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Whether it’s a stand alone virtual expo or part of a larger online conference, a virtual trade show is a terrific idea for both brands and attendees alike.

I remember the first time I attended Content Marketing World in 2016, and how excited I was to walk the trade show floor and see all of the brands and tools that were represented. I knew before I even got there that I would be spending time exploring how I could level-up the MarTech stack of the company I was with at the time.

A virtual trade show has the benefit giving the same at-a-glance view of potential tools or brand partners, without having to physically walk around and around, navigating people and booths and travel to get there.

There are other benefits to attendees, of course, and even more benefits of a virtual trade show to the brands who participate. We’ll cover all of those first, then get into the details of what you need to consider before planning your virtual trade show so that you’re fully prepared.

What is a Virtual Trade Show?

By now we’ve all been to online webinars, Zoom meetings, virtual summits, and online conferences, yet a virtual trade show may still be a foreign concept. Particularly if you haven’t been to an in-person event that included an expo hall or sponsored booth area.

The idea is simple. Have an event where brands who would be helpful and of interest to attendees can also be present and help attendees understand what they do. The brands typically have a display booth of some kind that advertises who they are and some key solution they offer to gain attention, and from there, may have videos, pamphlets, brochures, swag (free, branded items), and of course expert sales staff to talk to.

They’re focused and targeted pop-up malls.

CES – Consumer Electronics Show – is a terrific example of an event where the focus is the trade show. Brands flock to build elaborate booth spaces to entice and show off what’s new in their world. And it’s a terrific amount of fun! Attendees are treated to the latest gadgets and wizardry, all in a high-energy, low-pressure environment.

A virtual version of that trade show, which of course they did due to the pandemic, would have many of the same brands and vendors participating, just online. A virtual event platform that supports a virtual trade show is employed to give attendees visual representations of each brand and areas in interact and engage with the vendors.

Benefits of a Virtual Trade Show

So why virtual? Isn’t it more fun to be able to walk around and be a part of the sights and sounds of an expo hall?

There’s definitely value to in-person trade shows, just as there’s terrific value to in-person events overall. But in-person events tend to be more expensive and time-consuming to attend and, for some attendees, entirely cost-prohibitive.

Not everyone in the world can afford to take time off and travel to Las Vegas, Nevada for a few days.

So virtual events, including virtual trade shows, tend to be less time consuming and less expensive, which makes them ideal for attracting a wider, more diverse audience. With a virtual event, anyone in the world with internet can attend. And because a trade show, by definition, includes a variety of brand sponsors, they’re typically free or quite inexpensive for attendees.

They’re essentially giant lead magnets for prospective customers, so brands usually prefer there be no cost and therefore no financial objection to attending.

Another benefit to attendees is that, because the event is virtual and entirely online, people who struggle to deal with the noise and presence of thousands of other attendees feel more comfortable. Not everyone wants to be surrounded by other people, even more so today after the pandemic.

Virtual trade shows are quiet experiences for each individual attendee, affording them the option of attending an event they might normally avoid.

And because all of the participating vendors are displayed online, just clicks away from each other, it’s typically faster and easier for attendees to determine which brands are of interest and go talk to them.

At an in-person event, you might walk around the Expo Hall multiple times before you feel like you’ve talked to everyone you wanted to, whether that’s because you didn’t notice this or that brand, or perhaps when you did see a brand you wanted to talk to, there was a line of people, so you decided to come back later.

Which leads me to the wealth of benefits for vendors, starting with that consistent visibility.

When attendees arrive to the virtual event platform and see the vendors participating in the virtual expo, they’re going to be able to fairly quickly see all of the participating brands. They might even be able to filter and sort the online view to drill down quickly to the specific kinds of products or solutions they’re looking for.

And once they start visiting each virtual booth, everything is captured by virtual event platform analytics.

Have you ever run a booth at an in-person event or expo? Whether a conference or a local business expo, it’s the same scenario. You spend countless hours planning, buying, building and manning your display booth, and throughout the day, you’ll talk to people and give things away and sign folks up for whatever you’re offering.

You’ll know how many people signed up because you have their contact information.

  • How many people took a flyer or some swag and walked away?
  • How many people stood at a distance and watched the video on your booth TV?
  • How many people learned about the name of your brand and service?

You have no idea. There’s no way to measure that at an in-person event.

At a virtual trade show, however, you know all of that and more.

Your virtual event platform will not only tell you how many people clicked on your virtual booth to learn more about you, it’ll tell you their names and contact information. You’ll know if they watched the vide – really watched it, and for how long. You’ll know if they clicked to download any of your PDFs or blog posts or other resources, if they asked to talk to a representative, and even a record of their chat exchange.

