Over the past two months I have formed connections and sponsorships with nearly a dozen different photo companies. From printing services to photoshop plug-ins, I have approached several companies and come away successful. I've received TONS of question about just how I achieved this. So here is the answer!
Its all about THEM: When you approach a company for sponsorship remember that the sponsorship is fundamentally about them. What do you have to offer them? Why would they want to form a collaboration with you? You need to state this information up front. Just because you take nice photos, or even incredible photos, is no reason to sponsor you. Really take the time to reason out how they can make money off of you or gain more exposure.
Call: While some of my sponsorships I was able to establish via email, I found that calling a company was generally more successful. This way I could directly ask for the person in charge of marketing, and ask them what kind of sponsorships they had done in the past (with other photogs) and what type of arrangements they were looking for in the future. By communicating directly with the person in charge of sponsorships I am able to show flexibility and how I can meet their demands. Emails are much slower and more difficult to express flexibility. You might consider sending a follow-up email immediately after the conversation to summarize the content of the phone convo, but allowing someone to connect with you over the phone makes you a real person (not just an imaginary face behind an email).
Build a Following: Part of 'what you have to offer' as a photographer is your following by other photographers. If other photogs look to you as an expert in the field or follow your blog or follow you on twitter or follow you on facebook… then you have a build-in audience for this new sponsor. Ideally your audience will be their target market, thus making an ideal match for sponsorship. Building a following takes a long time and hard work… you need to share your knowledge on photography through blogging, tweeting and teaching classes. My book "Linked Photographer: New Media and Social Networking" will be out in May.. FILLED with suggestions on how to build your following. When I am 'pitching myself' to the companies, I talk about how I regularly write for Popular Photography and Professional Photographer and how I teach for B&H, Calumet and Unique Photo. This helps to demonstrate my following. You might mention your number of Twitter followers of average daily/monthly hits on your blog.
Know their Product/Service: This seems obvious, but if you are approaching a company for sponsorship you should be aware of their products and services. Do you research. Who is their target audience? How could you get involved in promoting a particular product? For example, if you are a studio photograph approaching a lighting company for sponsorship, ideally you should regularly use their equipment or at least be very familiar with it. Furthermore, you obviously don't want to put your name with a company or service you don't trust or wouldn't recommend.
How Can you Collaborate?: In most situations the company will not offer up the ideas for how you can collaborate. This falls to you. When you call or send an email, they will want to know what ideas you have for working together. This collaboration really depends on the products and the needs of you and their company (see below).
Not just "Free Stuff": A sponsorship doesn't always just mean 'free stuff', though it often does. A sponsorship may mean paying you to speak at an event, or giving you door prizes to give away at events, or even just promoting your event or work on their website. Be flexible. Some companies might not be willing to jump on board (by giving you free product or paying you to speak) right away. Be willing to start small to build your relationship. Some offer affiliate programs where you mention their product when you speak, and you get a small percentage of the sales (when clients use a special code). Be flexible. You never know how big the relationship may someday grow if it works for both you and the company.
Event Specific Sponsorships: If you are teaching a particular class or at a specific event, different sponsors will be applicable. For example, if I am teaching a Photoshop retouching class I might approach a company that offers retouching effects software like Nik or OnOne. If I'm teaching a class on Digital Asset Management, I might approach a hard drive company or cloud storage company. If I am teaching a class on studio lighting, then I will approach a studio lighting company. Sometimes once you already have an event scheduled it is a good idea to approach a sponsor because you have a situation already arranged for good collaboration. Think of who would benefit from your event and give them a call.
Don't Be Afraid To Ask: In many (or most) cases the company will not approach you for sponsorship… you need to approach them. Don't be afraid of rejection or take rejection as a failure of your work. You might as well as and see where it takes you. If you are rejected, then you only wasted a phone call.