Increasing engagement and fostering meaningful connections at virtual events.

By Elaina Hundley

Now that we are just about seven months into the pandemic, it’s safe to assume that most industry professionals have experienced at least one virtual event. And whether you were tasked with hosting the event or attending it, the challenges of the all-digital format were probably clear—particularly, it’s more difficult to spur meaningful engagement online than it is at an in-person conference. While there are quite a few reasons why this may be the case, figuring out how to more effectively capture and sustain your attendees’ attention is imperative when planning a virtual conference. In fact, it’s the key to delivering real value to your supporters so you can keep generating the revenue you need to sustain your organization.

Limited Time, Limited Resources: Deliver Useful Content To Your Audience

On the attendee side of things, there are more opportunities to attend events these days since virtual engagements dont cost as much and theres no travel involved. But with business challenges and urgent new needs, your members will still be choosy about what events they decide to participate in. You will potentially be competing with more organizations, even some that historically have not hosted large in-person meetings. For this reason, you need to make sure that your virtual events deliver information and content that members really need, right now. If the content is strong and relevant, people will tune in. In turn, developing meaningful content will benefit your sponsors, as it will give them the opportunity to get their branding in front of more of your members.

But, most sponsors are not just looking to raise brand awareness at annual meetings and this is where the transition to virtual has been tricky. Engagement and connection are likely the reasons your sponsors and exhibitors choose to participate in your annual meeting. Simply put, they’re looking for more than just online advertising. So what can be done to better facilitate meaningful connections and qualified lead generation in the virtual realm?

Be More Intentional When Creating Connection

At digital events, your exhibitors wont have the chance to run into people in the hallway and strike up a conversation or use contests to attract attendees to their booths the way they do at in-person events. Most participants will likely tune in for sessions they want to attend and then hop off Zoom and get on with their days, which leaves your sponsors and exhibitors little opportunity to generate new leads. So, just like how youve historically put a coffee break or other food oriented aspect of your annual meeting in the exhibit hall, youll have to be strategic and intentional about how you connect exhibitors and attendees online.

Consider Match-Making: upon registration, ask attendees to specify what types of products and services they are seeking at the virtual meeting. These responses will allow you to match the attendees with the sponsors and exhibitors that best meet their needs. From there, you can funnel these members to the appropriate exhibitor contacts, offering virtual coffee meeting rooms and dedicated times for these meetings to occur.

Incentivize Sponsorships With Follow-Up Benefits

Try to mimic some of the classic staples of in-person events online—like giveaways or handouts. If you have exhibitors or sponsors who normally commit a dollar amount to putting branded water bottles in the conference bag, offer them a similar opportunity. For example, you can sell them a dedicated e-blast to attendees with a link to request a sample. Or, you can implement an opt-in giveaway for live webinar attendees. Follow up with the sponsor after the webinar and provide them with the contact information of the attendees who opted in to receive a sample or prize. Your attendees will have the choice to participate and will receive something in return and your sponsor will get a chance to share their product as well as receive a fresh email list of leads.

The inability to hold in-person events right now has been really hard on the association space, but there are still ways to make virtual events valuable to both your members and supporters. Remember: the new normal of virtual events is a process of trial and error. Its good to keep getting creative and throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.

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