While webinars and digital networking sessions have proven wildly popular during the pandemic, they have many planners wondering how to bring in revenue from virtual events. Compared to the arsenal of sponsorship opportunities available for in-person gatherings, digital-event possibilities can seem a bit more restricted.
With Covid-19 restrictions continually changing around the world and a growing number of events cancelling over Delta-variant concerns, it is more important than ever that planners are well versed on how to host revenue-generating virtual events. Rest assured, there are plenty of creative ways to incorporate sponsor branding, exposure, messaging and complete virtual sponsorship packages to help hosts underwrite these meetings.
"Event planners should take a deep look at what their program is and how a sponsor can complement the main event," says Eli Gorin, CMP, CMM, managing director of event planning firm FHTglobal, which specializes in medical events and offers a digital-event platform designed to appeal to sponsors. Planners should consider what a sponsor might typically bring to the table for an in-person event, and apply that to a virtual-event context, he says.
Meeting planners have a wealth of options when it comes to creating sponsorship packages that will appeal to both the potential sponsors and the attendees taking part in the digital event. Here are some suggestions from Gorin and other industry experts.
Seek Out Nontraditional Partnerships
Expand your usual audience for sponsorships in order to increase revenue.
“Many organizations limit the potential of their sponsorship sales by staying narrowly focused on traditional industry partners — the same organizations that exhibited and sponsored the in-person events of the past,” says Bill Zimmer, vice president of strategy at 360 Live Media, who was a panelist on Northstar's webcast, Creative Sponsorship Ideas for Digital and Hybrid Events. “By considering nontypical organizations and media partners, event organizers can generate brand-new sources of revenue.”
Virtual Focus Group
Potential sponsors want to connect with your audience. Why not give them the chance to connect and get valuable feedback about the products or services they're currently developing?
"Many sponsors are seeking value beyond generating leads or sales when it comes to digital events," points out Zimmer. "In fact, one of the most coveted opportunities for sponsorship can be facilitating online focus groups with potential customers. Sponsors get real-time feedback on their products, and customers have a chance to engage with the brand in a way that they normally wouldn’t. Everybody wins."
Sponsored Entertainment Breaks
Some of the most effective sponsorships are those that take place between the educational events themselves. Valerie Bihet, director of VIBE Agency, based in Miami, suggests getting a sponsor to underwrite a "mini concert" with a performance by a live musician or entertainer that will both add energy to a virtual event and provide a memorable marketing opportunity.
"Many celebrity musicians are hosting in-home concerts on their social media feeds now as a way to stay connected with fans," says Bihet. "A short, 15-minute, private concert broadcast from an entertainer's home into the live, online event with a frame around the viewing panel branded with the sponsors name, and a hashtag for anyone who shares the experience online, gives that sponsor even more exposure."
If a concert or performance isn't interactive enough, consider getting a supplier partner to sign on to support a game.
"Take advantage of having your audience at their keyboard," suggests Keri McIntosh, senior vice president of events at event management services company The Castle Group, based in Boston. "Audience response features such contests and games are a great way to keep participants engaged and can also be tracked for event analytics. Sponsoring organizations provide the fun game break and can send a small parting gift to contest participants. Everyone loves a gift."
While printed programs have been on the way out at live events, these days receiving one in the mail for a virtual event would be a novelty that builds anticipation for the gathering — and also presents prime sponsorship opportunities.
"Sponsoring those items for a virtual event might get you more bang for the buck now, since fewer large and fully formed virtual events are taking place and mail in general has significantly decreased," suggests Victoria B. Petersen, CMP, PMP, chief experience designer and strategist for E3 Planning.
Branded Waiting Rooms
Before the event even takes place, there's an opportunity to get a sponsor's logo or message in front of attendees.
"The 15- to 30-minute experience before the show starts is ideal for sponsor recognition because it gives an opportunity for a sponsor to be the first thing the audience sees of the virtual production, whether it is logos or actual video content," says Tracey Shappro, president and CEO of VISION Production Group, which creates interactive, tech-driven brand experiences for clients. "Similarly, the real estate around the landing page can also be shaped for sponsor recognition because you know that everyone attending will be visiting prior to logging on to your event."
