Making Sponsors Your Biggest Virtual Event Fans

This year has spurred an evolution of sports, entertainment, arts and fundraising events making the shift from live to virtual platforms. This shift has meant new strategies, tactics, and innovative approaches on how to integrate sponsors into the virtual event experience. As events and properties plan for 2021, the likelihood of virtual productions is a strong possibility and, at the very least, an important part of the planning process.

At the recent Sponsorship Mastery Summit, we tackled this topic with three leaders who used their expertise to handle these monumental pivots. We’re sharing five ways you can make sponsors your biggest virtual event fans, including insights from their session, “Integrating Sponsors into Virtual Events,” featuring Seafair’s CEO, Eric Corning, the 500 Festival’s VP of Strategic Partnerships, Patrick Merna and Sarah Fejfar, the founder of Live Event Academy. Both Seafair and the 500 Festival used digital assets and virtual platforms to produce their events and integrate current and new sponsors.

1. Put your guests at the center of event planning

Sarah Fejfar, from Live Event Academy, teaches that it is essential to picture your event before you ever plan and produce it. You must visually walk through every guest interaction and place them at the center of your decision making. That was particularly challenging this year for events who were dealing with a moving target from live, to cancelled, to rescheduled, then to virtual.

Patrick Merna from the 500 Festival did exactly that by creating “The Indy 500 Mile Challenge.” Participants were given the opportunity to run, walk, swim, bike, or join a fitness class and participate as an individual, family, or work team from June to December with the goal of completing 500 miles. The Indy 500 is a global brand that creates excitement and generates lots of interest. By providing a finisher’s medal, t-shirt, a collector’s hat, and a special pin to those who registered they were able to drive participation from people who normally would not have participated. That is the beauty of virtual events, connecting with a new audience who is passionate about your event, cause, or sport.

The guest experience was a critical consideration for Patrick. The decision was made to cap the registrations to 6,000 (although they allowed 8,000) to maintain a strong guest experience and manage the shipment of gift items. They also wanted participants to connect with the Facebook Group and interact through social channels.

2. Keep sponsors top of mind and part of the process

How you connect, engage, and activate your sponsors in 2021 will look very different. This means taking the time to revisit your 2021 sponsorship strategies. This is a step worth taking in order to show your sponsors you have a continued commitment to sponsorship excellence. Of course, this means assessing your assets, which we will be talking more about in an upcoming blog. This may also mean looking at each virtual event offered and customizing opportunities for each of your sponsors. Take a look at how Seafair pivoted their sponsorship strategies in early 2020.

Seafair looked quite a bit different in 2020 and that started with taking the time to assess, evaluate and brainstorm. As Eric Corning Seafair’s CEO said, “Being a 71-year-old festival, there’s a lot of things that are done because they’ve always been done that way. But it’s an opportunity to rip the Band-Aid off and say we’re going to move forward and in a different direction.” At top of mind was how to keep sponsors engaged, continue delivering value, and meet their shared objective of serving the community.

Starting with a cross-department brainstorm, they took a step back to think through the good, bad and ugly ideas. This process helped them discover what partnership opportunities were feasible, especially given the changing event guidelines. Ultimately, this also enabled them to work with their sponsors more effectively to bring these new, innovative ideas to life.

For Seafair, this process resulted in multiple new opportunities, including their newly imagined community wide parade. Featuring hydroplanes and pirate floats, a caravan of excitement did surprise tours through various communities in the region. They turned it into a radio promotion where, Monday through Thursday people would call in to their radio partner to be able to vote on specific neighborhoods. Then on Friday they announced the neighborhood and at 10 AM on Saturday, there would be, pirates and clowns and hydroplanes and all sorts of mayhem going through the neighborhoods. Our key partners were able to join in on all of these mini-parades as well as participate in all the lead-up promotions.

3. Create new digital and virtual sponsor opportunities

The industry has demanded a shift to virtual events and ways to connect with audiences through virtual and digital strategies. Creating virtual engagement opportunities and understanding the value of your digital assets has become more important than ever. This has become one of the most important sponsorship strategies for 2021. Seafair and the 500 Festival both developed new digital and virtual offerings to integrate their sponsors as they shifted their event formats.

