As large gatherings continue to be strongly discouraged and with a COVID-19 vaccine still months away, more and more organizations are exploring virtual events as an alternative. Traditional conferences were fantastic for brand awareness (speaking as a thought-leader) and lead generation (as an exhibitor/sponsor). Do virtual events hold the same value?
Rather than just give you our opinion from HITMC headquarters, we asked members of the community who organize and/or attend virtual events be those webinars, livestreams or full-on virtual conferences. We even asked our friend Chuck Webster @wareFLO to comment on virtual reality events. His answers were so fascinating we decided to dedicate a future article just that topic.
What are Virtual Events?
Dave Anderson, President of Anderson Interactive offered this definition of virtual events: “Virtual events can be anything from traditional webinars, virtual panels and tweetups, to full-fledged, week-long virtual conferences with interactive exhibitor sites/booths. Virtual events can provide the same content as in-person events but with added flexibility for the attendees if work emergencies arise. For instance, attendees will often have a virtual conference open as a second screen so they can keep an eye out for urgent emails.”
In addition to what Anderson mentioned, I would add few other styles of events and have a list that as follows:
- Virtual panels
- Online conferences (3+ hours)
- Virtual B2B speed dating/matchmaking
- Livestreamed interviews, roundtable discussions, and campfire sessions
- Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) sessions
- Virtual reality events
- Virtual dance parties (that might be specific to certain members of the HITMC community)
Although I could not find any recent statistics, I would guess that the majority of virtual events that people have attended are lecture-style webinars with virtual panels a distant second. Both of these are quick-hit events, usually lasting no more than an hour. They can be effective for lead generation and brand awareness, but a lot of organizations underestimate the amount of effort it takes to attract registrations (see below).
Are virtual events the same as in-person?
“Of course they aren’t the same as in-person events,” said Lea Chatham, Director of Content Marketing at Solutionreach. “With digital, you can pivot quickly if things change. You can set up nurture and workflows that are all more immediate. Recently, given COVID-19, we completely changed topics just days before we were supposed to start promoting the event. The downside is that you don’t have a dedicated audience of people who have paid and planned and are there for the duration. As we all shift to digital, it can be hard to capture people’s attention and engage them. People have many distractions pulling them away potentially from your virtual event.”
I completely agree with Chatham. Online events are not the same as in-person ones and you need to adjust your expectations accordingly. For example, getting a 50% show rate (vs # of registrations) is normal for an online event. That ratio would be a disaster for an in-person event.
Something else to keep in mind is the diversity of registrants for a free virtual event tends to be greater than for an in-person event. It takes far more to travel to attend an in-person event and so you won’t get too many people showing up just to see what it’s like. With free webinars, however, the level of commitment is just an hour of time so the bar is much lower.
What matters most when it comes to a successful webinar/virtual event?
For some of our experts, the topic, speaker and technology were all important.
“There are so many important factors when it comes to hosting a virtual event and it’s so hard to choose just one,” explained Ashley Dawuwer, Marketing Manager at Carium. “Interesting topics and speakers are essential to getting people registered, but good tech is also important to keep the audience engaged during the session.”
“It’s really dependent upon the audience,” added Ashely Tomashot, Experience Designer at Exhibitus. “If you can speak directly to their interests and make them feel part of the action, that leads to success. But you can’t discount flawless technology as a big part of a successful online experience. A simple interface, devoid of technical issues, is critical to maintaining peoples’ attention.”
For others, content was by far the most important.
“Like most things in our business, content is king,” stated Anderson. ”If you can share insightful, actionable, unbiased, relevant and creative content, you’ll bring in the crowds regardless of time or venue. The last thing webinar attendees are looking for is an hour long sales pitch. So save the heavy product promotion talk for the post event email campaigns.”
“I think speaker and topic are the most important,” offered Chatham. “As I said, if it isn’t meaningful and relevant and people don’t think they can learn something then why would they come. Timing is important because it’s great if you can get more to show up in person and engage, but the truth is that probably half or more will watch on-demand or not watch at all. So do your best to pick optimal timing, but know that you’ll never have an ideal time for everyone. And you want content that will engage people whether they show up to watch live or they engage on-demand.”
What tactics have worked well for you to attract attendees to your webinars/virtual events?
Dauwer: “Email and social media have been a great way to attract people to our virtual Health IRL events.”
Tomashot: “Most of the virtual events we’ve executed are in lieu of a cancelled physical event, so there was already an audience. But enticing them ahead of time with a panoramic experience pertaining to the interests of the audience would draw participation.“
Anderson: “If you’re going to convince attendees to register and vendors to sponsor, you’ll need to offer an appropriate balance of insights and promotions. The quality of educational content, as well as the ratio of sessions vs. sponsored promotions must be commensurate with the cost you’re charging for the event. One of our association clients saw the writing on the wall that virtual events may be here to stay and are offering their major summer event as a free member benefit. Instead of a half day of webinars, we contracted with a virtual conference vendor to ensure the event will be first class all the way. We’ll now have two full days of interactive panels, 3D sponsor booths and demos, Zoom cocktail hours, virtual yoga, contests and even sponsored gift bags shipped to all attendees. The association won’t be able to recoup all of their investment through sponsorships, but by attracting hundreds of new members now and knocking this first event out of the park, they’ll be able to charge reasonable/sustainable fees for virtual events in 2021 and beyond.”
Chatham: “First and foremost, it’s the content. It needs to be relevant, engaging, and interesting. You can market your event all day long, but if the topic isn’t meaningful, people won’t register. I would say you shouldn’t just do webinars or other virtual events unless you have something impactful to say. Then, it is about how you get your message out, and I think it is important to use all your channels to get the word out.”
I would add – don’t be afraid to use some in-person tactics to drum up attendance at your virtual event like giveaways. $5 Coffee cards can be electronically delivered to people who actually attend your online event. So too can custom t-shirts (something we’re all wearing more of these days). And honestly, who doesn’t like a good raffle?
What’s one piece of advice you would like to share?
Dauwer: We’ve found combining the chat, Q & A, polls, and live video for both speakers and the audience really helps to keep people engaged from beginning to end.
Tomashot: Keep it simple, streamlined, and easy to navigate.
Anderson: Ensure it lives on! Remember that for marketers, the inital presentation is just the beginning.
Chatham: Do what you say you are going to do. If you say its educational content, don’t get salesy and talk about your product. The fastest way to drive people away is to not deliver what you said you would. This first “live” interaction can set the tone for your whole relationship so make it a good one and do what you say you are going to do.