How to go virtual with your event
As the coronavirus pandemic escalates and marketers re-examine event and travel rosters, many are looking into the virtual realm as a way to convey content and connect with customers. Recent weeks have seen announcements of the digitalization of events including the NewFronts, One Show awards and Girlboss Rally. Even South by Southwest, the recently canceled festival in Austin, said Thursday it hopes to host a virtual experience. Experts expect that all future events will likely incorporate a digital aspect as a hybrid-type model as the events industry seeks to widen the attendee pool and keep a contingency plan handy. Virtual event company Intrado has seen a surge in inquiries this week for demos and information from prospective clients. IBM and Hybrid Healthcare Communications, a marketing agency for the pharmaceutical industry, report the same. “The days when people used to say that a virtual event will cannibalize their physical event are gone,” says Ben Chodor, president of Intrado Digital Media. “Now they’re worried the world might cannibalize their physical event.”
Here are tips on planning a virtual gathering:
Set your goals, including a creative brief
When deciding how to host an event, organizers should identify what attendees need to take away from the experience—including information, education and messaging. Put a brief together that includes all the potential elements of the event, such as networking, a question-and-answer session and sponsor engagement. Organizers should also need to go into the event knowing that it will not be the same as a live show, but can be creative in other ways. Some event hosts who have recently had to transition to digital are excited by the creative challenge. Kevin Swanepoel, CEO of the One Club for Creativity, which now plans to stream the One Show in May, likens the mission to recreating a 30-second TV commercial for online viewers. “If you just took the same 30-second TV spot and put it up there, it’s not going to be as good,” he says. “It’s not targeted and crafted around the medium that you’re serving it on.”
Decide on a format
A live-streamed event has the potential to be a more engaging and professional experience, but it requires a heavier, more expensive lift. Organizers may need to rent a studio and hire a production team if they do not already have such elements in-house. Livestreamed events could include more interactive elements, such as polling, audience questions and games. In contrast, a pre-recorded session requires less equipment but loses the interactivity. “You’re just watching a video—you’re still getting the info out there and still providing education to the end user, but you’re losing the interactivity,” says Patrick Baffuto, VP of client services at Hybrid Healthcare Communications.
Calculate your budget
The cost of a digital event can vary widely, experts say. Hiring a company like Intrado to host the experience can be more costly, but look more professional than just setting up a web camera. The cost also depends on the number of simultaneous sessions and number of days of the event. Experts say a full-scale conference lasting four days with 50 breakout sessions could run into seven figures. Smaller operations would cost a few thousand dollars. Small, local gatherings, which might not be able to afford live-streaming, could postpone the live event instead, says Baffuto. “Look at the cost benefit and say, ‘Does it make more sense to just postpone because we don’t have the time or the money, or can we still keep it on and do it digitally and still pull in revenue?’”
Prepare to be on a computer screen
Appearing on a computer screen, even through a studio camera format, is a much different experience than presenting before a live audience, and speakers need to prepare in a different way. “Use some humor as levity to acknowledge the situation,” suggests Naria Halliwell, a media consultant and former ABC news producer. “When you’re on camera, you have to be a bit more engaging than in normal life,” she adds, noting that speakers should bring up their energy level. She also says that speakers who are recording check their audio source ahead of time, and make sure they create depth on the screen through a bookshelf or piece of furniture behind them.
John Kaplan, group creative director at Centerline Digital, a Raleigh, N.C.-based content marketing agency, says some event organizers could still film a keynote presentation in front of a small live audience in order to gain crowd energy and “capture the gravity and the showmanship” that comes from a full-scale physical event.
Reconsider the registration process
One critical component of a digital event is making sure the site does not crash if too many users try to log in and authenticate—by verifying their personal details and identities—at once. If the audience is too large, organizers could separate them by session or alternative grouping. The main keynote session could be free, for example, but other sessions could require authentication. “You could space out authentication or gamify it—you’re creatively thinking about how you encourage people to authenticate and provide details,” says Stacy Nawrocki, chief marketing officer at IBM’s Watson Media.
Keep the audience engaged
Experts suggest shorter, snackable content of 15 minutes or so, rather than lengthy one-hour-plus sessions, in order to keep the audience engaged on their computers. Panels might be harder to do in a digital format, but TED talk-type sessions could work. Organizers should keep their content mixed with other elements, like audience polling or games or even trivia sessions. They should also offer opportunities to engage with speakers if it is a live-streamed event. Some organizers may also want to consider a game-show type host to shepherd viewers through event sessions in order to keep things moving and interesting. “A lot of companies are using a TV broadcasters spin, where they have commentators that will be the glue that holds the experience together,” says Nawrocki. “They comment about upcoming speakers and monitor social media.”
Networking can still happen
Intrado’s Chodor says that interactions between attendees and speakers can still occur in a virtual environment. Some companies host virtual lounge areas for networking, where attendees can message each other and take a conversation to a phone or side-chat format. “You have to give everyone lots of opportunities for interactivity—it’s never going to be the same as having coffee together, but you still get to meet people,” Chodor says.
Send out regular reminders
Unlike in-person events, where attendees likely have to travel and have hotel stays and plane trips scheduled in their calendars, virtual events may need more regular reminders. Sometimes people forget the web event is scheduled and fail to register. Organizers should send out regular reminders in the months, weeks and days leading up to the event to keep attendees interested and engaged and ensure they don’t drop out at the last minute.