Event Marketing Marketing Strategy

Virtual Events Don’t Have to Suck

In 2020 we saw the meteoric rise of virtual events. Some were well done, but many were not. HITMC interviewed 8 conference organizers to find out what worked well, what didn’t and what they would do differently.

This is the third and final article in a series on virtual events. You can see the first two articles here:

Don’t Transplant In-person Agendas Online

Let’s be honest. There were a lot of virtual events in 2020 that were disappointing.

It was understandable early in the pandemic. After all, conference organizers didn’t have a lot of time to turn their well-planned in-person events into virtual ones. There was a lot of stumbling and that was to be expected.

However, organizers and attendees quickly learned a key lesson during those early days: simply moving an in-person agenda online isn’t a recipe for success. In fact, for large events it can be a disaster.

First, it is difficult for attendees to dedicate multiple days in a row to attend virtual conferences. When you are working at home, you are still expected to answer emails and work on projects. Plus, there was a pandemic raging so many healthcare folks had many other things that needed their focus.

Second, there is an upper limit to how much time attendees are willing to spend online. Binge watching Game of Thrones is one thing. Spending an entire day on a virtual event is quite another. Having full-day agendas is too much of an ask.

Third, there is really no reason to have multiple competing tracks in a virtual event. Why make attendees choose between different sessions? Just run different tracks on different days so that attendees don’t feel they are missing out.

“We broke up our ATLAS event into half-day events across multiple days,” shared Emma Smith, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Kyruus. “That was definitely a better experience for our attendees vs full-day events. I don’t think there is an appetite to spend a whole day at an online event anymore.”

Shorter Sessions Work Better Online

George Huang MD, Director of Customer Experience & Success at Remo strongly recommends that presentations at a virtual event last no longer than 20 minutes. Huang is a big believer in making content more interactive, which not only makes it more interesting, but it also helps the audience retain more.

“One-hour sessions are too long for a virtual event,” agreed Carol McNerney, Chief Marketing Officer at Ibi. “People lose interest or get distracted by the work that is piling up. Keep your sessions short and allocate more time for Q&A. In fact, don’t just have Q&A for 5 minutes, make it 15 or 20.”

Have a Mix of Session Types

All the organizers we spoke to pointed to variety as a key to a successful virtual event. “No one wants to sit through 3 hours of lectures” was a common statement. As an attendee of many virtual events in 2020, I wholeheartedly agree. Listening to 1 keynote for 60min is fine. Listening to 3 speakers present slides is my max.

Here are alternatives to the standard lecture-style from the organizers we spoke to:

  • Panel discussions with a moderator
  • Ask-me-anything sessions with industry experts
  • 15min Ted-talk style presentations without slides
  • PechaKucha presentations (20 slides, 20 seconds each)
  • Narrated videos (like a documentary)
  • Unconferences (where attendees choose the topic)
  • Hands-on labs

“There’s no rule that says you can’t have a workbook as a speaker at a virtual event,” stated Huang. “You want people to interact with your content. Having the audience go through exercises together in small groups achieves that.”

Try Brain Breaks

A lot of events tried to get attendees to network with each other during breaks, but these didn’t work out well. Most attendees just used the time to catch up on work. Both MGMA and Kyruus tried something different – brain breaks, sessions that were light on content and specifically designed to allow attendees to take a mental break.

“We had instructor led yoga meditation sessions that were really popular,” said Finnell. “We even had an Audi ride-along that you could choose to be a part of. Over 400 people attended our brain breaks each day of our event.”

Over one of the lunch hours, Kyruus cut to a live-feed (literally) of the penguin pen at the New England Aquarium. Attendees could watch the penguins being fed and hear an expert talk about penguins. Of course the best part was watching the cute creatures jump in and out of the water.

Allow Organizations to Buy a Ticket

Almost all the conference organizers we spoke to were pleasantly surprised that organizations were interested in purchasing a ticket so that any of their staff could tune in, rather than purchase individual tickets. This is exactly what MGMA did.

“When we went to a 100% virtual event, we had a new audience that wanted to attend,” said Megan Finnell, Director of Meetings & Conferences at MGMA. “We had organizations approach us and ask for a flat-pass so that any staff member could attend any time they wanted. Over 1,200 attendees came to our event through these flat-passes. One organization had over 300 staff attend.”

Although these types of organization-wide passes did not generate as much revenue as individual passes, according to Finnell, they did allow a lot of new people to have an MGMA experience who would normally not be able to attend their in-person event.

ibi had a similar experience with their annual user conference. “In 2019 we had just over 900 attendees,” said McNerney. “But this year, we had over 3600 attendees. We had more government people attend – who would normally have trouble getting travel approved. We also had a lot more overseas customers attend for the same reason plus they didn’t have to worry about getting a visa to enter the US.”

Make Presentations Available On-Demand Quickly

The feeling of disappointment when you miss a session that you had made a mental note to attend is fleeting so the sooner the session recordings can be made available to attendees the more likely you will recapture people who had meant to attend.

“Having the session recordings ready right after the event was over really made a difference,” said Smith.

Put Effort to Drive People to Virtual Booths

I believe it would be fair to say that the most consistently disappointing aspect of virtual conferences has been virtual exhibit halls. I can think of only two exhibit halls that I thought were decent…and both fell short of replicating the energy and attendance of in-person exhibits.

“We put a lot of effort into driving people to our virtual booths,” shared McNerney. “We made sure that attendees earned a lot of points for visiting the booths. Those points could be redeemed for a lot of items that people wanted – quality t-shirts, water bottles, etc. In the end we had 5,000 virtual booth visits.”

Another simple tactic – constantly reminding attendees to browse the virtual exhibit hall at the start/end of sessions and via event emails.

Additional Advice

Here are other useful comments and suggestions from event organizers on how to make virtual events more successful:

  • Always put yourself in the shoes of attendees when planning events
  • Be clear on the goals you are trying to achieve for the event
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with something new, it might just work
  • Evening events don’t work virtually, people just want to be with family or catch up on work
  • Provide statistics to exhibitors, like who downloaded their materials or visited their virtual booth
  • Review presentations ahead of time to avoid animation issues and embedded videos not playing
  • Insist on uncluttered slides
  • Don’t be a passive event organizer
  • Start planning early, virtual events are just as hard to organize as in-person ones
  • Have informative transitions between sessions. Make sure people know what is happening
  • Be sure to remind people to mute themselves and their cameras for presentations

About the author


Colin Hung

Colin Hung is an award-winning Marketing Executive with more than 15yrs of healthcare and HealthIT experience. He co-founded one of the most popular healthcare chats on Twitter, #hcldr and he has been recognized as one of the “Top 50 Healthcare IT Influencers”. Colin’s work has been published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology, American Society for Healthcare Risk Managers, and Infection Control Today. He writes regularly for Healthcare Scene and here at HITMC.com. Colin is a member of #pinksock #TheWalkingGallery and is proudly HITMC. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.

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