January 12, 2022

Event Strategies

The Engagement Marketer's Guide to Hosting Virtual Events

By:

Samantha Karlin

Wondering how to host a virtual event that'll get butts in seats, keep attendees awake, AND show ROI? We've got you covered. Check out our guide for event marketers.

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Let’s face it: Virtual events are now the norm. This doesn’t mean you should forget all of your amazing in-person event skills. Instead, it’s about applying that wealth of knowledge to producing virtual events that drive results.

However, it isn’t as easy as just taking your in-person conference setup and throwing it on the internet. Doing things online is almost like doing them in another country — it has different customs, norms, and ways of operating. To further complicate things, there’s also no playbook about how to do things “the right way.” That’s why we decided to create one for you.

Ready to start running great virtual events? Download the workbook, How to Run an Event That Isn’t Terrible.

In this virtual conference and event guide, 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 will help you meet your audience’s constantly changing needs and transform you into a more efficient and effective marketer.


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Part 1: A Virtual Event Strategy for Maximum Engagement

Convert Conference Content Into Webinars

Conference organizers are challenged with trying to shove a ton of speakers, topics, and breakouts into a short period of time. The beauty of converting things online is that you don’t have to fit everything into one or two days. You have the luxury to spread out the conference content, which enables participants to process fully what they hear, rather than rushing to the next session without a second to reflect. Participants also have greater choice over what they’d like to attend and what they’d rather skip.

Savvy event marketers are transforming multi-day conferences into easy-to-consume content like webinars. Although it sounds overwhelming, it has many benefits. Best of all, by turning each of your conference sessions into its own webinar, you’ll open them up to the entire 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.

webinar-strategy

Try experimenting with how you spread out the content. Can you hold a few webinars and a keynote every week? For example, TED has taken its seminal conference, usually held over a few days in Vancouver, and extended it over eight weeks. They host three- to four-hour sessions every week that encompass a set number of TED Talks.

Expand Your Event Target Audience

The beauty of virtual events is that attendance is no longer limited to a specific physical location. With an internet connection and a smartphone, anyone can attend. This widens the pool of people who can attend your events. For example, at Banzai, we’ve seen clients grow their target audience 50–100 times by expanding their search nationwide.

Read: 6 Marketers Share Their Top Tips for Promoting Virtual Events

expanded-event-audience

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 introduced, 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)

Read: How Much of My Marketing Budget Should be Dedicated to Events?

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. 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. This will give them more visibility since they’ll be the only sponsor. You can even integrate their logo, messaging, and tagline into event collateral. Sponsors can also align themselves more closely with topics that are relevant to their company; 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. This means the sponsor agrees to promote your event to their own network and through their channels. In return, you provide them with a registration list based on the amount of registrations they generate.

We often see event marketers establish registration goals that determine how many leads are provided to 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 full registration list such as your sponsors will gain access to the entire list if they generate over 100 registrations.

Be sure to include unique URLs so you can track the amount 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 a real 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 would, regarding how much time someone spent talking to your rep and what they read or watched at the booth. This is a more efficient way to gauge someone’s interest versus a sales representative writing notes on the back of a business card.

Learn how to run an event that isn't terrible. Get the workbook.

Work With Your Partners

Consider collaborating with other like-minded companies and partners to put on a joint virtual event. In 2020, working together with 18 other 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’re able to provide your audience with access to other helpful solutions they might otherwise not know about. 

Read: Ideas For Hosting A Virtual Partner Event

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 motivational 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 so it’ll be accessible forever. This way, you don’t have to try to get a videographer in every room, then spend ages tracking down the footage, having it transferred to the right file sizes, and on and on. Just click record, and you have that session forever.

Virtual content also gives you the option to upsell: You can sell another type of event ticket, an add-on bonus, or a membership fee that grants participants access to all of the conference material in perpetuity. This is another great 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 being recorded, you gain a ton of marketing material to repurpose and reuse in the future. Conference sessions can be turned into multiple types of assets, such as promo videos, commercials, ads, new types of content, etc.

graphic on how to extend your event's lifecycle

Content is King

The value of virtual events is centered on content. As such, having solid, engaging content as well as interesting and focused speakers is paramount.

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 incredibly important as well. 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. This 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.

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Split your attendees into groups of 40 and host online networking events, where you provide question prompts to ease any feelings of awkwardness.

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 period of time. Each person’s profile also includes a link to their LinkedIn profile 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 that they hope they won’t lose. Attendees also don’t have to muster up the courage to talk to someone, because the technology forces them to! 

Tip: Treat your attendees to a virtual lunch. For executive audiences, a great virtual event idea we’ve seen 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. 

It’s more exciting to see something live, and you can play up the countdown anticipation. You can also include live polls that assess the climate, perceptions, and thoughts of your audience 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 incredibly valuable to live experiences as well. 

Read: Live Vs. Automated Webinars (Which One Is Right for Your Business?)

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 some of the technical unknowns that can happen during a live event, including audio and video issues.

Consider Livestreaming Your Virtual Event

Virtual events are easy enough to run on other platforms. You can stream content live and expand the reach of your conference through platforms like:

  • YouTube Live
  • LinkedIn Live
  • Facebook/Instagram Live

Using these digital venues, your event can 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; paid, private, or gated content is not appropriate for livestream broadcasting. However, if you have a broad audience or a topic of wide interest, livestreaming is a great option to consider.

