COVID-19 blindsided event planners and their sponsors. The 2020 calendar of conferences, conventions and customer meetings were unceremoniously shut down in March, leaving thousands of hosts to wonder, "What do we do now?"
Brent Turner, SVP and head of strategy for Opus Agency, an event planning and branding company in Boston, has spent the last two months helping customers figure out whether they should give up their scheduled events completely or move them all online. That decision should start with whether the event will work in virtual environment and deliver the intended value, he says. “If your goal was to build new connections you may not want to go virtual, because it will be hard to get new people to show up.”
But if the event is meant to accelerate sales, or build loyalty with existing clients, it may make sense. In these cases, you already have an audience for the event—you just need to figure out how create virtual content that will add value for them while promoting your brand.
Taking a Two-Day Event Online
Before moving any event online, you need to be realistic about the value potential, says Michael Terpin, founder and CEO of Transform Group, a blockchain PR company headquartered in Puerto Rico. “It’s not about making money, it’s about keeping your brand around,” he says.
Every year, Transform Group hosts two versions of CoinAgenda, a blockchain investor conference series, in Las Vegas and Puerto Rico. The conference draws industry-leading speakers and provides opportunities for startups to pitch large institutional investors, who pay $2,500 to attend.
Terpin’s team knew they couldn’t just throw the high-profile two-day event online. They had to create something that would add value for their busy professional participants while promoting the overall conference brand. So they started by thinking about why people attend the event. “They come for the content, but mostly for the networking,” he says.
Networking is a notoriously difficult activity to replicate in a virtual environment, because attendees lose all the casual interactions and conversations that happen over lunch and on the show floor. “You can’t just put a thousand people online and expect them to start up conversations,” Terpin says.
Instead, they replaced the one-time multi-day conference format with a series of monthly two-hour virtual events featuring a fireside chat with an industry leader and a panel discussion with industry CEOs. Each event includes multiple breakout sessions, where participants are randomized into small groups to network. Terpin’s rule of thumb for these sessions: “Limit the number of people in the breakout room to the number of minutes it will last.”
They are making the first CoinAgenda events free to encourage people to check them out, and Terpin plans to keep the cost below $20. He’s hoping the events will generate some additional revenue from sponsors, though convincing them to get on board has been challenging. “They view online events as advertising not sponsorship, and that is a completely different budget,” he says.
Even if the events don’t generate revenues, that’s not the point. “The virtual events will keep the conference front of mind until we can go live again,” he says. And in a time when everyone is struggling to stay relevant, that’s worth the effort.
6 Tips for Creating Great Online Events
For business leaders trying to figure out how to host a virtual event that will wow attendees, Opus Agency's Turner offers this advice:
1. Create stand-out experiences.
This is not a place for PowerPoint presentations or long speeches. If you want people to stick around, give them opportunities to interact with their peers, ask live questions of speakers, watch exciting events and participate in games or treasure hunts. These are the kinds of events that people get excited about.
2. Consider what really needs to be live.
A popular keynote speaker or live training event may be an appealing draw for attendees, but product demos, marketing content and other static information should be left on your website.
3. Keep it brief.
Consumers have a short attention span for virtual events, so keep things moving.
It’s not about making money, it’s about keeping your brand around.
—Michael Terpin, founder and CEO, Transform Group
4. Focus on networking.
Interacting with attendees is one of the most valuable features of any live event. So find ways to make that happen through small group breakouts, networking sessions and chat features.
5. Sample the technology.
There are dozens of virtual event platforms on the market, ranging from simple inexpensive solutions like Facebook Live and GoToWebinar, to more customizable platforms with lots of added features, like Accelevents, HopIn, and On24. Take the time to run through their demos then choose the solution that meets your needs and budget.
6. Get inspired by your competitors.
Attend other virtual events to see what kinds of content get people excited and which ones fall flat, then let the best formats inspire your own event.
Virtual events can be tricky to pull off, and likely won’t generate the same level of excitement of a live event. But it can help you stay connected with your audience so that when the pandemic ends, they will be excited to come back.
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