Virtual Event Sponsorship Is Risky. Here’s What Organizers Can Do About It.

September 8, 2020  |  by:

Virtual event sponsorship comes with some challenges for both the event organizers and the sponsors. The solution begins with admitting the issues inherent in the medium.

I’ve worked in events since the dawn of the century. While still in college, I supervised the front-of-house of one of Boston’s busiest venues. I watched first hand the results that events delivered to sponsors. And, thinking back on it, I realize now how impactful the involvement of sponsors was to the events themselves.

Virtual Event Sponsorship
Photo by Product School

But even as virtual events become more common, and virtual event software gets massive funding, I hear time and again that many sponsors are keeping pockets tightly shut. 

And I get it. The ThymeBase team recently exhibited our event planning software at a virtual event. We figured it’d be a fun experience – a test of the new normal. I learned that event organizers are not focused enough on maximizing virtual event sponsorship returns.

Now, my background, apart from events, that is, is as a marketer. I reviewed my many interviews with event planners and applied my own experience to figure out how I believe event organizers could improve the sponsor’s experience.

Why Virtual Event Sponsorship Should Be A Priority

Look, the wedding industry has adapted almost overnight. Many wedding planners are busy with 2021’s weddings and re-scheduling postponements. And they’re adding new services like micro-weddings and elopements.

But corporate events and events that rely on corporate sponsors are in a holding pattern. I know many corporate event planners have switched to weddings, especially those that aren’t active with virtual events. 

The fact is that corporate sponsors are unsure of the results they can expect from digital events. There’s a trust deficit. And, frankly, I can see why. So sponsors that do take risks must be appreciated. And appreciation begins with working hard to maximize their results – in lead gen, conversions, and genuine exposure and reach.

Live Event Sponsorship Offers More Control

A large event

I’ve been a speaker, a panelist, exhibitor, and conference organizer. And I think it’s inarguable that live events offer more control when it comes to sponsors. 

You can place sponsor banners at the reception hall and behind the stage. Sponsors can set up tables at high-traffic thoroughfares. MCs thank them. There are gift bags and swag and sponsored happy hours. The program and other leaflets trumpet the sponsor’s involvement. In effect, the event planners can ensure that most attendees will, in one or another, have an interaction with the main sponsors.

But that doesn’t translate very well to the virtual realm.

Why Virtual Event Sponsorship Sucks

Virtual Event Sponsorship

There are a few reasons why virtual event sponsorship falls short, and I’ll go over the ones I consider most frustrating.

Tunnel Vision

You know how when you visit your favorite publisher online, you’re inundated with pop-ups, and videos and banner ads and sidebar ads? Well, that’s created a form of content tunnel vision. When it comes to the web, we’re excellent at ignoring everything peripheral to our interest. 

A sponsor’s banners or the branded Instagram photobooth might make an impact in a live event. But when it comes to online viewing of a digital conference, we tune it out. This means way lower engagement for sponsors.

Inexperience

Conference organizers are excellent at their jobs because they have the experience. They know what to expect. Event planners know how to run live events. 

But when it comes to virtual events, there’s no real history to things. What is a reasonable ROI for a digital event sponsor? How do you handle lead gen? How many email newsletters are too many? The inexperience and lack of precedent is a problem for sponsors and organizers alike.

Distractions

I mean, what’s the point in even explaining this? You and everyone else know our attention span is already at the goldfish level. Add the web, mobile devices, and sitting alone on your couch, and odds are people are listening inconsistently at best. 

People are distracted at virtual events, and it’s the sponsors who paid for the attendee’s attention. It’s a losing situation for them.

No Personal Connection

A smile goes a long way. And when your event sponsors can set up somewhere to connect, talk, and offer one-on-one attention, they can make a solid case. But that’s sorely missing in virtual events. 

Sure, virtual event platforms have tried their best to create a substitute. Still, I’ve yet to hear of anyone doing digital exhibition booths even remotely close to the live event experience. 

When an event goes digital, sponsors lose the foot traffic, the booth placement, the charm, and the human connection. Variations of Chatroulette just don’t cut it. And potential sponsors know it.

