Director of Membership & Events, Speaker, Co-Leader of the Chicago HubSpot User Group, Host of ‘The IMPACT Show’ Podcast
July 27th, 2020
Right now in many industries, it’s hard to take a step without tripping over a virtual event.
As stay-at-home orders rose around the world and many businesses were forced completely online, so was the world of conferences, trade shows, and networking events.
While the effects of the virus first felt like a temporary situation where postponing in-person events was the best choice, it quickly became clear that was not the case.
It didn’t take long before nearly every in-person event was either cancelled completely or turned into a virtual event. And after that, even businesses that were not previously hosting events began taking a crack at it.
Unfortunately, because most of these virtual events were planned in a panic to avoid lost revenue, many of them were not done very well.
In this article, I dive into my first-hand experience and also share some valuable tips from industry experts.
How quickly can you plan a virtual event?
In desperate times, you have to move quickly.
Here at IMPACT, we pivoted our in-person event to an online event in about four weeks, but while I’m glad we did, I wouldn’t do it again now.
I’ve seen many brag about how quickly they launched or pivoted their events. While it was necessary to do so at the time, that’s not at all an ideal or even realistic time frame for a successful virtual event.
Part of what made our event possible in the short timeframe was that we had already been planning an in-person event for the same date. That meant we already had a website, promotional materials, registrants. sponsors, speakers, and a theme.
After our initial event was successful we decided to do it again.
It’s even more challenging when everyone else in your industry is fighting for the same burned-out people’s virtual attention.
Most virtual events so far this year were run by people who had little to no experience running a virtual event and often, not a lot of technical knowledge.
Many of the virtual events hosted early in the pandemic drew a lot of attention and registrations because they were new and interesting. Unfortunately, most didn’t hold up to the hype.
Between technical hiccups and growing “Zoom-fatigue,” virtual events went from being a novelty to something many people dread or, at the very least, are skeptical of.
Anyone doing a virtual event right now will also need to overcome a growing stigma that your event is just another frantically produced and overly complex webinar.
You need to have programming that’s valuable, a promotion plan to prove that ahead of time to your audience, and a technical setup that enhances the experience and makes it enjoyable.
A speaker at a few of our events, Brian Fanzo, says “let’s face it — online people have a million options and no time for crappy content. So if you don't keep your content to a high standard, people will bail.” And they will. They may even ask for a refund.
So, if you want to produce a virtual event for your company that’s both successful and valuable, you have to allow yourself the time to do it right.
The initial strategy planning period
Whether you’re transitioning a previously in-person event to an online one or you’re starting a virtual event from scratch, you need to allow time for your initial strategy development.
Take time to determine the goal of your event. Not all in-person activities transition well online — nor should they. Determine what you want the experience to be like and what you’re trying to accomplish for your attendees.
When I asked what he does, Ottavio Dattolo, Field Marketing Associate at Terminus shared:
“It’s very important to understand what story you are trying to convey with your virtual event whether it be a webinar, customer workshop, round table, etc. Something that has really helped the Terminus team is that we laid out monthly themes three months in advance. We create our virtual events and content off of these themes. They are like mini sprints that give our company a focus point for that month.”
Creating these themes ahead of time helped Terminus streamline their event creation timeline as well as make sure they were aligned with their company’s goals.
There’s a long list of little things to consider when determining what your event will look like.
Questions you’ll need to consider include:
Is this a one-time event or a series?
How long will it last?
How much content and how many speakers you’ll have?
Will sessions be live, pre-recorded, or a combination?
Will you have networking opportunities and other activities?
Will attendees be able to create profiles? Chat with one another?
What other features do you want? Polling, pop ups, etc.
Yup, there’s a lot to figure out before you even start building or promoting your virtual event.
“There’s a common misconception today among non-event marketers that virtual events are somehow easier to plan than in-person events. That’s just not the case. It’s driven by the subtraction of site-specific logistics and relatively lower cost of virtual. But what most non-event marketers miss is that logistics and cost have now been replaced by new variables: event technology and technical production. Event marketers now have to figure out how to create a seamless experience and unify attendee identity and analytics across multiple new virtual platforms. Event technology and technical production were rarely on job descriptions for event marketers before and very few professionals have them.” - Alex Patriquin, Founder & CEO @ EventGeek
I also highly recommend attending other virtual events for research.
Over the course of about three weeks, our team attended a total of 15 virtual events in and out of our industry, to get inspiration for what to do -- and what not to do. Looking for inspiration?
Once you’ve determined all of the fundamental aspects of your event, it’s time to look for the technical solutions to power the experience.
Every company that previously focused on in-person event solutions also dove headfirst into the virtual event space. This created an overwhelming variety of technical solutions for event producers to choose from.
From registration to the event experience to hosting your session streams, there are tons of platforms out there. It will take time to narrow them down and get demos and pricing for the ones you’re interested in.
Just like choosing a venue for an in-person event, choosing the right event platform makes a big difference to your attendees’ experience.
Once you choose a platform (especially the one hosting your sessions), you’ll need to learn how to use it and test absolutely everything. Just like with in-person events, there are so many little things that can go wrong but most of them are avoidable if you plan ahead.
Finally, don’t forget the fine print. Make sure you’re collecting registration data legally and do your due diligence with any new tool you use to make sure you’re protecting the data of your attendees.
The timeline for a virtual event
Once you’ve done your initial strategy planning, done some research on other events in your space, and settled on a tool or set of tools, it’s time to start actually creating and promoting your virtual event (or series of events!).
For each event you do, I recommend an absolute minimum of eight weeks (ideally 12 weeks) to plan and promote once you have your initial event strategy in place.
In the weeks leading up to your event, focus on building out the content and driving registrations. As the event gets closer, it’s time to obsess over every logistic detail.
