Generating Revenue for Virtual Events Beyond Registration

02 November 2020
meetings & events

A key component of association events is the revenue generated from sponsorships and exhibitors. As virtual events become even more prominent for association events of all sizes, getting sponsors and exhibitors excited about this new take on events lies in increasing the long-term value of partnering with your association.

Making the Shift from In-Person to Virtual

If your event was previously sold as an in-person event and you’ve made the decision to convert to virtual, either temporarily or permanently, acknowledging that the virtual event is different from an in-person event will be important in preserving relationships with sponsors and creating a slate of options that are relevant and effective for a virtual platform. 

“It’s important to be real and acknowledge that this isn’t the in-person event,” said Porter Rice, industry relations manager at Association Headquarters. “We work hard to put together options that are interesting and valuable, and you essentially need those sponsors and exhibitors to shift their thinking so that they’re not comparing the virtual event to the in-person event. They’re different events, each with their own benefits and challenges, so I ask them to be open to something different. They’re more willing to try to see how it might work if you present the information honestly.”

The Wound, Ostomy and Continence Nurses (WOCN®) Society, spent a lot of time making phone calls to sponsors, exhibitors, and supporters when they decided to make their in-person event virtual. They connected personally to not only ask sponsors to trust them and join them on the new venture, but to show and teach them the new online tools and features that would be available with the virtual event. Discussions highlighted what sponsors would need to have a successful event experience and updated sponsors regularly via a range of communication channels including their MyWOCN mobile app, social media, emails, and WOCN website.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for difficult conversations,” Rice said. “Connecting personally sets the stage for an honest conversation. Make them feel like they have options and show that you’re sensitive to their situation and the challenges this might present.”

If the event was already sold as an in-person event that has now converted to a virtual event, provide options to sponsors as they’re weighing their involvement with the event. These options may include:

  1. Allowing them to reallocate what they’ve already spent to other options. If a sponsor paid for an exhibit booth, simply converting that in-person exhibit booth to a virtual booth may not carry the same perceived value. Allowing sponsors to control where and how their investment is used in the virtual event allows the association to retain the full investment while maintaining relationships with sponsors.
  2. Adding value to your current offerings. If you plan on applying sales for an in-person event to the virtual event, add to their existing investment by incorporating other low-effort, high-value elements, such as increased exposure across different communications tied to or outside of the event.
  3. Giving sponsors the option to apply their investment to the next in-person event. If the previous options aren’t received well, converting the sale to apply to a future in-person event shows flexibility, understanding, and avoids having to issue refunds.
  4. Converting their investment to a donation for the association’s foundation, education fund, or program. Many sponsors are motivated to support an industry or the cause championed by an association. This option allows them to still support the organization in the event they don’t want their investment applied to a virtual event. 

Create Unique Sponsorship Opportunities

When launching sales efforts in support of a virtual event, it’s critical to create opportunities that are relevant in the context of a virtual event.

These opportunities must be different from those developed for an in-person event (i.e., they should be novel, not seen as a substitution or replacement). While it may be tempting to start selling the virtual event as soon as it’s decided upon, take time to create interesting opportunities that leverage the full functionality of the event.

The following are approaches you may take in planning your virtual event to ensure that sponsors have innovative ways to engage.

  • Establish thought-leadership opportunities
  • Align sponsors with sessions for strategic placement
  • Leverage the virtual platform for video, chat, and appointment setting
  • Increase visual branding opportunities

Expanding Sponsors’ Reach

In addition to program materials and session sponsorships, associations must challenge themselves to develop robust opportunities for sponsors to reach their audiences that go far beyond an event-centric sponsorship package. Consider all aspects of the association’s communications and relevant channels and evaluate where and how sponsors may benefit from exposure. This holistic approach to sponsorship provides long-tail exposure for sponsors to engage with your audience.

“What I’ve found valuable is having the exposure go beyond that conference,” Christina DeRose, industry relations manager at AH. “Associations might record sessions to have them available on-demand after the event, but that’s just one option when there are so many other ways to keep driving value long after the event.”

On Your Website

Some long-tailed exposure for sponsors could include highlighting sponsors on the association website.

“It’s hard to get dedicated attention in a remote environment, so I’m always thinking about, if no one is paying attention in that moment, what else can we do to get those people?” DeRose said. “We did a program guide for our virtual event that included ads. It gives them a broader audience and is a new medium, a new way we can engage people to give sponsors exposure.”

The Controlled Release Society (CRS) developed new platforms to highlight and promote sponsors, considering them CRS sponsors, not just event sponsors. On its website, CRS created a “Preferred Vendors of CRS” page, and any vendor that supported the virtual event was listed there in addition to the virtual event site.

A Dedicated Social Campaign

A truly unique take on promoting event sponsors and adding value to their investment is developing customized social promotional campaigns specifically to highlight sponsors. CRS created its social media gratitude program specifically for highlighting CRS sponsors and thanking them for their support. The personalized social media promotion engaged senior leaders of CRS to share a social media post that included sponsor information on their personal networks.

Detailed Reporting

Virtual events present a rich data-collection opportunity for associations to show exactly where sponsors found the most value. “With a virtual event, we’re able to see who went in and out of virtual exhibit booths,” said Holly Rose, the director of Industry Relations for AH. However, with all that access to data comes the need to understand just what will be valuable for sponsors and exhibitors, and exactly what data your virtual platform collects. 

Based on what the data shows, Rose advises association leaders to give sponsors the option to change where and how they want their investment applied. “Digital assets are live for a longer amount of time—some associations are providing access to sponsored recorded sessions for a year or longer. I’m anticipating that people will ask if they can switch things up and update them,” Rose said. 

Flexibility and creativity are key in looking ahead to the future of virtual association events. “We’re on version 1.0 of these virtual events,” Rose said. “Version 2.0 might look really different, and being ready to adapt based on what we learn will help drive value for sponsors.”

Download Virtual Events: Planning Guide for Associations


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