Structuring Your Virtual Conference with Sponsors in Mind

Once the decision is made to host a virtual conference, it is important to think about how to meet the needs of sponsors. Associations have found it difficult to retain sponsorships as they transition from in-person events to virtual conferences. 

This article will walk you through the types of sponsors an association might face as they go virtual. Also, it’ll discuss how to structure a virtual conference while keeping sponsors in mind. Lastly, some thoughts on servicing both sponsors and attendees to keep everyone happy.

What do virtual conference sponsors want?

More than anything, sponsors want to fill their sales pipeline with leads at virtual conferences. However, the digital format naturally limits the serendipitous networking sponsors have relied on at in person events.

Therefore, sponsors need to be an active ongoing part of the conference format. This means dedicating specific times for sponsors to reach out to attendees. For example, lunch is a typical time for promotional sponsor announcements during the conference. 

Associations that provide opportunities for sponsors to reach attendees tend to have less trouble finding and retaining sponsors.

Also, it’s important to choose a virtual conference platform that understands what attending a virtual conference is like from a sponsor’s point of view

What do virtual conference sponsors do?

Since sponsors want to develop leads, everything a sponsor does at a virtual conference should engage your attendees. For example, sponsors often bring thought leadership and customer stories to conferences in order to provide meaningful participation. 

A virtual conference software platform is the vehicle that enables sponsors to engage with attendees. 

To sponsors, a virtual conference is a way to get more eyes on existing marketing collateral. Then, the sponsor can push more leads into the existing nurturing systems to turn leads into clients.

Types of Sponsors

The purpose of this section is to provide examples of some sponsors an association might encounter. It’s not possible to boil down the attitude every type of sponsor has, but consider this an exercise to help address how different sponsors might feel about going virtual.

The Loyal Companion

Every organization has a sponsor that has been with them through the test of time. It’s important to keep your relationship strong with this sponsor. Providing them with the basics is crucial. They know they’re in good hands though, so you likely won’t have to worry too much. 

The First Timer

This organization hasn’t tried a virtual conference yet but is willing to venture into uncharted waters based on their trust in you.  It’s critical to maintain that trust from the beginning to the end, so set proper expectations. You don’t want to scare them away! Make sure they understand the product deliverables — communication is key.

Been There, Done That

Not all platforms are built the same in ways they try to connect attendees with exhibitors. This exhibitor has tried a conference before and found it’s not worth its price. Offering this exhibitor/sponsor with solid leads that will convert after the event is necessary to ensure future event support. It’ll take some convincing and there needs to be a lot to offer for this sponsor to pull the trigger.

Sponsor Touch Points Throughout the Virtual Conference

Below are examples of what an association can offer a sponsor throughout the lifecycle of a virtual conference.

Before the Conference

The Conference Announcement: An association should introduce sponsors to their members from the get go. It’s a good way to start off on the right foot. If your sponsors gather leads from the beginning, it’s a good selling point for an association to gain more sponsors for the event.

Co-Sponsored Email Blasts: As things change leading up to the conference, it’s important to update members. Sending updates not only keeps your members informed, but it’s also a great opportunity to provide a platform for your sponsors.

Networking Lounge: Setting up a networking lounge is a great idea to establish your conference as an engaging event. It gives both sponsors and members an opportunity to introduce themselves.

During the Conference

Virtual Breakout Sessions: A great way to provide sponsors an opportunity to connect directly with your members is through breakout sessions. Learn more about the benefits of hosting breakout sessions here.

Sponsor Exhibitor Page: This is your sponsor’s hub. Attendees can go to this sponsor’s exhibitor page to connect directly to the sponsor, complete with chat room, voice chat, and video chat options. Give your members an opportunity to schedule a meeting with a sponsor and give your sponsors an opportunity to engage your members.

After the Conference

Happy Hour: Everyone should take some time to celebrate after a virtual conference. It’s also a great opportunity for members to follow up with any sponsors they engaged with earlier on. Sponsors are sure to appreciate the opportunity to take part in an unmanaged virtual space for members, sponsors, and even conference managers to converse. You deserve it!

Providing Analytics: Make sure to be prompt when sending results from surveys and any other analytics to your conference sponsors. They’ll appreciate the quick turnaround time and come back for more next year!

Balancing Attendees and Sponsors

So far we’ve focused mainly on sponsors, but it’s worth noting that when it comes to virtual conferencing, attendees come first. Giving your members a good reason to pay dues and return for next year’s conference is easily the most important aspect to any virtual conference.

Remember that people are smart and generally aware when they’re being sold to. Subtlety is key when it comes to sponsorships within a virtual conference platform. Make it an option for members to engage with sponsors. 

Instead of shoving them through the door, invite them in. Your members will appreciate it, and your sponsors will respect it.


Transferring from an in-person event to a virtual conference is a difficult decision to make. There are many things to consider and it is important to cover all the bases. 

Stepping into unfamiliar territory is daunting, but remember that virtual conferencing is relatively new to everyone. That includes attendees and sponsors. The bright side is that you are not alone. 

A virtual conference should strike the right balance of catering to attendees and sponsors. Attendee satisfaction should be the primary focus, but sponsor retainment should never be ignored.

Choosing a virtual conference platform is a big decision to make because it’s important to find a provider to help satisfy attendees and keep sponsors coming back. 

A company like OpenWater that has worked in the association space for years and has helped over 100 organizations go virtual is worth considering.

Do you want to learn more about how OpenWater’s virtual conference platform and service can help you go virtual for your next conference? Click here to schedule a demo.

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