Let’s face it: Virtual events are now the norm. This doesn’t mean you should forget all your exceptional in-person event skills; instead, it’s about applying that wealth of knowledge to producing virtual events that drive results.
It isn’t easy taking your in-person conference setup and throwing it on the internet and doing things online is like doing them in another country. There’s no playbook for planning a virtual event “the right way.” That’s why we created a guide to virtual events for you.
Ready to start running great virtual events? Download the workbook, How to Run an Event That Isn’t Terrible.
We’ve assembled a comprehensive collection of strategies, tools, and creative ideas on how to run a virtual event that people won’t want to miss. We’re confident this guide to virtual events will help you meet your audience’s constantly changing needs and transform you into a more efficient and effective marketer.
Part 1: A Virtual Event Strategy for Maximum Engagement
Convert Conference Content Into Webinars
It’s challenging for event organizers to shove a ton of speakers, topics, and breakouts into a short timeframe. The beauty of converting things online is that you don’t have to fit everything into one or two days. You have the luxury of spreading the conference content, which enables participants to fully process what they hear rather than rushing to the next session without a second to reflect. Participants also have more choice over what they want to attend and what they’d rather skip.
Savvy engagement marketers are transforming multi-day conferences into easy-to-consume content like webinars. Although it sounds overwhelming, it has many benefits. Best of all, turning each conference session into a webinar will open them up to the world.
Your high-quality, one-of-a-kind content can now reach thousands of people and have an active afterlife in on-demand, social streaming, and web asset formats. Also, instead of people buzzing about your brand for only a few days, the brand value of your conference can extend for weeks or even months.
Try experimenting with how you spread out the content. You can hold a few webinars and keynotes every week. TED has taken its seminal conference, usually held in Vancouver, and extended it over eight weeks, and they host three- to four-hour weekly sessions.
Expand Your Event Target Audience
The beauty of virtual events is that attendance is no longer limited to a specific physical location. Anyone can participate with an internet connection and a smartphone, which widens the pool of people attending your events. For example, at Banzai, we’ve seen clients grow their target audience 50–100 times by expanding their search nationwide.
Costs of Virtual Events
Many of the typical costs that go into an in-person event — catering, venue, AV equipment, speakers’ travel fees, etc. — don’t apply to virtual events. However, there are other costs, such as:
- An engaging virtual event platform
- Speaker fees
- Video production
- Session production, such as lighting, cameras, and microphones
- Attendee incentives (e.g., gift cards, welcome boxes, branded swag)
Get the Most out of Event Sponsorships
You worry about sponsors pulling out if an in-person event goes virtual, but there are many ways to keep sponsors involved and give them serious value, and some may result in an even higher ROI for their part.
Here are some alternative ways to approach sponsorships:
One presenting sponsor per event - Instead of having a ton of sponsors for one event, you can opt to have one for each session. Being a session sponsor will give them more visibility since they’ll be the only sponsor. You can integrate their logo, messaging, and tagline into event collateral. Sponsors can also align themselves more closely with relevant topics; this exposes them to a more qualified target audience for their product or service.
Partnership (co-marketing) - Work with sponsors to establish a co-marketing agreement. A co-marketing agreement means the sponsor agrees to promote your event to their network and through their channels. In return, you provide them with a registration list based on the number of registrations they generate.
Event marketers often establish registration goals determining how many leads to provide a sponsor after the event. For example, you can offer a sponsor a 1:2 agreement: For every registration they provide, they receive two contacts in return. You can also set a goal that unlocks the complete registration list. For example, your sponsors will gain access to the entire list if they generate over 100 registrations.
Be sure to include unique URLs to track the number of registrations sponsors drove to your virtual event.
Virtual Trade Show Booths: Some platforms host virtual exhibition halls, where a participant’s avatar can walk among the booths like at an actual trade show. It feels similar to playing a video game, which adds to the fun of it. The trade show booths also offer much more detailed analytics on the back end than an in-person event, regarding how much time someone spent talking to your rep and what they read or watched at the booth. Virtual analytics is a more efficient way to gauge someone’s interest versus a sales representative writing notes on the back of a business card.