An example of a successful integration is the 500 Festival’s partnership with Indiana University Health Hospital. Prior to COVID-19 they were visiting 4th grade classrooms to teach about nutrition and physical activity. They were able to reimagine the program and created an interactive online portal, which included a virtual tour and expanded the learning opportunities. The new platform became a year-round teaching program that was able to expand to additional grades. Indiana University Health assisted in the process of putting together videos and activities that students were able to experience. Additionally, by creating a new program that was year-round, the 500 Festival was able to create even more exposure and engagement for IUH.

Seafair’s community parade also opened the door to new social media integrations. By developing new social and digital strategies, Seafair was able to elevate their exposure to their newly reimagined events. This included creating custom landing pages for new or key events, which highlighted event components and created even more awareness for their partner involvement. Additionally, Seafair took an active approach to leveraging their sponsor’s social media audiences by creating unique engagement campaigns. Sponsor employees were encouraged to share throwback images from their past participation and sponsors used their channels to highlight their past involvement with the fair, which were then cross-promoted on Seafair channels. Connecting both the audiences brought more awareness to the new events while also drumming up excitement and kept sponsors involved.

4. Adopt a winning sponsorship mindset

Preserving and leading your organization through uncertainty requires a winning mindset, and for Eric and Patrick that meant creating new ideas and securing new sponsors while continuing to serve their mission and community.

As Patrick says, “We’re small, but mighty. Our sponsorship team completely rallied to come up with new, creative ways to do things, always understanding the mission and the needs of other departments. It’s part of our culture and key to our success.” Patrick feels fortunate to be in the community-based business. Having a board of directors and great partner relationships, where the impacts are understood – in Patrick’s case, that means supporting youth education, youth fitness and community good.

Both Eric and Patrick journeyed through 2020 with a winning mindset that embraced change and looked toward the future. It is through their optimism and ambition to continue to serve their communities and partners that they were able to produce very successful events. Even more importantly, they strengthened their relationships with their partners. They are both able to say the work they did in 2020 will help them reach their sponsorship goals in 2021.

The payoff for having a winning sponsorship mindset will sometimes be immediate, but more than likely, it is setting yourself up for success in the long-term. Events and properties that have successfully creating a culture of sponsorship have mastered the art of having a winning mindset. Next year, you are likely to experience more changes and pivots, but believing in your efforts to succeed will undoubtedly exude to your team, colleagues, stakeholders, and of course, your sponsors and partners.

5. Maintain a high standard of production quality

Eric from Seafair knows the value of presenting quality programming regardless if it’s live, virtual or a hybrid format. However, Eric has faced the same challenge many other event producers are facing – how to create engaging virtual events during a time that virtual event fatigue is running extremely high.

In order to continue producing quality events, consider how you are involving the right people in your creative process. Invite people who have the experience and talent to elevate your virtual event. Virtual events have opened the door to new thinking on how you showcase your event, engage with your community, connect to new audiences and share your mission.

Bringing new creators into your virtual event planning process will result in new ideas on platforms, technology, energizing your virtual audience, engagement strategies, and so much more. Caravel experienced this firsthand as we collaboratively produced Sponsorship Mastery Summit with our virtual event producers Proxy AV and Live Event Academy. It was such a great production, our friends at the Seattle Storm, who attended the summit, decided to work with Proxy AV and Live Event Academy to produce the 2020 virtual championship rally for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.

Quality events and quality creators are extremely important. As Eric from Seafair has said, “Pay attention to the quality of what you’re putting out. Because in the end, what the public is going to see and what you’ll be judged on and what the product is that they know you for. As we make a transition into a whole new realm, the quality of the actual product is super important.”


About the Author

Paula Beadle is the CEO of Caravel Marketing, a national consulting company specializing in sponsorship marketing, and the founder of Sponsorship Mastery, an annual summit and programming dedicated to improving individual and organizational sponsorship performance. She is a results-driven trailblazer with a proven record of developing smart strategies and creatively connecting the right partners. Paula has helped iconic events and major brands achieve their goals through innovative sponsorship initiatives, generating incremental revenue and successfully coaching thriving teams, executives and boards.