You’ll even know what other sessions they attended!

Imagine being able to put together a profile for your sales team, after an event, of all the people that stopped by your booth and, of those people, which ones attended sessions that clearly demonstrate they’re interested in learning how to solve for the problems your brand treats.

That’s powerful.

If you’re participating in someone else’s virtual event or trade show, they may or may not offer you as a sponsor all of that information. It might not be available to them or, more likely, it may come at a premium sponsor price you’re unwilling to pay.

But if you’re the brand putting on the event, you’ll have all of that data and more, which is why you’re thinking about planning a virtual trade show to begin with, so let’s get in to what that looks like.

Planning a Virtual Trade Show

Just like every other virtual event we want to plan, we start by talking through the Why and the Who. It’s critical that you document your purpose for your event and your target audience. Otherwise, you’ll rush wasting your time with an unfocused event that isn’t of interest to anyone.

If you haven’t already, download the virtual event plan and listen to episodes one and two of the Virtual Event Strategist podcast as primers for determining your goals and audience.

Virtual Event Platform Selection

Your next step is to select a virtual event platform and since you know you’re building out a virtual trade show, you’re clearing going to need a platform that supports sponsor capability. Not every tool does!

Attendees need to be able to easily see all of your participating vendors and navigate to their booths or sessions or however you’re structuring your event.

Here’s a list of the best virtual event platforms that have support for virtual trade shows and sponsors:

  1. Airmeet
  2. BigMarker
  3. Bizzabo
  4. Cvent
  5. EventCombo
  6. Glisser
  7. Hopin
  8. Hubilo
  9. Kaltura
  10. ON24
  11. PheedLoop
  12. Remo
  13. Run The World
  14. Swapcard
  15. Whova

It’s important to note that when we talk about virtual booths, what we’re referring to is spaces (I.e. pages) within the virtual even venue that are dedicated to the individual sponsor and has their information on it. Generally, there are ways to customize these virtual booths with graphics, videos, and other assets, all which are typically provided by the sponsor. Some platforms even have a sponsor self-serve option where you can give them access and they are able to upload everything themselves.

When we get to sponsor onboarding, these are details that you’ll have sorted out in advance and will communicate to your vendors and partners.

Virtual Event Booths
The Expo Hall at Agorapulse’s Agency Summit, powered by Airmeet.

Today, most virtual event platform experiences are still two-dimensional, standard website interfaces. Attendees see lists or layouts of sponsors and navigate to the page they want to learn more. As technology improves, look for more and more virtual trade shows to utilize virtual reality and exist in the metaverse.

Virtual Trade Show Sponsor Tiers

The next consideration is how you plan to allow vendors to participate. Will there be a fee? 65% of event organizers accept sponsorships for their events, and the average sponsorship package for a virtual event costs $8,456, according to recent virtual event statistics.

Will you have tiers of sponsorship that come with different features and benefits for different investments?

That’s certainly what I recommend, but that’s also why we always select the virtual event platform before getting too in the weeds on event details. What you can and cannot offer participating sponsors is largely dependent on the platform capabilities.

Some platforms offer a couple different kinds of booth experiences so that you can have a basic version and more robust, more expensive option. For instance, a Bronze Sponsor level might have a virtual booth with a video, some text about the brand, and links to download collateral, while a Silver Sponsor level might include a virtual meeting room for demos and live Q&A. Perhaps with the Gold level, sponsors can go live within their booth and issue an event-wide notification that they’re about to broadcast.

You can also incorporate non-booth elements into the various sponsorship levels, including brand visibility elsewhere throughout the event venue (logo placement), email mentions, dedicated emails, sponsored tracks or sessions or table talks, and speaking slots for sponsored content.

Expect to charge anywhere from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size and scope of your event, how targeted the audience is, and the benefits you’re offering!

While you can absolutely share attendee data with sponsors when the attendee voluntarily visits their booth, it’s more problematic to offer and share that data for the event overall. We’ll discuss this more in a moment, but keep in mind that how much fo the registrant data you share can also be specified within your sponsorship levels.

Attracting & Onboarding Sponsors

Once you have your plan in place, and you’re starting to build out your virtual trade show website and venue, it’s time to start bringing in vendors to participate.

You will want to have a few additional elements in place before you actually reach you to other brands.