Your sponsor can start getting their message out to attendees long before the gathering actually takes place. Prominently featuring their logo or links to their content on the event registration page or pre-event email is a good start, but you could also send out branded promotional items to attendees before the live event, or set up a sponsored demo or orientation prior to the gathering.
"Sponsor messages can be even more impactful if sent before your event, especially if delivered in a creative and engaging way," says McIntosh. "It gives your sponsor a chance to be more strongly connected with your event and make an early impression on attendees."
Sponsored Gifts Sent to Attendees
One of the most effective ways to connect with attendees virtually is to also incorporate an "IRL" element into a sponsorship, sending those who sign up for an online event a branded gift prior to the event.
Sylvia Allen, president of Allen Consulting and the author of How to Be Successful at Sponsorship Sales, gives the example of a virtual wine festival she recently developed after a pair of live wine events had to be cancelled due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions. The event's sponsor, an association of regional automobile dealers, got its logo on a "hang tag" that was put on a wine bottle sent to every attendee, which invited the attendee to bring that tag to the closest dealer for a test drive. In return, the virtual attendee would then be entered into a drawing for four tickets to the actual face-to-face festival, which had been rescheduled.
Sponsored Social-Responsibility Message
In this time of widespread difficulty, virtual-event participants may be particularly receptive to a big-picture sponsor message that emphasizes helping the wider industry or a particular group in need.
"We've been doing well with suggested donations — it feels better to ask people to make donations to a cause," says Michael Schneider, owner of NEXT Events, and founder of Hospitality Cares, a not-for-profit organization which launched a coronavirus fund that offers assistance to members of the travel industry experiencing financial challenges. NEXT Events offers matching donations up to $5,000.
NEXT Events has been hosting a series of sponsored webcasts focused on the hospitality industry. But rather than charging customers to attend, it suggests a donation of $25 to Hospitality Cares. This helps associate the sponsor's brand to a message of industry assistance at a time when that's a major concern for audience members.
Give the Event a Sense of Place
Going digital unfortunately means losing the distinctive destinations that host in-person events — and the associated sponsorship opportunities. But even if most attendees join remotely, with the right mix of design elements and imagery, the platform can transform a nondescript "virtual trade show" into a specific venue, with additional ways to include sponsorships.
For example, when Northstar Meetings Group had to go virtual with its 2020 TEAMS Conference + Expo, originally scheduled to be held in Houston, Texas, the planners maintained the event's distinctly Houston character. The general session area was dubbed the Toyota Center, the virtual lobby became the George R. Brown Convention Center and the exhibition hall became Minute Maid Park, all complete with images of the city's venues that gave visitors the sense they were traveling to Houston, even if it was from the comfort of their own home office.
Get creative with the space you create for your digital events, transforming a generic networking lounge into a place (real or imagined) specifically associated with that particular sponsor or their message.
Virtual Trade Show Scavenger Hunt
One type of sponsored game that Sylvia Allen recommends involves leveraging a virtual trade show, where attendees can "walk the show floor," visit "booths" and otherwise participate in the event as they would at a live exhibition. To ensure extra interaction from attendees, planners can also incorporate sponsored contests.
Allen describes how one version has worked for her: Each attendee was given a specific name/number/symbol that was only theirs, and they would need to be on the lookout for their unique identification symbol "hidden" on the show floor — at a specific booth or location. They could then post on the app when they found it and be entered to win a prize.
"The value to the vendor is they capture the attendee's information and a dialogue can be established," says Allen. "There is also greater attention paid to the vendor's booth or display."
Physical or Virtual Swag Bags
A trade show just doesn't feel complete for many attendees unless they come away with a swag bag of goodies. Simple, branded promotional products are effective tools for sponsors, but when events move into the digital realm these opportunities could be lost. However, with a little planning, virtual or even physical swag bags can be sent to virtual attendees.
"Even though many events have been moved online, it doesn’t mean you have to lose that 'gift of engagement,'" said Jennifer D. Collins, CMP, president and CEO of JDC Events, which launched its own swag-bag service for digital events. "The swag can be sent online, or we can ship a physical bag — which offers a great opportunity to extend your brand."
