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Engage Your Industry Partners for Better Events

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With partners sometimes feeling underwhelmed by sponsorship opportunities at events reshaped by the pandemic, now’s the time for associations to rethink their strategy. Success will require talking to industry partners about their needs, getting smarter about virtual, and experimenting with new offerings.

As associations turned to online events early in the pandemic, they quickly learned that the virtual environment didn’t meet engagement expectations for industry partners and sponsors.

Instead, some partners felt as if they were treated “like ATMs,” where they were asked to sponsor events with little outreach or discussion of the changes that marred 2020, according to Lewis Flax, a partner at the consulting firm Flax Associates. And many didn’t have great experiences with virtual meetings. For example, some organizations experienced little traffic to virtual booths and few leads, leaving sponsors feeling they had little to show for their investment.

As in-person meetings resume, industry partners want to be engaged, and the best way to do that is to talk to them about their needs, desired outcomes, and ideas.

“There needs to be conversations; there needs to be discussions,” Flax said. “What is it that the sponsor has found successful through other channels? … How have they shifted or changed their approach?”

Talking through those questions can generate ideas that ensure partners are engaged in ways that are meaningful for them, the association, and event participants.

Making the virtual event engaging, especially for partners who did not have success earlier, will be key to getting them to embrace the hybrid model.

Virtual Components Still Matter

With the delta variant and high COVID-19 numbers affecting several parts of the world, some sponsors and attendees may not be allowed to travel. That means hybrid meetings need to remain a part of an association’s event strategy.

“Offering virtual opportunities might be super valuable right now to that [sponsor] because they’re not even going to send people to their booth right now,” said Jennifer Kerhin, CEO of Sponsorship Boost.

Making the virtual event engaging, especially for partners who did not have success earlier, will be key to getting them to embrace the hybrid model.

“The hybrid model needs to combine the best of both worlds: enthusiasm for being in person, for that engagement that you can only have in the tradeshow floor,” Kerhin said. “But then also the virtual possibility of sponsored content education or digital advertising on your platform—all of that is a fantastic benefit that we should not forget about going forward.”

The virtual format generally provides more segmentation of data and attendee information, which can give industry partners and sponsors a better sense of who will be at the event so they can make their engagement efforts more targeted. Better segmentation of the in-person audience can add even more value.

“If associations can segment their audience, either based on geography, based on specific interest, based on even personal interest, then it’s a lot easier to engage the audience,” Flax said. “You can also engage the sponsors who have an interest in those different areas.”

Try Something New

Organizations also need to be creative in how they run their events and offer new opportunities for industry partners. “Associations need to be bold,” Flax said. “They need to step up, and if they do test things and something doesn’t work, people are much more understanding.”

Kerhin said she “would encourage any association not to just duplicate what you did in 2019. Use this opportunity, this incredible transformation, to redesign your event for the future.”

One of Kerhin’s clients, an organization in the medical field, is working on a 2022 event where they are reimagining the tradeshow floor with industry partners and attendees in mind. The plan is to build several hospital rooms that attendees can wander through.

“There’s going to be actors there acting out things that shouldn’t be done, and actors acting out things that should be done,” she said. “Sponsors are in each room. So it’s product placement and engagement for how to use their products and services. It’s not just looking at the product or service; they’re going to be seeing the product and service used as it would be used in the hospital. That kind of engagement is impossible in virtual.”

Flax added that focusing on how to better engage attendees automatically helps partner engagement. “If the attendees are engaged and interested, the sponsors will be too,” he said.

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a senior editor at Associations Now. She covers money and business. Email her with story ideas or news tips.

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