Work With Your Partners
Consider collaborating with other like-minded companies and partners to put on a joint virtual event. In 2020, working with 18 different companies, Drift produced and ran Revgrowth, an epic virtual sales and marketing conference.
Leveraging partners is a great way to expand your event’s reach and connect with new audiences. Partners offer fresh perspectives for presentations, and can help with production, conduct outreach, and develop post-event content. Plus, you can give your audience access to other helpful solutions they might not have.
Record Your Virtual Events and Continue To Provide Value
So many conference sessions exist for one brief moment in time and then are never captured, remembered, or revisited. That brilliant keynote speaker you paid $20K for… gone. Or, maybe you ran three breakout sessions at the same time, inducing analysis paralysis in participants who fiercely wished they could attend them all.
Instead, you could capture that content and launch it online, making it accessible forever. This way, you don’t have to try to get a videographer in every room, then spend ages tracking down the footage, transferring it to the correct file sizes, and on and on. Just click record, and you have that session forever.
Virtual content also allows you to upsell: You can sell another event ticket, an add-on bonus, or a membership fee that grants participants access to all the conference material in perpetuity. This is another excellent way to provide value to your sponsors, as their marketing and brand will endure rather than last for only a few days.
With every session recorded, you gain a ton of marketing material to repurpose and reuse in the future. Turn conference sessions into multiple assets, such as promo videos, commercials, ads, new types of content, etc.
Content is King
When sifting through possible speakers, look for videos of them. What are they like on camera? Do they make you want to watch them? Sometimes a person’s energy doesn’t translate through the screen. You want to make sure you choose speakers who are animated and lively. Lighting, audio, and video quality are essential. Make sure you test all of these elements in advance with your selected speakers.
The RevGrowth team went so far as to send their speakers a speaking kit in advance, which included a lighting kit, a high-quality microphone, and a professional backdrop. The kits reduced the risk of equipment failure and ensured uniformity across each speaker segment.
Networking at Virtual Events
But what about the best part of in-person events — networking?! It’s still possible with a virtual event.
Split your attendees into groups of 40 and host online networking events, where you provide question prompts to ease any feelings of awkwardness.
Are you looking for a way to replace a networking reception? Certain platforms simulate reception rooms at a gala where you can switch tables and network with the other people at each “table” for a set time. Each person’s profile also includes a link to their social media to make connecting super easy.
The benefit of virtual networking is that participants can immediately go to LinkedIn and add someone rather than stuffing a business card into an overflowing swag bag they hope they won’t lose. Attendees also don’t have to muster up the courage to talk to someone because technology makes it happen.
Tip: Treat your attendees to a virtual lunch. A fun virtual event idea for executive audiences is to gather a highly targeted group for a “virtual lunch,” complete with food delivery. To avoid giving a free lunch to the no-shows, send out gift cards an hour before your event with an expiration time of a few hours. Host your audience for a cameras-on roundtable discussion, a moderated panel with Q&A, or let your attendees pose questions to each other.
Live vs. Automated Virtual Events — Why Not Both?
You have the option to host live or automated sessions or a combination of the two.
Seeing something live is exciting, and you can play up the anticipation with a countdown. You can also include live polls that assess whether or not attendees are engaged and get feedback in real-time. We suggest you still have a moderator or host begin the presentation with an introduction of the speaker or speakers to simulate the conference experience and endorse the legitimacy and prestige of the speaker. Hosting a live Q&A throughout a session is also incredibly valuable to live experiences.
Automated sessions allow for more control. Speakers can feel confident in their pre-recorded presentations knowing they had the chance to iron everything out; all the audience will see is the final polished product. You also eliminate technical unknowns that can happen during a live event, including audio and video issues.
Consider Live Streaming Your Virtual Event
Virtual events are easy enough to run on other platforms. You can provide live streams of content and expand the reach of your conference through platforms like:
- YouTube Live
- LinkedIn Live
- Facebook/Instagram Live
Using live streaming platforms helps your event attract a much broader (albeit less targeted) audience. Because you can’t control who sees the content on these platforms, it’s not ideal for all types of virtual events; paid, private, or gated content is not appropriate for live stream broadcasting. However, live streaming is an excellent option if you have a broad audience or a topic of wide interest.
