I. General Information
Virtual events, which have become increasingly common during the COVID-19 pandemic, offer a very useful method to overcome social distance barriers, while also providing effective participation and/or educational experience. The good news about virtual events is that the planning process isn't all that different from any other event, so you can use standard event planning tips and tricks for online events as well. However, it is very important to choose a powerful online event management software to organize an online event that is hassle-free and will please the participants.
A. What is a Virtual Event?
A virtual event is a type of event where individuals experience the event and its content with online participation, rather than coming together physically. Virtual events, of course, cannot replace physical events and are therefore considered a new genre aimed rather at developing the program of an event by widening the participation channels. However, it must be admitted that it has been a great alternative solution for many events that cannot be done physically due to the pandemic.
Main Types of Virtual Events:
The word ‘webinar’ is a blend of ‘web’ and ‘seminar’. A webinar is an event held virtually which is attended exclusively by an online audience. Generally, webinars last from 45 to 80 minutes. They allow attendees from near and far to join in and listen as one or more speakers present the content. Webinars typically use video conferencing tools that allow Q&A, the ability to present live or prerecorded videos, and be offered on-demand after the fact. They can include internal and external training, thought leadership, or some other content. Webinars are generally free but may be paid as well. The value of free webinars tends to be lead generation, though they may also be used for onboarding or training purposes.
Virtual conferences are not much different from physical conferences, except that they are conducted in a virtual environment. They are also built around a lively full agenda that includes speakers, sessions, breaks, and more. Some contain parallel and often multi-session content, and they include community engagement tools to help participants overcome the engagement challenges that arise from online participation. Virtual conferences allow attendees to view keynotes in real-time, create their own agendas from relevant, on-demand content, and interact with other attendees remotely.
Internal Hybrid Events:
Internal hybrid events are programs held to benefit a company's internal staff including clients and partner employees and leadership. For most companies that have a large footprint and dispersed operations, it is almost impossible to get all the internal stakeholders in the same room for a meeting. It is in such situations that internal hybrid events come into play. Internal Hybrid Events can happen where key internal staff get together while practicing social distancing and have remote virtual conferencing for all others.
Internal hybrid events share messages to employees gathered both in an office and virtually. These types of events are ideal for company-wide announcements, training, town hall meetings, department gatherings, sales meetings, and more. Internal hybrid events connect attendees worldwide and the messages can be recorded and shared later on.
External Hybrid Events:
The attendees at these events are not generally inside the organization. They might share a common interest or have a collective issue that the organizer of this event may help them with. External hybrid events involve your external audience, customers, prospects, or learners of an educational institution, community, or business organization that needs to be gathered for an event. Examples of external hybrid events would be conferences, summits, concerts, parties, virtual social hours/networking, seminars, workshops, classes, trade shows, and product launches.
B. Why Host a Virtual Event?
Virtual events are held for the same reasons as in-person events: to deliver a message, educate, drive revenue, build loyalty, add value, etc. Meeting and event planners can choose between in-person, virtual, and hybrid events. Each type of event comes with its own set of pros and cons. When deciding whether or not to make the event virtual, consider what the audience is intended to gain from the event and how well those goals can be reached virtually versus in person.
Reasons to Host a Virtual Event:
The main reason why event owners host virtual events is that they are scalable, they have low barriers to entry, they are inexpensive and they provide networking possibilities in times when in-person events are not an option.
With an in-person event, you need a venue and you have to take care of many logistical issues. You need to arrange audio and visual equipment, you need to take care of catering, and you have venue cancellation periods to take into account. On the contrary, virtual events, won’t create such an exponential increase in your workload and stress. It’s quite easy to host virtual events even with many attendees from many different countries and therefore, virtual events are extremely scalable.
Here are some other reasons why you should host a virtual event;
• They are far more scalable to host than in-person events,
• People can participate in your virtual events from the comfort of their homes,
• They are more cost-effective than in-person events,
• They are fast and easy to set up,
• With its recorded content, it provides a big opportunity for long-term lead generation by allowing the event to be available on-demand for as long as a year,
• While the event is still being held in person, virtual options allow accommodation of attendees who are unable to attend in person,
• Virtual events allow smaller events and webinars to be held, minimizing the costs of organizers and/or attendees,
• Virtual events can be held without interruption, even in adverse conditions such as safety and security concerns affecting travel or bad weather conditions, etc.
• Virtual events, while allowing attendees to attend your event, they also allow them to continue their normal life both at work and at home without interruption.
• Virtual events decrease your carbon footprint and save energy.
C. In-Person, and Virtual Event Planning Fundamentals
All events, in-person or virtual, are built by the use of several fundamentals. Hosting both requires the same attention; the need to effectively promote the event, engage attendees, create memorable moments for attendees, and prove event success. With the virtual event, the venue and the attendees simply are not on site. By thinking of virtual events as value-added, engagement-driven experiences, an impactful event can be created.
• The planning process is similar to that of any other event. Pick the event date and start planning backward toward that date.
• Strong, intentional marketing with a targeted, effective promotion aimed at increasing attendance.
