FEATURE 

Virtual events – a best practice guide for publishers

Publishers and event organisers have made rapid pivots to virtual in the last few months, as in-person events and conferences became untenable. And, writes Carolyn Morgan, it looks like we are not out of the woods yet.

By Carolyn Morgan

Virtual events – a best practice guide for publishers
“Many organisers are seeing attendance rates grow by a factor of three or five, or even more.”

What are the risks of virtual events? We have probably all encountered excruciating examples. Not enough attendees, tedious speakers, virtual tumbleweed, disillusioned sponsors, tech meltdown, stressed event teams…

How can you design and deliver appealing virtual events, satisfy attendees and sponsors, and make some money? Wherever you are in your virtual event journey, here’s some practical tips on how to succeed in this emerging discipline.

1. Widening your audience and defining the proposition

Virtual events remove many barriers that stopped people attending in person: those who didn’t have the travel budget or the time to attend can now participate. Many organisers are reporting that they are appealing to new regions or nations or time zones. As virtual events are often cheaper to attend, some organisations encourage their whole team to take part, rather than pick one representative. Many organisers are seeing attendance rates grow by a factor of three or five, or even more. And for longer, multi-stream events, the opportunity to catch up on missed sessions on demand provides extra value.

To take advantage of this broader audience, you may need to invest in building your database. And design your marketing to reach a broader cross section of your market.

Virtual events are different to in-person conferences – there is more focus on the content and less on the opportunity for serendipitous networking. So, you may need to tweak your marketing proposition.

For longer, multi-stream events, the opportunity to catch up on missed sessions on demand provides extra value.

2. Deciding on paid vs free?

The majority of virtual events offer free registration, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule. If your former in-person event was paid for, you may want to retain your pre-booked delegates. This may require some inventive premium packages. B2B Marketing’s Ignite event offered a Platinum package to pre-booked delegates with exclusive sessions, on demand viewing, and bundled-in extra digital content goodies, plus a free pass for a colleague. The good news is that very few pre-booked delegates requested refunds.

If you have to deliver a large audience for sponsors, you may run a free ticket option as well as premium tickets with access to exclusive sessions or bonus material.

Delegates seem receptive to individual tickets priced at £25 to £45, and paid attendees are more likely to show up than free reg.

Company or enterprise packages are performing well in many sectors, with a reasonably priced company ticket (say at £250 or £300) that allows 10 staff to attend being perceived as good value.

There is more focus on the content and less on the opportunity for serendipitous networking.

3. Designing an engaging event

For an in-person event, once you get people through the door in the morning, they are likely to stay all day. Sadly, the behaviour of virtual attendees is more pick and mix. They select the sessions that interest them and tune in just in time. If they get an urgent work meeting, they will drop off and may not return. If a session is a little tedious, they may start checking their emails.

If you are programming a virtual event, you have to work even harder to make it engaging. Keep your sessions short: 20-40 minutes not a full hour. Mix up the formats – keep presentations to not more than 10 minutes, and include panel discussions, interviews and live Q&As to keep remote delegates engaged. Plan in short breaks for coffee or lunch – you can offer networking or sponsor booths, but it allows delegates to step away without missing too much. One of the best bits of advice is from Cobus Heyl of FIPP: “It’s a talk show not a lecture”. Certainly, think of your virtual event more like a broadcast TV show where you need to keep viewers tuned. A good host or moderator can make all the difference, though you might need a team as it is surprisingly tiring managing a virtual event.

The great advantage of virtual events is that you might be able to entice that top-rated international speaker who couldn’t find time in their diary for your in-person event.

Many organisers are splitting up multi-stream events, running them over several days. This is easier to schedule, and delegates can drop in and out during their working week. But most are finding that average attendances can decline rapidly as the days pass so you need to sustain the marketing effort.

If you are programming a virtual event, you have to work even harder to make it engaging.

4. Choosing a tech platform

The number of virtual event platforms has exploded this year, and most are adding new features. The broad choice is between a webcast style platform and a more feature rich event platform. Some vendors also provide more sophisticated networking options.