For tangible swag bags, JDC sources the packaging, collects sponsor-provided items, and then collates, stuffs and ships the bags. Digital swag bags, on the other hand, can be designed to incorporate sponsor branding at the point of virtual entry, and could include gift cards, discount codes, digital publications or other digital goodies.
Say it With a Book
Gifts sent to attendees can create powerful connections between a sponsor's message and the positive feelings associated with the gift itself — and few presents can deliver as much meaning as a well-selected book. This approach was taken by Bedside Reading, a company that partners with event planners to provide a curated selection of books that can speak to the particular organization or event. Originally focused on providing physical copies of titles as in-room (sometimes sponsored) gifts for guests at luxury hotels and in-person meeting attendees, the organization has now extended its offerings into the digital space with the launch of On the Download.
"Working hand-in-hand with meeting planners, we can customize selections written by keynote speakers and/or panelists, or that relate to the event's topic," says Lisa Rosenstein, cofounder of the new service.
The organization can help secure access to chosen authors to speak at events. Books can be used as a gift to all attendees upon registration or as a sponsored item in a virtual gift bag, or as part of a virtual "book club."
"We also offer a multilevel sponsorship option that includes access to our books and authors for the meeting, private follow-up book/author events and access to our author podcast library," adds Rosenstein. "A branded website page is provided as well for the meeting planner or organization to showcase the book or books available."
Melissa Park, a global event producer based in New York City, suggests tapping into the matchmaking technology used for hosted-buyer programs to allow sponsors and attendees to have their own one-on-one meetings during predetermined "exhibit hours" in the event schedule.
"Once either party accepts a request, a 15-minute meeting is secured in their calendar," says Park. Both parties join the scheduled call via a video conferencing program so the sponsor can provide company information, a product demonstration and answer the attendee's questions."
The FHTvirtual platform takes this idea a step further, by "virtualizing" the hosted-buyer experience: Sponsors invite international doctors to take part in the event, and instead of covering travel and accommodations as they would with a face-to-face event, the sponsors cover the fees associated with participation — in this case, the registration cost. It serves to create a more personal connection between the individual sponsor and high-value attendee.
"Our system provides a one-on-one appointment platform so that the sponsor can organize these meetings with the individual invited guest and it’s very targeted," says Gorin.
Relevance and personalization are key for any event, but that's especially true for digital gatherings, where your content will be competing with numerous distractions at the attendees' homes. Sponsor messages that can be targeted to the attendee's specific location or needs will prove extra potent. The FHTvirtual platform accounts for that, allowing sponsor content to be delivered both through a general presentation on the main virtual trade-show floor and in virtual breakout sessions. "There, local representatives of the sponsor can connect with local users and present specific products that are available for their market," suggests FHT's Eli Gorin.
With everyone working from home, virtual-event attendees are more eager than ever for opportunities to interact with one another, even if it's done remotely. A planner can elevate a virtual happy hour by having themed outfits or items that everyone can wear. To help facilitate this, E3 Planning's Victoria Petersen suggests sending virtual-event registrants a sponsored accessory or clothing item that they can wear during a themed happy hour or networking session.
"Attendees can wear it during a specific session to get the spirits and energy high," she says. "Then take screen shots and collage them into a follow up thank-you-for-attending note."
"Drinks on Us" Sponsorship
If themed accessories for a virtual happy hour are not enough fun, consider giving the sponsor a way to sponsor the drink itself (when liquor laws allow).
"Those who register by a certain date receive a bar in a branded box (maybe one mini bottle of wine, or a can of beer and a nice glass) — a great substitute for sponsoring happy hour on-site at a hotel," says Feyisola Ogunfemi, owner of event planning company Statuesque Events. "Most people will also keep and reuse the box that is comes in, keeping you top of mind."
Coordinated Food Delivery
Planners hosting all-day or half-day events will also need to provide breaks that allow attendees to grab a coffee or lunch. But rather than having them walk away to cook in their homes, VIBE Agency's Bihet suggests partnering with a sponsor to leverage Grubhub or Uber Eats to deliver a set lunch (or coffee break snack) to the homes of all attendees at a set time.
"As long as you capture the address for attendees during registration, this can still be coordinated and help support a local business in each city at the same time," she says. If coordinating the delivery is too difficult, consider providing attendees with a discount code, underwritten by the sponsor, that they can use to cover the cost of their coffee or lunch.