• Content is vital. In a virtual event, content is the event. Powerful and engaging sessions tailored to the audience/attendees are critical.
• Engage attendees and keep them engaged. Offer options that are relevant to each attendee type and utilize online event guides for virtual events.
• Data is the only way to prove event success. Measuring engagement and capturing attendee data prove event ROI and activate the attendees’ journey.
II. Preparing for the Virtual Event
A. Considerations and Questions for the Planner to Ask
BEFORE deciding to create a virtual event and then again AFTER deciding to plan a virtual event, consider:
• What is the event objective?
- Will the event generate income?
- Or is it for lead generation or another objective?
• Is there a charge for the event or will access be free? What price will be charged or will it be part of a subscription or membership offering or will it simply be free? Develop a pricing matrix if needed.
• How long will the event be, sessions within the event be?
• When is the event date? What is the timeline to work with and what can be achieved ‘successfully’ in the time period?
• What will the online “product” look like? What parts of a physical event will be replicated online? Can parts of the event be moved to a different physical environment, or offered different forms of engagement? How will all of this play out online?
- Will the content be live, on-demand, or a mix? Will the content be hosted and then add some moderated Q&A?
- Many options exist: create a digital exhibition, have one-to-one meetings, virtual presentations, immersion experiences, and so on. But is it right for the event objective?
• What tools will attendees have to network and schedule appointments?
• Gauge and evaluate the digital suitability of the content.
- Consider the digital audience to create interesting ways of delivering the content. Just pointing a camera at people on stage will likely result in a loss of audience focus and interest.
- Look at the content; will people be interested in watching it, and will it be engaging?
- How will the content get translated to a digital audience?
• What is the value proposition for each and all of the event attendees and or stakeholders?
- What is at the heart of the online proposition?
- Online event is a very different proposition from a physical event. Consider the role that each stakeholder will play.
- Taking the event digitally means it is necessary to offer a different value proposition to stakeholders.
• What will the marketing/communications contain? What should be said and how will it be said? How will people be informed about the shift to virtual?
- Who is the audience and how will the marketing and communications be geared to appeal, and to attract them?
- Exactly how is this new proposition being sold? How is marketing going to happen digitally and how are stakeholders going to be engaged to help amplify the event?
- Consider looking at the online “product” as a “new product” and one may be more likely to come up with a better marketing approach.
• What technology is needed? Such as computers, mobile devices, cameras, and so on.
• What platform will be used?
- Do not simply find a platform that is liked and then fit the event into that. Select a platform based on the event needs, target audience, budget, and various other variables per each event.
- Do decide on what is to be replicated online, what will be provided to attendees, and what can be accomplished considering the timelines, and THEN find the most appropriate platform.
- Live stream platforms include Instagram Live, Facebook Live, LinkedIn Live, TikTok Live, Twitter Live, Youtube Livestream, Viemo, IBM Cloud Video, Brightcove, Dacast, Glisser, CrowdCast, HeySummit, REMO, Ecamm Live, Microsoft Teams, Blackboard Collaborate.
• What happens if you have connectivity issues?
• What skills are currently within the team, to be used, and where can additional support be found if needed, and in what areas?
• Do participants need to be given guidance and guidelines for the event? Is there a guide for attendees before the event that explains how to join, attend sessions, and use any messaging tools?
• Will the event be recorded, or will it be made available later? How long will on-demand sessions be available after the event?
• What goals need to be built around session registration and feedback surveys?
III. Building Virtual Events
A. Virtual Event Parts and Elements
Virtual events rely on technology. Attendance is made possible with the use of computers and mobile devices. But there’s more to virtual event technology than video conferencing tools and computers. Virtual events can benefit from the use of an entire event platform, to help promote, execute and manage the event.
A virtual event is built around content, attendee engagement, and data. Video production quality and connectivity are important, as well as the site that houses the agenda and content.
Elements of a Virtual Event (note: not all are required for all virtual events):
• Event website
• Event registration
• Live presentation content
• Live, one-way audio/video
• Question and answer
• Live polling
• Note-taking / favorite slides
• Recorded content
• Interactive video conferencing
• Feedback surveys
The most important elements:
Having an event website is the best tool to use for event promotion to interest potential attendees and entice them to register for the event. It needs to communicate the value of the virtual event, contain the event schedule, showcase speakers, include FAQs, and point potential attendees to register.
This is the first tool for data collection and is critical to the event. Registration tools allow attendees to register for virtual events, submit preferences and personal information, and provide payment if required. A robust online registration tool allows attendees to register easily and provides planners and marketers with the data they need to plan a great event and prove event success.
Emails can drive demand for an event and increase registrations, keep attendees informed before the event, and be used to engage attendees leading up to the virtual event, and finally through feedback surveys. Email is the best way to communicate with attendees at all stages of the event. Use an email marketing tool that can deliver branded, personalized emails, automate when emails are sent and to whom based on attendee data, and provide open rates and click-through metrics.
Event feedback is crucial for virtual events when planners don’t have the ability to gauge reactions by the expressions or verbal feedback from attendees onsite. To collect feedback, use post-event surveys to prove event success. Additionally, event feedback can be used as a tool to qualify virtual leads and drive them to further engagement.
