Organizations that treat the move from in-person to virtual events as a 1-to-1 conversion are almost guaranteed to see poor results. Only by understanding the differences and opportunities that go with each can you plan virtual events that deliver the best experience for all your stakeholders: attendees, sponsors, speakers, customers, and partners.
Think that sounds harsh? Consider this: Baking and cooking are similar, yet different. Both require rigid planning to ensure key ingredients are in the proper places and ready to go, but the act of cooking and the act of baking look quite different. When cooking, a person can make direct adjustments by adding a touch more salt or spice to flavor the dish while it cooks. Baking is a completely different mental exercise. Once it’s in the oven the baker cannot continue to interact with a cake by tasting it and adding more sugar. They can, however, check to see if the cake is ready to come out of the oven and be decorated. Cooking has a direct hands-on interaction with ingredients, but baking doesn’t have that same luxury.
If someone were to approach baking the same as they would cooking, they would produce a pretty lousy cake. The same can be said when planning your own virtual events.
Engagement for an event, whether physical or virtual, is key to its success. People engage differently online than they do in person. Here are 11 areas that require a shift in thinking when planning virtual events.
Registration and pricing strategy.
First of all, stop and rethink the price of the event. The big live events companies depend on are often paid for, whereas virtual events are rarely that way. Unless a virtual event is going to provide high-end resources, swag, connections, and perhaps a free lunch, it’s going to be hard to charge physical event prices for registrations.
So now that I have to host a virtual event instead of a live one, I’m just going to lose all that registration revenue?
Not quite. It’s important to remember that unlike in-person events, virtual events have no physical capacity limits and have a low price point to generate more registrants, which expands a company’s database. More registrants mean more attendees, which leads to more engagement and exposure, and ultimately that means more data to act on for lead follow-up. If the goal is to drive live attendance, make the live event free and charge a nominal fee to access the session replays.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between a physical vs virtual event has to do with timezones. People attending an online event are from all over, located in varying time zones. So, while some may be watching your event at 8am, others may be tuning in at 5pm. Companies need to be cognizant of this fact and plan the time for the event that will work for the majority of their ideal customers.
Scheduling for a virtual event should also take screen fatigue into consideration. In-person events have fixed schedules with multiple tracks and sessions happening simultaneously, but a virtual event should have a variable schedule. Companies should break up that schedule into bite-sized chunks by offering shorter sessions, on-demand sessions, or breaking the event into multiple days instead of one. There are many more distractions, both physical and digital, that will disrupt a virtual event attendee’s focus and attention span. Shorter, more engaging sessions benefit the attendee experience, and by providing on-demand content, attendees are empowered to manage their own schedule that best fits their needs.
A single presenter giving a lecture-based presentation may work well in a physical environment to keep people’s attention but that format is not quite dynamic enough for a virtual event. It takes more to keep the attention of someone sitting behind the screen of a computer, just itching to watch a funny video, check social media, or place a quick online order for something. When planning virtual events, aim to add more panels or group presentations instead of only offering single presenter lectures. A moderated panel discussion with interactive elements, such as a Q&A and live attendee chat help keep an audience attentive and engaged.
For physical events, there’s only one option for a presentation, and that’s to give it live. However, with a virtual event, there’s an opportunity to pre-record a presentation to create a highly produced and polished product. These assets can be used not only at the event but also afterward too. Moreover, in a physical event, there are physical limitations, such as the number of sessions that can occur at the same time given the number of presentation rooms. Hosting a virtual event allows a company to conduct more presentations and add some additional niche presentations they may have otherwise not had the capacity to do. Of course, with more content available, you need to make it easy for attendees to discover, find, and personalize their experience.
Consider the speakers and their experience when planning virtual events. Training and coaching need to be adapted to virtual formats, whether it is a pre-recording, a live presentation, or it’s a Simulive webinar. Remember that there is no visual feedback to the presenter during a virtual event because there’s no audience sitting in front of them. If you have a very dynamic speaker, they may be comfortable doing a live presentation, but do not be afraid to use pre-recorded sessions for your less-experienced speakers. Additionally, if there is a panel of speakers, it helps if there is a moderator to act as a hype-person, to keep the energy level up.
