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Don’t Use a Webinar Platform to Host a Virtual Event!

As we talk to clients about how to host virtual events, one question comes up a lot: Can we run it on our favorite webinar platform? I get where this question comes from. Many organizations have been using these platforms for years to connect with remote workers, while others have only discovered their magic in the last few months. Either way, companies are now relying on these tools to promote connection within the organization and with prospects and customers—and they are proving to be excellent for that purpose. 

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. This is not a question of “can.” Of course you can host a virtual event on a webinar platform, just like you can hold an entire conference in a single room. The real question is, should you. And to answer that question, you need to understand what these platforms are designed for, and look at your goals for the event.

What are webinar platforms great at?

Webinar platforms excel at delivering content to an online audience. Content delivered over these platforms can be highly polished, pre-produced video, a slide deck with live narration, a video feed of the speaker(s)—or a combination of all three. They provide a mechanism for hundreds of people to view that content and interact with the presenter(s) in a limited way, usually by posing questions in a chat pane. You can think of them like a room at your physical event, where you can hold different kinds of sessions—from hands-on workshops to talks to panels—throughout the day. 

What AREN’T webinar platforms designed for? 

Content delivery is a big component of your event, but it’s not the only component, in the same way that a single room at the expo center is not the totality of your physical conference experience. Here are just a few of the aspects of the event that take place outside of that room:

  • Encouragement to move from one session to another
  • Simultaneous sessions or tracks
  • Session-specific chat and Q&A
  • Spontaneous interactions among attendees
  • Visiting and engaging with sponsors
  • Exploration and discovery of new vendors and content
  • Complex agendas and registrations
  • Entertainment, wellness/relaxation activities, awards and swag

If you think about the physical events you go to, these “out of the room” aspects likely loom large in your memory. They’re important. They combine with your content to create the overall experience your attendees remember and share.

So how do you decide what platform to use to host your virtual event? A good rule of thumb is that if your virtual event requires a level of orchestration similar to a physical event, then a webinar platform alone won’t be enough. 

Let’s see this in action with a few virtual event examples our customers are grappling with. 

The annual sales kick-off (SKO) event. 

This lively, jam-packed event brings salespeople from around the world to a single location for three days of product introductions, role-play workshops, friendly competition and team-building. Sales training events are often remembered as much for the knowledge and tools distributed as for the fun. 

Here’s how it might look if you were to run it using only a webinar platform:

  • Attendees would find links to scheduled sessions in an email or landing page.
  • Sessions would be scheduled back to back, rather than simultaneously.
  • Competition and motivation might take place outside of the event itself, on your company’s Slack channel, or by email within teams.
  • Awards for employees would be delivered via email or Slack post, rather than within the event interface.

Consider the fuller experience you might offer on a virtual event platform instead:

  • Customizable agenda with notifications
  • Multiple content tracks
  • Gamification elements to motivate participation
  • Leaderboard, badges and other virtual awards within the unified virtual event interface

The verdict: No.

There’s a reason your organization hasn’t converted its sales training event into e-learning modules that everyone can take on their own time, at their own pace. Content delivery is just a fraction of what happens at this event and you won’t be able to deliver a comparable virtual experience without a virtual event platform.

The customer advisory board or customer appreciation event. 

This single-day event is a way to reward your customers and keep your offerings top of mind. Usually consisting of an exciting keynote, new product demonstrations, a terrific luncheon, peer-to-peer networking, and an awesome swag bag, this event seems difficult to replicate in the virtual space. That’s okay, because you shouldn’t be trying to replicate your physical events anyway.

To host your customer event on a webinar platform, you could:

  • Create a few, high-production-value sessions to showcase your hero products.
  • Offer live office hours to answer customer questions.
  • Send physical care packages to registrants with items to support a virtual social hour, such as food delivery for a lunch-n-learn or cocktail/mocktail recipes for a “hosted” happy hour.

Because each of the above sessions can take place one after another in a single “room,” and don’t require a high-level of interactivity (beyond the types of conversations that take place in virtual meetings), you could reasonably host your virtual customer event on a webinar platform.

But what if you wanted to give your customers more?

If you look outside the “room,” you can create a richer, more engaging experience, including:

  • Ability to explore your offerings on their own time and in their own manner
  • Breakout sessions for peer-to-peer networking
  • Interactive digital tools to showcase your roadmap and vision
  • A cohesive branded experience across all elements of your event

The verdict: Maybe.

You could put together an engaging customer appreciation event on a webinar platform. But there’s no question that using a virtual event platform for your CAB event will increase the wow factor and deliver an experience that stands out from the crowd.

Corporate summits or user conferences.

Designed to engage your customers and prospects with awesome content, speakers, product teams and peers, this type of event typically features a complex agenda with multiple concurrent tracks and sessions, including keynotes, workshops, panels, as well as entertainment and a sponsor area. Your goal here is to deliver an awesome premium and engaging brand experience so customers and prospects walk away from the event being excited and ready to engage with you post-event. This is a perfect example where a webinar platform does not have the features to deliver this experience but can be used to support some of the live and breakout sessions as part of the event. 

The verdict: No.

Like the SKO event, these events are about much more than content. Experience design using the right set of virtual event platform vendors is key to having a great corporate/user summit. 

Half-day workshop.

The goal of these smaller events is to provide a specific audience with the latest information and skills in a single topic area. Half-day summits usually feature some kind of a keynote followed by a few workshops or panels. 

The verdict: Sure.

The simple, linear agenda lends itself well to a single “room,” and because the main focus for participants is gaining knowledge, it is more important to provide relevant and engaging content than a premium brand experience. (Here’s a great example of a half-day workshop that took place entirely on the ON24 platform.) 

The Iron Horse insight.

Many companies look to host their virtual events using a webinar platform because they already have a vendor in house and are already paying for it. This is a mistake. The reality is the percentage of virtual event costs allocated to platform fees is actually quite low, and should not be the deciding factor when selecting which platform(s) to use. In most cases trying to host your entire virtual event on a webinar platform will result in an incomplete user experience that does not wow your prospects and customers.