How To Make Virtual Event Sponsorship Worth It For Your Sponsors

Enough of the naysaying, let’s talk solutions, right? Here are some ways you can work to maximize your sponsors’ results. It’s time to put on your digital marketer hat.

Acknowledge The Issues

One of the main points I’d like to get across is that virtual event sponsorship as a whole depends on each event individually. Conferences are a massive marketing channel for many businesses, who’d love to put their money to work as soon as they can be confident in the results. 

So the first thing to do is set realistic expectations with potential sponsors. Talk to them about the challenges, and hear their concerns. Acknowledge the issues and lay out your solutions.

When a sponsor knows what to expect, you can stave off disappointment. Then, they’ll be more likely to work with you again and to sponsor other events.  

Many virtual events ask a far lower sponsor price because the costs are way lower. This is the flip side of the problems. A lower sponsorship cost actually might open up a whole new world of event sponsors who were previously priced out of your events. 

So, maybe within the new problems is an opportunity for you and your sponsors.

Be A Marketing Channel For Your Sponsors

Ultimately, when it comes to event sponsorship, virtual or otherwise, the event is a marketing channel. So as your events go digital, you absolutely must modify the marketing channel too. 

One digital conference organizer that I spoke with discussed how they had their speakers record short videos. The organizers shared these videos with registered attendees leading up to the event. I use this example to show you that when it comes to sponsors, you need to think of new ways to get their brands in front of your attendees.

What I mean is, we’re no longer discussing event marketing per se, but instead, we’re now discussing digital marketing in the context of events. That the marketing is associated with an event is important, but you can’t rely on digital versions of live event marketing.

Digital Marketing For Event Sponsors

Now that we’re talking about digital marketing, it’s time to look at the classic aspects. Online marketing includes email marketing, blog content, Search Engine Optimization, email automation, and more. Each event, sponsor, and the audience will be different, but I’ll share some ideas around how digital marketing tactics can make virtual event sponsorship effective.

Email Marketing For Virtual Events

Email Tips for Event Planners
image by icons8.com

Newsletters are a powerful marketing channel, and you ought to be using this to highlight sponsors. But it’s not a matter of throwing in some logos at the bottom of an email.

Good email marketing means each newsletter should highlight how a specific event sponsor can add value to your recipient’s life. In other words, the email newsletter is about the sponsor, not about the event. 

Email Automation

Email automation is quite similar to email marketing but a little fancier. What I mean here is that you should craft an automated sales campaign that, based on various triggers, sends an email that helps your attendee and sponsor connect. This campaign should consider actions that attendees take before, during, and after the event.

You can’t replicate, nor can you replace foot traffic and manned tables, but you can work at connecting sponsors to the right attendees through a series of relevant emails.

Include Sponsors In Your Social Media Conversations

Social media

I won’t get into the minutiae of social media marketing. There are far smarter experts out there, and many, many different strategies. But social media as a broad marketing channel is one way your sponsors will feel appreciated. 

If you’re sharing your sponsors’ marketing materials on social media, they’ll see it, respond and feel good about it. But if you’re creating conversations with attendees and looping in sponsors into the discussions, then they’ll feel over-the-moon.

You’ll want to partner with the sponsor on this and dedicate a social media manager to your event team. But think of the possibilities. It’s as good as warm intros and can be done repeatedly over the weeks leading up to and after the event. It also has the added benefit of reach. Many others will see each interaction, and it’s a great way to make sponsors feel included in the marketing.

Virtual Event Sponsorship Needs Measurable Goals

We’re in barely-charted waters when it comes to virtual event sponsorship and what a reasonable ROI is. We don’t know what attendance should be, nor do we know what number of leads is likely. But this is something to discuss with event sponsors. 

Regardless of the goal, they must be measurable. That means if your sponsor’s intent is lead generation, then leads needs to be tracked and measured. You might need to consider link redirects and other tracking options. But if you’re going to win sponsors over the long term, you’ll need to prove results, just like post-event reports from live events.

Virtual Events Are A Marketing Channel

I think this is the point that’s been missing in the broader virtual event sponsorship discussions I’ve seen around the event media-sphere. Not enough sponsors view virtual events as a viable marketing channel. Only you can change this by innovating how you get registrants interacting with sponsors. 

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