As events businesses continually seek to evolve and grow following the post-COVID bounceback, with many dropping smaller or weaker events to maximise profitability, a new wave of membership-led events companies is emerging.  
For these businesses, revenues are largely derived from sponsorship and exhibition stands, but the true value is rooted in highly engaged communities of senior-level end-users.
What often sets such models apart is a deep understanding of their target markets across the buy and sell divide, building authenticity, trust and, most importantly, value into every touchpoint - for every member of the community.
One such organisation that has perhaps been ahead of the curve in doubling down on a sponsored membership model is REBA - the Reward & Employee Benefits Association.
“A sponsored member model has always been the intention for REBA since launching in 2015,” said Debi O’Donovan, co-Founder. “Phil [Hayne; Debi’s co-founder] and I have worked in the market for decades and we know it well. Before we even launched we knew we wanted to make it a community-only association: we wanted to bring our media experience to what we could see worked best in this market and launch that. We knew there was a gap for the very senior end of the market - they needed a deep dive and something where they had more opportunity to meet people like themselves.”
One of the key elements for the success of REBA is its specificity about its target market, which has helped to establish market leadership within its niche: reward and benefits professionals - a discipline within the HR function at medium to large businesses with 1500-5000 employees. 
“We’ve aimed to create the community so individuals can exchange knowledge and information, and see what trends are coming. Quite often you find they’re the only one in the HR department or the team is very small, so having the broader community for them to reach out to is very important,” said Debi.
“We try to provide members with the insight of knowing what’s coming - legislation, tax changes, business trends and economic trends that they probably don’t look at all the time because they’re so busy, but that they need to keep on top of - along with the trends and best practices from other organisations.”
It’s important to remember though, that REBA’s members don’t pay to access any of this content or attend the events, despite needing to be a ‘member’ to do so.
“It’s our sponsors on the supplier side who pay an annual membership fee to gain access to the market, but the buyer side joins us at no cost. It’s a classic media model because that’s the background Phil and I came from.”
Sponsors are offered a standard package, which includes content marketing, email and advertising elements, which also provides an upsell opportunity to a premium product providing speaking opportunities at the larger conferences REBA organises and the opportunity to run workshops at the smaller summits. Understandably, the premium offering is in high demand.
“We’ve built a reputation whereby if you’re an associate member of REBA [i.e. a sponsor] the logo goes on our homepage and a lot of our employee members look at the homepage when they’re contacted. While we don’t vet the companies listed per se, it does provide a feeling of trust among the community because we know the market very well; we know the people behind it. 
“We want REBA to be seen as the place where members can come to source suppliers - that was the ask of us right from the beginning. People tend to use the suppliers they’ve used before, but they also like to sense-check who’s out there. We’ve worked hard to ensure we have all the key players as part of the community.”

Balancing different community needs

A key challenge, however, for any such model is being able to effectively balance the needs of the members while delivering for sponsors. It’s very often the case that sponsors can be left on the outside of the community, when they should be active participants.
Part of this, perhaps, comes down to language - sponsors are referred to as ‘associate members’ within the community. By doing so, employee members and internal teams alike see sponsors as members.
“The area we work in can be very technical and complex, and quite often an associate member will have a deeper knowledge of a particular aspect of the rewards and benefits landscape. But it’s likewise important that we work with them on thought leadership to deliver what employee members want: there are no sales pitches and we’re very firm that REBA needs to be seen as neutral. Sponsors work with us because they want that neutrality.”
Similarly, all content produced for REBA’s conferences is rigorously reviewed and vetted by the internal team to avoid anything over-promotional. 
“At the end of the day, it’s our integrity; we want to build something that’s trusted and valued by our community. We apply that integrity to everything we do and everything submitted is reviewed by our content teams. We want sponsors to have success in working with us so we proactively speak to them, meet them, and help them improve their content to get the maximum views and engagement possible. Probably what’s unusual about REBA is how much time we actually spend with sponsors on their content.”
Indeed, Debi herself is from an editorial background, and this expertise and drive for quality content has permeated REBA’s business plan and success. And while a content offering wasn’t a pre-requisite for the first iteration of the business plan, it was something that Debi and Phil felt they might get to at some point - only to be accelerated by the COVID pandemic.
“COVID had two significant impacts on us. One was trying to bring events online, and we successfully launched a series of successful webinars before the first UK lockdown,” said Debi. “We learnt how to run a webinar in 4 days and offered our community what they needed at the time, focusing the content on the furlough scheme. And we’ve never looked back: webinars have remained a success story for us. 
“The other thing that took off was our research reports. We always had aspirations to do more, and suddenly our associate and employer members were desperate to know what everyone was doing because the market had shifted so much. We started to produce biweekly trend reports to get information out to the market as much as possible. 
This, in turn, alerted associate members to our capabilities to run research of this kind, so we ramped up the volume in 2021, and our inventory was fully booked in 2022.”
This has helped the team at REBA to evolve and shape the business further, sticking with webinars and reports even once live events were back, and launching two new summits in addition.
“Many of the things we brought in were in our original business plan,” said Debi. “The pandemic became a catalyst for much of that. And there’s a lot we still have up our sleeve that we want to do - it’s all about talking to the market and balancing everyone’s needs. But because we have a sponsorship model we’re largely reliant on who will fund it.”

Becoming a trusted voice for the community

REBA has become a trusted voice within the community it serves, and Debi credits this to her and Phil’s in-depth knowledge and decades-long experience working with the community.
“Even before we launched we did research calls with the market to see where the need was, the information gaps and challenges. And that’s now part of the KPIs of most of our teams - speaking to people in our target markets every week,” she said. 
“You need to speak to your market on an ongoing basis to be authentic; to be trusted you need to listen and react to what they say. Part of that is bringing people together; it’s not always us telling our members the what and the why, but they hear from their peers through workshops, networking and roundtables.”
And for other B2B events founders and entrepreneurs looking to build a sponsored membership model, Debi’s advice is clear: know your members.
“It’s probably the strongest thing about REBA; it’s our USP, our advantage - and that’s really about speaking to our community every day, across different sectors, business sizes and teams: the widest range of people with different experiences and knowledge, and bringing that back to build on what we do to the benefit of our members.
“I think any business, whatever you’re doing, if you know your market you should be able to deliver what they need. You can’t sell socks without knowing your market.”
Want more insights like this? Complete the form on the right to request your place at Collingwood’s June Roundtable on The Sponsored Membership and Events Model to share best practices and think through a value creation plan with other business owners operating in this space. Spaces are limited.