Even as cities across the country begin a phased reopening of businesses following a months-long shutdown, large-scale events and conferences are being approached with caution. Events throughout the spring rapidly shifted from in-person to virtual-only – to varying levels of success – and, as we look ahead, it’s likely most events for the foreseeable future will continue to be either all virtual or have a strong online component. While the health and safety of attendees may be at the heart of this decision, many associations are also seeing the shift to virtual events as an opportunity to engage with a larger audience in new ways.
While they will never fully replace the live event experience, with thoughtful, strategic planning, any virtual event can still meet many of the same goals: furthering industry education, creating professional connections and networks, and building relationships between people and businesses. The benefits of walking an expo floor and meeting with industry partners face-to-face may not be easy to replicate in a digital format, but there are a number of opportunities you can offer to your exhibitors and sponsors that will provide meaningful value.
Here are 10 ideas for how your association can help your exhibitors and sponsors gain visibility and better engage with their target audience before, during and after your next virtual event.
- Much like an in-person event, companies can sponsor specific sessions or educational tracks. Brand recognition opportunities can include logo placement within the platform, moderator recognition of sponsors before and after sessions, and the opportunity for sponsors to include a brief video introduction tailored to the specific topic being presented.
- While some attendees may experience “Zoom fatigue” after a day of virtual sessions, many more will look forward to the social opportunities that are such an invaluable part of conferences. Networking breaks or a post-conference “happy hour” is a great way for sponsors to get face time and present their brand to attendees in a more freeform, fun environment. You can also form virtual lounges where small groups of attendees in similar roles (think CEOs or young professionals) can gather in between sessions or during downtime.
- Along these lines, don’t forget swag! Companies are likely to have plenty of it around right now, and it can be a great way to incentivize participation from attendees through giveaways and raffles throughout your event. Expo floor bingo, for example, is a great way for attendees to connect companies at live events, and it’s an easy game that can be transformed into a digital format.
- Allow your sponsors’ voices to be heard. Just as you would when planning a traditional conference, sponsor companies should be viewed as thought leaders who can share valuable expertise and knowledge as session speakers. If you would include them as co-presenters in live sessions, there’s no reason that should change when moving to virtual meetings.
- Give your sponsors a space to create a community within your event. At a recent Digital Summit at Home content marketing conference, organizers provided vendors with customized Slack channels (in addition to the channel for the event overall), as well as some brief prompts to get conversation started. This provided a valuable opportunity for dialogue between attendees and sponsors.
- Create an event microsite that’s unique from your association’s homepage to rise above the communications clutter. Attendees will know exactly where to go when they need event details right at their fingertips. Sponsor logos should be front and center, but advertising opportunities, including programmatic, which helps companies target visitors after they leave your site and navigate the internet, are also a real value-add.
- Most associations now curate content from their speakers to publish in their communications as a way of marketing events. Plus, it’s a great way to continue the learning beyond the confines of your event. So why not extend that same offer to your exhibitors and sponsors? Your industry partners have a wealth of expertise that they can share through sponsored content in your magazine, blog or e-newsletter. It’s exposure for your sponsor and promotion for your event – a win-win.
- Appointment-based meetings with companies are where you attendees can really get down to business. Just because you’re no longer on-site doesn’t mean you can’t still help facilitate those connections. Survey your attendees ahead of time to determine which products or services they are most interested in, and then pair them up with an appropriate exhibitor for 15-minute virtual meetings.
- Another way you can help your attendees find the exhibitors whose products and services they really need: an interactive exhibitor directory. It should be searchable and easy to navigate, and the more information the better: company profiles, website links, and supplier contact information are a must.
- Finally, your membership and attendee lists are among your biggest assets, so making them available for one-time email marketing is a huge boon for your top sponsors. It helps them stand out and reach their target audience directly in their inboxes with a relevant, timely message. Reminder: Make sure to ask attendees for their consent to be emailed when they register.
Keep in mind: Just as some associations have pivoted to virtual events more quickly than others, a number of your exhibitors and sponsors may already have several virtual events under their belts. Ask for their ideas on how to offer the most return on investment, listen to their feedback on what strategies have been more (or less) successful from their point of view, and be willing to customize your virtual event sponsorship packages based on each companies’ needs.