While the industry embraces digital-first events, how is digital sponsorship strategy changing to meet the moment?
We sat down with Sr. Director of Strategy Jessica Brown to discuss the current challenges faced by event marketers trying to provide value for sponsors and maintain a crucial revenue stream for their brands.
Events are Changing, But Sponsorships are Still Valuable
While the instinct to throw our hands to the heavens and declare traditional sponsorship revenue lost and gone forever, event marketers should take heart. Whether an event is digital-first, in-person, or delivered through multiple channels, the fundamental value of a sponsorship offering remains unchanged. While the form has changed (and will continue to do so), sponsorship value is still manifested in three key value propositions:
Access to an Audience An event is nothing without an audience, and digital-first events are still powered by their attendees. Sponsors are still able to identify and target key audiences through events, and pay for brand exposure.
Opportunities for Connection Lead generation is still a primary objective for digital sponsors, but platform and delivery channels largely dictate how sponsoring brands connect with their targeted prospects or customers. The opportunities are still there, they just look different (we’re all coming to grips with the disappearance of appetizers and cocktail tickets).
Positive Brand Affiliation This is where event marketers can still lean on the power of the brands they represent, and their sponsors’ desire to leverage a share of that existing brand affinity. Positive associations between sponsoring partners and the host brand are just as valuable as ever.
Event marketers know the value is still there—why does it still feel like digital sponsorship is struggling?
Branded at-home experiences are a fun way to spice up digital-first events.
Challenges Complicating a Skittish Sponsorship Market
Our agency is seeing a continued sluggishness in the return to pre-pandemic sponsorship revenue levels. This can be a big problem for brands that depend on sponsorships to help their events self-fund. Here’s a handful of current trends we see impacting the development of sustainable virtual sponsorships:
Shifting Sponsor Investments For many sponsoring brands, in-person events only represent a fraction of their marketing investment. While the current pandemic has caused radical shifts in many (or even most) traditional advertising channels, those dollars are still being spent. However, the money that used to be earmarked for event sponsorships has been either reduced or reallocated elsewhere, including digital display ads, paid search, and other traditional non-event channels.
Distracted Attendees The reality of digital-first events is that audiences aren’t consuming content the same way they do at an in-person experience. Virtual attendees consume content differently than they would onsite—typically focused on completing specific tasks, such as hearing from a favorite speaker. Once they’ve accomplished their objectives, they move on. Because attendee journeys are non-linear by necessity, it’s harder to find logical points of integration for a potential sponsor with guaranteed engagement.
Limited Success Stories While it may feel like we’ve all aged a few decades over the past six months, these radical changes to the industry are still in their relative infancy. Marketers are innovating, taking risks, and seeing what works, but success is not yet widespread. For sponsors with reduced budgets (or recession-wary executives to contend with), the idea of laying out big marketing dollars without a proven prospectus might be a non-starter.
The challenges are clear (and they’re not going to magically disappear, either). How are successful marketers planning for the road ahead?
Organic displays of sponsoring brands can simulate user-generated content.
Rebuilding Your Digital Sponsorship Framework
The reality of shifting from in-person engagement to a system based on digital delivery is that sponsorship now more closely resembles a digital advertising model. Competing for eyeballs with splashy graphics on a landing page can only go so far in delivering the same kind of value that event sponsors are used to receiving. What else can event marketers offer?
Pushing past simple display advertising requires us to fully revamp our sponsorship planning process. Not only does this help maximize sponsor value, but often opens the door to more engaging and effective digital events. Here’s a simple virtual sponsorship planning framework that can be applied to almost any type of event:
Inventory Identification Event designers should start with an in-depth brainstorming process to identify and catalog any and all potential opportunities for sponsors to integrate into an event. We’re seeing increased interest in (and value from) sponsored content being woven into the larger event ecosystem. Where sponsored content previously might have been limited to a sales pitch delivered in a theater on an expo floor, branded environments and virtual hosting opens up a lot of opportunity for graceful integrations, including breakout sessions, branded content tracks, or even customer testimonials during keynotes. This process can (and should) inform the general experience architecture of your event to maximize inventory.
Forecast-Based Modeling Once your sponsorship inventory is catalogued you can start to crunch the numbers. Based on past value of similar offerings, the perceived value of your new offerings, and the volume that you can feasibly produce, you’ll start to get an idea of reasonable expectations for revenue. Where are your shortfalls? What will be your tough sells? Where are your opportunities for exclusivity? These might be tough questions to answer, but many of these puzzles can be solved with a more creative approach to your prospectus.
Package Design and Marketing Now it’s time for the payoff: turning inventory into actual sponsor revenue. In this phase, you’ll want to work closely with your digital marketing team to help frame cost-effective opportunities and identify value-based packages for your target sponsors. Tried and true tier-based approaches are still relevant in this new framework, but you’ll need to do more to prove you can deliver on the value you’re offering.
This framework forms a healthy foundation upon which to rebuild a digital sponsorship strategy for your virtual and digital-first events. As the industry continues to evolve and innovate, we’re keeping a close eye on the effective strategies and tactics that are moving the needle for our clients and other leading brands. Watch this space for top trends and new best practices as they develop.
As brands continue to go deeper into digital-first event strategies, explore emerging hybrid architectures, and embrace brand communities, the trails blazed in 2020 are opening new ways forward into 2022.