Director of Community & Events, Speaker, Co-Leader of the Chicago HubSpot User Group, Host of ‘The IMPACT Show’ Podcast
May 12th, 2020
I currently have seven virtual events on my calendar within the next two weeks.
Being able to attend so many is really cool. There’s no need to fly, book a hotel, or technically “miss work.”
(Though I don’t recommend multi-tasking work and attending a virtual event. You will definitely not get the most out of them this way.)
However, I am finding there are already more events than I can possibly make time for and no real way to guarantee they will be of any value.
Many companies are jumping on the virtual event bandwagon and most are doing virtual events for the first time — so they’re not necessarily prepared to do them well.
This includes not having the team necessary to run an event without a hitch.
Planning ahead for all the variables with virtual events
Most of us are fairly new to producing virtual events.
Things will be rocky.
Live streams will cut out, there will be issues with attendee logins, and speakers used to being on stage may not yet be comfortable presenting at home staring into their webcam with no audience to play off of.
Many virtual events have even experienced security issues such as “Zoombombing” during their live streams.
Some companies will attempt (and fail) to seamlessly transition their in-person events to a virtual format, making only minimal changes.
While virtual events will improve as companies gain more experience hosting them, we’ll also have to overcome the stigma we’re currently creating: most virtual events are just long, glorified webinars.
Josh King, head of business development and marketing at emc3, is a true innovator in the virtual event space. When chatting about the “just another webinar” stigma, he shared his thoughts with me.
“It’s time to cut through the white noise of boring webinars and clunky virtual events! As businesses everywhere are pivoting to digital experiences, it’s important to highlight that poorly run webinars and virtual experiences can do more damage to a brand than good.”
- Josh King, Head of Business Development & Marketing, emc3
So, what can you do to make sure your virtual event is as successful as possible?
Well, it starts with having the right team in place.
Aside from making sure you choose the right technology solution and planning ahead for what could go wrong, the most important thing you can do is assemble all the necessary people to run your virtual event.
While a virtual event shares a lot of similarities with an in-person event, it’s still very different.
If your in-person event included a large tech crew to build a keynote stage, test audio and lights, and run presentations, your virtual event will likely have a much smaller tech team.
This team, however, needs to understand different things such as security and encryption online, troubleshooting live streams, and getting ahead of bandwidth issues.
Below is a list of roles and responsibilities that must be accounted for in your virtual event team.
While one person can often own multiple items listed, every item must have a primary owner who is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of that piece of the event.
The virtual event manager
As virtual events become more popular while in-person events aren’t an option, the role of “virtual event manager” has been on the rise.
A virtual event manager is someone who knows how to bring a community together and create a valuable event and is organized enough to keep every little detail of an event on track.
They also must know how to optimize and troubleshoot technology and optimize an event for the virtual space.
A traditional events manager will have experience dealing with details and logistics of an in-person event, however, they may not have the technical know-how required to run a successful virtual event.
Until more event managers get virtual event experience, this role may actually look like a team of two or three people: one or two dedicated to creating the experience and managing the details, and another specifically owning the technological side of things.
Your event manager may need to acquire some additional skills or partner even more closely with your tech team.
Aside from the technical side of things, the event manager must make sure event registration is set up properly, the hosting tool has been tested and is ready to go, the speakers are all accounted for and content is ready, and much more.
All of this is not that different from an in-person event but is just as important in the virtual version.
They are also responsible for creating an engaging and valuable event experience.
Whether they’re in it for networking, interactive workshops, or something else, you need to be sure your event delivers on the experience promised in your event promotion.
If you do not have someone responsible for ensuring your event is a success, you will absolutely fail. Like most things, if there is not one primary owner everyone will think someone else is responsible and things will fall through the cracks. Someone must be dedicated to managing your virtual event and the team needed to produce it.
Design and development
Your virtual event should have a name, theme, color scheme, and potentially even a logo. To implement these things across all the elements of your event, you’ll likely need the help of a graphic designer.
