Written by: Gigi Shaw
If you are faced with a cancelled or postponed conference, or a long stretch without in-person sales seminars, you might be asking yourself ‘How do I engage with my prospects or customers digitally?'.
Virtual is not physical's poor cousin – in fact, holding your events online has several upsides – but there are some differences that can feel overwhelming at the start.
Digital marketers have already been hosting meetings and presentations online, but longer-format roundtables, conferences and seminars are important fixtures in financial services' sales and marketing kit bag. You already know how to set up and host a webinar, but now you are looking for creative ideas to innovate and evolve your online event beyond just a necessary replacement but an improvement from your last IRL (that's millennial for in real life) event.
So how do you successfully plan for a digital marketing event that’s engaging, effective, and exciting enough to replace face-to-face; support business goals such as lead generation and organic growth; and have people queuing up for the next one?
Adaptations to the online event
Quality – in the ways that matter, this shouldn’t change. Quality content (that means relevant, valuable, useable) and strong presenters are still the most important elements – no amount of tech wizardry will make up for poor or badly delivered content.
However, audio and lighting need to be good – it’s disengaging to watch hard-to-see and -hear sessions, so test your tech and that of your presenters and upgrade if needed.
You may also need to reconsider how you manage accessibility options such as captions or audio description (which may previously have been arranged by the venue. Find out more about this from Australian Network on Disability).
Attention – this is a major difference. Before, few people would walk out of a conference mid-session. It is far easier to lose your online audience with so many other bids for their time and no obligation to stay. Consider the length of your sessions and full event – where can you condense or break up content?
Think about the things that make an in-person event engaging – interaction, surprise, competition, conflict – and replicate them.
Use gamification to combat ‘death by screens’ – have an event leaderboard, competitions, polling, debates or puzzles.
Still considering including event entertainment – online options include digital magicians, real-time illustrations (digital live scribing), desk yoga classes or even Cheryl Crow as Forrester US did earlier this year.
Networking & experience – the biggest lost with the move to online can be the non-programmed benefits of a conference: the contact and connections, and the feeling that attendees remember. Think about how you will create the new attendee journey. Pre social distancing, attendees would have time to be introduced and inducted to the event – from the sign in desk, to the main hall, to their table … how could you replace this to avoid a cold open for the first speaker?
E-networking is still possible, but as with many aspects of an online event, requires more intentionality and planning. You can’t leave attendees to mingle online with the same lack of structure that you might in a room (often with alcohol!). Instead, schedule them into small groups in virtual rooms for set periods of time and keep them mixing. This can be a good opportunity for a spokesperson or sales team member to be act as a facilitator and keep the energy high and conversation flowing. Even down to the details, considering directing attendees to replicate some aspects of in-person networking, with ice breaker questions, snacks/cocktails home delivered, or using your e-conference label as the new lapel sticker.
Swag – doesn’t have to disappear, in fact it becomes a bit more important. Without the physical memory of the conference, some tangible takeaways can serve as a reminder of the event and experience. These can be mailed in advance (especially if containing branded items for the day such as notebooks, pens, coffee sachets and biscuits, etc). If you don’t have time or would prefer a more sustainable option, consider online certificates, for example for food and drink for the day.
Note: Be aware of potential privacy reluctance around home addresses, attendees may prefer to give theirs direct to a distribution house or delivery company.
Team roles – by now, you will have realised online events require a slightly different skillset, and far from being less work can take just as much planning. Most companies report a heavy time investment in sorting workflows and responsibilities. Not having speakers physically present, for example, adds another level of complexity to the organisation of your event. It is harder for team members to effectively pitch in and problem solve on the day when not physically ‘on the floor’, so ensure clear delineation of roles ahead of time, ensure there is a team member and process assigned to every potential task, and make time for rehearsal.
Advantages of the online event
Live vs produced – it is more acceptable to have preprepared and pre-recorded components of an online event, in fact it will help to keep quality high, as long as it is followed by live interaction. The live experience is still important to differentiate it from a video and allow for audience engagement. You can consider various set ups for speakers, from virtual backdrops, to studio set-ups, to panel arrangements, to get that interpersonal connection and back and forth happening while still virtual (see Octopus Investments’s for examples).
The other advantage is it’s much easier to do (multiple) rehearsals ahead of time with an online event – make use of the dry run.
Attendance – think about the opportunities that are opened up by not being confined by physical space and distance and having to travel to it. It can be a big upside allowing you to reach busier people or regional audiences, and even to be more ambitious in your choice of speaker. Many organisations have seen an increase in audience numbers as the pivot to online events. It’s worth revisiting your assumptions about attendance numbers with the new implications for cost and exclusivity versus reach.
Data – conferences, roadshows, and other major events are usually driven by the sales goals of the organisation. Where these occur online, there’s much richer, more trackable data to gather on attendees, leads, and engagement that can be fed to sales / distribution teams. This makes leads accessible not just on the day, but also afterwards for careful and intentional follow up.
Interaction & personalisation – interactivity needs to be exponentially higher than in-person because you don’t have a captive audience – you’re competing for attention all the time – but the upside is, it can be easier online to reach and involve attendees personally. Taking questions is easier – and less intimidating – in an online format, as is asking attendees to make mini presentations or contributions to sessions. It should also be easier for spokespeople or sales teams to get 1:1 with attendees – consider virtual specialist sessions for drop-in questions and troubleshooting.
- Do I understand my audience’s biggest concerns this year and what they want to hear about?
- What influencers from my sector (from any region) would draw crowds?
- Should I run a pre-event trailer to drum up registrations and anticipation? Examples 1, 2
- How do I ensure people return from breaks?
- Can I award participants points/badges for attending sessions and put them on a leaderboard? Can they win or enter a prize draw e.g. for free lunch each day, or can points be nominated to suitable charity donations?
- How can I run games through each session, such as hidden building to an all-day puzzle or bingo game? Or ice-breaker challenges using at home materials?
- What about at home photo challenges with a relevant theme, possibly incorporating props from attendee swag bags? Decide a theme and set up voting for a second engagement aspect.
- How do I use live polls, live chat, surveys, etc. to keep engagement high? What about more interactivity – workshops, group projects, breakout rooms?
Networking & experience
- Could I have a virtual conference ‘map’ of different ‘rooms’ e.g. lounge (social media/chat discussion room), bar (speed networking room), office (help desk), conference hall 1 (main presentation)? Example 1
- How can we keep e-Networking alive after the event? E.g. open up a slack community or use an app, a discussion board plugin or social media channel with a hashtag (this may require community management)
- Is it worth setting up a conference event guide/FAQ page (‘Meet here if you get lost/disconnected’) and online schedule with links and icons for topic areas and format types, to deal with tech and scheduling questions? Examples 1, 2, 3, 4
- Do we need a war room for hosts/coordinators/support staff to be in the same room on the day?
Live vs produced
- Should I prepare pre-made intro/outro videos to set up each session/breakout to boost energy and production values? Example: first 30 seconds of this video
- Is it worth pre-recording some parts of sessions, rather than running them live for a smoother experience?
- Is it worth prepping video for plan B fallbacks if presenters don’t show or tech drops out?
- How can we keep the momentum going with follow up sessions or discussions in following weeks and months?
If you would like to hear more on this topic, register here to watch our on-demand webinar where BlueChip's MD Carden Calder and CEO Danielle Stitt share creative ideas and emerging best practices from offshore event-heavy businesses like Forrester, Salesforce and Strategic Coach.