparts are going to be protective of the assets they’re provided – and with good reason.

By working hard to understand their brand and engagement goals, the pressures they face, and the intricacies of working with public-facing organizations you’ll ensure that you get their full support.

How to Maximize Link Acquisition Opportunities

Many of you will not only be working on branded content but also responsible for SEO objectives. Let’s dive into more practical means of leveraging a sponsorship to generate links.

The core SEO benefit of a major sponsorship is that it opens up outreach opportunities that just wouldn’t arise or would be extremely difficult to achieve without the sponsorship.

If you’re working on a major sponsorship with star power then you also have the opportunity to scale link acquisition to levels that manual outreach can never achieve.

Simply put, a strategy that successfully leverages a sponsorship will deliver highly valuable links in relatively large quantities. I’d argue this is the ultimate situation for any SEO practitioner.

1. Choose Your Content Formats Wisely

Scale is within reach but only certain types of content scale. Shareable formats are essential (and necessary for any viral effect). This lends itself to two main formats:

  • Video: The easiest format to distribute at scale. Embedding video with key media partners and encouraging shares on social media are must-have tools in your amplification strategy.
  • Interactive content: Place viral mechanisms at the heart of interactive content such as email to your friends and share your score/results on social media. Use other sponsorship assets such as tickets and merchandise as prizes to incentivize sharing.

2. Study How Content Usually Disseminates From the Sponsored Property

Working with a large organization such as a sports team enables you to see how news flows through the internet. Your goal is to understand how the release and dissemination of content works for that organization and then try to replicate this pattern when distributing your branded content campaign.

Often journalists will be assigned to particular organizations. Find out who these people are and get to know them.

The partner should be able to give you access to these people. The same principle should be applied to the fandom that surrounds the partner.

Often professional or semi-professional community influencers will have built up around the organization. Take the plethora of Apple fan sites as an example.

Relationships are hugely important. The best way to build those relationships and develop a quid pro quo understanding is to offer assets and access that these influencers and journalists can’t access themselves.

For example, many sports journalists struggle to get time with players. Offer this up to them and they’ll be far more willing to share your branded content when the time arises.

Perhaps the partner releases all of their news from their website thus making it a “go to” place for the audience and media to pick up new stories. If that is the case then the partner website becomes a great place to seed your content.

3. Understand How the Audience Consumes Media

When developing the outreach strategy it is vital to understand where the audience lives online.

Let’s take the example of football (soccer) and esports. Football conversation very much resides on large news websites, team blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. For esports the audience gravitates toward Twitch, Reddit, and YouTube.

Knowing this is crucial to your distribution plan.

While social amplification won’t directly get you the links you’re targeting it will get the content in front of the right audience which in turn is likely to mean journalists and bloggers carrying the content on their own websites.

The crucial thing to understand here is that no one cares what the brand is doing or saying but everyone within the community is deeply interested in what the sponsored partner/team/event or people are doing and are therefore much more likely to publish any relevant content.

4. Plan Activations Around Seasonal Spikes

Interest in your sponsorship partner will peak and trough throughout the year. Use this information to plan campaign activations.

Campaigns should be launched in and around the major spikes in interest that will naturally occur. Demand drives attention which opens the possibility for more outreach and link acquisition opportunities.

For example, if you’re sponsoring a music festival then it’s natural for you to activate around ticket releases, line-up announcements and through the festival itself (before, during and after).

No matter what type of sponsorship you’re activating there are a few principles that you can follow to secure great links:

  • Making ‘Wow moments’: Each spike is a reflection of the community’s passion. You’re in a privileged position to offer exceptional experiences to them. Consider the ultimate experience for the community in these moments, then build campaigns around it.
  • Exclusivity: negotiate with the sponsored party to allow the brand to break news. Either release this through your own channels with exclusive content on your website for people to link to OR pass the exclusive to a media partner in return for a link.
  • Access: providing influential content producers with direct access that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get is a surefire way to win friends and links. For a sports sponsorship that could be a chance to meet the team. At one brand I negotiated for a small party of influencers to travel with the team on an away trip. They were only too glad to provide a link in return.

