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Beyond Virtual Events: 3 Replacements for Live Events That Are Taking Center Stage in 2021

The cancellation of live events in 2020 (and for most, at least the first half of 2021) has forced publishers to find new ways to connect buyers and sellers, particularly as sponsors shifted ad dollars earmarked for events into all-digital channels.

Virtual events were the obvious answer but if you talk to most publishers and sponsors privately, they’ll admit they see “traditional” virtual facsimiles of live events as a stopgap to be abandoned as soon as the world goes back to normal.

Here we look at three solutions developed in response to the crisis that have performed so well that they will continue to be offered even as live events return.

1.  Social Simulcasts

AC Business Media (ACBM) covers markets ranging from heavy construction to manufacturing to supply chain and that means serving sponsors with heavy equipment to sell. As events canceled, giving customers a way to get products in front of potential buyers was critical.

“We were at CONEXPO last March just as the world started imploding,” says ACBM Chief Digital Officer Kris Heineman. “Big manufacturers had already paid millions to ship machines out to the show but they didn’t come themselves because they didn’t want their staffs exposed to COVID. When events go away they’re not going to stop producing products, they’ll start looking for other outlets.”

While many publishers produced virtual product showcases within proprietary digital platforms, ACMB created simulcasts—basically live streaming—that leveraged social media to expand the reach of its audience.

In one example, ACBM created a single livestream that played simultaneously across the seven different Facebook pages devoted to its Construction brands.

“When we first started doing this, we were concerned that the channels would start overlapping with each other but it’s actually a case of more is more—with each platform you get a certain percentage of your overall audience,” says Heineman. “Let’s say you have 1 million Facebook followers—Facebook won’t let you organically reach all those people. But if you stream to 10 different Facebook pages, maybe you reach 40,000 here and 60,000 there, so it’s all complementary.”

ACBM created a simulcast for equipment manufacturer Bobcat that drove more than 100,000 views and 800 interactions in the first few days.

“For B2B, those are high numbers,” says Heineman. “When most people in B2B say they put something on Facebook they’re usually getting two or three interactions. Not everyone thinks there’s opportunity in B2B for social media but this product proves that wrong.”

Customers continue to clamor for the live streams even as ACBM begins exploring the return of live events. “We can’t produce enough video,” says Heineman. “We’re already sold out on some channels through 2021.”

[Editor’s note: For more on how ACBM is creating social simulcasts, register for our upcoming webcast this Thursday, March 25 at 1pm ET on New Revenue From Social Media: How To Build a Live Product Showcase.]

2. Marketing Services

Marketing services have grown faster than digital display advertising in B2B media for several years now but prior to last year still took a backseat to events as an overall revenue producer for most publishers.

Marketing services has always been tied closely to events for Government Executive Media Group (GEMG) but in 2020 came to the forefront by helping customers meet their event objectives when live events came to a standstill (and finished the year with revenue up 43 percent as a group while helping to drive 20 percent topline growth for the overall company).

Frank Salatto, GEMG

“It wasn’t just about helping customers achieve their event objectives with us but their event objectives writ large,” says Frank Salatto, Vice President and General Manager of Marketing and Communications at GEMG. “Honestly, we were part of the conversation with clients like never before in how to rebuild their event programs.”

GEMG transitioned quickly to an all-digital environment by turning large live events into multi-part integrated digital programs, using content as the connector to drive audience from one touchpoint to another.

“Digital events were part of that but it’s a series of digital events that would allow you to recreate what you would get with a live event but in between those you need additive content that keeps the conversation going,” says Salatto.

Data collection and diverse capabilities helped GEMG keep revenue whole for all but one live event booked prior to the pandemic.

“There is opportunity in the data that you can collect,” says Salatto. “That’s always been a pain point for live events. But in digital we know what customers are interacting with across a much longer time-period and we know more about them including how interested they are and how ready they are to buy.”

Branded websites proved to be a winner for GEMG last year and will continue to be a key product in 2021. “That turned out to be a great vehicle for brands to tell their story and drive sustained engagement over time but also a way for us to have a center piece for really large, long term programs and have tack-on revenue beyond the initial build,” says Salatto.

GEMG expects a similar marketing environment in 2021 and is looking to capitalize on its stable which includes branded microsites, immersive articles, video and audio, digital event integration and data visualization.

