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Thinking Inside the Box: Sponsorship Ideas for a Virtual and Hybrid World

By Hellena O'Dell

In the event industry, adaptability is a superpower.

The global health crisis has sparked incredible levels of innovation as event professionals began shifting from in-person to virtual events — often in record time.

Take Ingram Micro — forced to move its annual conference into a virtual environment, this global technology company went off-script, throwing out the traditional single-time-zone agenda. Instead, Ingram Micro built its own “follow the sun” approach that aligned content availability with attendees’ location and language.

The result? Registration increased by 300 percent, day-after-day attendance remained consistent, and sponsors cited the best engagement they’d experienced for a virtual event.

Sponsorships for digital and hybrid environments

While some live events have returned, our proprietary research suggests the return of large, full-scale gatherings will return en masse winter 2021-2022. However, even after in-person events return, the odds are excellent that brands and organizations will continue to offer virtual events, as well as hybrid/integrated events (single events that serve in-person and virtual audiences).

The challenge is that many show organizers and meeting planners are used to traditional sponsorship models and are not quite sure how to take advantage of a virtual space. Additionally, if running a hybrid event, they may not know how to create virtual and in-person activations that complement each other.

Instead, many event professionals take the path of least resistance by creating virtual sponsorships that are simply an online version of traditional sponsorships.

While this approach is temptingly comfortable, it’s also easily replicated, making these types of sponsorship offerings way too similar to those of competing events.

Ingram Micro’s success provides an important lesson as our industry rethinks sponsorships in our new world: Rather than trying to shoehorn traditional practices into a different type of event, being open to new possibilities can reveal incredible opportunities.

So, how can event professionals improve sponsorships for virtual and hybrid experiences?

Make digital and hybrid offerings memorable

The first rule for great sponsorships is: Make them memorable. As we’ve said in the before times, where there’s a space, there’s a sponsorship opportunity. And when the event space is no longer bound by physical limitations, the opportunities for memorable sponsorships increase by leaps and bounds. In addition, leveraging activities already planned can help you offset costs and drive attendee engagement.

Instead of limiting sponsorships to a virtual exhibit hall or sponsor showcase, a webpage with sponsor links, and tools that facilitate networking, consider programming that gets your audience more involved.

With some creativity, event professionals can tailor sponsorships for in-person and remote experiences, creating a seamless hybrid approach that offers engaging and immersive sponsorship opportunities at home and in the physical event space.

Let’s look at some examples!

Conversations and connections

Create sessions where executives share their perspectives on leadership, community, diversity, and solving global issues that result in a better future. This approach could evolve into cocktails and conversations depending on the time of day. Topics could cover:

  • Leadership in this time of uncertainty
  • Industry segmented topics
  • Geographic segments
  • Maintaining mental health

Sponsorship opportunities could include:

Pairing Sponsors with Sessions: Finance industry sponsors go with financial topics, wellness sponsors go with health care topics, and so on. Attendees in those sessions will naturally have a greater interest in relevant sponsors, so take advantage of this targeting by making the sponsor part of the session. Pairing sponsors with speakers and/or topics makes sure the sponsored session is integrated.

A fun way to do this in a hybrid or virtual environment is to include surveys or interactive quizzes: With sponsor-donated gift cards as the hook, it’s easy for everybody — no matter where they are — to take part.

Increasing Branding Opportunities: Unlike an in-person event, virtual attendees aren’t in a large room where side chatter and clinking coffee cups can distract attention from the big screen. Sponsor branding has more potential to be seen and heard in this medium. We recommend:

  • Branded video opens for live sessions
  • Short video ads for pre-recorded sessions
  • If your event is hybrid, consider branded backdrops that can easily be seen in person or via video.

On-Demand Library Spotlight: Showcase a partner or high-level sponsor with an on-demand library sponsorship:

  • Hero branding on webpages
  • Prominent logos on session videos
  • Partner- or sponsor-specific sessions pinned to the top of content library search results
  • Social media posts promoting partnership/sponsorship
  • Monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual partner highlight on main page

Another way to make sponsors smile? A special thank you or shout-out from the moderator will get attention. And a leads list provided to the sponsor after the session will always be a welcomed perk — both gestures work physically and digitally.

