How to Develop a Brand Sponsorship Strategy for Content Marketing

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The following post was written by Kanaar Bell, former head of media and sponsorships for Foundation Inc. 

In today’s content-driven landscape, brand sponsorships have become a pivotal avenue for content marketers seeking to explode their reach and engagement with active and dedicated audiences through campaigns that resonate. 

Whether you’re an influencer, a publisher, or a company looking to partner with content creators, understanding the ins and outs of brand sponsorship is crucial. Not for the purpose of keeping up with the competition, but for creating a community of brand advocates that lift your business to an influential, incomparable space all on its own. 

What is brand sponsorship in the context of content marketing? 

A brand sponsorship is a public declaration of alignment, support, and promotion. Super Bowl Ads have become an entertainment show all in itself thanks to the high degree of movie-like production quality and outrageously unexpected humor, stunts, and soundbites that come with it. Even though this isn’t a typical sponsorship nor what your everyday sponsorship looks like; it represents the highest point of consumer engagement, attention, and connection content marketers can acquire through advertising. 

In the context of content marketing, a brand sponsorship is when an advertiser (ie, company, individual, etc) pays for promotional media that is then created and shared by another brand, influencer, or publisher. 

A screenshot of a Huel YouTube video that shows Steven Bartlett, founder of Social Chain, has joined its team. Bartlett is shown sitting in a chair with a gray wall behind him. He is drinking from a Huel reusable water bottle.

Source: Steven Bartlett joins the Huel team! (YouTube)

Why are brand sponsorships valuable from a content marketing standpoint? 

Brand sponsorships are a way to borrow credibility and build social capital with a specific target audience. When I say influencer, I don’t necessarily mean one individual. It can be any type of company that has been successful in creating a brand voice that fuels conversation, connection, and commerce.

Over the past year, more newsletter brands have been acquired than I’m able to count on two hands. And that is because larger companies recognize the influence that newsletter creators have with very niche (yet still large) audiences. I’ve seen an AI newsletter get acquired, a sneaker newsletter get acquired, a Bitcoin newsletter get acquired, and more. Acquirers, in these cases, are skipping the sponsorship step altogether because of the monetization opportunity for THEM to scale revenue with brand sponsorships from companies on another level. 

Brand sponsorships get your content seen. Creating content is rarely a challenge for marketers. It’s distributing that content in the right places that proves to be the most difficult. By sponsoring a publisher with influence among your target audience, you get the opportunity to experience not only increased reach and visibility, but also a transfer of trust. 

What qualities make for an ideal brand sponsor for content marketing?

The primary concerns for both parties entering a sponsorship agreement are:

  1. Collaboration
  2. Audience affinity
  3. Prospect of longevity

Sponsorship campaigns are about reactivity and iteration. Rarely will an advertiser pay for one ad on one platform and see the return on their investment.

While getting inundated with inbound requests to sponsor your newsletter, YouTube channel, podcast, or other media channel is undeniably exciting, marketers need to recognize which requests are coming from a place of collaboration vs exploitation. A collaborative partner enters a conversation open to different content formats and aware of your expertise. They’re open to iteration throughout the campaign and they’re not afraid to pay for it. A potentially exploitative sponsor enters a conversation more reserved, more challenging, and less trusting upfront. 

I had an experience with a prospect who ended up sponsoring our newsletter (multiple runs) and a webinar with their CMO. We only had two calls before the deal was signed. They knew who we were, they explained what their goals were, they let us come up with a strategy for how we believed we could best achieve their goals, they ran the cost by their leadership team (48-72 hrs), signed the deal and handed over the wheel for us to steer a 60-day campaign.

Secondly, without your subscribers, sponsorship opportunities wouldn’t even be on the table! That said, it’s crucial that marketers enter agreements with partners who provide a solution they know would be incredibly useful to their audience. Don’t take on random partners with products your audience wouldn’t use. Especially if you’re going to be the one creating the copy, visuals, and everything for the sponsored content; it’s gotta be something you can speak to. Even better, something you’re excited about or at the very least, something you can get your audience excited about.

How can content marketers engage sponsors in a mutually beneficial way? 

