Networking is one of my favorite conference activities. Meeting someone who expands my horizons or helping a colleague make a critical connection, is satisfying in a way that’s hard to beat. It’s not as easy to experience that glow in cyberspace. Nowhere is the gulf between an in-person and a virtual encounter more important to bridge than with the sponsors whose financial support is a critical component of association meetings.

Results of a recent .orgSource survey highlight the challenge that many organizations have producing robust ROI in virtual venues. Respondents reported that although online participation has increased, those gains were not matched in net revenue. Sponsorship dollars certainly figure into the equation. (The complete survey is available to .orgCommunity members.)

Many organizations are now comfortable in the virtual event space, but convincing sponsors that the level of online visibility and member engagement will be worth their investment seems to be a bigger challenge. Reimagining sponsorship is long overdue. If your organization was complacent about those important dollars, offering vanilla benefits year after year, it’s well past time to reinvent your program.

Even if virtual events will not have a major place in your future, I urge you to think creatively about how you engage with industry. Corporate marketers have moved beyond business as usual. They expect more meaningful partnerships.

What sponsors seek from this relationship is simple. They want to promote brand identity. They would like name recognition to be strengthened by thought leadership. Visibility plus credibility should equal leads, which ultimately result in sales. The formula has not changed, but we are challenged to find more innovative ways to deliver on those expectations.

.orgCommunity, our networking and education partner, has been exploring this issue in a discussion group. For those who may be struggling to boost sponsor participation or who are looking for new strategies, thoughts and ideas follow.  

Lean In

Organizations that are successful gaining corporate loyalty don’t just have their hands out to ask for support.

The organizations that are successful gaining corporate loyalty don’t just have their hands out to ask for support. I can’t overstress the importance of building relationships. When you only contact your industry partners before a meeting, you miss opportunities to understand what makes them tick. Gaining insight into their corporate culture can help you to present solutions that mesh with those values.

Do your homework. Research the company’s history, structure, business activities, products, competitive relationships, and current standing in the marketplace. Then try to connect with decision makers on a personal level. Invite a group of key leaders to a Zoom meeting with your management team to learn about your organization. An activity as simple as an online coffee get together can help you discover valuable information.

The point is to create familiarity and trust. Sponsors are more willing to consider a risk or a new venture if they have confidence in the person presenting that opportunity. And pitching your program will be easier if you are aware of the company’s goals and can target hot buttons. For example, if you know that company X is seeking to expand sales to women between the ages of 30 to 40, you can highlight those numbers in participation demographics.

Promote Thought Leadership

Moving sponsors beyond advertising and exhibiting into thought leadership is key to creating the higher level of engagement that your partners crave. Industry executives can add unique perspectives and knowledge to webinars, panels, white papers, advisory groups, and forums of all kinds. They offer a point of view that your members may not hear frequently. The exchange of ideas can spark innovation and encourage a more entrepreneurial approach.

Allowing sponsors to showcase their expertise may seem unfamiliar and possibly precarious to some leaders and boards. There are worries about conflicts of interest and the perception of favoritism. However, if you follow a few simple rules, this strategy can be a big win all around, especially in the virtual environment.

1. Identify where interests and challenges intersect.

Determining whether there are issues that both groups need to address can direct the focus to topics that would be appropriate for a joint discussion.

2. Develop partnership policies and procedures.

Before venturing into a collaboration, be sure that the objectives, guidelines, and timelines are clearly presented. Sponsors should understand that the goal is to deliver information and that sales promotions are not permitted. Product demonstrations can be a great incentive for virtual sponsorships, but the distinction between exposure that is education and exposure that is promotion should be crystal clear to everyone.

3. Monitor quality and provide assistance.

Set benchmarks for reviewing materials or scripts to ensure high standards, and offer to provide any needed assistance, such as ghostwriting or editing.

Showcase Brand Identity  

There are as many ways to provide exposure in the virtual world as there are in a conference setting, perhaps even more. Signage, exhibit halls, videos, and meeting rooms can all be created in a digital environment. The trick is convincing sponsors that you can drive traffic to those sites, and then delivering on that promise. Here are some reasons why sponsors should want to be your virtual partner.

Find Strength in Numbers

Virtual events allow many more people to participate, including attracting international attendees. By pairing the conference with another exciting activity, such as the launch of a new educational initiative, public relations, or fundraising campaign, it’s possible to add even greater incentives for participation. If you can provide convincing registration numbers and demographics, they will be a strong selling point. When registration data isn’t available, sharing the analytics from website and email promotions can give sponsors an idea of your organization’s reach into their prospect pool. 

Extend the Timeline

Launching a virtual exhibit hall before the meeting or keeping it open following the event can deliver additional exposure, especially if members and sponsors have an easy way to connect. Consider inviting participants who are shopping for a particular product to identify themselves for sponsor contact.

Offering packages that bundle sponsorship of the virtual event with other activities occurring throughout the year, such as continuing education programs and website promotions, is another strategy that adds value and advances an ongoing association/sponsor relationship.  

Expand Participant Information

If you have not provided access to email addresses along with participant lists, a virtual event is a good opportunity to launch that benefit. Of course, you’ll need to request permission to share the information. This can be done with a simple opt-out or opt-in statement on registration materials. 

Provide Opportunities for Creativity and Input

I saved the most important advice for last. Don’t forget to ask your corporate partners for suggestions.  Everyone has an opinion. By this time, industry representatives may have participated in events with several associations. Draw on that experience and let them offer recommendations. Then, be flexible enough to incorporate that feedback into current or future planning.

I, for one, am definitely looking forward to seeing you again at a conference. But until then, we’re all learning new skills we can leverage to make our relationships with sponsors even more productive and successful.