Food for thought

Surprise and delight attendees by hosting a cooking demo, a mixology session, a virtual workout or meditation session, or any other non-work-related activity that stands out and gets attendees interacting in a novel way, whether in person or online. These types of fun breaks can also mingle together on and off-line offering additional ways to engage both environments.

Sponsorship opportunities could include:

Visible branding: Utilize the area real estate such as the chef’s/hosts kitchen/workspace, gear, or clothing.

Feature the people: Improve engagement with a sponsor’s brand by having a member of their leadership team on-camera with the expert as they learn how to create a new dish or master some dance moves. Adding this human element also makes it relaxed and relatable.

You’ve got mail: Send a pre-event email to everyone registered for the session with the ingredients list branded with the sponsor logo. A sponsored virtual gift card for ingredients or gear offers great exposure. If your event is hybrid, branded gear like aprons or yoga straps keep the sponsor’s visibility going long after the event.

Go beyond the event calendar

One of the biggest opportunities created by virtual and hybrid sponsorships is the ability to transcend not just the physical event space, but the calendar.

Take advantage with sponsorships that exist and engage beyond the event agenda. The beauty of these opportunities is that they work equally well for virtual and hybrid events.

Digital Grab Bags: Create a digital grab bag and fill it with gift cards and goodies throughout the year. Attendees will check it regularly, which gives sponsors an opportunity to stay top of mind through content, advertisements, and other promotional offers.

Event Escapes: Everyone experiences event fatigue no matter the medium. So design unique breakout getaways (in-person or online) for sponsors to own that allow attendees to escape and recharge. Think mindfulness areas, yoga sessions, or quiet recharging spaces that invite calm, reflection, and maybe some much-needed stretching!

Monthly Video Subscriptions: Speaking of recharging, many companies today provide some sort of wellness program for employees. Consider offering a video series with a monthly subscription fee that delivers something similar. Then find a partner to sponsor the series or individual videos. For extra credit, throw in branded swag boxes with gifts provided by your sponsor(s), such as yoga mats and towels, water bottles, headphones, etc. — keep in mind that these perks don’t have to be expensive; the thought really does count!

Branded Boxes and Crates: Think about those monthly beauty boxes, cocktail crates, and kids’ science kits that are all the rage. Create a themed box that highlights your company and provides more sponsorship opportunities, including package branding and product inclusion. Look for partners that fit the box theme for a win-win.

Podcasts: If your company has or is creating a podcast, offer episode-specific or general podcast sponsorships that include website and mobile app branding. These could even be special or “exclusive” episodes that are gated for lead gen.

Post-pandemic Experiences: We’re definitely seeing glimmers at the end of this pandemic tunnel, but there will come a time when it’s fully in the rearview mirror. So take advantage of that delightful moment in our future and create a sponsored “once in a lifetime” experience (including in-person and digital aspects) that audiences can opt into now.

A new digital opportunity: on-demand events

Remember, it isn’t only sponsorships that can transcend the calendar.

What if the event itself could simply…continue with a year-round? A subscription-based content model could easily achieve this ongoing reach.

Obviously, on-demand content isn’t new. With channel apps like Netflix, Disney+, and Hulu, as well as gaming apps like Fortnite, we’ve been on-demanding for quite a while. As long as there’s a steady influx of new content that adds value, these platforms keep attracting and delighting subscribers to access what they want, whenever they want.

Registration and attendance measures can be replaced by subscriptions, viewership, downloads, and a host of other behavior-based data. A company’s event attendees become subscribers who, by default, become customers.

Bonus: This data also helps inform future experience ideas!

Sponsorships could reach a whole new level of reach by paying to provide the influx of new content. Imbedded and banner advertisements turn that exposure and visibility up to 11.

Explore the possibilities

Virtual and hybrid events have opened up the field for bold new sponsorship possibilities. Even at in-person events, emerging technology is transforming and up-leveling activations.

So what does that mean for event professionals? Now is the time to create unique combinations of events and sponsorships that take advantage of the virtual/hybrid shift.

Courtney Aguilar, Richard Toscano, and Bridgette Vanderlaan contributed to this article.

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