From the registration page to the slide templates used by your speakers, there should be a clear brand that brings the elements of your event together in a cohesive way. This will also help assure attendees that they are in the right place.
Your agenda should be easy to follow so people can find where they’re “going” during your event or plan their agenda ahead of time.
Creating eye-catching preview images for your sessions will pull people in to learn more about each talk.
Plus, you’ll need matching promotional images to help get people to register for your event.
Event promotion and copywriting
Speaking of registration, one of the most important people on your team is the person in charge of promotion.
From writing (or getting help with) web copy to creating engaging social posts, your promotion person or team is a huge part of what makes your event a success.
There are more virtual events popping up every day and it’s going to get harder to compete for potential registrants’ attention.
Your promotion needs to stand out and get people excited about your event.
“In a world where everyone has gone virtual it's becoming more challenging to cut through the email and social media chatter. Additionally, we have the added burden of promoting an event while not seeming insensitive or tone deaf but still making it appealing. We've always had to be quick on our feet but now we have to be quicker and more innovative than ever before.”
- Marsha Gonzalez, Senior Events Manager, Run for Something
While your virtual event manager will take care of a lot of the logistics, just as with an in-person event, they’ll be absolutely swamped the day of your virtual event.
You need to have a person, or probably even a team of people, focused on assisting attendees and registrants.
“Having a place where an attendee can go to find the solution to the problem they may be having in real time, allows them to feel seen and heard, much like if they were to go up to a staff member in person to ask where to find a session or restroom. You would never host an in-person event without staff to help attendees, so why would you change this for a virtual event when margin for attendee and tech error is much more out of your control?”
- Jessica Rice, Senior Manager, Event Marketing at Procore
Jessica nailed it here.
Just as an attendee would look for someone wearing a staff shirt or at a help desk at an in-person event, people should know exactly where to go with questions during your virtual event.
Make sure your support team is fully equipped to answer questions and solve issues that may arise.
They should have access to your registration software and be given a list of FAQs and answers.
I recommend creating quick copy-and-paste responses they can use especially when the answers involve providing a link to another page.
On the day of our virtual event, I sent a reminder email from myself with the reply-to email address being mine.
As soon as the event started and some had issues connecting, my inbox was flooded with people who needed help.
Thankfully, it was only about 3% of our registrants but that was still about 100 emails in five minutes. I pulled my team in to help.
Next time, these emails will land in a shared inbox and it will live in a ticketing system where my team can tackle and respond to issues easily and together.
Having someone with advanced technological knowledge and experience available to troubleshoot is also vital. Whether it’s an issue with your livestream or if someone is having trouble registering, you’ll need someone who can dive in and solve the problem.
This might be someone on-call at the platform on which you choose to host your event or just someone on your team. You can even hire a professional to do this just for the day of your event.
Your tech team should also include having someone on the audience side, spot-checking every session (live and pre-recorded) to make sure the audio and video are working properly and no one is having any issues.
This is especially important if you have a multi-track event with simultaneous sessions running at once.
Host or emcee
While it’s traditional for an in-person conference to have a host or emcee, not all virtual events do.
In my experience, it’s important to have someone who can welcome attendees to the event, set the tone, and guide them through the event.
Having a host helps maintain the sense of community and hospitality of an in-person event and makes sure common things like reminding attendees if content will be recorded or when breaks are coming up are covered.
Plus, the host can wrap up the event and help it end on a strong note instead of fizzling out when the sessions are over.
What should you look for in the ideal host or emcee for your virtual event? Jessica Rice, senior manager of event marketing at Procore, has some thoughts.
“While I do think that an emcee is invaluable for various virtual event formats, I will caution that it may be best to choose someone that the audience is familiar with or that knows the goal and mission of your event well. An emcee can easily go from being the cornerstone of your event to the individual that distracts and confuses attendees if they are not well versed on the event or attendee demographic. For that reason I find that a well versed emcee can help add to the attendee experience, and can become the producer's biggest ally.”
- Jessica Rice, Senior Manager, Event Marketing at Procore
Moderator or co-host
In addition to an emcee or host, your event may also need a moderator or co-host.
