How to plan your first virtual event

Plan first virtual event

Media and publishing businesses have relied on live events to connect their communities and generate revenue from sponsors and exhibitors for years. But now many are realising that their next event will have to be delivered online. You may be replacing a conference or round table that was scheduled this year. Or launching an entirely new event.

It’s easy to get caught up in testing out different tech platforms, and there are plenty of recommendations swirling around. But I think it’s important first to step back and work out exactly what your reader community and your sponsors are looking for from a live event, and then build up the elements that can deliver that online.

Why virtual events are different

Over ten years ago when I was launching the first web sites for EMAP’s specialist magazines, we had to carefully resist the temptation to replicate a magazine online. Our readers had a range of needs and questions, so the sites had to offer something distinct from the magazine reading experience. We created reader photo galleries, gear review directories and online Q&As, all of which met different needs.

Seven years ago I experimented with a virtual version of the live Specialist Media Show, using the Ivent platform. I already had a database from the live event and persuaded sponsors to support the event with online presentations and virtual stands. We ran a dozen webinar style sessions over two days, attendance was good, and it doubled over a 4 week on-demand period. But the online stands attracted very little traffic.

So beware of thinking that you have to replicate all the elements of a live event online. It’s a different medium, just like a web site isn’t a print magazine. You can’t trap your audience into listening to boring speakers or sponsor sales pitches, they can click away at any time if they are bored. They are unlikely to spend all day glued to their screen and headset. They might want to dip in and out during the day, or even catch up a week later.

Planning your schedule and content

But the great advantage is that online content is not as ephemeral as a live event. As a media brand, you are using your influence to convene the influencers and innovators in your market. The content you create together can then be accessed by your audience for weeks or months. You can turn it into premium content on your main website or use it as a promotion on social media.

The first assumption to drop is that all your content has to be crammed in one day in multiple streams. You can spread it out over several days, allowing your attendees to select the sessions they want to attend, and not be frustrated by clashing schedules. And an on-demand period, even just for a couple of weeks, is essential.

Online content has to work harder without the live presence of the speaker. If you can, include video, to hold the attention of the audience. Old fashioned webinars with just a slide show and a voice over, will cause people to tune out and click away. Mix up your sessions, with interviews, panels, and TED style keynotes as well as set piece presentations. The joy of the new platforms, like zoom and crowdcast, is that it is easy to create a video panel, with lots of human faces, even if your speakers are all remote.

This style of event requires top notch moderation skills. Your host needs to be as good as a broadcast anchor, teasing out good answers from their guests, and bringing in audience questions. Again, the latest platforms make it easy for live attendees to submit questions. If these are answered during the session, this makes it feel more like a live event, and keeps people watching. A good host can top and tail each day with an intro and a summary.

Speakers need to be coached and have time to rehearse. If they are remote, you need to check the quality of their local tech set up and connection. And for a panel, you will need a structure of topics and prepared questions to keep it lively.

Creating value for sponsors

My experience with my 2012 virtual event was that online stands or booths just don’t work. You need to do your best to push your sponsors towards creating valuable content, whether that is a classic presentation or taking part in a panel. Do invest time in coaching sponsors. At a live event, they can get away with trapping people in a room and selling to them. Online they will just click away. Your role is to help them create content that is appealing and engaging.

The advantage of virtual event platforms is that they can track who attends which session, who asks questions, and who downloads sponsor content. This is all valuable intelligence for sponsors to follow up with later.

If sponsors really don’t have anyone who is able to present in person, then you have to help them create useful digital reference content that attendees can download from the event site or you can promote via email newsletters or social media.

Sponsors tend to measure the RoI on live events by leads generated. So you can pitch your pricing at a similar level if you believe that you can generate a large online audience and get them engaged.

Offering networking for delegates

Delegates value the networking at live events, but how can you replicate this online? Many virtual event platforms require fairly detailed registration and offer the chance to create a profile, possibly populated via a LinkedIn profile. So attendees can browse the delegate list and spot people they might want to connect with.

Even the more basic platforms like Crowdcast have a live chat stream, so attendees can spot who else is attending a session, and connect with them on the platform or via Linked in.

Some more sophisticated platforms like Hopin offer small group sessions, where those interested in a specific topic can join a video group, or just participate in chat. It’s not quite the same as a live group session, but over the coming weeks most of us will get used to virtual networking.

Or you can use a separate private online community platform (eg Guild) to help delegates connect and chat about popular topics, maybe moderated by the event host, and running before and after the event’s live dates.

Delivering value to delegates

Many live events depend on attendee/ visitor revenue as well as sponsor revenue. How do you establish a price for a virtual event, especially when it is replacing a regular live event? It depends a lot on your audience. I certainly think it is worth establishing some sort of price, even if it is significantly lower than the live event. You could consider bundling with any other paid online content subscriptions you offer. Or offering a “two for 1” where one organisation can have more than one login so colleagues can also access the content.

How to market an online event

The usual principles of live event marketing apply. Make sure your database is comprehensive and accurate. The event website is even more important than it is for a live event, as it controls access to the content as well as having promotional information about speakers and topics.

If your event is now spread over several days, you will need to have a comprehensive campaign during the event. And don’t forget the on-demand period – this can be crucial for delivering on lead gen promises to sponsors.

Segmenting your audience is more important than ever, especially as you are now marketing the individual streams and sessions, not just the entire event. And as with all free registration live events, you need to nurture your pre-reg list to make sure that they show up for the right sessions.

Watch other virtual events

Keep scanning for related events, see how they are marketing their sessions and join the events where you can. Watch your competitors carefully, if everyone spreads out their live period over several weeks then there is a greater risk of date and marketing clashes.

Here’s a couple that are worth watching:

The Drum Digital Transformation Festival

Practically Perfect PA

I’m working with a number of media businesses who have switched from live to online events, so I’m seeing a variety of responses. Feel free to get in touch to discuss your plans, happy to have a virtual coffee or tea!

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has bought, sold, launched and grown specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events.  A founder of the Specialist Media Show (sold in 2014) she now advises media businesses large and small on their digital strategy through her consultancy Speciall Media.

Read more about Carolyn

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