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Nine ways in-house planners can win with virtual events

Event Marketing Association (EMA) member Mark Baker, head of strategy and operations for EMEA at Oracle, reveals his nine top tips for in-house event professionals pivoting to virtual events.

Our world has changed dramatically over the last few months, with events cancelled or shifted to virtual. It’s been a massive change and a steep learning curve for many. This is a great opportunity to move beyond traditional event management to ‘engagement management’ – where events are more closely tied to other tactics to deliver long-term value for your audience and business through deeper engagements.

We’re moving from an all live approach directly to all digital in a single leap, but that doesn’t mean face to face events are going away. They’ll be back, but they won’t be the same. We’ll see a new normal for events emerge, where digital takes the lead with live elements in one or more locations and time zones.

Why will this change permanently? A quick analysis provides some clues:

  • Political – How long will restrictions and social distancing stay in place? How and when will different countries ease restrictions?
  • Economic – World business has taken a massive financial hit and businesses have seen that remote working is an option. How will businesses look at the risks and costs around travel once restrictions are lifted?
  • Social – How will individuals feel about getting on planes and trains after being at home for so long? Will they be willing to get back into crowded situations before there’s a vaccine?
  • Technological – If we’re all used to receiving information virtually, why go to a live event?

Virtual events are here to stay, so what can we do to be really great at them?

1. Be clear on your objectives

Why were you running an event in the first place? What do you want to achieve? Was it just something to put on the calendar or did you have a business outcome in mind?

Are you trying to:

  • Meet and engage with new people?
  • Re-engage with people you already know?
  • Create new sales opportunities? Accelerate existing ones?
  • Educate or entertain your customers?

You need to decide what you’re going to get out of your event. It might be that a virtual event can’t deliver to your original objectives and you need to reconsider the what and the why of your event as well as the how.

Or maybe you’ll find that a virtual event will let you reach out more broadly, frequently, and deliver more of your objectives than an in-person event ever could have.

2. Deliver for your attendees

When your customer shows up at your event, they know what they’re getting: keynotes in a large hall, smaller breakout presentations, opportunities to catch up with colleagues, and maybe even a free lunch! For those things they set aside time to travel to your event, be there for the duration, and get home after. How different is their expectation of your virtual event? There’s certainly no free lunch.

Will they come just for the keynote content? Maybe, if it’s really great. But what will make them take the time to show up and stay? Registration is easy to do, making time on the day to attend is much harder. There’s always an urgent email to answer. We can guess, or we can actually ask them.

Before deciding on the details of your virtual event, talk to some customers or send a survey. Find out what would be compelling about your event to them once it’s gone virtual. By focusing on your customer, being clear about what’s in it for them, what they need to justify the time, you’ll deliver an experience that makes them come back for more.

3. Play with your timelines

With in-person you’re limited by location. People have to take time and travel to the location. But then you’ve got them for the duration. They’ll probably stick around to the end unless an emergency crops up.

With virtual you’re not limited by time. People can attend from anywhere at the click of a button, so spread your wings, invite more people from different locations who might not join an in-person event due to distance or time. But time is also the enemy. Will they stay online with you for a whole day?

Without the location limitation, you can get people together a lot more frequently. So consider breaking your eight hour day into several sessions. Why not two hours every Thursday for a month?

Changing your event timelines will help you engage more people from different locations more frequently.

4. Ensure your speakers are the best

We’ve all seen great, engaging stage speakers. They make time pass quickly and at the break everyone is talking about the three clear lessons you’ve taken from the session. Why would your great speaker be any different on your virtual event?

The camera is the difference, moving them from stage to screen. Staring down a camera lens is a world away from talking to real people. Some people can do it, others can’t.

To help your speaker be great, first get the basics right. Ensure they’ve got a high-quality camera, a clear mic, are filming in an appropriate location, have flattering lighting, are wearing the right clothes, with a fast network connection.

Just like you do for in-person events, engage early, check content, and rehearse. Help them transition their great on-stage body language to be camera-ready. Get them to stand, use their hands, and bring their energy and passion to your audience. A subtle difference to the presentation style can make a major impact.