Michael Sabani, director at Swoogo Virtual shared with me:
“The most successful virtual events we've seen take as much time as they can (at least 3-4 weeks if not more!) to craft a personalized virtual event experience that considers the attendee experience from start to finish, outside of a simple single-stream video call or webinar meeting.”
Start with building your programming
Before you promote your event you need to build your programming.
The agenda doesn’t have to be complete to start promotion but you at least need a timeline for your day and a rough outline of how many sessions you’ll have and how long they’ll last.
Your programming should be carefully crafted to provide value to attendees while not burning them out. Everything feels a little longer when you’re stuck in front of a computer staring at the screen.
So, consider shorter sessions with clear key takeaways. Also, consider giving your audience breaks but keep the breaks short so you don’t lose people completely.
Alex Patriquin, founder and CEO at EventGeek advises:
“With lower attention spans from audiences at home, event marketers also need a seamless agenda, scheduled down to the minute like a TV channel. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that television networks invest in highly produced content to earn engagement.”
Stay organized with your speakers
During this stage, a lot of your team’s time will be spent finding and wrangling speakers, getting session titles and descriptions, and building out the content of your event.
It may take more time than you expect to get responses from potential speakers. Highly sought-after speakers may not be traveling but most are doing many virtual events and may even be burned out.
To find great speakers who are excited to work with you Rebecca Payne, manager, advancement events at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommends:
“We’ve had a great experience being able to leverage current relationships with people who are excited to partner with us for events. Our current lineup of speakers for upcoming events are people who we have cultivated relationships with, and are excited to participate in our events because they are invested in the mission of our organization. As a result, they are willing to promote the event on our behalf.”
If you’re working with guest speakers, be sure to over-communicate and create clear and concise directions. Most guest speakers are participating in a variety of virtual events and you’re probably not the only one they have a deadline for.
Create a checklist of everything you need from them and set reminders to check in from time to time. Don’t risk assuming they will get things to you on time — they won’t.
Plus, make sure you allow some time for things to go wrong. From recordings being corrupted or not saving to missing deadlines all together, give yourself some buffer time for things to get behind.
Allow time for re-recording sessions or having to pester people a few times before getting what you need.
Start the technical build early
Once you have your agenda, start building out your event on the platform you chose at least a week in advance.
This will allow you enough time to fully test and spot-check everything (with your team and speakers) before the day of your event.
The more easily users can join the event or navigate from session to session, the better their experience will be.
Just like with an in-person event, attendees will get lost at your virtual event. Plan ahead so they clearly know where to look for help. Otherwise, they’ll end up bailing on your event completely.
Also, take time to train your presenters and live speakers on the tools they’ll be using and even do a few tests as an attendee to see what might go wrong.
It’s much easier to solve these issues ahead of time than frantically on the day of your event.
Plan for day-of and post-event follow up
With more than a hundred people signing up on the day of our event, our team was swamped with answering questions and getting people access to the event after the first session started.
Thankfully, we had planned ahead with some simple copy and paste language they could use to respond quickly.
We also set up a shared inbox where support tickets could be answered without flooding my inbox while I was co-hosting a live session (yeah, we made that mistake the first time and it was rough).
Our virtual event support ticket inbox with hundreds of tickets.
In addition to planning your day-of logistics and support, you’ll need to set up your post-event follow up communications (i.e. surveys, recordings, etc.) prior to the event.
If you wait until after your event you’ll be exhausted and are more likely to make a mistake.
Plus, when your event is over, you deserve to step away and breathe a sigh of relief!
Virtual event promotion
Your virtual event promotion is incredibly important. You’ll need a multi-faceted marketing plan including a website, social media posts, email marketing, and more.
“For a 'simple' virtual event, I've found it takes about two months from sitting down with your team and thinking about it to actually launching the event. One of the most difficult things to plan is getting internal and external alignment with messaging and content (not the event itself),” said Sander Buitelaar who runs marketing campaigns at Tray.io.
He went on to say “Also, getting creative assets from our design team takes about two weeks. You want around a three-week window to simply promote the event.”
Not only does it take time to promote an event you also have to break through the virtual event noise happening right now with so many events available to people and be the most appealing option.
Josh King, head of marketing and business development at emc3 says:
“There’s a lot of webinar white noise at the moment, so it’s important you make your virtual event stand out from the crowd. Positioning, messaging, and delivery are all key. Take time to understand what problems your audience needs help solving and make your virtual events a source of inspiration and insightful learnings that help people to progress in their careers.”
As Molly Falco, director of marketing at Swoogo says:
“Your pre-event marketing determines how your virtual event will be perceived. It’s pretty simple; if you make your virtual conference feel like a webinar before it even starts, it’ll be treated like one.”
So how long will it really take?
So how long does it really take to put on a virtual event? It depends.
At a minimum, you can spin up a virtual event in under four weeks, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should...or that it will be successful.
I think Josh King, head of marketing and business development at emc3 said it best when he said:
“How long does it take to plan a virtual event? How long’s a piece of string? It totally depends on the size and scale of the show and the complexity of the production. If you’re delivering a linear experience then your pre-planning is going to be significantly less than virtual events with multiple tracks spanning several days. It also depends on the platform you are using. Some events can take a matter of weeks to plan and produce, whereas experiences that require you to create bespoke virtual environments can take 2-3 months. Don’t underestimate how long it can take to plan a virtual event. Ensure you dedicate enough time, money, and resources to make your event an awesome experience.”
I recommend giving yourself 8-12 weeks. You can probably get by with just eight if you already have the strategy or some content, but if you’re starting from scratch I’d definitely require at least 12 weeks to plan your event.
Need help planning and executing your virtual event? IMPACT can help! Let our experts help guide you through shifting your in-person event strategy or build your virtual event strategy from scratch.
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