Effective virtual event design starts with the purpose, then considers the needs of attendees, the host organization and finally the limitations of the platform, budget and timeframe. But what about the sponsors? Making their needs a priority may require a little bit of extra thoughtfulness and creativity. value

In an exclusive Smart Meetings webinar titled “Optimizing Digital Events for Multiple Stakeholders,” Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) Director of Meetings and Conferences Megan Finnell and Senior Product Manager Craig Wiberg shared their approach to taking the organization’s annual meeting virtual—and the innovative ways they created real value for sponsors.

Define Success

When considering what might make the experience a positive one for exhibitors and sponsors, the team looked for measurable key performance indicators that could be objectively met and reported. “If we didn’t define the target we were trying to hit, someone else was going to define it for us,” warned Fennell.

Their plan started by identifying eight phases of the attendee experience. It envisions their arrival in the virtual space. Are they wearing slippers in their living rooms? Are they in their office? What does it look like? How does it feel? What do they need? Is it easy to navigate? Do they feel welcomed? How do we create engaging environments where virtual event attendees can talk face to face, and make engaging relationships?

Those questions followed the journey all the way to the exit, up to the final wrapping up of content before attendees leave the platform, plus any follow-up to extend the learning as time goes on.

One of the four goals for an in-person conference is always to connect attendees with solution providers—sponsors. That is still an essential deliverable for virtual. After all, a sustainable future requires managing finances, especially since whatever pricing model is put in place now will probably set a precedent.

The Thought Leader Model

Exhibitors and sponsors want to be seen as problem solvers, not salespeople. That is why driving meaningful interactions is a priority. In the virtual environment, content is even more kingly than when it shares the stage with destination, ambiance and hallway interactions, so the MGMA team linked that essential element to the value proposition for financial partners.

To ensure they were delivering the right topics, the MGMA team sent needs assessments in advance, asking attendees to rank their top topics. That became the foundation for both CEU content and sourcing sponsor content.

Content-based sponsorships drove traffic to booths and allowed companies to speak to attendees without making them feel they were being sold to.

Achieving the right balance required a flexible working relationship between the events team and the business development team—and some coaching during the recording process. “Often, our speakers want to try to sell something, but we kept reinforcing that if you’re educating, the audience will be much more receptive to your message,” Wiberg said.

The team was picky about partnering. “Just because somebody was willing to write us a check didn’t necessarily mean we were going to accept it,” Wiberg said. “It needed to be relevant and make sense in the agenda.” Sometimes that meant a lot of back and forth to make sure everyone knew what was expected.

In the end, the virtual event went from 150 booths that were presold to 42 very intentional sponsor opportunities that were given priority positions in the platform. “Make it easy for attendees to find, and you will be rewarded,” Wiberg advised.

One of the approaches that worked well in the framework was a series of mini Shark Tank-style pitches that turned the messaging into interactive contests that invited the audience to vote on the most useful solution. An awards ceremony at the end of the general session generated a lot of organic buzz.

Scheduled Downtime

Another fun approach was the introduction of Sparks sessions. Sponsors brought subject matter experts to facilitate 30-minute chat discussions about industry challenges with the help of graphic artists, who recorded the ideas in colorful PDFs that were shared far and wide.

“People loved it. It was a great networking tool, and it checked a lot of boxes on our list of goals,” Wiberg said.

Speed sessions looked a little bit more like a didactic discussion with slides, but MGMA challenged sponsors to consolidate their messages in 30-minute chunks. “It forced presenters to get to the point, show them why you are an expert and then address real-world questions live,” Wiberg reported.

Session buffers were short commercials between content blocks. “Attendees appreciated learning about what they did,” he said. Those who were interested could learn more by visiting a sponsor’s “booth.”

Companies could also sponsor graffiti walls, where people left comments about industry issues. Sponsored, delivered lunches kept people at their desks. Gamification drove traffic into the exhibit hall to keep people engaged.

Brain Breaks were an extension of the trend that started at physical meetings to include pauses. “It is important to give people some downtime,” Wiberg said. MGMA used that time to get sponsors in front of attendees by having them support activities such as meditation, a virtual drive and other diversions.

Wiberg cautioned that, while scheduling breaks is important in a virtual environment, tricking people by saying it’s going to be fun and then selling to them is a buzz kill.