In this interview, we hear from Steve Kerho, Organic’s SVP of Strategy, Media and Analytics.
You’ve had an outstanding career with some really impressive accomplishments. What has your experience taught you about sponsorships, and where do you think the real value is?
I think sponsorships are a really important touch point within the marketing mix. There are so many different communication channels we can go through, such as broadcast, print and digital, but at the end, they’re all about trying to drive engagement. Nothing drives more engagement than when you’re actually at an event or a sponsorship. Being there allows customers to touch and feel the product and get the full sensory experience. I think sponsorship is the ultimate driver in terms of engagement, which is an important part of the mix that’s becoming harder to get.
Tell me about the Heisman Trophy sponsorship you did with Sports Illustrated and ESPN when you were at Nissan. What was your thinking behind that?
The Heisman Trophy is one of the most recognized awards in college sports. It’s an incredible event that people get very passionate about. We were attracted to it because of the passion in the discussions surrounding it.
It’s also an event that has a very long lead time over the course of the whole year. Even before football season starts, people talk about potential Heisman candidates for the year. The list evolves and changes throughout the season, and there’s a huge focus on it at the end of the year. We saw a lot of people that were very passionate about that, so we wanted to be part of that passion in an authentic and respectful way.
The campaign had many touch points along the way, and digital played a huge part in that. The Heisman Trust is a first-class organization and a great group to work with. One of the things we did in the digital space to let people actually vote, and those votes would count toward the final winner at the end of the year. This created a lot of great engagement around our digital efforts. Further into the season, everybody starts talking about who’s on the Heisman list, so Nissan’s name got associated with those conversations.
This digital strategy was implemented in conjunction with a slew of more traditional marketing channels. Part of the sponsorship included a lot of broadcast media during halftime shows, and we showed up at games and let people take pictures with a real Heisman trophy. It was a 360-degree opportunity to connect with consumers across all channels including print, broadcast, digital and events.
What story was Nissan telling about itself by doing this sponsorship?
When thinking about Heisman, it was easy for us to decide that we wanted to share some equity with them. The trophy is awarded to the most talented college football player of the year and is voted on by all of the previous Heisman winners as well as major sports journalists. We loved the focus on attributes around being really good at what you do, being a good team player and being able to perform well under pressure – we wanted Nissan to be associated with all of these character attributes.
People often try to classify digital sponsorships as media buys. Do you see a difference between digital sponsorships and media buys, and if so, what is that difference?
There’s a lot of confusion around this question, but I think there is a big difference. A digital media buy usually happens through a demand-side platform (DSP), so I would talk to someone at a media agency. As the media agency, I would call Yahoo, MSN or SI.com and talk about the elements of that particular media buy – how many impressions, placement on the page, CPM – but I can do an awful lot of that now without talking on the phone.
A sponsorship would never be handled this way, because your goal is much bigger than it would be with a traditional media buy. Your goal is to associate yourself with a particular event or brand by bringing an advertiser together with someone with great content. There needs to be authenticity, so the ads you show need to feel like they belongs there. You’re also trying to create a bar of interest between the two groups, so there’s a lot of planning around that.
Sponsorships are more difficult to do, they take longer to plan and you often have to create content that’s custom for them, but when they’re done right, you get to see 1 + 1 = 4. I think there’s a huge upside when you do good sponsorships, even in the digital space.
Some people have a hard time understanding why and when to use a sponsorship and what to expect from it. To them, I would say that to get the best returns from sponsorship, you need to invest a lot of time with partners and advertisers to bring them together in an authentic way.
How would you explain the value of sponsorships both in terms of metrics and big picture marketing? How does a company know if a sponsorship or a partnership is right or wrong when the ROI isn’t immediately clear?
This question comes up around sponsorships a lot, and the difficult economic situation we’ve had has put an enormous amount of pressure on marketing activities such as sponsorships. In the traditional sense, they may appear more difficult to measure, but in the end, they do lend themselves to a great deal of not only qualitative but quantitative measurement.
I think the qualitative measurements are pretty straightforward and everyone kind of understands that part of the equation. Do the people who are exposed to your sponsorship think more or less of your brand as a result of the sponsorship? What brand attributes are you measuring, and what brand equity do you have? Those measurements are very important but fairly obvious.
But what we’re finding is that the amount and quality of overall digital activity that a brand gets is a good measure of how much demand you’re generating around it. These metrics include total traffic that comes to your website, the kinds of activities they perform on the website, the brand’s search terms, how many news and blog mentions and how many people are talking on social media. When you roll all of these up and look at the whole digital ecosystem, it’s a very sensitive measure of demand. It’s sensitive to marketing activities, media spend, things competitors do, changes in the macroeconomy, etc. Within this context, we see significant peaks in the overall digital activity consistent with well-executed sponsorships.
The ROI model is more complicated, and there need to be common measures that cross different touch points. For instance, I have measures to help me analyze social media and the paid-earned distinction. Some more work is needed to figure out how all these things are connected, so we use a variety of different tools. One of them is a principal component factor analysis that looks at how each point inside this digital ecosystem is contributing to our overall goals and objectives. A lot of times, you’ll want to separate an upper-funnel ROI model from a lower-funnel ROI model. If you have the same model trying to measure both, you’re invariably punishing one unfairly.
But having taken all this into account, post-sponsorship we see increases in brand search activity, site visits and social activity. Putting all these things together, we’ve seen upticks in brands’ digital ecosystems connected to sponsorships they’ve done.
The ROI measurement world used to be about following the dollars within media, but it’s now more about following behaviors. With that in mind, we have seen that sponsorships can cause a noticeable impact in a fairly short period of time.
These results are encouraging because we don’t want to see sponsorships get unfairly punished. Just because people weren’t creative in trying to measure the impact doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be part of the mix. It just means that the measurement wasn’t sophisticated enough yet.
What do you think is the secret sauce for amazing partnerships and sponsorships?
First, you need to come to the table with a really good understanding of what your brand is about and who you’re partnering with. Ask yourself, “Is there a good mash-up between our respective qualities?”
The second piece is to be very clear with what you’re trying to achieve with the sponsorship. I’ve seen many cases where a campaign will start off being about driving brand awareness or familiarity, and then right before launch, the brand decides that it’s actually about consideration or sales, which is totally different. It seems relatively straightforward to be clear on what your objectives are and not to change them, but I see sponsorships fall prey to this all too often. They try to achieve too many things, priorities are not clear and they often end up with something watered down that doesn’t do a good job of achieving any objectives.
The last piece is that you need to take time and effort to fairly measure the impact on a quantitative basis. There are many opportunities to do this now that didn’t exist before. It’s very important to fair and accurate measurements. In fact, one of the reasons why many promotions don’t make it through the marketing approval process is not having a good measurement plan.
This interview was originally published on SponsorsWin here.