In 2013, spending on the sponsorship of sports, entertainment, cause, and cultural events rose by 4.5 percent to $19.8 billion total among North American companies.

For 2014, that figure is expected to rise a bit more slowly — 4.3 percent — according to consulting and measurement firm IEG. But while digital media (particularly social and mobile) seems to be luring some money away from this channel, middle market firms that learn to complement their digital marketing channels with sponsorship opportunities will see significant gains among their target audience.

The key to success? Developing an overarching, integrated marketing strategy.

Work to Do Within Your Company

Most middle market firms cannot allocate as much money to marketing as their competitors. Demographics have to be their primary consideration when it comes to being a sponsor.

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Based on the products or services the firm provides, would it be best to establish a strong presence at business, entertainment, and charity events within selected industries?
  • Or are the company's offerings aimed more at a mass market? Are specific regions likelier to prefer what the firm offers and thus receive a concentrated effort across different types of events within a given time frame?

These are just a few possible angles for developing a well-targeted presence.

Next, limited funds require middle market firms to educate marketing, sales, PR, and product development departments on the potential synergies between sponsorship and other marketing channels and business functions. The goal: Maximizing the return on investment for each function as it collaborates with sponsorship activities. When done properly, sponsoring itself can help grow the revenue pie — and also help grow the revenue slices attributed to those other channels and tasks.

Employee training must address the common misconception that sponsor opportunities are simply "awareness-builders" akin to advertising. Such a mindset strips sponsoring of its potential, and its cost is often considerably more. Print, digital, and outdoor advertising, though routinely part of a sponsor package, are almost always two-dimensional. Smart sponsorship is three-dimensional and, crucially, features the human factor, which brings special value to a convention or trade-show presence. Look into offering a luxury suite at a sporting event; prime commercial space at a music, arts, or food festival; or a raffle, contest, or speaking opportunity at a charity function.

Then again, middle market firms should realize that this differentiating factor comes at a greater cost than just paying the event host. Employees must travel to each event and be prepared to fulfill the many roles and tasks — introducing and reinforcing the brand, of course, but also gathering customer insights, useful content marketing ideas, and media-contact opportunities for the company.

Sponsors that provide product samples, coupons, or other direct enticements through creative audience engagement will see clear benefits. When their efforts are coupled with a call to action, those benefits will also be measurable. But if a company's product or service does not lend itself to sample distribution, promotional products or apparel can effectively make a positive, long-lasting impression with each recipient and his or her social sphere. According to research from the Advertising Specialty Institute and Promotional Products Association International, products that are useful and/or entertaining to the target demographic are often kept for months or years.

Another key factor: quality. Products or wearables decorated with a company's name or logo are mobile representations of the brand. Therefore, items that are poorly made or perform poorly are not just a waste of money but actually diminish brand reputation. In short, sponsored promotional items must be well considered; they could help you or hurt you.

In the same way, middle market firms must carefully craft the entire scope of interaction they'll have with the target audience. Kim Skildum-Reid, management consultant and author of "What Every CMO Needs to Know about Sponsorship," notes that "the event experience is much bigger than the event itself, and provides you with a huge array of opportunities to add value to your target markets." Participants who choose to attend an event expect to enjoy themselves. As a result, you should be focused on letting your brand "become part of your customers' stories, not cajoling them into wanting to become part of your brand's story." So firms must not set up their presence in a way that could diminish the overall experience for attendees.

Work to Do Outside Your Company

With strategies established and employees prepared, CMOs are ready to scour the landscape for the best sponsoring opportunities. IEG's 2014 spending report finds that "spending on larger and more prestigious properties remains robust, while increases in funding directed toward smaller rightsholders — especially those outside the sports and entertainment segments — are expected to be below two percent." Smaller organizations are holding to more modest efforts and stand at an overall disadvantage as a result.

Even so, middle market firms should consider smaller properties that offer access to the desired demographic and approach such a property with unique ideas beyond the scope of the typical sponsor packages to maximize return on investment. So, aside from advertising space in publications and on signage, access to mailing lists, prime exhibit space, and speaking/presentation opportunities, firms have much to gain from more creative opportunities. What's more, payment can often take the form of barter with products or services, keeping costs down for the companies that act as sponsors.

Lastly, marketing executives need to remain mindful that the property holder likely has boundaries designed to protect an event's image. Understanding those boundaries and adapting your out-of-the-box ideas accordingly will protect your own brand image and maintain the quality of the event.

Rob Carey is an NCMM contributor and a features writer who has focused on the business-to-business niche since 1992. He spent his first 15 years at Nielsen Business Media, rising from editorial intern to editorial director. Since then, he has been the principal of New York-based Meetings & Hospitality Insight, working with large hospitality brands in addition to various media outlets. Circle him on Google+.