During the last six months, many of us, perhaps you too, have been thinking non-stop about virtual conferences. We’ve learned a great deal along the way, especially about providing value to virtual conference sponsors and exhibitors. This is still an unfolding story, but we’ve collected some of the most promising ideas to share with you.
Co-design packages for virtual conference sponsors and exhibitors
Don’t even think about designing sponsor and exhibitor packages in a vacuum. Talk with potential sponsors and exhibitors to learn about their marketing goals and find out what they’ve experienced or seen at virtual conferences elsewhere.
The goal is to work together to design new partnerships that help sponsors and exhibitors achieve their marketing goals while bringing value to your attendees and revenue to your association. Go beyond the temporal limits of your event. A year-round sponsorship package is more advantageous for your association and its revenue partners.
Increase your association’s marketing efforts to sponsors and exhibitors
One virtual conference is not like another—and they’re not like in-person conferences either. Since potential revenue partners are most likely preoccupied with the perceived disadvantages of a virtual experience, make sure they understand the advantages of your virtual conference, for example:
• Higher attendance and, therefore, an expanded reach.
• No travel expenses or staff time spent traveling.
• More attendee booth visits since the annoyance factor of walking by lead-hungry exhibitors is eliminated.
• Valuable event data, such as who came to their booth, who viewed videos and other content, who downloaded content, and who clicked on links.
However, you must establish realistic expectations. Their ROI is mainly dependent on the efforts they make to attract attendees to their booths and provide the value they’re seeking.
Demonstrate your virtual conference platform in a webinar meeting with potential sponsors and exhibitors. Offer to take them on individual tours or record screen-share videos for them. Publish an FAQ about what they can do on the platform. Since they’re most likely sponsoring and exhibiting at other virtual events, you must be clear about what’s possible on your platform so they don’t make assumptions.
Coach sponsors and exhibitors on how to get maximum ROI from your virtual conference
Assign each company a partner success manager who helps them get the most value out of their experience, not just at this particular virtual conference but year-round with your association.
Prepare a guidebook so they know what’s possible. Despite their titles, many of them are not marketing experts so provide best practices for relationship-building, advertising, promotions, and booth content. For example, don’t assume they’ll think of linking to a Zoom meeting from their virtual booth. Suggest this option if they want to meet face-to-face with booth visitors.
Encourage exhibitors to use email and social media marketing to promote what they have in store for attendees. No one is going to enter their booth unless they entice them in. Why should attendees make an effort to visit? What can the exhibitor teach or show them?
Suggest ideas for content marketing in their virtual booth. You might have to teach them about the value of content marketing. They should focus on content that illuminates challenges, provides solutions to attendee problems, and meets the attendee where they are on the buyer’s journey, for example:
• One-minute (or less) video explaining how the exhibitor solves an attendee problem in the context of what they do or sell
• Tip sheets and checklists
• Blog posts
• Case studies
• Mini-demonstration video
Exhibitors should display a call-to-action—something that tempts the attendee to click for more information and a special landing page on their website for these leads.
Let exhibitors host mini-education sessions and/or networking discussions during breaks. You could allow them to do this only as a sponsored session that’s hosted on your conference platform and included in the schedule, or you could give exhibitors the freedom to do their own thing outside of session hours.
Exhibitors and sponsors benefit from having a presence in chats and breakout rooms so encourage them to participate in conference sessions. Attendees will see them as part of the community and, if their contributions are valuable, as thought-leaders too.
Add more value to the exhibitor and sponsor experience
Use the conference registration form to identify attendee leads. Include fields for attendee interests and readiness to research new products and services.
Encourage attendees to complete their conference profile. Ask them to opt into having their information shared with your revenue partners. The more the partner pays, the more information they get and the more quickly they get it.
Give attendees early access to booths and exhibitor content before the event. It’s a good way for them to test their login credentials, solve technical issues, and complete their profile. Extend access for several weeks after the event too.
Give attendees a registration discount, rebate, or credit if they schedule and participate in four virtual 15-minute consultation sessions with a sponsor.
Offer a “no booth” or sponsorship package that gives revenue partners the opportunity to flaunt their expertise in conference programs, for example:
• Sponsored Q&A with a speaker.
• Sponsor interviews conducted by the virtual emcee during breaks.
• Sponsored sessions, for example, a case study with a member client or facilitated panel.
• Sponsored polls during the conference that elicit information of value to members.
• Sponsored happy hour with special guest.
• Sponsored discussions about a specific topic or focused on a specific group of attendees targeted by career stage, position, specialty, or location.
• Matching donations to a charity of interest.
Aim for year-round sponsorship packages
A virtual conference is only one piece of a healthy revenue partner relationship. These companies need business development year-round, not just the few days during your event. Offer a year-long sponsorship package that includes:
• Sponsor/exhibitor event package upgrade—their on-demand content lives on your website for a year.
• Sponsored webinar series, mini-course, or other online programs.
• Sponsored articles or blog posts.
Members would appreciate more opportunities to get together virtually at sponsored social/networking events. Ask sponsors to host or moderate discussions, coffee chats, lunch and learns, and happy hours.
You could also offer exclusive opportunities, such as:
• Sponsored memberships for students or professionals in transition.
• Sponsored scholarships for conferences, certificate programs, or other online education programs.
• Sponsored fellowships.
• Sponsored leadership training.
Innovation is popping up everywhere in response to these challenging pandemic conditions. Six months from now, we could have an entirely new set of ideas about virtual sponsor and exhibitor opportunities. Get out ahead of the game by forming a business development advisory group made up of a diverse selection of sponsors and exhibitors. They can help you spot new ideas to try out and let you know what’s working and what’s not.