How to Think About Monetizing Digital Events

Author: Casey Gale       

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Derrick Johnson, CMP, DES, who recently joined Talley Management to help clients transition their in-person meetings to digital platforms, says there are “endless” ways to attract sponsor dollars — you just need to shift your mindset.

Derrick Johnson, CMP, DES, joined Tally Management Group (TMG) in early May, with one particular focus: helping current and prospective client partners take their in-person meetings online in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Johnson, TMG’s new director of event strategy and development, said it’s a mistake to think that transition is a seamless effort. “It’s important to note that the objectives for the virtual event are completely different than that of the face-to-face and a lot of leadership isn’t recognizing that,” he said. “It’s attempting to move this square peg, which is their face-to-face meeting, into a triangle hole, which is the virtual world.”

Derrick Johnson, CMP, DES

Johnson recently spoke with Convene about clients’ greatest concerns in this new era for the events industry, how planners can engage sponsors and exhibitors in the digital landscape, and how he envisions the future of meetings.

What are some of the greatest struggles that your clients or prospective clients have right now?

From what I’ve seen in this ecosystem, it’s [about being] reactive. Everyone’s reacting to their canceled meetings and needing something to supplement. And then realizing the talent and skill set doesn’t exist within their current staff…. The other big thing is the lack of strategy for long-term investment. [There has been a lot of focus] on solving for their current meeting, their annual meeting that may have canceled and the next couple of months, versus looking at an overall strategy for the long term.

While the opportunities are endless in the virtual environment, they call for a new strategy, new objectives, and engaging your stakeholders in a new way. So again, that mindset is kind of something that I’m noticing is lacking a little bit.

Are there any ways to engage sponsors that are unique to digital events that you think planners may not be recognizing?

The monetization element of the virtual world is, I feel, endless. It presents more opportunity for the planner than maybe a face-to-face [event] because of the longevity of virtual content. With a face-to-face event, you go to the event and then you leave the event — and that is the event. Within the virtual world, the event lasts for as long as you would like it to.

Within the virtual settings, you’re able to adapt the experience that the user wants and the user’s profile to the needs and to the product and services of your partners. For example, under registration, [it could be] collecting a profile for an attendee and being able to then direct certain ads, certain resources to that one person based off of the profile that they created. [It could be] aligning them directly with a partner, being able to customize their experience on their interface in a way that is directly driven to them, and leveraging artificial intelligence in an online setting to produce those analytics to show what types of things X person with X profile is going to be interested in. And showcasing them, maybe, in a waiting room or in your ad that you send out to promote the event.

In a virtual world, we are able to grow exposure for groups and associations. We’re not just talking about the stakeholders that groups currently have. We’re identifying people … profiles that don’t fall into the current demographic groups of associations currently.

But being able to then push out content in new ways and reach wider audiences broadens the scope of what the organization can do. The partners can potentially change and even grow in variabilities to not only play a factor in how they currently serve the association, but in new ways. In light of COVID, I’ve seen a lot of partners — destinations, for example — are trying to not just provide the support to their local stakeholders and vendors; they’re looking to provide education to the people that they work with around this pandemic. And they’re looking to people, thought leaders in this space to come in and create that education. I think it’s [about] looking at things very differently than the way that we have. And applying the tools and resources that have already existed, but in a new way.

Many event planners are trying to figure out how to design a virtual exhibit hall for the first time. What’s your advice?

One thing that I’m also learning is that people are very much thinking linearly … one shoe fits all, that Zoom, this two-dimensional digital tool, is the only virtual element to bring forth in creating virtual events. And that’s not true. [When] leveraging all of what virtual has to offer, digital is only one component of it. Augmented reality helps support those vendors, for example, in a virtual exhibit hall to be able to interact … with the stakeholder or the partner in a way that one would get in a physical situation. It’s looking at the tools that are accessible in the virtual world and trying to apply them then to those goals that you had for your face-to-face meeting, ultimately developing new objectives and then strategies for executing.

The other big thing — and, this is far beyond where we currently are but where this whole virtual world is going — is mixed reality. And within that, the ability for partners to come in a virtual way and have e-commerce and actually engage with people in a virtual or a VR setting that is both taking the two-dimensional world and imposing a three-dimensional world on top of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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