‘You Can’t Get That Kind of Reach in Person’; Take Advantage of Being Virtual

“Virtual events break down geographic barriers to attendance. Stretch your event across time zones so participants can experience it live wherever they are. Leverage digital conferencing platforms… that enable live captioning and translation for speaker remarks so audience members can view subtitles in their local language.”

Bob Bejan, Microsoft corporate VP, in a Fast Company article titled “8 Ways to Rethink Virtual Events for the Age of Social Distancing”


There’s no doubt that there are some drawbacks to virtual events. After all, we are social creatures. But there’s also a lot to embrace. Bejan, who will be delivering a keynote fireside chat at our upcoming BIMS event featuring the SIPA Sales & Marketing Leadership Summit—see the incredible list of speakers here—has some definite ideas on how to make your virtual events shine.


Here are some of those and other ways publishers can take advantage of virtual events.


Think outside—or extend!—the box. There’s no reason anymore that your event has to be just 2-3 consecutive days. Do a special hour of content every Monday afternoon and call it your Magic Monday conference. BVR’s Divorce Conference scheduled sessions weeks before and after. Instead of their annual conference, the United Fresh Produce Association created United Fresh LIVE! 365, a year-round online platform featuring a permanent expo, social gatherings, on-demand education, webinars, conference programming, and networking opportunities for the global produce industry. “We basically built a year-round convention center,” John Toner, VP of convention and industry collaboration, said.


Go global. As mentioned above, there should be no barrier besides time difference why you can’t have a bigger global audience, if that works for your niche. Content from virtual events can also be put on-demand, so if the time difference is a hindrance, they could watch it anytime. “At Microsoft, we publish event recordings to Stream and Yammer for people to watch when it works for them,” Bejan writes. For Pro Farmer’s first virtual Crop Tour in August, four online, 90-minute broadcasts brought in more than 18,000 total viewers coming from all 50 states and 12 countries. (Historically, the typical audience across the four days and seven Midwest locations has ranged between 2,000 and 3,000.) “You can’t get that kind of reach in person,” said Joe May, marketing and sales director, indicating that Pro Farmer will most likely keep some of that digital component in future Crop Tours.


Make it a conversation. You want your audience engaged with presenters throughout a virtual conference, Bejan writes. “For example, connecting via your social communities where your customers are already engaged can help build conversation leading up to the event and get people in the mindset to learn and ask questions. Enabling attendees to engage with each other and ask questions ahead of time can also help presenters prepare to address what’s top of mind for their audience.” He also points to the importance of a good moderator to encourage that conversation.


Parse the data, while the event is going on. “There’s definitely more data that we were able to collect with the virtual event than with an in-person event,” Enit Nichani, vice president of marketing for North America at IGEL, told TechTarget. The article said that a reporting feature in vFairs—their digital platform of choice—enabled their marketing team “to see how many times a user visited a particular booth, what sessions they attended and how long they stayed for those sessions.” You should use the data to even make changes during the event, if need be. Maybe some type of Q&A worked particularly well on the first day or a chatroom or exhibitor showroom didn’t. You’ll know.


Always think about what’s different. Eric Shanfelt, founding partner of Nearview Media, told us how important it is to provide opportunities for people to meet one-on-one. But then he also warned not to make these too short. One “speed dating” type session he attended gave just two minutes and that was barely enough time for introductions. Again, in person, 3-4 minutes could be okay to say a couple things and tell someone you’ll see them at happy hour. But virtual is different. He also advised integrating sponsors into sessions and Q&As, making sure they’re not just dumped into separate areas.


Again, watch Bejan live at our BIMS event featuring the SIPA Sales & Marketing Leadership Summit, Dec 2-4. Also see a Power Panel on the Future of Events.


Global Attendance, Better Feedback and New Speakers Can Boost Events

As much as we are Zoomed out and miss seeing our colleagues at in-person events, there are advantages to virtual events that we need to take advantage of. I was listening to a webinar today and while describing an event pivot they made for their farming audience, one organizer said that “farmers from Guatemala joined us and that couldn’t have happened any other way.”
Here are more ways we can take better advantage of virtual events:
Go global. As I just described, there should be no barrier besides time difference why you can’t have a bigger global audience. Some organizations have staggered sessions so there’s something for every time zone. Of course, content from virtual events can also be easily put on-demand. “At Microsoft, we publish event recordings to Stream and Yammer for people to watch when it works for them,” said Bob Bejan, a Microsoft corporate VP. “Leverage digital conferencing platforms… that enable live captioning and translation for speaker remarks so audience members can view subtitles in their local language.”
Use the events to promote memberships or upsells. One group is recommending that you lower the barriers for non-members or non-subscribers to attend your events because of the extended relationships that can emerge at this time. “Get them to register and attend and then deliver unbelievable value to them by putting on a heck of a show: on demand content, live entertainment, concurrent sessions, and more,” wrote JP Moery of The Moery Company. “Showcase your vendors and suppliers in a compelling way… Set up short sessions for non-members (where you can talk member value) and promote them prior to the event.”
Offer sponsors what they need. “How can you best help sponsors?” asks Charity Huff of January Spring. “What kind of voice are you giving them [during the event]? What will their access be to registrants so they can be in front of those folks? Can they introduce sessions, host one-on-one chats? After the event what can you do to help them?” She recommends highlighting their participation in the materials you send out and any groups you create.

Reach for tough-to-get speakers. “For event planners, booking speakers becomes more flexible as well,” writes David Meerman Scott, who once keynoted a SIPA Conference. “Speakers (like myself) find ourselves booked out for events all across the globe, making it hard to squeeze in last-minute requests or adjust our schedules. With virtual events, we can deliver our content from a home studio. While speakers need to tailor their keynotes to create a unique experience specifically for the online medium, the added time of travel does not need to be a part of pre-speech preparation anymore.”

Get better feedback—including during the event. We all struggle with the best ways to get feedback during and after our in-person events—I still think paper ballots right after a session worked best. We also physically count how many people are in a session room.  “Attendees don’t want to be busy with their phones or checking their inbox—they want to be engaged by great speakers, entertainers and like-minded peers,” wrote Meerman Scott. “With the right event management software, you can send in-event engagement surveys and collect feedback immediately after an event. You can also very easily see how many people attended certain online sessions and which speakers seemed to get the most engagement from the audience beyond the old crowd volume test.” I would also suggest getting feedback after Day 1 of a multi-day event. Then perhaps you can adjust something on the fly.
Add value. An in-person event is pretty much confined to those days. There should be no limit to a virtual event. Eric Shanfelt, founding partner of Nearview Media, suggests a series of sessions to comprise an event. “We’ll just do a live webcast every Friday at 1 pm Eastern. We’ll record it and put it in the members only section, and then in a podcast. Sponsors will like it because they get multiple mentions in email, the webcast, on-demand and the podcast. People can then come in when they want and view what they want.” BVR’s Virtual Divorce Conference added sessions a week before and a week and two after to their main three-day virtual event. Why not?