  1. Outreach template – this is a few paragraphs of text that you can drop in an email, letter or direct message, explaining to the prospective vendor what and when your event is, who you’re targeting, and how they’ll benefit. Leave costs and other details out of it for now. That’s information you can share in a discovery call.
  2. Sponsorship deck – this is a PDF or webpage that clearly and professionally outlines all of the details, including target audience and available demographic information, past events if applicable, sponsorship levels with their full benefits and costs, existing partners if applicable, other brands or speakers or influencers involved with your event if applicable, and visualization of what the event proposes to look like.
  3. Sponsorship Agreement – you must have an agreement between your other brands and your organization that outlines everything that is expected and what the ramifications are under any circumstances.
  4. Invoicing – while most businesses already have billing systems in place, if this is your first event and it’s not directly put on by an existing business, you may need to set up banking and invoicing systems.
  5. Sponsor Onboarding Kit – once your sponsor signs the contract and pays their invoice, you need to onboard them, and that will including re-communicating dates, providing platform access, and sharing documentation on the specific assets needed from each sponsor.

Incidentally, it should be clearly stated in the Sponsorship Agreement and Onboarding Kit that it’s the sponsor who is responsible for creating all graphics and necessary assets for their virtual booth. Just like how it’s their responsibility to design, buy and assemble a physical booth at an in-person event.

If you plan to share registrant data with sponsors, international law (I.e. GDPR) require that attendees are made aware of that possibility and consent to having their information shared during the registration process through an opt-in. Then, whatever factors determine which registrants are shared with which sponsors needs to be stated within the agreement and re-stated during onboarding so that there is full transparency and clarity.

Marketing Your Virtual Trade Show

Generally, marketing a virtual trade show will be like marketing a virtual event in general, with much of the same organic promotion, influencer marketing, email & community marketing, and paid media.

And we will have many articles and podcast episodes digging deeper into see topics forthcoming.

But what’s different or unique about a virtual trade show?

For starters, you’ve incorporated other brands into the event and even though it may be a paid partnership, you can still build in expectations and opportunities for them to share their involvement.

You could, for instance, have certain promotional requirements at lower sponsorship levels, as an implied discount. A Bronze sponsor might get certain benefits but also be required to send one email to their audience. And so on.

If you can track individual referrals, meaning, know exactly how a particular registrant found out about and signed up for your event (I.e. affiliate link), you can gamify registration levels for sponsors and offer to match and multiply.

For example, a sponsor that sends you 100 registrants might receive 100 different registrants after the event in exchange. If they send 250, you might share 2X that, and if they send you 500 registrants, perhaps they’d get access to the entire registrant list. You can adjust and scale the values to suit your own event needs.

It’s also smart to realize that from the brand’s perspective, they can tout how they’re invested in your event and community, as well as encourage prospects in their own audience to attend and have an opportunity to learn more. So give them graphics that communicate that.

Too often, virtual event planners either do not create graphics for sponsors at all or, if they do, they’re generic graphics that focus on the event and are of little use to the brand partner. What if, instead, you created a partner graphic template series and customized it for each participating partner that they could use on their social channels, cover photos, and emails, and ads, where your event is indicated but the brand and their message is front and center.

When I organized Agorapulse’s sponsorship of Social Media Marketing World, one of the premier events in the social media industry, I had my team craft our own graphics for all of our channels that made it clear we were the lead presenting sponsor at the event and why.

We promoted the event of course but we also were promoting that we’d be there and that we were supporting the entire community around that event.

Not every brand will have the resources or perspective to do this, but if you do it for them and provide the assets, they’ll use them!

And make sure that you make it as easy as possible for brands by including copy, tracking links, and a cloud folder with all of the available assets during their onboarding.

PRO TIP: Use a CRM like HubSpot to collect and store vendor and partner info, and include custom properties for tracking links and other information that every vendor will have, but will be unique per vendor. You can then send email updates to all vendors at once and dynamically include their unique tracking links or whatever it is you want to share!

Next Steps

At this point, if you’re feeling confident and excited about planning your virtual trade show, I recommend you make sure you’ve listened to the first four episodes of the Virtual Event Strategist podcast. They’re designed to help you with most pressing concerns and feelings of overwhelm:

  1. Virtual Event Strategy: Your Why is Why You’re Unfocused
  2. Virtual Event Strategy: How To Narrow Focus To Achieve Broader Goals
  3. Virtual Event Strategy: Getting Started With Elephantine Events
  4. Virtual Event Strategy: How To Rally Resources To Help You

By the end of that series, you’ll be in a great position to build out your complete virtual event strategy.

However, if you’re already feeling as though what your virtual event really needs is a professional guide, let’s talk. I reserve a few days out of the year to offer select clients a VIP Strategy Day where we spend 4 – 6 hours answering every question, unpacking every tactic, and developing a winning strategy for your event. You’ll emerge from that virtual event intensive knowing exactly what you need to do to ensure your event is a success.


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