How to Build an Online Learning Sponsorship Program

When associations think about sponsorship opportunities, events usually come to mind first. However, by focusing only on in-person event sponsorships, you miss an opportunity to build stronger partnerships with industry vendors through online learning sponsorships.

An online learning sponsorship program offers more than insert a sponsor’s logo on a webinar slide or displaying their advertising in a sidebar. It means getting industry partners involved in developing and presenting online education. With their participation you can subsidize program expenses or provide a selection of programs to members at little or no cost while helping industry partners connect with their target audience.

Take a new approach to sponsorships

Think of sponsors as industry partners, not vendors. Think of sponsorship as a partnership, not a sales transaction where money is exchanged for exposure. As industry experts, sponsors can bring value to your online learning programs by helping learners achieve their goals. They can help educate people about an issue, provide real-world advice, or show them how to develop and put a skill in practice.

The best partners for your educational programs are those who already invest in education. They’re the thought leaders who share their wisdom and advice on their company blog, host webinars, speak at conferences, or participate in online communities. They understand the value of a consultative sales approach bolstered by content marketing. These industry thought leaders are the ones you should approach to discuss how you might work together. How can they help you provide education to members?

They will appreciate being seen as an educational resource and not just a revenue source. Sponsors seek opportunities to connect with their target audience. They would appreciate being an integral part of the attendee or learner experience—an online learning sponsorship can provide that role.

But before you begin your search for potential sponsors, step back and look at your association’s approach to revenue partners. Does your association take a siloed or a coordinated approach to sponsorships? Are companies targeted throughout the year by different departments asking them to advertise here, exhibit there, or sponsor this or that? A siloed and piecemeal approach stands in the way of mutually beneficial partnerships.

Ideally, one team meets with potential partners to develop a customized package of exhibiting, advertising, and sponsorship opportunities that help both the company and the association meet their goals. When it’s the right fit, online learning sponsorships should be part of that discussion.

online learning sponsorship

Offer learner-centric sponsorships

When you meet with potential sponsors, focus your conversation on the needs of learners. How can both of you help learners meet those needs in a way that aligns with your respective goals?

It’s tempting for both you and your industry partner to think about what you each want out of this sponsorship. But, think about the learner first. How can the two of you together take advantage of each other’s strengths to develop an online learning experience that solves your target audience’s problems, answers their questions, or helps them get ahead in their career or business?

A collaborative approach like this will seem strange at first, but keep your focus on how your industry partner can enhance the learning experience. You don’t have to do things the way you always have—use this opportunity to try out an innovative approach to online education. Don’t look at the sponsor as merely a vendor. See them instead as a teacher, counsel, or mentor to learners.

Collaborate with your online learning sponsors

Plan ahead together for the entire year. Bring your sponsor in early, ideally during the program ideation and design phases.

Which audience is the best fit for your sponsor? Which type of positions or career stage? Align the sponsorship with the online course or learning program that targets that audience. Don’t assume that executives are the only audience worth their time. Mid-management professionals are often decision-makers too. Some sponsors may even see the benefit of cultivating relationships with future buyers—early career professionals.

Together, you need to define the sponsor’s role in helping you deliver content. Be clear about the expectations and responsibilities of each party. What will the sponsor provide besides dollars?

  • Course materials, for example, content they’ve created or books they agree to purchase for students?
  • Finding guest speakers?
  • Presenting individually or as part of a panel?
  • Helping with promotion?

Besides the opportunity to participate in the online learning program, what will your association provide to the sponsor in exchange for their payment? For example, since they’re program partners, it may make sense to share student contact information.

online learning sponsorship

Experiment with new online learning sponsorship opportunities

The number of ways you can provide sponsorship opportunities is only limited by your imagination. Put on your association intrapreneur hat and brainstorm with your education partners. Here are several online learning sponsorship programs to consider.

Executives want to associate with their peers—and sponsors want to get access to those executives. Develop an exclusive educational program for executives that involves the participation of your sponsor. You could even do a mix of virtual and in-person sessions.

Sponsors could provide scholarships for a future leader academy or for online learning programs targeted at young professionals.

As an industry thought leader, your sponsor may have published white papers, research reports, or other educational materials you could use as part of the curriculum.

Other ways a sponsor can participate in online learning programs:

  • Co-host a webinar with an industry professional in which they discuss how they solved a problem together or created a program together. People love case studies that show how their peers handled an issue.
  • Be an online host for a livestreaming conference or other in-person educational event.
  • Make a guest appearance as a subject matter expert in an online course either in an interview, panel discussion, or product demo.
  • Moderate virtual roundtables.

A few examples might help you imagine how your industry partners can collaborate on online learning programs with you. A speaker from a technology firm could discuss new or emerging technology and how it’s being used or could be used in your industry. Or, they could discuss the obstacles that must be overcome before implementing the technology and provide project management tips.

A consultant could discuss the warning signs of looming challenges that need to be addressed or share process improvement success stories.

The National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) offers online courses, training modules, and digital badges through their NWFA University. The education director Stephanie Owen told Associations Now: “Manufacturer members have asked to have private [online learning] groups created for their crews and customers, and other manufacturer members have asked to support the platform and its development through sponsorships.”

This new revenue will help NWFA expand their online learning program and marketing efforts. Don’t wait for vendor members to come to you. Invite them to a conversation about how you can work together to educate professionals in your industry.

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