Then there is no substitute for demos, visiting other events using the platforms and asking advice of other organisers who use them.

Virtual events are cheaper than in-person, with no venue and catering costs. However, if you add too many features, the tech platforms can cost well over £10k, so keep it simple if you can.

The behaviour of virtual attendees is more pick and mix. They select the sessions that interest them and tune in just in time.

5. Planning a professional event

Live events run best when well-rehearsed, and it is crucial to invest the time beforehand briefing speakers and participants in a virtual event. Always do a tech rehearsal for remote speakers to ensure they can share their slides and sound quality is good. Good lighting, a branded pull-up banner or virtual background and a quality mic make all the difference.

Some speakers and sponsors prefer to pre-record their sessions. This reduces internet anxiety but can kill the sense of being part of a live event. Live Q&As and video panels help break up pre-recorded sessions. But even these need meticulous planning. A timed running order, minute by minute, and a script for hosts keeps everything slick.

Attendees are more likely to stay for the whole session if they can engage via polls, chat or submit questions, so offer these options, with staff on hand to answer questions in real time.

Live events run best when well-rehearsed, and it is crucial to invest the time beforehand briefing speakers and participants in a virtual event.

6. Creating sponsor propositions

Sponsor revenue is essential to making events profitable, but many clients are wary of virtual events and don’t know how to exploit the medium. Participating in content sessions is more productive than simply having a virtual booth. But the content has to be planned very carefully and meet the needs of the audience. The slightest whiff of a sales pitch and your attendees will be off checking their social media or making a coffee. Your sales teams and editorial / production teams need to work together and help your sponsors put up the right speakers and cover relevant topics.

The advantage of virtual events for sponsors is the granular detail they get on attendees, both live and on demand. Organisers can share who listened all the way through, and who downloaded the slides or filled in polls.

The advantage of virtual events for sponsors is the granular detail they get on attendees, both live and on demand.

7. Marketing to attendees

Attendee marketing is a little more complex than for a simple in-person conference. You may have to explain the free vs premium ticket options and spell out exactly what content and networking delegates can access.

The job is not done once you have the registrations – there is a big push in the last few days to persuade your registrants to actually show up. And for multi-day events, you will need a programme of automated reminders. Then you have to promote on-demand access.

A good event site with relevant content is essential to explain the virtual event to your audience. Send them there via email, social media, SEO and cross promotion from any publishing brands you control or partner with. Enlist your speakers and sponsors as advocates with an easy-to-use marketing package.

This is a new journey of discovery, so set up your analytics and tracking, and test different types of marketing, so you are better informed for your next virtual event.

Think of your virtual event more like a broadcast TV show where you need to keep viewers tuned.

8. Creating post event content

A major benefit of virtual event platforms is the ease of creating video clips of sessions. These are a fabulous asset for promoting your next virtual event. Sponsors and speakers alike will appreciate short clips for their own use. Online sessions can be converted to editorial articles. Polls and surveys can become “state of the nation” reports and downloads. And if you can, grab short video testimonials from attendees, speakers and sponsors, for future marketing.

What does the future hold for events? As I write, there are flare-ups of Covid across Europe, so we may well be heading for an extended period of a combination of virtual and in-person events, catering to those who wish to travel and those who do not. What we have learned in the last few months may well be extremely valuable as we navigate a future of hybrid events.

Case study: HR Tech

HR Grapevine have run a successful in-person conference, HR Live, for a decade, attracting around 500 senior HR professionals to London. For 2020, they had to switch to virtual. Their first event was HR Tech, hosted on a platform built in-house, integrated with a third party for audience polls and Q&A. They offered free registration and promoted this via email and their own content and social channels, attracting over 4000 registrations with a similar profile to the live conference.

Around half of the registered users logged in to the two-day event, with typical audiences of 200-400 for each one-hour session. Delegates could easily download slides or summaries of presentations, take part in polls, chat with each other or submit questions for speakers. On average, about half of attendees engaged in these activities. Feedback from delegates and sponsors was very positive. The team are planning further virtual events later in the year. The marketers now know what activity is most likely to drive registrations and can fine tune their campaigns.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.