Sponsoring virtual events

Sponsoring virtual events: the new marketing trend

By romain-bourgois | guy-in-adtech | 15 Jun 2020

"Marketing provides free content to internet users."

People mostly associate this sentence in a classic scenario: they get free news articles financed via IAB ads. Still, many more scenarios exist and new ones are often created. Online advertising evolves as fast as digital trends, and I am fascinated to see how fast innovations can be monetized.

In this post, we will focus on a relatively new trend: the sponsoring of virtual events.

Event sponsorship has been around for decades and still works great.
We all have examples in mind: exhibition sponsorship, concert sponsorship, sport sponsorship, etc.
Those events can be broadcasted on TV. The Super Bowl is likely one of the most popular. Everything is sponsored, even the half time show!

The "Pepsi Super Bowl half time show"

We are just starting to see successful virtual events. Some projects got popular in the past (remember secondlife.com?), but they remained a niche market for advertisers.
As virtual events are getting more and more popular, virtual event sponsorship is still in its infancy.

So, what is the recipe for a successful virtual event?
I identified three prerequisites:

  • a social network platform. An event needs to attract people. Those platforms are gathering communities that can be leveraged to organize virtual events.
  • an innovative feature: the more unique the experience, the more buzz. Leveraging unique features provided by the social network is critical.
  • a limited-time event! Using a limited timeframe event will increase user engagement furthermore. Those events can be entirely sponsored or not, depending on the social network.

A boring innovation: Real-life events broadcasted online

  • platform: Youtube
  • innovation: live stream
  • event: David Guetta concert.

David Guetta, one of the most successful french DJ, recently streamed on youtube live concerts to raise funds to fight against covid-19. This fundraising was quite effective and will help those in need.

Regularly during the show, David Guetta thanked the sponsors who were matching donations. Also, logos from the MLS & Heineken were displayed on the screen during the entire event.

This type of sponsoring reproduces the TV scenario: you broadcast a real-life event, and brands can sponsor it.

David Guetta's fundraising

Streamers: a bridge between real-life and virtual events

  • platform: Twitch
  • innovation: live streams and video editing
  • event: regular live streams

Twitch is an exciting platform that allows anyone to stream their live events. Popular streamers are real influencers, and they have millions of followers.

Marketers can sponsor their streams, natively leveraging the Twitch platform formats:

  • brand logo on the screen
  • brand name/hashtag on the stream title
  • Sponsored posts in the chat

In this type of sponsoring, brands are not organizing the event. Though, streamers would likely be less active if sponsors were not financing those live broadcasts.

All in all, this scenario is pretty similar to broadcasted real-life events. The main difference is that the audiences are very fragmented, which allows brands to target segments sharply.

kfc sponsors a streamerKFC sponsors a Twitch streamer

Content creation on a platform

  • platform: Twitch
  • innovation: video game content
  • event: during the time of the buzz

Some brands, like Wendy's, go one step further with Twitch: they create their virtual happenings!

As Twitch is mostly used to stream video games, Wendy's launched their own video game Twitch channel. Wendy's is not developing new branded games. This path would likely fail! Instead, they are creating maps/avatars on popular games.

From there, they are streaming on their channel gamers playing with the content they created. Their last content: a Wendy's avatar on Super Smash Bros.
Once released, the Smash Bros community started playing with this branded avatar in a designated virtual room. Fights were streamed on Wendy's twitch channel.

Through relatively basic content creation on three games, Wendy's Twitch channel gained 85k followers within two months! This is an excellent example of a brand creating its online events. Those events are engaging a community that lives a virtual experience... entirely sponsored!

wendy's avatar smash Gamers are playing with Wendy herself! 

The pure social network player

  • platform: TikTok
  • innovation: hashtag challenges
  • event: during the challenge flying dates

TikTok is massively used among teenagers. This platform allows anyone to create videos annotated with hashtags.

Hashtag challenges are part of the native advertiser offering to marketers. These campaigns motivate users to rise to sponsored challenges. Those result in a temporary buzz that entertains the TikTok community. For those who don't use TikTok, the concept resembles the "ice bucket challenge" that got trendy during summer 2014. The main difference is that brands and influencers are designing the challenge.

With TikTok, brands can natively create their virtual events that are engaging users.
Tiktok leverages a genuinely virtuous circle. They generate money through brands that entertain their users.

Here is an example of a challenge for a sponsored fitness app:

The massive surprise: Fortnite

  • platform: Fortnite
  • innovation: Immersive virtual event venues, on top of the core game offering.
  • event: Party Royale events

Fortnite is a "battle royale" game. One hundred players are simultaneously fighting each other with the same goal: eliminate every other player. A dynamic map forces players to engage in battle. The last player to stand wins the game.

As I tried this game a year ago, I felt lonely playing it! The map is relatively large, and I was sometimes exploring the world for five minutes without meeting any opponent. This lonely experience led me to understand that Fortnite was more than just a game: it is a social network! Playing with your friends is key here, as you can discuss with them when browsing the map to get weapons! Tactics and fights are just an excuse to gather in a virtual environment. In the end, it is like inviting friends over to play a board game!

Epic, the game developer, leveraged further this social network component and created a special mode in their game: Party Royale.
In this mode, there is no winner or loser. Every player gathers on a virtual event, enjoying it with some friends.

I was not able to find any information regarding sponsored events, but I suspect that those events are partly sponsored (if not entirely):

  • music producers can promote their new artist: the concert of Travis Scott (see below)
  • marketers can create hype about new movies
    • An exclusive Star Wars film clip got released last December on Fortnite.
    • A world premiere trailer of Tenet, the upcoming Christopher Nolan's movie, got recently released. This summer, players will even have the opportunity to watch the entire film on the platform.

Those events are limited in time and are only accessible on specific hours. Fortnite has been incredibly innovative and now provides an excellent venue for marketers to organize immersive events on the platform.

Travis Scott's virtual concert

New platforms that could host innovative events.

The TikTok model is so virtuous that new contenders are trying to get a piece of the cake. Those new social networks are betting on innovations that unlock new experiences. In a few quarters, the next trendy virtual event might be hosted by one of those.


Firework launched a "reveal" format that makes video watching more dynamic.
This format encourages users to be active while watching content.


This app allows users to create videos simultaneously using the front and back camera or your phone!
Given the popularity of "reaction" videos on youtube, this app has a real potential to grow their user base fastly.


A TikTok copycat with a large music library and advanced editing tools.

What about measurement?

Measurement abilities depend on platform maturity.

As a rule of thumbs, you can assume that first-party data reports are accessible (viewers, platform reach, stats per segments). First party engagement signals as reposts or likes can also be provided. Fortnite even sells an exclusive party event skin.

Measurement outside of the platform is usually also possible. Most platforms provide an attribution measurement solution that will match third-party user activities with the campaign activities

Just the beginning

More than sponsored virtual events, brands start providing sponsored virtual experiences to social network communities. New virtual experiences are popping up regularly.

Between new social networks and the rise of AR/VR devices, sponsored virtual events have a bright future.

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