Big and medium-sized physical events garner the majority of revenue from sponsorships and exhibitors. Sponsors are the backbone of those events, but when planning virtual events, those sponsorships must be re-envisioned. Packages should be virtually digestible, and from there, weaved into the event. However, keep in mind that having a virtual sponsor area does not guarantee engagement. Pricing also needs to be top of mind here too because virtual event sponsors may not get the same value they would from a physical event, where sponsors pay big money for the traffic that goes through physical expo halls and booths. A big challenge with virtual events comes with figuring out how to drive engagement and value for sponsors. Simply having a virtual booth does not guarantee people will engage; organizations need to consider gamification and incentives, targeted email, during-event nudges and reminders, and dedicated times for sponsor visits.
Live events are a great way to network with like-minded professionals and form personal relationships. There are so many opportunities to sit down next to a great potential contact at a session, or serendipitously bump into someone at a booth or even a bar after the event. Virtual events may lack in person-to-person interactions but networking is still manageable. For a company to make networking a true possibility at a virtual event, it needs to find ways to jolt some interaction between attendees, even if that is through a virtual happy hour and not directly in the presentation itself. A company can do breakout sessions in different virtual rooms that host 10-15 people each, with one ambassador per room. We’ve also seen some out-of-the-box thinking in this area, such as virtual karaoke or hiring a virtual mixologist to teach attendees how to make drinks during the happy hour.
For every event, a company should track the engagement journey from pre-event, during the event, and after the event. The biggest mistake a company can make with this area is using the same metrics, regardless if the event is in-person or online. Do NOT use the same metrics!
The KPIs will be different from a physical event. Virtual event attendees consume events in different ways, and oftentimes they don’t do so during the live event, but rather by watching the replay later on. With virtual events, you may get a lot of the same data but the interpretation of the results shouldn’t be compared. There should be a difference in the expectations a company has for physical vs virtual events in areas such as marketplace awareness and sales enablement.
With virtual events, one tends to get more granular—using a real-time stream of data that offers everything from who downloaded what resource to who watched it live or via the replay. This kind of data should be used to segment audiences and create dynamic emails, social copy, retargeting ads, and other marketing collateral that are built around an audience’s consumption and persona. Segmentation will help deepen engagement and give a company another chance to offer valuable resources by offering what was missed during the live broadcast or what other content they might find useful based on their interests.
Keep in mind that virtual events have a shorter timeframe than physical ones. In-person events, especially show sizes over 2,000 people, require planning to start a minimum of 12 months out to secure hotel space. However, the lead time for a virtual event can be a matter of weeks rather than months, and that shorter period of time should be considered when planning virtual events. Preparation is key to any event but more so with a virtual event because they have shorter lead times.
There are risks for every event, virtual or otherwise. With physical events, a company usually knows the common risks involved, such as travel, alcohol, and non-PG behavior. But, while a company may have a mitigation plan for those risks, virtual events are a new playing field that most organizations don’t have vast experience with handling. With that in mind, here are some unique risks that a company cannot lose sight of when planning virtual events:
- Lost internet connectivity
- Video delivery scale issues
- Physical and digital distractions and interruptions
- Non-technical people in attendance
- Live, non-PG behavior
The biggest mistake a company can make is looking at their virtual events with an in-person event marketing campaign mindset and not acknowledging the benefits and drawbacks between virtual and physical events. A company cannot afford to overlook or ignore everything we have discussed in the above sections because these key areas will properly inform the structure and benchmarks of a virtual event campaign.
However, once these differences have been acknowledged, a company can ask some of the same campaign questions they would with any event, such as “what should this event achieve, and could it be part of a series?” Companies should weigh the options of doing a single mega event vs doing a series of smaller events. When doing a series of events, be sure to make them easily repeatable, and establish a doable cadence, such as monthly or quarterly.
The Iron Horse insight.
To succeed with your virtual events, you need to think of them as a virtual experience. Whether you’re cooking or baking, great food and great desserts should be experiential and provoke conversation, and ultimately, advocacy. Designing a great virtual experience means obsessing over every component and detail of your event to ensure attendees are delighted in new and unexpected ways.