B. Preparing Attendees for Virtual Events
With technology involved, there is going to be some error in use. Virtual events are not all the same. There are many different types of video conferencing tools, as well as event technology options. Consider the amount of digital savvy (or lack thereof) of attendees.
• Before the event, create a guide for attendees explaining how to access the event, sessions, and more. This will ease attendee stress, decrease the flood of questions on the event, and provide an overall better attendee experience.
- Will the event have a host of some kind? Consider having them record an introduction video that educates them while infusing humor into the content.
C. How to Keep Attendees Engaged During Virtual Events
There are ways to make virtual events successful and it takes careful planning, great data, and agility. The reality is that, with virtual events, face-to-face engagement suffers. Attendee-to-attendee engagement and networking is not viable. If the event is virtual, however, personal follow-up meetings to talk specifics can be planned to occur in the days that follow the event. After the virtual event, post-event follow-up needs to happen more quickly than usual and be on point. Data is critical.
Attendee Engagement Tips:
• Presentations and the like, while viewed online individually, can employ live polling to engage attendees.
• Sessions can still involve live Q&A.
• With messaging capabilities in a mobile app, attendees can meet each other virtually and set up meetings.
• As always, social media is a tool to leverage engagement. For example, utilizing an event hashtag and having attendees post pictures of favorite takeaways from the day, office setups, and more can make attendees feel like they’re part of a community.
D. Data from Virtual Events
The data available varies from in-person to virtual events. Data is gathered before, during, and after the event and can be used to qualify leads, prove event success, and improve the event for the next time.
Data Gathered at Virtual Events:
• Number of Registrations
• Demographic Attendee Information
• Session Registration
• Email Open and Click-through Rates
• Post-Event Survey Results
• Number of Leads
• Buying Interest
• Session Ratings
• Session Feedback
• Social Media Engagement and Reach
E. Proving Virtual Event Success
As with in-person events, virtual event success depends on aligning events and goals, identifying key performance indicators to define event success before the event, analyzing event data, and reviewing insights after the event.
Proving ROI requires an analysis of costs and benefits. Costs are expressed as direct costs, indirect expenses, and opportunity costs. Benefits refer to direct revenue, attributed revenue, brand equity, and knowledge exchange. By using the data gathered during virtual events to weigh costs versus benefits, one can prove the success of the event. Articulate the event success metrics before the event begins.
After the event, take time to understand if the event was successful based on the metrics and how to improve in the future.
IV. The Basics: How to Host a Virtual Event
A. How To Plan a Virtual Event
Treat the virtual event like an in-person event. This also means being mindful of the length of time attendees are expected to remain in their seats. The planning process is similar to that of any other event; so, use the standard planning tips and tricks to create and execute a great event. Also, be mindful to review the list of considerations listed in Section II. A.
1. Take the vision, goals, and objectives of the event and generate an “image” of the event that can be shared with others (presenters, collaborators, stakeholders, partners, participants, and audience…).
2. Select the date after cross-referencing all pertinent event calendars and schedules of vital attendees and key participants and presenters.
3. Once the date is set, begin creating and executing the marketing plan/ campaign and invite guests to attend and participate. Are sponsors needed? If so, engage them and include them in the marketing, and consider cross-marketing.
4. Generate a timeline working backward from the event date.
5. Using the timeline, review all needs, tasks, roles, and so forth to generate an action plan.
6. Using the timeline and action plan, create a staffing plan to identify who will do what. Pull the event planning team together to review the event vision and the timeline, action plan, and staff plan.
7. Select a platform to be used (See section II. A.) Pull the technology together. Make sure the technology is in working order. Obtain new technology as needed and learn new skills and techniques as needed. (See section III. A.)
8. Create programming for the event, including an itinerary and or agenda. Either do this now, with the input of the collaborating team or do this after step 1.
9. Work with presenters on event preparation and programming content as needed.
10. Conduct a dry-run of the event as needed.
11. Relay pertinent information to registered participants as needed. (See section III. B.)
12. Conduct the event. Maintain engagement with participants throughout the event. (See section III. C.)
13. Conduct event follow-up, expressing gratitude to attendees for attending and any other meeting requests touches mailed via post, and so forth. Remind attendees of any future events and programming as needed.
14. Use event data collected to create the analysis needed, and apply results and outcomes. (See section III. D.)
V. How to Turn Your Live Event into a Virtual Event at the Last Minute
There are times when a quick shift has to be made to make an event virtual. With the right infrastructure in place, this is achievable and not as difficult as one may think.
A. Questions to Ask Before Moving to a Virtual Event
• Can the agenda be translated to a virtual setting, or is an in-person event required
• How will attendance get tracked?
• Do you have a virtual meeting solution?
• Do you have staff members that can support and manage the technical aspects of a virtual event?
• Can you handle the bandwidth?
• Do attendees have all the materials needed to attend virtually?
B. How to Pivot to a Virtual Event
• Update the event website and email attendees to communicate that the event is going virtual and the reason for the change
• Provide attendees with a guide on how to attend the event virtually
• In the agenda, add links to the session recording or live broadcast