Planning5 Min Read

Virtual Conferences & Events: A Comprehensive Guide to Doing It Right

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is pushing the event industry to find innovative new ways to keep events going. It’s not safe for attendees to gather in person—at least for the near future, and we genuinely have no idea how long this is all going to last. Instead of cancelling or postponing, how can we carry on? By pivoting to virtual conferences and events.

If you’re one of the 64% of event professionals who have never planned a virtual event, this is a new concept—and that’s okay. Virtual events have been around for years, but they’re sure to become more commonplace, especially over the next few months (or more). 

To help make this transition easier, here’s what you need to know about virtual events. 

What Are Virtual Events? 

Digital-first or virtual conferences and events live online. All attendees, sponsors, and speakers join the online environment instead of being in one central, physical location. Virtual events can be simple, such as a webinar, or they can be more complex and include multiple speakers, sessions, and entertainment— similar to a conference or trade show. 

You might be thinking of webinars you’ve attended in the past or that one time you watched YouTube live coverage of a conference, and those are good examples of virtual events.

Before jumping into creating your own virtual conference or event, it’s important to know some of the benefits.

The Benefits of Virtual Conferences & Events 

There’s been a good amount of pushback when it comes to transitioning from live to virtual conferences and events, and it’s mostly based on the assumption that you can’t provide the same value as live events. But that’s not true at all. If done correctly, a virtual event can be engaging for attendees and sponsors, and facilitate multiple revenue opportunities.

Revenue Opportunities at Virtual Events

Yes, you can still generate revenue from virtual events. During a recent EventMB webinar on virtual events, Wiliam Thompson of Gallus Events shared how he kept ticket prices the same between live and virtual events, keeping event revenue up. If your event offers great content, attendees will join, regardless if it’s a live or virtual experience.

Art by Chris Shipton

You can also use a virtual event app to go along with your event. Sponsor logos, branded splash pages, and sponsor banners can all live in the app and help to provide value to your sponsors and maximize revenue. And don’t forget about sponsored push notifications to announce new sessions. Since the event app will always be with your attendees (especially if they’re sitting at home), showing them sponsors’ messaging every time they open the app will be a huge help in boosting impressions!

These are just a couple of ideas for you, and it goes to show how much revenue potential there is in virtual events.

Virtual Conferences & Events Can Save Money

Not only can you save money on a venue, catering, entertainment, and other things that can eat into an event budget fairly quickly, your attendees will also save money. They won’t have to travel, book a flight or hotel, or figure out how much they’ll have to pay for luggage. Overall, virtual events can be much more cost-effective than live events (for everyone involved). 

Virtual Events Are Eco-Friendly

William Thomson – Event Consultant, Meeting Designer & Blogger @ Gallus Events

Virtual events are also more sustainable for the environment. With no need for travel — by plane or car — your event won’t contribute to fossil fuel emissions and you’ll reduce the overall carbon footprint of your company or organization. 

You’ll also be able to save a huge amount of paper! Whether we want to admit it or not, paper brochures, handouts, schedules, menus, etc, are all present at live events (even if they don’t need to be). It’s time to help the trees. 

Reach a Larger Audience

With a virtual event, you can reach a much larger audience, far bigger than even the largest venue can hold. And since travel isn’t an obstacle, attendees can join in on the fun from literally anywhere around the globe. You’ll also have the opportunity to engage with attendees in real time using a platform such as Twitter, or an event app with live polls and surveys. 

Corey McCarthy – CMO @ Socio

Setting Up Your Virtual Conference or Event

A virtual event can come in many different formats, so you’ll need to determine the full scope of your event in order to pick the right technology. Are you hosting a small meeting or webinar? Will your event include thousands of attendees, multiple sessions, and speakers? Will you have sponsorship at your event? Do you want to promote networking?

There are several event tech options, and choosing the best fit for your particular event is key to pulling things off. 

Webinars & Meetings 

Webinars typically last only a couple of hours, and while they often feature multiple sessions or speakers, they’re shorter and more succinct. Webinars can occur live, or be pre-recorded and sent out to attendees at a later date. The content is often instructional or educational. Many webinar platforms include the ability to record programming, meaning attendees can view the content on demand.

Tech options specific for webinars include: 

Live Video Streaming

Live streaming is a good option for virtual events that include multiple speakers and sessions. As the organizer, you’ll use a live streaming platform to remotely connect attendees with live programming. Like a physical event, attendees can pop in and out of a session, and depending on the platform you choose, engage with speakers and programming in real time. 

Tech options specific to live streaming include: 

Combining Event Tech for an Engaging Virtual Experience

While webinars and live streams are great mediums for connecting with remote attendees, they often fall short when it comes to attendee engagement and promoting sponsorship. When you consider how more than 80% of people attend live events for networking, you have to offer a solution that makes it easy for attendees to connect. 

Pairing an event app with your webinar software or live streaming platform can do just that. Socio CMO, Corey McCarthy, recently shared fun ways to boost networking and attendee engagement at virtual events. Check it out here

This is a new space for most of us, and event teams are coming up with new strategies by the day. We’ll make sure to keep you as up to date as we can. 

How to Pivot from Live to Virtual (And Back Again) 

At this point, you’re probably wondering how to begin. It can feel daunting, especially if you’ve already planned out your live event. While you’ll surely have to make changes in technology and formatting, you’re much further along than you realize, especially if you’re already using a mobile event app. Remember, the key word here is “pivot.”

Communicate Your Virtual Event Plan

It’s extremely important to communicate your plans with all relevant parties, especially attendees and sponsors. The more lead time you can give, the better. This is new for most people, and you may face pushback at first. It’s only natural. 

