Your company’s live event just got cancelled; Should you host a virtual one?
By John Becker
In early March, IMPACT decided to postpone our major spring event — Digital Sales & Marketing World — until November, choosing instead to host a one-day virtual event in its place.
In under a month, Digital Sales & Marketing Day (DSMD) went from an idea to a successful 3000-person, full-day online event.
But there were the inevitable bumps along the road.
As any event planner knows, you can’t anticipate every challenge. Using a virtual platform for the first time serves as a perfect reminder of that fact.
Kristen Harold is IMPACT’s director of demand generation and Stephanie Baiocchi is our director of community and events.
Together, they led the team who pulled off this feat, and they shared their thoughts with me as they look back on the whole experience.
If something can go wrong, it will
With a wealth of experience in event planning, both Kristen and Stephanie have seen their share of last-minute crises.
Kristen had to shift a whole conference by six months because an earthquake hit the hosting city. Another time, a protestor rushed the stage where the CEO of Starbucks was presenting and security had to be called.
Stephanie has had performers get sick, get stuck in snowstorms, break a leg (literally) — even forget their shoes.
🔎 Get help: Learn more about IMPACT's virtual event strategy services
Despite their many years of experience, however, neither Stephanie or Kristen had ever planned a virtual event at the scale of DSMD.
Sure, they had experience with webinars, streamed interviews, and online events lasting an hour or two, but a full-day, multi-track digital event was uncharted waters for both.
Lessons learned in the virtual trenches
In the weeks leading up to the event, Kristen, director of demand gen, concentrated on driving attendee numbers, but as the event got closer, both Stephanie and Kristen were obsessing over every logistic detail.
Would registration links work properly? Did we need a dedicated server? Was live streaming going to go smoothly? Would the chat tool be effective?
With virtual events, there is only so much ‘dry-run’ troubleshooting you can do. While the streaming function might work fine when your small team tries it, you can’t replicate the thousands who will need it day-of.
A particular unanticipated challenge was getting access for day-of registrants.
With more than a hundred people signing up on the day of the event, after the first session started, customer questions were flooding Stephanie’s email inbox — as she was co-hosting a live-stream event with Marcus Sheridan.
You can’t plan an event in a month — even though they did
DSMD took a tremendous team effort to plan and execute, and this occurred over the course of only four weeks. However, Kristen cautions, that’s not a realistic timeline in most cases.
What made our situation unique was that we had already been planning an in-person event for the same date. That meant we already had a website, a logo, a contact list, a group of sponsors and speakers, and a theme.
Shifting the direction and platform of an already-planned event is much less work than starting from scratch.
If we had to do everything in a month, it would have been impossible, at the scale we envisioned.
Should you try to plan a large-scale virtual event?
According to Kristen, if you are a company who does events regularly and you have a team in place that can handle programming and tech, you could certainly consider making your cancelled or postponed in-person event a virtual one.
If you don't have that team and experience, you'll need a longer runway, and probably some outside help.
IMPACT decided to go ahead with a digital event because we still wanted our audience to connect with us on April 6th — and we still wanted to give them new, timely content.
Stephanie agrees. “If it were easy to do virtual events well,” she says, “everyone would be doing it.” While a lot of companies and organizations are trying to do virtual events right now, few are doing them well.
If you jump into virtual event planning, you need to overcome a growing stigma that your event is just another glorified webinar. You need to really be delivering value to your audience, and you need to make sure the tech you use enhances the experience for all.
According to Stephanie: “Our friend Brian Fanzo, who was a speaker at our in-person and virtual events, said, 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.’"
Wondering where to begin?