“We believe this is sustainable and there’s room to grow,” says Salatto. “The net of this is that 14 out of our 15 top clients have marketing services central to the program they bought with us. We are not a huge piece of the revenue pie as an individual unit but we are a driver of topline revenue and a significant part of the pathway to bigger revenue programs.”

3. Attendee Data

You’ve likely heard of first party data and third-party data but how about zero party data?

At our recent Business Information and Media Summit, Informa Markets chief digital officer Jason Brown, who leads a newly created group called Informa Markets DNA, showed how the company is finding new revenue by leveraging event audience data into a new take on lead gen that not only creates revenue in the interim but promises to elevate the value of Informa’s live events when they return.

That includes creating online marketplaces that are enhanced versions of the show directories that Informa produces for its live events. Customers can use the online marketplaces to search products and suppliers, discover new products via a recommendation engine, make connections, create a virtual “walking” or favorites list and register for other Informa physical and virtual events.

The online marketplaces also provide Informa with “zero party data” where users offer direct insight into their interests through their use of the marketplaces, which helps Informa create authenticated data that shows not only who a lead is also their buying intent.

“We take our first party data, the third-party data that we can buy or borrow and the zero-party data given to us by our audience when they are specifically after something and combine that information together to create something called authenticated data,” says Brown. “If we do all of that correctly, our gray cloud of a data lake becomes a green cloud of known buyer status. That’s where we can say who our buyer is and where they are in the funnel.”

In addition to the traditional model of offering leads as part of a one-off sponsorship, Informa is moving toward an annual subscription model that includes,

  • continuous access to fresh data
  • ability to count, segment and modify criteria for best data selection
  • intent scoring
  • ability to create a sales pipeline that feeds directly into the customer’s CRM

“Instead of bundling and packaging programs, this is an annual program that you can subscribe to and we can present different layers and opportunities to you,” says Brown.

‘We Will Never Do a Virtual Event’ – Why Winsight Is Doubling Down on Sponsored Communities in 2021

Events are big business for Winsight, which pre-COVID 19 produced nearly 50 trade shows and conferences (including the 40,000-person National Restaurant Association Show).

However, unlike many of its peers in B2B media, Winsight has not jumped on the virtual event bandwagon. “We will never do a virtual event,” says Amanda Buehner, Executive Vice President of Convenience Media and Events. “They don’t work. In our space, we have restaurant owners and operators who can’t spend a couple hours away from their jobs. Webinar attendance and engagement were going down even before the pandemic. We knew we needed to do something different.”

Instead, Winsight is focused on producing online communities offering participants unique content and interaction and sponsors direct contact with highly qualified prospects.

Last year, Winsight tested the model with the launch of three online groups (Outlook Leadership, Restaurant Technology and Restaurant Recovery) and last week announced the upcoming debuts of three more, including Restaurant Community (which goes live Jan. 28), CRU Community (which builds off Winsight’s Convenience Retail University conference and launches Feb. 23) and FSD Community (which serves food service directors and launches March 23). A fourth, FSTEC, will roll out this summer.

Each community is built around three pillars—community, content, connection. “The community part is about the audience,” says Buehner. “Our live events can draw a couple hundred to several thousand attendees. With a virtual platform, we can reach more than that and knew we wanted two-way discussions instead of webinars just speaking at you.”

Content, Connections and VIP Access

The communities produce new content each week that Buehner describes as “raw and real,” including “Talks from the Top” interviews with C-suite executives, Origin Stories on how industry figures got their start and By the Numbers, featuring industry metrics and analytics supplied by Winsight’s data and research arm, Technomic.

Within the communities, Winsight handpicks 20 VIP members to be part of Share Groups that have direct conversations around topics such as workforce, technology and more.

There is no fee for participants but members must provide registration information as well as answer drill-down questions on their qualifications, budget authority, need and timing. Each sponsor gets to meet these qualified retailers/operators one-to-one.

“If you can connect me, as a supplier, with people who are not only registered but also have the excitement, the need, the budget and the authority to purchase say, open air refrigerators for restaurants, that’s cool,” says Buehner.

Building Communities

The Communities are built on a proprietary platform that Winsight developed in-house that locks into a user’s single Winsight sign-on, while discussion boards run on Vanilla Forums.

Every week, a dedicated e-newsletter for each community targets between 40,000 and 80,000 uniques touting new content and upcoming programs.