Remember the Fun Stuff

virtual-event-activities

Virtual events need to be engaging. A few fun ideas we’ve seen work well 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 certain 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 in. Users seeking larger audiences, more automation, and flexibility typically use an event marketing automation platform like Reach.

Virtual event hosting platforms broadly serve webinars and online conferences (although some hosting platforms support both). Virtual conference platforms typically possess features such as breakout chat rooms, attendee matching, and even 3D environments for attendees to navigate. Webinar-focused platforms have more streamlined features and are commonly used for events under two hours.

As virtual platforms become the new 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.

Read: The Best Webinar Platforms of 2022

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.

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Define Your Target Audience

The most effective emails have a highly targeted audience. We definitely don’t recommend the “spray and pray” approach, but you also 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. 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%. As virtual events tend to have lower fixed costs (no event venue, catering, or transportation/parking) and higher attendance caps, it’s recommended to cast a wider net to reach the right audience for your virtual event.

Read: Mapping Your Virtual Events to Today’s Buyer’s Journey

link to book a Demio demo

A big advantage of virtual events is that people with schedule conflicts can still register as long as the content is available on demand. This also means they’re added to your contact database for retargeting purposes, whereas with an in-person event, people likely won’t register 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, your 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) and/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 improve your virtual event as well. Since you don’t have the networking, free food, open bar, and fancy venue working for you, the content has to align very closely to your audience, and 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. It’s cheap, fast, and easy. Work with your existing marketing operations team to produce your email. If you’re a Reach customer, our email invitation feature will handle it for you, and email recipients can register for your event in one click.

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Utilize Phone Invitations

Personalized phone calls are one of the most powerful tools for driving registrations, but also one of the hardest to pull off. Making phone calls takes time, patience, and often a thick skin.

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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 be asked 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. As such, there’s a good chance your target audience is on the platform. You can share your virtual event multiple ways using LinkedIn:

  1. Post It - Create a post linking to your registration page and publish it on your feed. This is a great way to share your event with your existing network (and possibly beyond it). Your virtual event will be amplified when others like or share it.
  2. 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 of your network. This costs a bit of money, but the results can be big. 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;They work well for virtual events and conferences because it’s more natural to discover and register for larger virtual events from an ad compared to a smaller or in-person event where an email or phone call may feel more personal and effective. Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn have audience targeting features based on keywords or profiles, and most other ad platforms offer some version of this as well.

However, if you’re approaching an entirely new audience and lack brand recognition, you may want to try advertising a free conference teaser webinar first to draw users in, get them engaged, and then move on to your high-ticket item.

Retarget Your Database

Retargeting is a great 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).

Read: Getting Your Event Promotion Right

Part 4: Tips for Producing a Great Virtual Event

What To Do Before Your Virtual Event

Pre-Event Survey

Before your event, sending a survey is a helpful first step. It gives people the option 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:

  1. T-shirt sizes 
  2. Giveaway and raffle preferences
  3. Dietary restrictions

Send Event Reminders

Reminders are critical to maximize attendance. We’ve found effective reminders can more than double the live attendance of a virtual event. If you’re a Reach, Demio, or High Attendance user, your event reminders can be sent automatically. If you use your own 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. To ensure the best attendance, send a calendar invite to every attendee’s calendar. 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 invites won’t register on Google calendars).

Incentivize With Gift Cards & Giveaways

gift-cards-incentives

Many event hosts 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 out 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. This will encourage more registrations and a larger top-of-funnel audience. If you’re looking to grow your opt-in base or drive more top-of-funnel leads for your sales or sales development representatives team, this is a good option.

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 good 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).

Make a donation 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 If you’re trying to reach 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 music that will be recorded and shared. Avoid playing music during a recorded presentation.

Keep Your Audience Engaged 

It’s important to keep your audience actively involved throughout your event. You can do this by incorporating polls, maintaining an open chat, and breaking 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. This 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.

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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 a period of time. You could segment your follow-ups based on attendance, behavior profiles, or other factors. Decide this in advance and have your follow-up planned 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 would like to see more of. Take this opportunity to ask sales qualification questions as well. At the very end, you should send out a final survey to gather feedback and testimonials.

On-Demand Recording -Not everyone who registers can attend your event. However, a major advantage of virtual events is that you can capture 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 own 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 your audience like a copy of the slide deck, a white paper, or other information related to your event.

Sales - If applicable, make sure 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 just as valuable as your attendees. Evergreen content gives your sales team a great reason to reach out to them! They can follow up directly with the recordings and any resources from the virtual event. This way, they can watch your webinar on their own time and still gain all the benefits of attending live. 

Read: Quick Guide to Nurturing Virtual Event No-Shows

Part 5: Event Formats You Should Consider in the Virtual World

Conference

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 have the option to record sessions ahead of time and run them as automated events.

Roadshow

Virtual roadshows are crafted for different time zones and audiences, and content can be localized so your audience relates to the presentation. Roadshows often include fun activities as well as 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. 

Roundtable 

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 discussion is moderated, but all attendees can dial in or be on camera to contribute to the conversation.

Fireside Chat

This is structured as an interview or small panel where the hosts facilitate a Q&A with the audience. Attendees can log in to watch the interview in real time or on demand.  Fireplace not required! 

Networking

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.

Read: What Virtual Event Format is Right for You?

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!

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