And please, keep them focused! A one hour stage presentation won’t translate well to virtual. Try to keep your speakers to about 20 minutes, just like a TED talk. Keep it focused and effective by keeping it brief. If your speaker can’t do that that live, then pre-record, edit, and play as live. Your audience will thank you for it.

5. Think like a TV producer

If you’ve ever spent any time in a TV studio, you’ll know how big a team it takes to make one person look incredible. A virtual event is no different. If you want a really professional outcome, you need to hire dedicated professionals in all the key roles.

Anchor – Start your event with great energy, a professional sheen, and a sense of control throughout.
Q&A Host – You’re live and can take questions throughout. Ensure that they’re being captured, filtered, and fed to your MC to keep the event moving.
Presentation Trainer – A delivery expert who coaches the presenter, ensures they’re ready, and drives the rehearsals.
Content Reviewer – Visual aids are important and not all presenters will have them. Help them to make their content visual, on message, within the time limit, minimal, and engaging – it’s easy to leave a virtual event when someone is reading bullets from a slide.
Technical Producer – Things go wrong when you’re live. Have a technical producer on hand who knows the platform and can identify, fix, or workaround problems as they happen.
Recording Technician – Never neglect the recording. Not all events need to be recorded, but most will be. Capture high quality output, ready for editing and re-sharing.

With the right people in support, you can make your virtual event slick and engaging. Invest some time and skill and don’t leave your virtual event to chance.

6. Build in engagement

We’ve all been at events and reached the point where the host asks “Are there any questions?”, only for every hand in the room to find a pocket. A few reluctant, predictable questions. Little engagement, low energy. Your virtual event provides many opportunities to deliver direct engagement with your speakers – before, during, and even long after the event.

  • Help to build communities between your speakers and your audience that can run on for weeks or months
  • Polls/votes throughout – wake your audience up again – do you agree/disagree? what’s important to them?
  • Live chat handlers to moderate during the session.
  • How do you address multi-speaker interaction to drive banter/energy? – role of host/MC to drive the narrative/lead to the outcome.
  • Structure the Q&A to make it come alive – use a question moderator to select the most interesting questions

If you can keep your event energetic and interactive, you can keep your audience all the way to the end.

7. Bring back your audience

Every single person at your event has something in common; they dedicated time to show up in the first place. That’s a great starting point for engaging them again. You’ve got their attention, so use it. If they loved your keynote speaker, maybe they’d re-watch?

Maybe they didn’t manage to catch all the sessions? Do they have colleagues they might want to share with to help you build a deeper or wider audience? Are they interested in staying in touch with the community to exchange further?

And most importantly, can you keep them engaged with you until the next event?

8. Embed calls to action

I’m sure that we all run events JUST for the benefit of the attendees with no thought of our own business outcomes, right? We engage an audience to deliver value and to find new ways to engage them.

So where are your calls to action? Where can you engage, capture, and deliver that value? You can pepper your event with opportunities to get more information, ask questions, and start talking to you directly.

  • Embed downloads in your event – brochures, research reports, or the presentations at the end of each session – they’re already past your gate so each download gives you more information about their interests and can drive future engagement.
  • Have a “chat now” or “call me back” available in your event – you’ve got the audience there, so if they want to talk to you, ensure they can.

Make it easy for your audience to start that next conversation with you.

9. Become great at digital promotion

You’re online! But you won’t get far without a great digital engine behind you. Your digital footprint needs to start well before the event, be non-stop during it, and continue after to drive deep engagement.

With your event over, you have unique content with proven value to your audience and the broader market.

  • Not everyone who registered actually showed up on the day – use your content to re-engage with them. Show them what they missed and ensure they don’t skip it next time.
  • Give everyone an opportunity to share with their friends and colleagues easily and quickly to build an even larger audience for next time.
  • Use it to drive new attendees to your next event. Use targeting that helps you find people just like those who showed up last time. If you’re delivering value to their peers, it’s probably valuable to them too.

By using some of these tricks you can engage a broader audience, more deeply, delivering greater value to you and them. Isn’t that what we’re all here for?

The Event Marketing Association is the association for in-house event and marketing professionals.