After a year when the Covid pandemic forced organizations to bring people together via technology with almost no time to prepare, the meetings industry was forced to adapt and evolve throughout 2021 in its ability to conduct effective events online.
Even in one area that’s strongly connected to face-to-face meetings—exhibitor and sponsor interactions—many event hosts figured out how to deliver good value in the virtual realm.
The result: As in-person meetings come back in 2022, the online medium is a genie that cannot be stuffed back into the bottle. The potential for business events to engage audiences far larger than they could get in person is simply too great.
For exhibitors and sponsors, the opportunities to engage virtual attendees can surely be worthwhile. Here’s how your planning team can deliver many valuable opportunities to both sponsors and attendees.
Lesson 1: Identify Goals, then Teach Sponsors How to Succeed
At this point in the nearly two-year evolution of virtual and hybrid events, “sponsors and exhibitors are being a lot more careful about what they spend money on” versus the first wave of events that were built out quickly, says Tom Myers, vice president of sales services for association-management giant SmithBucklin. “Their expectations are now higher with respect to their objectives.”
So, when Myers’ team talks with an event partner, “it has to be solution-focused. We must learn exactly what they're going to measure their return on investment against, because it's definitely not the same across the board.” In essence, it comes down to branding, thought leadership, or lead generation.
From there, an event host must educate their partners not only on the specific opportunities that match their goal, but also on how to use those opportunities to the greatest effect.
For partners interested in branding, “there’s a huge amount of real estate to work with in virtual,” says Mae Ibe, CMP, director of conference and trade-show services for Meetings & Incentives Worldwide. “Just like you can brand almost every inch of an in-person venue and its touchpoints, the same can be done virtually. There are the various pages across the event’s website, all the different features on the event app, all the breakouts can have branding on the margins of the screen, and so on. Whichever virtual platform you choose can detail for you all the branding opportunities, but you also have to know the possibilities of your other digital assets connected to the event.”
For partners interested in thought leadership, “we stress that luring attendees to sponsor-led sessions and product/innovation theaters requires them to tell a story,” Myers says. “We’ll coach them to make it educational not in terms of product features but on why they created their product. What was the industry problem or need that you saw? What research was behind the product’s development? What changes are coming for this industry that are driving your next innovations? Attendees can find product features and benefits on the company’s website. If sponsors want to look like thought leaders, they've got to deliver content that proves it.”
Other avenues for thought leadership include allowing sponsors to introduce keynote speakers or moderate panels for breakout sessions. But Francesca Radabaugh, CAE, chief operations officer for Paragon Events (pictured here), says that her team “will be very proactive about working with a sponsor to make sure they stay true to this particular mission. It’s not a moment for them to sell their product, but rather to sell their understanding of the industry.” As a result, the Paragon team will consult on and then review speaker introductions and moderator questions ahead of time to ensure that they match the objective.
For partners seeking network-building and lead generation through virtual exhibit booths—the most inconsistently performing avenue within virtual events—the host organization should prepare exhibitors on the features of the host platform to drive attendance.
One example: The American Academy of Physician Assistants held training sessions ahead of its 2021 virtual annual meeting for exhibitors who wanted to perfect their approach on the event’s Freeman platform. The sessions also taught exhibitors how to deliver pre-event communications to attendees to secure one-on-one appointments in their virtual booths. “If you don't have a proactive plan for helping exhibitors, they’re probably not going to get the engagement they’re looking for,” says Del Baker-Robertson, CAE, director of strategic business development for the American Academy of Physician Assistants.
Myers notes that after SmithBucklin executed a few virtual events, “we saw that exhibitors need to understand how and when to get messaging out about their exhibit presence in ways that draw people.” As a result, Myers’ team will coach exhibitors on doing that. Further, “they must pre-load traffic into their booth, so we’ll show them how to best use the matchmaking capabilities within the platform. Those two things are key for virtual exhibitors” to have success.
Another strategy show organizers recommend to virtual exhibitors: Using giveaways and contests that will motivate that event’s particular audience to act. (For specific ideas, see lesson #5 in the link at the end of this article.)
Lesson 2: Ask Sponsors What Works
With so many virtual and hybrid events conducted since spring 2020, it's probable that your event's potential sponsors aren't complete novices at it. Among your larger prospects, then, it might be revealing to ask what they have done at other shows that has worked well. At AAPA, “some of our pharma exhibitors and sponsors had worked in the virtual medium several times before our annual event in May 2021,” says Del Baker-Robertson (pictured here). “So, we actually learned a lot from them—especially about how they wanted to leverage digital activations to drive attendees to their virtual booths.”
For instance, “some of our sponsors hosted their own themed breaks in their booths to drive attendees there via our newly created assets in the virtual platform, and we allowed them to do that."
In fact, AAPA has learned enough from its sponsors that it does not offer them traditional tiered packages, opting for what it calls a “surround sound” approach. Rather than focusing on activations happening mostly during the event itself, “surround sound” delivers activations before, during, and after the virtual event to develop long-term engagement with attendees.
By asking open-ended questions of sponsors before presenting the offerings they could buy into, “we recognized that there was real estate and channels to be sold outside of those four days of the conference that our big sponsors wanted access to,” Baker-Robertson says. Because they want to reach attendees across different channels with messages based on attendees’ prior activity, “we were actually able to uncover new assets that we hadn't sold previously” for any in-person or online event.