“E-newsletters are the biggest push,” says Buehner. “We’re also doing social media for branding and air coverage and using every tactic possible within our own sites, including interstitials and chat bots. For Restaurant Community, we have more than 2 million impressions within the Winsight platforms and social media.”

Buehner expects thousands to register for Restaurant Community over the next few months. While the initial three communities launched last year had lower user targets (due to only being live for three months), each exceeded their goal, she adds.

Sponsorships and Sales-Qualified Leads

The communities are monetized exclusively via sponsorships, which command between $7,500 and $50,000 and offer three components:

  • One-to-one meetings with qualified buyers. “Every one of our sponsors can join a Share Group, listen and learn, and have one-to-one meetings with qualified buyers,” says Buehner. “We are giving our sponsors the opportunity to engage with sales-qualified leads—to date we have only seen marketing-qualified leads.”
  • Speaking opportunities, ranging from leading educational sessions to aligning with thought leadership by introducing CEO speakers.
  • Air coverage (branding) that includes the sponsor’s logo in the weekly e-newsletter, logos within the communities, the chance to include branded collateral in sample boxes sent to the members of each Share Group and dedicated microsites. “Notice we are not using the term ‘virtual booth’ – that doesn’t work,” says Buehner. “We have heard so many key sponsors say, ‘I don’t want to talk about a virtual booth.’ People purchase through the meetings we concierge for them.”

Retraining Events Staff for New Roles

While most event professionals lucky enough to retain their jobs pivoted to producing virtual events last year, Winsight retrained its events teams to produce communities.

“This is all-hands-on-deck,” says Buehner. “We told people across the company that we needed between 20 percent and 80 percent of their time to get this up and running.  We all learned new jobs in the last six months–marketing teams that were doing live events previously are now doing communities. We had to retrain our sales team to sell communities and convey value.”

Fifteen different areas within Winsight collaborate on the communities, including Content, which manages speaker topics and recruitment; Platforms, which vet the technology and manage logins and registration; Sponsor Relations, an existing team that now pivoted to selling community sponsorships rather than booths; Editorial, which runs discussion boards and moderation; and Recruiting, an essential component of building and maintaining the communities.

“You can put out two million impressions promoting these communities but it’s those personal relationships that get these owners and operators to register,” says Buehner. “We have a whole team that’s constantly sharing the story of the value of our communities.”

When Events Return

With most of the industry hopeful for the return of live events in the second half of 2021 (Informa recently saw a stock jump when it announced plans to resume live events in the U.S. in June), digital communities will continue to play a major role going forward, according to Buehner.

“This is another touch point for our audience and sponsors,” she adds. “We will continue the communities since not everyone can attend every live event, but they can always make it to a community. For sponsors, this is a great complement to our live event—they can meet with potential partners then see them at the live event. We set goals internally for these communities and three weeks into 2021, we’re halfway there already.”

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Virtual Events Are Different, so Sponsor Packages Should Be as Well