5. Negotiate Access for Distribution

When I worked on a major sports sponsorship one of our go-to tactics when launching content campaigns was to negotiate with publishers to take the content (and a link) in exchange for exclusive access to the team’s players and managers.

Initially, we embedded the videos within the ensuing interview but as our strategy evolved, we realized that many national publishers had bespoke website sections for social-media oriented audiences. Often this would be a place to view the latest viral videos.

It was far more effective to not embed within the interview article. Instead we but placed video within these social microsites because the content reached the right audience and would naturally achieve far greater social reach.

6. Target Top-Tier Press Publications

Securing national press coverage is very achievable. These titles are content hungry because their revenue model relies on it. This is to your advantage.

They’ll want to publish video because they can serve pre-roll ads and achieve higher ad rates than standard display ad placements.

Most media publications don’t produce their own video so they’re reliant on brands to produce and share content. They’ll host the video on their own video platform to allow them to serve ads.

Don’t let this stop you from sharing the video. It will have no negative impact on your goals. If anything, you can use this as leverage to secure that all important link.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the cascading effect of seeding content to top tier publications. Smaller websites will quickly pick up stories and publish their own versions.

7. Follow Up on Media Coverage

Asking for publishers to convert mentions to links is an essential ingredient of a well-executed SEO campaign. This will prove especially true for sponsorship activations because brand mentions will spike as the partnership is publicly announced.

Secondly, if your content is a hit it will naturally be picked up by journalists. Without prior contact with these journalists you won’t have had the opportunity to ask for a link.

There are many services such as Brandwatch or Mention that will provide a regular report of all recent brand mentions (don’t forget to include the name of your branded content campaign and the sponsored party as publishers will often omit the brand name).

Run the report on a regular basis and include this new line of outreach into your regular processes to extract even more link value.

8. Maximize Link Equity

Many sponsorship activations are seeded from a landing page on the brand domain. This is a sensible approach but it does leave you with a few things to consider.

Clearly, the objective isn’t to rank the campaign content. The objective is to leverage the links generated to improve rankings of commercially important pages.

  • Do not use a microsite on a new domain or a sub-domain – many brands still make this mistake.
  • Sit the content on the root domain e.g., example.com/awesome-content-campaign/.
  • Link to your commercial page(s) with appropriate anchor text from within the body of the page.
  • Often brand-led campaigns generate homepage links – as above, make sure the page links to the target commercial pages (this is a tactic that should be permanently used no matter whether you’re actively building links).

By putting these simple but fundamental actions in place the campaigns will be far more effective at improving rankings and generating a commercial return.

Key Takeaways

Successful branded content activations rely on the right brand-partner positioning and a smart distribution strategy. Get both right and you will achieve both brand and SEO goals.

  • Be central to the contract negotiation. Plan ahead to ensure you have the assets and access you need.
  • Be ambitious with your demands. They’ll be low cost and high impact.
  • Ensure your content messaging leverages the values and cultural standing of the partner to tell a story about your brand. Think of it as ‘branding by osmosis’.
  • Create content that the sponsored parties audience wants not content that leads with a promotional brand message. Editorial, not advertorial.
  • Research how content about the sponsored party disseminates and where it is consumed.
  • Build relationships with assigned journalists and key community content producers to seed your content.
  • Leverage the assets and access to increase your outreach success rate.
  • Measure change in awareness and sentiment pre and post campaign.

By using this list as a high-level checklist you can ensure that your strategy extracts the most from the sponsorship agreement and gives you the ability to secure high-quality, “money can’t buy” coverage and links.

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Tom Baker

Founder at FordeBaker

Founder of SEO and Amazon Consultancy FordeBaker.com, specialising in B2C marketing and revenue growth strategies in the US and UK. ... [Read full bio]

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