Make sure and communicate the reason for your change (it’s likely COVID-19), and be prepared to answer questions about how you’ll address attendee networking, engagement, and sponsorship opportunities. They can all translate to a virtual event.

Corey McCarthy – CMO @ Socio

Also make sure to keep communication constant leading up to your virtual event. This is highly important, as attendees are more likely to forget about virtual events since they won’t be traveling or attending in person. Send reminders using multiple channels—email, text, and social media. If you’re using an event app (highly recommended) keep attendees and sponsors up to date with regular push notifications.

Use or Repurpose Existing Content

You’ve spent countless hours planning your live event, so don’t let all that hard work go to waste. Your speakers have already made arrangements to participate in your event, so they’ll be available for the virtual event. The same goes for your session programming. There’s no point in designing new sessions when going virtual, you just need to adapt them for online viewing. You’re already stressed (and pressed for time), so focus on repurposing your existing content.

Considerations Before Purchasing Virtual Event Tech

Be aware that there are several technical considerations you’ll need to think through when pivoting to a virtual event. Some platforms only support online events, which is fine, but you may not want to invest heavily in a one-sided solution, especially if you’re planning to switch back to live events. It’s easy to panic during a situation like COVID-19, but it will eventually pass, so make sure and think about the long game.

It’s likely that virtual events will become more common in the future, even if only a component of live events, so you might want to consider a platform that serves both options.

An event app is a great tool for bridging the virtual/live event gap. Many of the engagement features in your event app—networking, live polling, Q&As, gamification—can all enhance a virtual event. And let’s be honest, if you don’t include these engagement features in your virtual event, it’s really just a webinar.

Many fully virtual platforms lack the robust engagement features that come standard in event apps, so make sure and consider what solution will help you hit your goals and make your event fun. For many events, pairing an event app with a live streaming or webcast component is a great way to pivot to virtual, and then back to live events.

Planning a Virtual Conference or Event

Planning a virtual event has a lot of similarities to planning a live event. Instead of choosing a venue, you’ll be choosing an online platform and/or a virtual event app to serve as the communication hub of your event. If starting from scratch, you’ll still book speakers and line up sponsors. If pivoting from an already-planned live event, transition your existing speakers and sponsors to the virtual experience. 

Here are some things to be extra conscious of when planning your virtual event. 

Time Considerations

With a lot of events pivoting to virtual within a short time frame, it can feel like you don’t have enough time. Remember, you’ve already done most of the planning for your live event, so make sure and repurpose as much as possible. 

If planning a virtual event from scratch, we recommend giving yourself at least a few months to get everything setup. 

What’s Your Hook?

Why will people register for your virtual event? What’s the catch? It’s important to have something sticky to make it easy for your virtual event to attract attendees, sponsors, and speakers. Choose a topic that people care about. And talk about it in a way that excites people. Nobody wants to go to four virtual events that all cover the exact same thing. Be unique. Be exciting. Be engaging. 

Content Considerations

Exceptional speakers will still be exceptional in a virtual landscape. Content is still important, and without top-tier content, your event won’t stand out from the pack.

Taylor Estes – President/CEO @ Apple Box LLC

You have the opportunity with a virtual event to ask your audience exactly who and what they want to see. Keep them engaged, find out what content they care about, and help to provide it. 

Test Everything 

Being online and using different platforms and software means you need to double (maybe even triple) check that everything works properly before your event takes off. Don’t forget to:

  • Check mics
  • Check video quality
  • Check internet connection
  • Check and see if everything is being recorded 
  • Check links and presentation slides 

Promoting Virtual Events

Make sure your attendees know that you’ve made the pivot to virtual! If they don’t know, your attendance numbers are definitely going to drop. Post the registration link on social every day in the week leading up to the event. And if you want to post sooner, that’s alright, you know what works for your audience! 

Besides social, also be sure to let your email subscribers know what’s going on. Chances are they’ll be most excited to register. And you can get creative too. Invite them to an online pre-event happy hour or provide a forum where they can meet and chat with other attendees. 

How to Show Value 

We understand that jumping into this new space can be nerve-wracking and that you want to make the right decision. And you want to be able to show others that you made the right decision. Luckily, there are tangible ways to prove the value of virtual events.

Post-Event Data & Analytics

If you want to know your attendance numbers, the numbers of those who registered versus those who showed up, or how much attention sponsors receive, that data is usually available in your event app. You can prove sponsor ROI this way as well. Use the right tech and you’ll have the right data to prove the value of your virtual event — now and in the future. 

Real Time Event Feedback 

You can also collect feedback throughout your event. In fact, asking for feedback right after a session may just increase the number of detailed and accurate responses you get. 

Some live streaming platforms also allow attendees to react to speakers in the moment. It’s the same as “liking” a post on other social platforms, just in real time. This is particularly cool if you record the live stream because you can go back and see what your attendees found particularly valuable. Take that and make a whole content strategy around what you know your attendees want to know! 

You can also use live polling and Q&A sessions as a way to find out what your audience really cares about. Connect with them, answer their questions (in app or on social), and get a feel for how the event is going while it’s all happening. 

You Can Do This

Nobody said pivoting to virtual events was going to be easy, but it’s necessary right now and you can do it. You’ve got the tools, the team, and the resilience to move forward.

Mike Piddock – Founder @ Glisser

If you have any questions about how to use an event app in virtual events, connect with someone on our team who can share best practices.

#pivottovirtual

Nina Dermody
Nina Dermody
Content Writer. Avid reader. Lover of all cooking competition shows. Will stop for any and every dog she sees walking down the street. Connect with Nina on Twitter or on LinkedIn.