With publishers and media organizations still wary of charging too much for their virtual events—and some like this week’s Atlantic Festival charging nothing at all—sponsorships become that much more important to financial success. But should we be approaching sponsorships in the same way that we have for in-person events?
Two groups, Ricochet Advice and Bruce Rosenthal Associates, have partnered on a white paper to say no. Titled The New Sponsorship Model for Virtual Events, the report offers a new blueprint for recruiting your virtual event sponsors.
“During the pandemic, the traditional benefits offerings repurposed for virtual events are not likely to be of interest. The old way of courting sponsors has likely come to an end for most events and [organizations],” states the report. “An enhanced sponsorship approach that takes advantage of the unique characteristics of digital events to create better engagement between [organization] members and event sponsors can deliver more value to sponsors.”
Let’s go through their ideas. They break the benefits up by categories.
For data and analytics, sponsors would be given access to:
• registrant information and permission to “add your advertising tags to our event web pages”;
• the virtual event platform tool with ability to collect and export select data to use in your own marketing and sales systems;
• poll answers: attendee responses to periodic event polls, including free text comments; polls are an excellent engagement tactic for virtual events.
For engagement, sponsors would get:
• alerts of event chats including ability to monitor conversation key words and phrases;
• one-to-one direct messaging capability that permits engagement with any attendees;
• option to supply company-branded prizes to be promoted through the event. (Is there such a thing as virtual cornhole? Trivia games translate well to virtual.)
• demo scheduling;
• a breakaway room, promoted often during the event, that allows attendees to “duck out” and join in informal sponsor conversations.
For content distribution, there would be:
• intermission interviews that sponsors can either be a part of as subject, moderator or presenter;
• session interstitials: live educational presentations, related to a substantive area, with sponsored content. (The industry has found that done right, sponsored content has a welcomed place in the information pantheon.)
• panel participation: as long as a sponsor can bring a subscriber/member partner they have worked with;
• discussion groups: advertised leadership/participation in a substantive topic.
For conference advertising, there would be:
• logos and recognition on event promotions and registrant emails. “Underwriters” are all over the Atlantic Festival communications and website. For BVR’s Virtual Divorce Conference, a sponsor page allows visitors to download a marketing guide and video.
• pre- and post-event promotions. Even though the gist of BVR’s conference was Sept. 9-11, they are providing value-add sessions for Sept. 17, 24 and 30. No reason why sponsors can’t remain involved for those, in addition to the on-demand requests.
• online advertisements.
• sponsored sessions. This could be as simple as maybe speakers using coffee mugs of the sponsor.
• sponsored awards. Many emerging leader and “20 Under 35” awards are given out at events. Sponsorships for those could be attractive.
Associations Now, which wrote about the report, also emphasized the need to better adapt digital marketing tactics for sponsors. “While you may not be able to re-create the impact of an in-person appearance, digital events put different tools at your disposal—whether it’s short interstitials between virtual sessions, email marketing campaigns, or sponsored chat messages during livestreams. With a little bit of workshopping or the right links to the right places, these can be effective messages for trustworthy voices.
“That said, virtual events differ greatly from physical ones, and that should inform how you roll out these messages. ‘Treat virtual events as something new. You have the framework of what you are used to doing, but think outside the box and reimagine as you go,’ Cvent’s Madison Layman writes.”
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Custom Content, Webcasts and Video Can Be Prime Areas for Sponsors

Sponsorships can come in many ways, from events and coffee mugs to podcasts and custom content. With event registration revenue dropping so significantly this year, the importance of attaining sponsorships only amplifies—not just for events but for all those other areas as well.
Here are six successful examples of sponsorships in other areas of the publishing business.
The Skimm – in-content mentions. “Feeling stuck in a rut?” today’s Daily Skimm asks at the bottom. “Same. So we partnered with Mentos Pure Fresh Gum to bring you some ways to shake things up. Because Mentos is all about fresh ideas, fresh breath, and fresh perspectives. This week, we’re talking about refreshing your WFH video calls.” They go on to list three bullets: Check your lighting; reserve your space; and take breaks. “Science says breaks improve productivity. So actively schedule time to refresh between video calls. Then make the most of it by popping in some Mentos Pure Fresh Gum, taking a walk, and giving your brain a reset. Ahhh.”
Modern Distribution Management – sponsored webcasts. MDM has been having success with sponsored webcasts for many years. It’s impressive that the webcasts are relatively frequent—at least twice a month—and can go five or six episodes with a different sponsor each time. Particularly impressive is a webcast from a few weeks ago titled MDM’s Top Distributors of 2020. It featured five members of the MDM team including CEO Tom Gale and editor in chief Elizabeth Galentine, and was sponsored by infor.
Harvard Business Review – banner ads and report/webinar partners. Banner ads get their share of grief, but you still see them fairly frequently everywhere—so they must still be working to some extent. HBR uses them—“See how RMS helps customers outperform” tops the Technology page. A Salesforce-sponsored content ad tops the Diversity section. For their popular Podcast section, there’s a banner ad and then an array of unsponsored podcasts. But at the bottom there’s a Partner Center that lists four HBR happenings that are sponsored—a workplace report sponsored by Facebook; a radiology AI report sponsored by Siemens Healthineers; a webinar sponsored by Verizon; and a live Q&A Ask HBR sponsored by Meltwater, a SaaS company.
The Atlantic – sponsored multimedia. At the top of a story from a couple years ago titled, The Rise of the Connected Family, these words stare out: “CRAFTED BY THE ATLANTIC’S MARKETING TEAM AND PAID FOR BY NEST.” The article is about how technology in the home is changing family dynamics. It features expert interviews, research, images, graphics, and product recommendations—showing off Nest’s advanced tech without too much selling. Including other brand names gives it a more balanced read. At the bottom of the story are Nest products, a personal video, testimonials and an infographic.
Meister Media – custom content and video. “Our dedicated, award-winning team of marketing strategists, designers, writers, web developers, and project management specialists will make your DREAM custom project a REALITY,” says the Meister Custom Team page. For example, a company called Brandt asked Meister Media Worldwide to produce a marketing video featuring a grower who just had a record soybean harvest. BRANDT used the polished video for their sales meeting. KeyPlex wanted website content and design. BASF asked for educational content. It’s a staff commitment but for the right niches—can pay off.
Industry Dive – lead campaigns. “In the broadest sense, we are 99.9% advertising-based but that doesn’t mean Web ads,” Industry Dive CEO Sean Griffey said earlier this year. “Pure digital display is probably less than 10% of revenue. The rest of it comes from the brand studio which is approaching 20% of our growth revenue, and newsletters and lead campaigns. When we say lead campaigns, very few of our products are priced as guaranteed leads, it’s more of a sponsorship basis. But at the end of the day, most of our advertisers are evaluating their success based on the leads that they generate from us.”
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With the Right Touches, Virtual Events Can Be Very Sponsor-Friendly