Be transparent. We both have goals to reach, KPIs to measure, results we want to see, money we want to make. There is no need to hide this. It’s just about how you frame the story and the reason behind those goals. 

I always try to:

  1. Show brand love: mention recent activity of theirs
  2. Explain how I believe it relates to us through mission, specific content, upcoming events, or audience affinity
  3. Investigate their marketing strategy and goals to understand how we can help them get where they want to be. (ie, help managers win)

What are some ways to start building a brand sponsorship strategy for content marketing? 

Ask yourself “why now?” Is your subscriber count growing and you see the opportunity to monetise? Do you just wanna try it because everyone else is doing it? Has your audience signaled somehow that they would respond well to sponsorships and advertisements?

Build the big-picture vision. How do you see sponsorships being executed at the highest level among your platforms and channels? What formats will they be in? How will/can they grow? How will your platform grow because of it? Think long-term.

Make sure your team is equipped to manage the production that comes with sponsorship clients. It’s just like your typical client. Sponsorship campaigns require account managers to stay in contact with the sponsor, copywriters, designers, social media coordinators, and someone to monitor the metrics and feed the data back to the account manager to report to the sponsor. It’s tempting to jump in head first but you want to make sure you can execute at a high level otherwise it’ll just end up damaging your reputation. 

Define your goals and what success looks like.

Understand what content you’re best at creating and what content and news your audience engages with most.

What role do executive leaders play when it comes to brand sponsorships?

This is incredibly important in my opinion. While executive leaders won’t be the ones on the ground managing the communications and campaigns, it is crucial that they show face at some point. Preferably before the first campaign goes live. Sometimes you’ll need to bring them in to get the deal signed in the first place. 

When I started out with sponsorship outreach, I was creating content on LinkedIn and managing a department but I was speaking primarily with startup founders and CEOs. I wasn’t scared, I was persuasive enough to get many of them to move forward with the deal. Although, if I’m honest, I wasn’t on the same level as them. And sometimes only power players get through to other power players. So I was strategic when I brought in my boss, an influencer and CEO in his own right, to accelerate conversations. Maybe it would be to nurture towards a signed deal, nurture the relationship, and celebrate campaign results. That stuff is important. It may not always be possible (or necessary with some sponsors) but getting some executive leader involved in that “show face, show faith” capacity can be the building block to long-term relationships from the outset. 

Do you have any insider tips for ensuring your brand sponsorship strategy benefits and enhances your content marketing program?

It all depends on your audience and your ability to create content that people trade their time and attention to consume. If I’m running any sponsored campaign, I’ve likely been gathering data on my audience regarding what content they engage with, who they follow, what events they’ve been to, what they’re doing on social, and much more to best align our campaign with relevant and exciting news they’d click on without thinking twice. This is when marketing psychology kicks in.

Also: set up your end-to-end process as soon as possible. Prospecting tools, cadence of outreach, campaign monitoring tools, ad sets (having a media kit here really helps to template your offerings so you can execute from a place of familiarity and confidence), and more. Be professional and communicate your processes to the sponsor so they also feel comfortable with giving you their business.

If you’re willing to go the extra mile for a major impact: spend time in an online community and understand what is poppin’ at the moment. 

Whether that’s on a social platform or in a private community, successful campaigns either ride the wave of what’s hot, leverage personal brands, or capitalize on trending digital behaviour to create irresistible content that, on some level, is already gaining traction in some other corner of the internet. That would be my secret. Be in the know. Make influential friends. Know what’s poppin’ and know what tech to use to make it happen.

Can you share examples of successful content marketing brand sponsorships?

Jack Appleby’s sponsored campaign with Impact.com was class. Impact.com launched a major revolutionary platform in B2B becoming the first performance platform to let you discover, create, manage, and scale full-funnel influencer marketing programs, all from a single interface, that’ll also get you access to their opt-in network of 80,000+ creators.

Jack ran two newsletters ads with Impact, including dedicated essays, and distributed the newsletter and Impact reports heavily on X/Twitter and LinkedIn with a dedicated explanatory video and responding to all of the comments on his social posts. Hard to say the exact number of impressions and traffic and sign-ups generated from the campaign, but just looking from the outside in — you can’t deny that it definitely made the impact they intended.

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