Wear and Share
Sponsors can get an added social boost from branded swag if a planner adds a "wear and share" component to the virtual event. Ogunfemi describes how registrants can be sent tee shirts or baseball caps and not only encouraged to wear them during the virtual networking or happy hour events, but to share more widely.
"You can host a competition on social media where attendees share themselves wearing your swag and tag you in exchange for an entry for a major giveaway such as a laptop or TV," says Ogunfemi. "This brings great exposure to your brand."
Closing Credits Sponsorship
When the virtual event is wrapping up, instead of just thanking everyone and closing the event, how about giving it a more memorable conclusion?
"Not unlike watching a televised event or a movie, virtual events give you a chance to show rolling credits that thank a large number of sponsors and donors in a more impactful way than an in-person event could, because sponsor names and/or logos can be fundamentally woven into part of the production," says VISION Production Group's Shappro.
Sponsorship as a Relationship-Builder
Whatever forms they take, virtual sponsorships can provide value to both planner and sponsor, even if no money actually changes hands. At a time when no face-to-face events are happening, sponsors are eager to get their names in front of an audience, and planners are looking for ways to maintain their relationships with customers and be able to offer them something.
"The heart of the matter is: How do you make your brand present in an environment when people just aren't meeting and aren't spending money?" says NEXT Events' Schneider. "It's about preserving relationships, making our customers' brands present and making them feel good about the money they have with us. When we get past this, it's going to make them feel good about spending more money."
Create a Freemium Offer
Anyone who's joined Spotify or Hulu is familiar with this approach, which was suggested by Beth Surmont, director of experience design at 360 Live Media during Northstar Meetings Group's webcast on Boosting Audience Engagement at Virtual Meetings (available on-demand now). With this approach, attendees can join the virtual event at no additional charge, but they agree to watch a sponsor's message or somehow engage with the sponsor. Those attendees that prefer not to have any promotional messaging, can pay an extra fee. "As an attendee, I might want that lower registration price point, or maybe I can afford to pay a little more and am willing to pay for the type of access that I want," said Surmont.
This is another idea from Surmont that can provide the opportunity for a sponsorship. "You put people into breakout rooms: five people, five questions, for five minutes," said Surmont. "It's nice for a quick energy burst."
Customer Case Studies
Even the most well-crafted sales pitch is still a sales pitch. Audience members may be more likely to perk up by hearing about an event vendor or venue not from the supplier themselves, but from a satisfied customer.
"Have the sponsor invite a customer to speak on their behalf," suggests Park. "Sponsors can purchase a presentation slot, then the customer can discuss their journey working with that sponsor and providing insights into the initial obstacles and how the sponsor solved them. Nothing sells a product or service better than a customer testimonial or referral. This also provides an educational reference for other attendees who may be experiencing the same obstacles the featured customer did."
Add a Virtual Mall
Planners can add a "virtual mall" or store to their online trade show, in which the sponsor could display or even sell their goods directly to attendees, creating a virtual shopping experience and delivering their brand messaging in a more interactive, three-dimensional way.
"At checkout they would provide their information (name, address, telephone number, email, etc.) and could either arrange for pick up or have it shipped," describes Allen. "In addition to the sponsor having their name, they have their buying habits which allows them to customize mailings to that customer."
Branded Breakout Rooms
Bihet points out that just as with an in-person event, there are digital platforms like Socio that allow for breakout sessions during a half- or full-day virtual conference — and which provide great opportunities for a sponsor's message.
"After attendees watch the main panel, session or speaker, they can choose a breakout room that has the screen branded with the sponsor colors, logo and even pop-up advertising or chat boxes can appear at timed intervals throughout the session — albeit not in front of the main viewing panel," Bihet describes. "Because it's digital these can also be tracked, so you know how many people are in each room and how many click on any of the ads or pop-up messaging."
McIntosh suggests offering a separate "VIP room," that could provide additional content or special features — all branded with a sponsor message.
"Depending on the event, VIP packages may be sold to include bonus content, live chat with speakers, free downloads or other exclusive offers," she says. "This is a prime sponsorship opportunity."