You’ve converted one of your premier events to a virtual event. How do you keep your sponsors? Do you adjust their pricing? Change the time period? Give more guarantees?
The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University had their Collaborative Journalism Summit set for Charlotte, N.C. on May 14–15. Then, of course, they had to go virtual. “We let our sponsors know that several of their packages would have to change since we weren’t hosting in person,” they wrote on NiemanLab. “Every confirmed sponsor stuck with us, even our North Carolina-based sponsors—a testament to their commitment to collaborative journalism and knowledge sharing. The new sponsorship package included showing on-screen sponsor slides and messaging during the conference, and sharing links in the chat.”
But in the end, they said that if they do another virtual conference, they would do some things differently. “[We would] completely recreate sponsor packages. We mostly focused on converting the in-person components of our sponsor packages into virtual components this year. Next time, we’ll focus on fundamentally reimagining what sponsorship looks like in a 100-percent-virtual setting.”
Other ideas:
Position your sponsors differently. An ASAE article last month said that Instead of refunding conference sponsorship fees or transferring this year’s sponsorship to next year, organizations can benefit by finding new ways to position sponsors as supporting your audience. For example, sponsors could provide information to help your audience/members with challenges identified in recent surveys, issues related to changes in the marketplace, or new pain points as a result of the coronavirus.
Continue to connect buyers and sellers. “Why does someone buy into an event?” SIPA 2020 June 2 keynote speaker Krystle Kopacz asked last week. “I’ve been working with a couple clients—why does someone spend a ton of money to host a booth? They want to have face-to-face conversations with possible clients. So how does the lack of live events across the industry affect us? What does that do to lead generation efforts? And how are you refilling that pipeline? Publishers still have a key role to play between buyers and sellers. There are many ways you can mimic what live events do.”
Forfeit some revenue now for goodwill. “…There are brands that’ve done a good job of sticking up their hand to say, ‘We understand you, we’re with you, and we’re not trying to sell you anything right now, we just want to engage,'” said Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of Translation in a Fast Company article. “I think that’s the work that’s resonated the most for me. Brands with good intentions. They’re selling something at a discount that you need. They’re speaking to you in a way that seems empathetic to what you’re going through.”
Rebrand the sponsorship for a longer period. Identify the various ways to provide your conference sponsors with “replacement value” throughout the year. This could include podcast mentions, dissemination of thought leadership content, webinars, social media campaigns, outreach to a specific demographic of your members, promotion of each company’s webinars or seminars, and so forth.
Give more gravitas to the virtual event. The Center for Cooperative Media said that they were so successful in their conversion to the virtual event that they will keep an in-place component for future conferences. “We were able to include so many more people this year by hosting in place that we’re now thinking about making a live, interactive virtual conference a permanent part of the Summit for as long as the Summit exists.” They actually made their tickets free, but registration increased so much that more sponsors signed on.
Keep everything as is because these virtual events may be the future. Companies are actually starting to take advantage of the way we’re doing things now. Margaret Johnson, a partner and chief creative officer at Goodby Silverstein + Partners, said that for a Panera commercial, “We’re getting drivers to shoot themselves with their phones on their delivery routes, texting us the takes, then we’re texting back notes and direction on how to do it again differently. It all seems so foreign at first, but you quickly adapt. I believe the people who haven’t really embraced this new world will be in big trouble.”