Small Event, Big Sponsors Vol 8: How Do You Sell Your Virtual Event?

Recently a report was released by EventMB called The Virtual Event Tech Guide about the state of virtual events as well as giving information about virtual tech. Two very noticeable stats that came to light for me is that only 32% of live events pivoted to virtual this year and only 2% of event professionals were able to recover 100% of their annual revenue and “70% of event professionals were unable to recover more than 25% of their annual revenue using virtual.” These stats just verified what my agency and myself had been experiencing firsthand. That Virtual events aren’t replace live event revenue and part of that is sponsorships. The following is an excerpt from my new book, “Sell Your Event! The Easy to Follow Practical Guide to Getting Sponsors.” “How do I sell my virtual event?” This is the question I was asked the most in the early months of 2020. As events tried to create virtual events that would make up for the lost income of their canceled live events, they often expected to pull in their same sponsors. My answer to them was sell your virtual events with the same principles as you sell your live events. You follow the same steps, and you provide the same information. The one thing I ask my clients when they are considering a virtual event is “What is the ultimate goal?” Are they creating this virtual event for marketing purposes to help keep their event top of mind and their patrons engaged? Are they creating this virtual event to make up the lost revenue? Or are they creating this virtual event to replace their live event for the year? Knowing what you are ultimately trying to accomplish will help you understand the reality of the situation and set your expectations. Although I do not believe virtual will replace the live event experience, it is not going anywhere, so we need to adjust for this popular form of event. To do this, you want to keep a few things in mind when it comes to sponsorships: 1) Audience data is the lifeblood of your sponsorships. You don’t have to be Coachella to sell sponsorships, but you do have to understand you are selling access to your audience. 2) The principles for selling live event sponsorships are the same for virtual or hybrid events. You must understand what the sponsor is trying to get out of the sponsorship. Just like in a live event, you need to know what the sponsor is trying to achieve. You need to know if you can help them meet that goal no matter what type of event you are doing. Just taking a sponsor who had a major activation at your live event and offering them a logo on a Facebook stream will most likely not generate excitement or sponsorship dollars. 3) If this is the first time you have taken your event virtual or hybrid then you are up against unproven results. Keep this in mind when you consider how you price your sponsorships. Perhaps you charge less than you normally would, but the event gets more sponsorship dollars based on impressions, clicks, or marketplace visits (if you are doing a virtual marketplace). You cannot just take the price of your live event and slap it on the virtual or hybrid event. 4) In the case of virtual or hybrid, make sure your production and your technology are good. When virtual events first took shape during the pandemic, it was okay to host in your living room, but things have changed. As virtual events become more commonplace, the audience is demanding more. Good production and professionalism are required for success. 5) You need to upgrade your marketing and make sure you message how your virtual event will work and how a patron can be a part of it. I have seen several events create great virtual events but did a bad job of marketing them or explaining how they work. This leads to low attendance numbers and low sponsorship dollars.

