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Virtual events – can you make them pay?

In the rush to substitute live events with virtual offerings, there’s one aspect we’re not seeing much talk on: how do you make money from them?

Of course, if you’re a brand owner and your event was usually a marketing touch point for customers and prospects, the pivot to virtual might actually save you money, given the cost of venue and logistics are largely stripped out.

For everyone else though, conferences are usually an essential revenue generator, and one that isn’t easily replaced in terms of the value delivered for a given community. After all, the magic of a conference comes from physically bringing people together to gain insights, discuss and debate issues, and form important bonds with peers in a community.

Since IRL events are unlikely to be possible any time soon, and your community is looking for platforms that offer solutions to challenges – possibly more so than ever – pivoting to virtual is obviously worth considering.

Firstly though, it’s important to remember that the fundamentals of staging a successful conference remain the same. From research to programme design to marketing and sales – none of these go away. In fact, they have possibly gotten harder, as it’s now the case you need to persuade everyone to take a leap of faith that the virtual event model will even work at all.

This means there are still costs associated with putting on your conference. And unless you’re one of the aforementioned brands, you’ll need to cover those costs somehow.

As in real life, virtual events offer 3 main revenue opportunities:

1. Ticket sales – it’s a controversial topic, especially now when everyone is still grappling with this new reality, and there’s a tendency to shy away from asking people to pay.

But why?

One simple fact hasn’t changed: people WILL always pay to access content with a clear purpose that’s aligned with what they are looking for. That was true with your live conference, and it should remain true with your virtual one.

In fact, given the present state of most industries, we’d argue platforms that gather communities to share insights and co-create solutions are more valuable than ever.

In such a situation, the platform shouldn’t matter. It’s all about the outcomes, and they don’t change just because you’re delivering your event virtually.

Of course, the quantum might need to change, and arguably that should be proportional to the “savings” made on things venue and technical production. That said, staging a good virtual event isn’t free of costs either. So don’t fall into that trap.

2. Sponsorship – similarly, sponsors are probably in need of your platform more than ever, especially if you can reliably put them in front of their target market.

As IRL, a sponsor’s involvement needs to be carefully managed, starting with understanding what their objectives are and then co-designing a solution that helps them achieve their desired outcomes.

If you get this first crucial step right, we would argue the revenue opportunities from sponsors remain largely the same for virtual events:

First up, branding. Collateral such as email, website, newsletter, social media – with the accompanying data insights such as clicks, impressions, comments etc – are still a powerful inventory set that can deliver valuable results if you have the attention of a hard-to-reach community.

There’s also the opportunity to include branding on the actual event day in much the same way you invest for live conferences. This could be woven into the platform proper, in transition slides as sessions change, branded breakouts or ice-breaker sessions, or even branded Q&A. And some of the more “out there” ideas we’ve heard of include: home-delivering something related to the event that’s opened on the day; virtual event bags with virtual goodies to redeem online; or sponsoring CSR initiatives.

The biggest challenge however, is what happens when everyone gathers. From a participant perspective, the ability to switch off when a vendor “gets on stage” is now a whole lot easier: they simply stop watching. And might never come back.

In our opinion, the best thing to do is look for ways to weave sponsors in as an integral part of the conference. Say your sponsor is looking to demonstrate thought leadership on a topic that the conference touches on. Of course they can be part of the insights shared, by getting a good old-fashioned speaking slot. But if they get on stage (screen) and start selling their offering, we guarantee you will lose your crowd.

A better way to go is to integrate them into the conversations the event inspires, such that they can directly influence participants’ thinking through discussions rather than a presentation. This works best with breakout sessions, and even ice breakers.

3. Exhibition – this one is probably the hardest to make money from. Whilst we’ve seen some impressive platforms that look to replicate the experience of being at a trade fair, down to a virtual lobby and coffee bar to hang out in, it just doesn’t strike us as something many participants would want to join.

At the end of the day, in this ‘new reality’ we live in, providing your participants with a list of exhibitors, what they offer and their contact details to start a conversation pretty much achieves the same result. So why go to all the trouble and expense of window dressing it?

In short, YES, you can make money from virtual conferences. And the reason we’re possibly not seeing more companies talking about it due to one simple fact: they know they will struggle to get the audience to join. And that’s nothing to do with the platform. It’s down to the purpose and genuine appeal of the conference in the first place.


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