Many marketers are trying to figure out how to plan a virtual event to drive growth in a similar way that live events have up until now. The single most important factor for driving growth from your virtual event is not the platform, your pre-event engagement strategy, or your speakers. Those things are all critical, but before you can even begin planning a virtual event, it’s vital that everyone from stakeholders to creatives understands what a virtual event is—and what it isn’t.
Getting that alignment will require some change management. But it’s worth it. Without this fundamental understanding, you can waste countless hours to deliver an underwhelming experience that falls far short of your audience’s expectations—and your business goals.
Let’s look at common misconceptions that can drive your team down the wrong path—and how to correct them.
“Virtual events are just online physical events.”
Virtual events are their own tactic with their own opportunities and limitations. To do them right, you must take a digital-first approach. Take the example of scheduling. Physical events are built on the premise of providing a rich, exclusive experience for a captive audience. A dizzying schedule of keynotes, sessions and receptions contributes to the energy of the event and justifies the money and time spent traveling there. Exhibit halls and lounges give attendees an opportunity to take a break and network without having to venture (too far) beyond the conference center.
At a virtual event, however, it’s inevitable that attendees will come and go—whether they’re navigating to another browser tab to get some work done or helping a child connect to their Zoom-based summer camp. Rather than focusing on recreating your physical event schedule minute by minute, you need to be thinking about ways to develop an experience that accounts for the flexibility digital attendees expect.
To create digital experiences that will wow participants, it’s critical that your stakeholders and your event team understand:
- The opportunities offered by virtual events
- The limitations of the digital space
- The factors competing for the attention of your digital audience
- The expectations are personalization and responsiveness that participants bring to digital experiences
- Alignment on event goals across stakeholders
- What constraints around budget, timeline, and content they need to consider
“The first step in virtual event planning is choosing a virtual event platform.”
Choosing a virtual event platform before identifying your event goals—and aligning on those goals across your internal and external stakeholders—is like buying your building materials before designing your house. Different vendors offer different capabilities at different levels of maturity; selecting a platform before determining your priorities can leave you unable to deliver the experiences necessary to meet your goals. If one of your top priorities is to foster discussion to drive innovation, you wouldn’t want to end up with a platform with very basic networking and engagement functionality.
Once you’ve honed in on which capabilities are must-haves, take the time to get educated about the strengths and constraints of each platform so you can select the right combination of tools to create a successful event. It’s important to not simply choose based on feature-set, but to test-drive your desired configuration to make sure the integrations will really work before making your final selection.
“Virtual events are less work than in-person events.”
The time between conception and event date may be shorter for your virtual event than a physical one, but the number of hours required to get it up and running is extensive. Believing otherwise can lead you to underestimate your timeline or budget—or both.
Even your most seasoned event planners will need extra time to ramp up on the particularities of the virtual space and gain the skills to be successful there. Complicating matters right now is the lack of experience with virtual events—even among platform providers. This tactic is literally being invented before our eyes—and that’s exciting, but it also means that the people putting on the events are learning on the fly what questions to ask, what problems can arise, and how to fix them.
As you put together your timeline, don’t forget to include time for:
- Researching virtual event platforms and capabilities
- Testing virtual event tools and integrations
- Onboarding team members to new technologies and processes
- Dry runs for setup, speaker management, Q&A moderation and other aspects of virtual sessions
“Virtual event platforms are ready to go.”
Just a few months ago, there wasn’t a need for a true, end-to-end virtual event platform. Nearly every provider in this space is reinventing or inventing themselves as they go, and the features they come in with depend largely on the use cases they were originally designed for. Complicating matters further, even the largest event platform providers are swamped with requests right now, making it difficult to both start the process and get customer support once you’re in it. Although some of the wave 1 virtual events were highly experimental, anyone who was involved in these from the get-go has an advantage. The lessons learned and relationships gained through those experiences make it possible for them to develop more effective events now. Even so, there is no perfect platform, and it will be another 12 months or more before any provider can be considered mature.
With this in mind, it’s critical to ask:
- Which features are native to your platform and which are provided by partners?
- How thoroughly are your platform capabilities integrated with each other and those of your partners’? Can data flow between all of the components of your solution?
- What data will we receive about attendee activities after the event, how soon, and in what format?
- What professional services do you offer? What does your during-event tech support look like?
“Virtual events are our Plan B.”
If you’re looking at planning virtual events as a way to replace your traditional event calendar, it may seem like they are your Plan B. But that mentality will get you in a lot of trouble. Virtual events are your new plan A and have the same risk factors as physical events. With so many technologies working together, and every person involved in the event, from planners to presenters to attendees, being remote, surprises are inevitable. A solid understanding of the technological setup and a realistic understanding of the varying levels of tech savviness among presenters and attendees can go a long way toward anticipating and planning for problems that might arise. Some of the many questions to consider while planning virtual events are:
- What technical aspects can go wrong? What is our contingency plan for each?
- What if my speakers are unable to connect or have other technical difficulties?
- What will we do if speakers are going over their allotted time? How will we communicate with them?
- What will we do if Internet issues come up during a session? How will this affect attendees who are scheduled to attend another session right afterwards?
- What will we do if the entire platform crashes? How will we communicate to attendees what to do next?
“Our event team has all the experience and tools they need to plan and execute a virtual event.”
Virtual events are complex. There is no one simple answer for how to plan a virtual event because there are a lot of moving parts. From making sure all of the technical components will talk to each other, to finding and managing speakers, to ensuring engagement with sponsors, there are many moving parts. While some of these tasks are similar to their physical event counterparts, many of them are new and require a sophisticated understanding of both the technologies you are working with and the experience you want to deliver. And, with the increased data and actionable insights that are part and parcel with virtual events, the post-event phase (e.g., follow-up) takes on increased importance. Having a strong post-event engagement strategy that you can execute right away has a significant impact on pipeline and ROI. Luckily, no one is on their own when it comes to navigating these new waters. While there are no virtual event planning companies at the time of this article, there are companies that specialize in digital experiences and more companies expanding their consulting services to include virtual events. As things progress, the experience can be gained but for now, there’s still a lot to learn.
In addition to your standard physical event planning tasks, planning a virtual event requires:
- Experience using the platforms in the market and relationships with these vendors
- Ability to build a holistic experience using different components
- Expertise in creating exciting digital experiences
- Development and orchestration of pre- and post-event engagement strategy
- One or more dedicated resources in the days leading up to the event, and especially in the war room during the event
If your team doesn’t have this skillset or availability, consider bringing in a virtual event agency to help.
The Iron Horse insight.
Virtual event planning is sophisticated, time-intensive, and requires a digital-first approach, technical expertise, and the ability to pivot quickly as challenges arise. When figuring out how to plan a virtual event, first outline the goals and expectations. Managing expectations with the C-suite is a critical first step for successfully identifying and allocating resources—whether internal or external—to create an event that delights your audience and drives your growth.