Remember the Fun Stuff
Virtual events need to be engaging. A few fun ideas to enhance the attendee experience are:
- Create a branded video game
- Set up an online marketplace with branded swag that people can order or have sent to them
- Host a musical opening set or end-of-day chill session (many musicians host concerts from their homes)
- Consider a DJ for session breaks
- Guided meditations
- Virtual workshops that encourage audience participation with breakout sessions
- Hold a session specifically for kids hosted by kids on your topic area since many people now have their kids at home.
- Encourage participants to dress up or wear a particular color (People relish the chance to get out of their pajamas!)
As a concrete example, Revgrowth’s conference included mid-day online fitness classes to break things up.
Part 2: How To Choose the Right Virtual Event Platform
What To Consider When Selecting a Virtual Event Solution
All virtual events require two essential pieces of technology: a virtual event hosting platform and an event marketing automation platform. Some event hosting platforms have basic marketing features already built into the solution. Users seeking larger audiences, more automation, and flexibility typically use an event marketing automation platform like Reach.
Virtual event hosting platforms can serve webinars and online conferences (although some hosting platforms support both). Virtual conference platforms typically possess features including breakout chat rooms, attendee matching, and even 3D environments for attendees to navigate. Webinar software is used for events under two hours and has more streamlined features.
As virtual platforms become the norm, existing platforms are racing to add features that simulate the in-person event experience as much as possible. Many new players are entering the game daily as a result.
Part 3: Virtual Event Marketing That Works
Every event relies on an audience (that’s why we created Reach). Check out the following ways to grow event buzz and drive virtual event attendance.
Define Your Target Audience
The most effective emails have a highly targeted audience. We don’t recommend the “spray and pray” approach, but you can’t be too narrow. Your first step is to define success for your event in numbers - how many people do you want (be reasonable)?
Event attendance and registration rates vary based on a few factors, particularly the audience type. For net-new registrations, you’ll see the lowest registration rates, and prospects and customers should have respectively higher registration rates. The same pattern applies to attendance rates.
Virtual events also tend to have lower attendance rates than live events. In 2021, Webinars hosted on Demio saw an average live attendance rate of 52%. Cast a wider net to reach the right audience for your virtual event since they tend to have lower fixed costs (no event venue, catering, or transportation/parking) and higher attendance caps.
A significant advantage of virtual events is that people with schedule conflicts can still register as long as the content is available on demand. By registering, they’re added to your contact database for retargeting purposes, whereas with an in-person event, people likely won’t sign up unless they can attend for sure.
Ask yourself, “Who is my ideal virtual audience, and why should they care about this event?” If your event is large enough, define multiple audience segments (A, B, and C) to target them based on different interests or concerns.
Pull your invite list from your existing email marketing tools, CRM, or other data sources. Reach also offers an Audience Profile Builder that makes event outreach fast and easy. It uses your existing audience list(s) or a custom profile built from the desired demographics you select from our database of over 475 million contacts.
Thinking critically about your audience’s profile will also improve your virtual event. Since you don’t have the networking, free food, open bar, and fancy venue working for you, the content must align very closely with your audience. Getting super-specific with the latter will help you craft more targeted content.
Once you’ve determined who your audience is, it’s time to think through how to reach them.
Whatever format you use, remember—today is not life as usual. In our 2020 webinar on evaluating the shift to virtual events, Jaana Linsenmayer, the VP of Marketing for Mid-Market, North America at SAP, emphasized how critical it is to express empathy in your calls, ads, and emails:
“We have to recognize that people are undergoing a level of stress and anxiety that we’ve never had to go through before, so you have to get the right tone,” she said. “Remember, you’re talking to people who are grieving. Understand that someone is grieving when you are reaching out to them, and make sure that your messaging is all about being there for them, all about helping them. If there was ever a time to demonstrate that you are of service to your customers, it is now. You will build trust with new and existing customers by acknowledging their pain and showing that you want to help. Trust leads to sales. As Matt Heinz, CEO of Heinz Marketing, remarked, “[w]hether you’re a seller or a marketer, it’s about building trust; the brand of the company should stand for trust right now.”
