Last year presented unthinkable challenges to marketers and event organizers. From last March forward, virtually every trade show was canceled, from behemoths like Dreamforce to local association meetings. These events are major revenue sources for organizers and important opportunities for marketers to build brand awareness and generate new opportunities for their businesses.
Once the reality of COVID set in, everyone scrambled to make the best of a bad situation. Event organizers swiftly pivoted. In some cases, they moved their multi-day live trade show online, complete with virtual expo halls and networking apps. They also added additional webinars to their sponsorship inventory to generate badly needed revenue.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity to get our message in front of prospects and keep our lead-gen engine humming, we jumped on the opportunity to redirect our live event budget. It seemed like a good deal. Rather than spend on travel we would spend on getting in front of the right people. In total, we sponsored five virtual trade shows and six webinars. In all situations, we would get some promotional exposure, an opportunity to present on a topic for 30 or 45 minutes, answer some questions, and usually receive the registration list.
Sadly, the results were abysmal. Here’s what we experienced.
Ghosted By Registrants
Event organizers tried to turn a multi-day live event into a multi-day virtual event. There was usually a keynote by a celebrity or VIP and specialized tracks in some cases. Most were offered free to participants, who basically signed-up for two or three days of back-to-back 45-minute Zoom presentations from us and our competitors.
Early events seemed to get a lot of attendee registrations, most likely the people who would have attended the live event. Unfortunately, few of those who registered actually showed up. In one case, we were told over 1,200 people registered, but we could see from Zoom that only a couple hundred showed up — and many of these were fellow presenters from our competition. The drop-off rates after the keynote sessions were astronomical.
Dedicated webinar sponsorships and presentations proved to be a bit more effective. But like virtual trade shows, as months passed, registrations and attendees decreased while no-shows and drop-offs increased. The KPIs and ROI of the virtual events that we sponsored were embarrassingly low.
Why did these virtual events fail for sponsors? These virtual attendee sentiments are common:
• We’re simply Zoomed out. We’ll sit in front of Zoom if necessary, but only if necessary.
• Most presentations are deathly boring. Few presenters have the skill to captivate an audience on Zoom.
• Working from home is fraught with distractions. Once your audience has checked out, it’s nearly impossible to bring them back.
It’s the “terrible too’s” — too long, too boring, too many distractions. We give event organizations credit for trying to pivot to virtual, but none could recreate the energy, enthusiasm and engagement of a live event.
When it came time to plan our own virtual user conference in December, we were determined to avoid the mistakes we experienced firsthand. Here’s how we did it.
1. Minimize Risk: Secure the Right Technical Support
The perfect agenda, content and presenters are meaningless without the ability to connect (and stay connected) with no technical problems. Finding the right partner to help host our meeting and troubleshoot problems was a critical first step. For an in-person event, it’s the AV person in the back of the room or backstage managing all of those issues, so that you don’t have to. It was also necessary because the platform you choose often includes registration management. Platforms like Zoom and Google Meet are fine for small groups and team meetings, but not a conference like we envisioned.
2. Craft the Agenda — Then Slash It in Half
Initially, we drafted an agenda that looked like a traditional in-person event. We liked the flow of content, the number of speakers and the length of time that we had assigned to each. But taking a step back to review our agenda objectively revealed that we were attempting to do too much and taking too long to do it. We risked taxing attendees’ attention spans and our need to keep them engaged. We cut the allotted time for each session in half. If that meant we needed to have follow-up conversations with people who wanted to know more, all the better.
3. Video to the Rescue — Prerecord as Much as Possible
Thinking again of our technical concerns, we didn’t want to assume that speakers would be able to connect seamlessly on the big day. A number of sources suggested we prerecord as much as possible, create a “playlist” of sessions, and press play during the event. The intention wasn’t to deceive anyone, but rather to minimize risk. So we approached most of the segments on our agenda as individual Zoom meetings, recorded them, and had a production expert polish them with minimal editing.
We did allow for a few key moments of live interaction. As attendees signed on, our key players were there to greet people and have some pre-show banter. We also had a live emcee to welcome attendees, provide housekeeping notes and introduce key segments. He was the glue between sessions and was ready to address any issues that may have come up.
4. Breakout Sessions to Serve Specific Audience Interests
Our audience consisted of two segments. For the majority of our program, the content was applicable to everyone. But we wanted to hold breakout sessions to provide an opportunity to interact and field questions. Scheduling those amidst the main program risked losing people along the way (either due to technical issues or lack of interest). The breakouts were completely live and tacked on to the end as a bonus session. Approximately 75% of attendees participated in those sessions and stayed for longer than the allotted time.
5. Promotion Plan
In the old days (i.e., a year ago), things looked very different, including the time it took to plan, schedule, promote and execute an event. Particularly for events held while travel hasn’t been possible, long marketing cycles aren’t necessary to lead up to an online event. We allowed several weeks, including five weekly email campaigns. People have had much greater control over their daily schedules and flexibility to join events like ours. The big decision is “Am I interested enough in this?” and “Do I want to commit the time to join?” This ties back to slashing our agenda, which signaled to people that we respect their time.
6. Staying Connected During the Event (Never Let Them See You Sweat)
As you’d expect, the key players were connected during the event via in-app chat, text, and scripts and agendas in Google Docs. There was a moment when things unexpectedly went south. But we were able to pivot in real time, using the script and agenda to make real-time changes. We did this from different parts of the country seamlessly. With the benefit of the prerecorded sessions, we knew exactly how much time we had to make those changes and be ready for the next segment. Staying connected using the technology available was critical to our success.
7. Post Event: Survey, Reuse Your Content
Be ready to launch your post-event survey immediately upon completion so that feelings are fresh. Leverage your content. You invested a lot of time creating it; avoid a one-and-done philosophy by reusing as much as possible. Repackage segments of sessions, especially client interviews, and anything that can stand well on its own. Offer them up as testimonials or case studies and market it as a drip campaign.
Virtual Events Are Here To Stay
Would we have attempted such an event pre-pandemic? We had different notions then of what’s professional and acceptable (e.g., presenting at a conference from your kitchen table).
But this last year has been a great leveler. We were able to:
• Connect with an important segment of our customer base.
• Impart valuable content and insights.
• Provide a forum for peer learning.
• Expose users to broader use and functionality of our platform.
All of this was achieved in a short time and for a fraction of the cost and effort of doing events “the old way.” This experience will certainly inform our decisions and planning when it comes to hosting and choosing to participate in online events.
Dario Priolo is the chief marketing officer for Sciolytix and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeff Meyers is the marketing director for Sciolytix and can be reached at email@example.com. Sciolytix is an experiential learning technology company with solutions to help organizations to accelerate skill acquisition, reduce cost, scale effortlessly and connect training with performance.