Virtual Event Assets

Digital assets can still be utilized for a virtual event. In fact, the value of these may become higher, since all you have is your online presence to connect with your audience, but again, this all depends on how much of your audience is actually seeing these assets. Traditional assets such as naming rights can also be integrated into a virtual event. Depending on the setup of your main entertainment, multiple stages could be named after sponsors. In addition, a virtual event could also host a presenting or title sponsor. Shaq’s Fun House vs Gronk Beach, Presented by The General® Insurance found many ways to involve sponsors. As you can see, in the name they hosted a presenting sponsor for their event. They also hosted multiple “challenges” that integrated sponsors into on-screen activities. These challenges included a Lip Sync Battle, presented by The General Insurance, where Shaq and Gronk faced off. The McCormick Grill Mates Steak Challenge had Shaq and Gronk grill, with Shaq taking home the title of top chef. Fortunately for Gronk, he won the jousting competition, presented by Monster Energy. Rocket Mortgage Sports Showdown involved a photo finish to see who won the final obstacle, an egg and spoon race. It ended with Gronk defeating Shaq in the Buffalo Wild Wings Blazin’ Challenge. As you can see, each activity involved the sponsor in a unique way. It also provided fans with hilarious entertainment to see two major athlete-celebrities go head to head in fun and light-hearted challenges. Sampling can still be done with some virtual events through welcome packs or swag bags. Our client, Hood to Coast, teamed up with their sponsor, ONE Bar, to include bars in all of their “Finisher Packs.” When a runner completed their mileage, they would log on to the event website and enter their time. Hood to Coast would then ship them a package which included their medal, a t-shirt (depending on the race), and a ONE Bar. This met the sponsor’s goal to get their product into the hands of their target consumer, and it did it when there were no events happening. Mailing a racing package to a registrant is a great opportunity to involve sponsors in a virtual race. This is a way for the event organizers to connect with their fans and engage with sponsors in a way that feels like how a normal in-person event would. It also gives races a chance to keep their most staple sponsor asset, the event t-shirt, along with the opportunity to include unique products. However, make sure you factor in shipping and production costs when adding items to the package. Coupons or free sample cards have the best return on investment. By using a tracking code, you can also see the usage from those bounce-back coupons. As an event organizer, you will want to limit the number of sponsors you include in any type of package and make sure you include items of value. You don’t want to be shipping junk mail. Not only will it drive up shipping costs, but it dilutes the value of the sponsorship. Limiting how many can be involved in the direct-mail assets will help keep the costs down and the value high.

Virtual Expos and Conferences

A virtual expo might also be the way to go. It provides another gateway for an online event to connect partners and viewers. A virtual expo allows organizers to incorporate vendors and sponsors into one portal. EventHub created a platform that allows for meaningful and high-quality interactions. Event partners can engage with attendees in real time through virtual booths. Each virtual booth allows for video conferencing between the attendee and booth host. Sponsors and vendors are organized in a grid format and can be sorted and searched by category. A Toronto marathon found through the virtual expo, they could showcase their sponsors, vendors, and even the charities they support. They even added programming to attract attendees to the platform. Throughout the virtual event, they hosted a speaker series that featured informational sessions for runners of all abilities hosted by celebrities and elite athletes. A virtual expo does not just have to be for race events. Organizers of all kinds of events can integrate this platform into their live streams. Music festivals, pride events, state fairs, wellness expos, and more can benefit by adding this outlet for interaction between attendees and partners. The portal can even be organized by priority, allowing for sponsors to pay more for a premium spot.

Hybrid Events

Live streaming a music festival is nothing new. Major festivals like Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas have been live streaming their events for years. Coachella historically has received millions of views and broke viewership records when it hosted Beyoncé as a headliner. These would be considered hybrid events, where there is an in-person and virtual experience for the same event. But not all hybrid events are six-figured attendance numbers. I just spoke at a conference in Florida where there was a small, socially distanced summit with 100 people over two days. It was recorded and streamed to a much larger virtual conference audience of event professionals. The combination of both the live and virtual is the direction that many events are headed as we wait for the reopening of the event industry. Hybrid sponsorships tend to lend themselves to higher sponsorship dollars than just virtual, because they allow for some element of the in-person connection that is so important to virtual events. My biggest piece of advice that I can offer in the virtual/hybrid event space is just like your live event: Audience data is the lifeblood of your sponsorships. If you know your audience, then target those prospects who want access to them. These are unprecedented times, but I have seen such innovation from the event world this year that I know firsthand you can sell sponsorships to virtual and hybrid events if you use the same principles and techniques used to sell successful live event sponsorships. Don’t wait! Get out there because now is the time to make it happen!
This article was written by Teresa Stas and was originally published in the International Festivals & Events Association’s “i.e.: the business of international events” quarterly magazine November 2020. The premiere association supporting and enabling festivals and events worldwide. For more information on the IFEA, go to www.ifea.com.

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