Optimize Your Email Strategy
Email is a no-brainer. Work with your marketing operations team to produce your email. If you’re a Reach customer, our email invitation feature will handle it, and email recipients can register with one click.
Utilize Phone Invitations
Personalized phone calls are among the most powerful tools for driving registrations and the hardest to pull off. Making phone calls takes time, patience, and often a thick skin.
Whoever you use for sales calls, it’s wise to bring in a trainer or work with your sales representatives on how to be extra empathetic on sales calls. They may have to confront extraordinary circumstances and deal with atypical emotions (in addition to standard objections). Teaching sales representatives how to handle these situations gingerly is extremely important.
Boost Your Virtual Event With LinkedIn
LinkedIn is the largest social network for professionals. There’s a good chance your target audience is on the platform. You can share your virtual event in multiple ways using LinkedIn:
- Post It - Create a social post linking to your registration page and publish it on your feed. Sharing on LinkedIn is a great way to promote your event with your existing network (and possibly beyond it). A post can amplify your virtual event when others like or share it.
- Groups - Share via industry-based community groups to reach audience members with interests related to your event.
Sponsored - Use sponsored InMail or other LinkedIn Advertising to share your event with your target audience outside your network. Sponsored posts cost a bit of money, but the results can be significant. You’ll have to create a LinkedIn Advertising account, configure your target audience (some limitations apply), write your ad copy, and set up tracking to ensure you know which registrations come from LinkedIn.
Invest in Targeted Advertising
Ads are an effective channel for promoting virtual events. Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn have audience targeting features based on keywords or profiles, and most other ad platforms also offer some version of targeting.
However, suppose you’re approaching an entirely new audience and lack brand recognition. In that case, you may want to try advertising a free conference teaser webinar first to attract users, get them engaged, and then move on to your high-ticket item.
Retarget Your Database
Retargeting is an excellent strategy for sharing your event with people who’ve previously visited your website or interacted with your content (which indicates some level of interest in your brand, product, or content).
Part 4: Tips for Producing a Great Virtual Event
What To Do Before Your Virtual Event
Before your event, sending a survey is a helpful first step, and it allows people to choose between potential panels and suggest topics and speakers. Tools like SurveyMonkey and Typeform are easy to use and budget-friendly survey options.
Your content must appreciate and acknowledge your audience’s daily challenges. The greater the audience’s involvement in your conference’s design, the more it will meet their needs.
A pre-event survey can collect valuable information regarding the content and event format. Other things you can ask your audience include:
- T-shirt sizes
- Giveaway and raffle preferences
- Dietary restrictions
Send Event Reminders
Reminders are critical to maximizing attendance. We’ve found effective reminders can more than double the live attendance of a virtual event. Automatically send event reminders if you’re a Reach, Demio, or High Attendance user. If you use your other marketing automation tools, we recommend employing the following reminder schedule (this pertains to both in-person and virtual events):
Include Calendar Invites
If you’re like most busy professionals, anything that doesn’t make it into your calendar ceases to exist. Send an invite to every attendee’s calendar to ensure the best attendance. Tools like AddEvent can help you achieve this. For Reach users, calendar invites will automatically appear on your registrant’s calendar through Reach’s calendar invitation feature. Be sure to tailor the calendar invite to multiple platforms so they look right (for example, Outlook calendar invites won’t register on Google calendars).
Incentivize With Gift Cards & Giveaways
Many events leverage incentives like gift cards and raffles to attract more registrations and attendees to virtual events. You can purchase gift cards directly from companies like Amazon or Starbucks, then send the codes to your registrants or attendees.
Here are a few ways to implement incentives into your virtual events:
Incentives for all registrations (Use to increase registrations) - Send a gift card to all registrants and encourage more registrations and a larger top-of-funnel audience. A gift card is an excellent option to grow your opt-in base or drive more top-of-funnel leads for your sales or sales development representatives team.