If your host is going to be speaking for a while, it helps to have a moderator available to field questions from the chat, run polls, and more.
Plus, having a co-host gives the host or presenter someone to play off of and make the presentation seem more engaging and less one-sided.
We kicked off our live event with an opening workshop presented by Marcus Sheridan and I was the co-host.
Me and Marcus kicking off our live workshop on April 6th
Reflecting on the event, Marcus said something I hadn’t even thought of before.
He said, “For the audience, they can see themselves in the co-host. They can hear their thoughts as the co-host’s voice answers the speaker, and the co-host can be the one to voice the comments from chat.”
Beyond being an extension of the audience, it’s incredibly difficult (basically impossible) for a presenter to successfully handle speaking, running their slides, and managing polls and questions all at the same time.
Doug Binder, senior creative director for InVision Communications, says you should give your virtual audience something to do every five to seven minutes, but having a co-host or moderator who can run these activities takes a tremendous burden off of the speaker and even gives them a moment to breathe.
Virtual presentation coach
Even the most experienced and seasoned keynote speaker may not be comfortable presenting to a camera.
This is especially true when someone who thrives on audience interaction is home, alone in their kitchen, presenting to a screen with absolutely no laughter or applause coming back to them.
Having a virtual presentation coach available to teach speakers how to present well virtually is incredibly helpful and will make for better content for your audience.
Finally, make sure your presenters have been trained on and are comfortable with the technology you’re asking them to use.
With so many platforms available, popular speakers are jumping from one platform to another and constantly learning new tools.
Make sure they know how to access their slides, activate their camera and microphone, and even consider doing a dry run of their talk to make sure they’re comfortable.
“I’d recommend working with virtual speaker coaches who can give some top tips to people presenting at your online events. We’re all trying to navigate challenging times right now and get our business plans back on track and by working together and supporting one another, we will be able to emerge from times of adversity stronger than ever before.”
- Josh King, Head of Business Development & Marketing, emc3
Just like in-person events, virtual events present great sponsorship opportunities.
While you won’t need to pay for things like food or a venue rental, there are still costs involved in running a virtual event.
As the host of a virtual event, you will likely need to offset the cost of your team and your tools, for instance.
With the switch virtual, leveraging partnerships/sponsorships have been imperative in our strategy to do two major things: reduce noise and drive more impact (usually in the form of registrations) for our events. Partners are fantastic to leverage if you have a smaller team. You can lean on partners to help create content for you, assist in promotion or even leverage tools they may have access to that you don't have the budget for. The most important thing is to clearly define the role you want a partner to play prior to the agreement so you can get the most out of working together.
- Chrissy Ockerbloom, Senior Manager of Demand Generation and Events, Cobalt.io
Having someone dedicated to selling sponsorships or developing partnerships with your event is very important.
This person needs to have a solid understanding of the content and format of the event, the percent of registrants expected to attend, and what sponsors want to get out of the event.
It’s not enough to just rely on what sponsors wanted out of an in-person event.
Not only may this not be what they need now, virtual events present additional unique opportunities you may be able to leverage.
Setting yourself up for virtual event success
With the right team, your virtual event will be better set up for success and to not be just another run-of-the-mill webinar.
"Great events have always been about connecting people in unexpected ways. It’s why the hallmark of exceptional event planners is cultivating innovative ideas that delight in ways most of us wouldn’t think of. Virtual events require the same innovation.
At MakeLab, we’ve built a crazy-weird team of creative technologists, industrial designers, and 3D printing experts. For years, we’ve brought the future-tools of creativity to events around the world, showing guests how to use them for the first time. With the world going virtual, we’ve shifted to remote event-swag experiences where guests can create and receive totes, 3D artifacts, or even socks, right from their home, and just in time to show off on that Zoom call.
Having a team that can cover the creative, logistics, and technical backend to handle virtual creative experiences has been an absolute blessing. It’s been a challenge to pivot, but it’d be impossible without the team we have."