Gift card, gift, or raffle for all attendees (Use to increase attendance rate) - Send a gift card, a predefined gift, or a raffle item for anyone who attends. Gifts can be any amount, but $10–$50 is a great place to start depending on your audience. You can offer popular gifts like the latest tech gadgets or simply provide a gift card and let your attendees choose for themselves. Raffles can include high-ticket items like high-end gadgets, a product your company makes, branded swag, or wine/liquor (the appropriateness of alcohol depends on your brand and audience).
Donate on behalf of registrants or attendees (Use to increase registration or attendance rate) - This is a great way to support a local small business or non-profit organization. Many attendees will appreciate a gesture like this.
Gift card for sharing your event (Use to increase sharing/virality) - This can be an effective tool for reaching more people within a set of target accounts. Leverage your existing attendee base to share your event with their colleagues and friends, and incentivize them with a gift card (i.e., $10) for every new registration.
What To Do During Your Virtual Event
Avoid Awkward Silences With Music
Music is a great way to get people excited about your event. Play music at the start of it and in between sessions.
Tip: In the United States, you need a public performance license if you plan to play record and share an event with music. Avoid playing music during a recorded presentation.
Keep Your Audience Engaged
It’s essential to keep your audience actively involved throughout your event. You can incorporate polls, maintain an open chat, and break up your event with various activities.
Provide Actionable Content
Make it easy for your audience to access content discussed during your virtual event. Share links in the chat or send out calls to action to download with one easy click. Actionable content is a great way to move your audience along the buyer’s journey by providing them extra, relevant content that they can only get by attending your event.
What To Do After Your Virtual Event
Send a Follow-Up
Follow-up is vital to the success of a virtual event and can be an ongoing process if you decide to spread out your virtual conference over time. You could segment your follow-ups based on attendance, behavior profiles, or other factors. Decide this in advance and plan your follow-up before your event, so you’re not left scrambling.
Include the below elements in your virtual event follow-up:
Survey - Instead of waiting to send a survey until after the entire event ends, try sending one halfway through. You can ask what content and features your participants have liked and appreciated and what they want to see more of in the future. Take this opportunity to ask sales qualification questions as well. You should send out a final survey to gather feedback and testimonials at the very end.
On-Demand Recording -Not everyone who registers can attend your event. However, a significant advantage of virtual events is capturing both a live and on-demand audience. An easy way to do this is to share your on-demand recordings after your event. Reach and Demio handle this automatically, or you can set it up using your email marketing tool. In 2021, Demio saw a 156% increase in on-demand webinars and an average 51% attendance rate.
Content - Share relevant follow-up content with attendees like a copy of the keynote speaker’s slide deck, a white paper, or other information about your event.
Sales - If applicable, ensure your sales representatives follow up with your audience (ideally immediately following your event). They should check to see if people enjoyed it, find out what topics they found most interesting, and see if they’d like to discuss their thoughts further.
Virtual Event No-Shows
No-show registrants can be valuable. Evergreen content gives your sales team a reason to reach out to them! They can follow up with the recordings and resources from the virtual event. They can watch your webinar on their own time and gain benefits.
Part 5: Event Formats You Should Consider in the Virtual World
Conferences can be one-day or multi-day online events. Attendees can register for individual sessions throughout the day, and keynote and breakout sessions are structured similar to webinars. Producers can record sessions ahead of time and run them as automated events.
Virtual roadshows for different time zones and audiences can have localized content so your audience relates to the presentation. Roadshows often include fun activities, demos, and interactions with your sales team. Make sure to keep the event engaging and fun while also being informative. Include polls, group work, opportunities for networking, and giveaways.
The purpose of roundtable discussions is to provide a place where leaders can come together to discuss industry challenges and best practices. Keep it exclusive. The moderated forum discussion enables all attendees to dial in or be on camera and contribute to the conversation.
A fireside chat is a structured interview or small panel facilitated by a host with Q&A. Attendees can log in to watch the interview in real-time or on demand. Fireplace not required!
Moderators use engagement tactics like icebreaker questions, polls, and chat features to encourage interaction. Conversations continue in small breakout groups, online communities, and even in-person discussions.
We hope this guide has put you on the path to planning an imaginative, engaging, and successful virtual event. Our advice comes from years of engaging people online and in person. Happy hosting!