Woman connecting with her computer at home and following online courses, distance learning concept

‘Blowing Our Model Out of the Water…’; for Some, Virtual Events Have Major Virtues

“How you define events is really the key here,” Orson Francescone (pictured), head of FT Live, told us at BIMS in December. “If you’re a trade show organizer then trying to go digital is tough. If you’re a conference organizer trying to go digital, it’s easier. We’re really good at delivering content.” As all of us get better at virtual events, the lure of the bigger audience should incent publishers small and big to keep at it.

“Can I give you some numbers?” Francescone, asked during the events Power Panel at BIMS 2020. “FT is a newspaper, and we reached a million subscribers a year ago. Our strategy is to drive subscriptions and we’re doing that very successfully. Events were always a big part of that strategy because subscribers who attend events tend to be better engaged [and bring] longer lifetime value.

“Last year we had 24,000 delegates at our conferences. [In 2020] with 220 online events”—plus three more December events were still to come—“that’s webinars, conferences and award shows, we’ve had 160,000 ‘digital delegates.’ So suddenly those numbers are kind of blowing our model out of the water in the sense that we are bringing in a huge funnel of new subscribers into the FT machinery. That’s a very attractive proposition to someone who owns an integrated media platform like us.”

Taking a quick look at the FT Live events homepage, I count 17 virtual events in March, from Women in Technology on March 3, to FTWeekend Digital Festival – Spring Weekend on March 18, to the New Leadership Conversation on March 25. Obviously, we all can’t be the Financial Times, but in a way their idea of cultivating a more global audience can work even better for a publisher with less resources.

Here’s some advice from experts who have experienced success with virtual events.

Keep it short. “The most important thing we tell clients first is [keep it] short,” said John Capano, SVP of Impact XM, an experiential marketing agency, in a recent EventBuzz podcast. “If you’re talking about a keynote that would usually last a half an hour or 45 minutes, [now that might mean] it’s 8-12 minutes. You’re just not going to keep people virtually.” Matthew Cibellis of Cibellis Solutions suggests thinking through a sponsorable monthly series, rather than one or two big annual events as a means of engaging attendees and sponsors.”

Be interactive. “People want to feel like they’re interacting with another living being,” said Shaul Olmert, CEO of Playbuzz, in an article on Huffington Post. “As such, content needs to provide users with interactive material that actively engages them. Playbuzz “Story” enables publishers to “present the content of an article in a series of interactive formats (think polls, flip cards, quizzes), text and visuals. With this format, people spend an average of 3-4 minutes per visit.” Adds Capano: “Say I’ve got a half-hour experience that I’m creating—the audience is an important part of that experience. So yeah, I’m going to deliver some content, but in between the content, what am I going to do to get that audience engaged? And it’s just being thoughtful about that, based on what is the content? What is the event? What is the audience? And what is their appetite for that?”

Choose the right technology. “A lot of folks end up picking their platform before they answer any of these questions and then they realize the platform can’t do what they want creatively,” Capano said. “And so we’re always telling our clients, start early and figure out these questions about what you want this event to be and how you want to engage. And then we’ll go find the right platform. There’s a million platforms. Sometimes the cart gets before the horse on that one.”

Showcase your content people. Of course, FT posts all the big names first for their Spring Festival like Diane Von Furstenberg, authors Martin Amis and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and, wow, the London Symphony Orchestra. But then they follow with FT staffers like wine columnist Jancis Robinson, editor-at-large Gillian Tett, How to Spend It editor Jo Ellison and drink columnist Alice Lascelles. (Wine tastings may still be virtual’s biggest draw.) Put your people front and center—this is a time to showcase them to a bigger audience.

Help your audience do virtual better. Last July, Questex produced the first REMOTE: The Connected Faculty Summit event. They hosted 26,000+ live attendees from 155 countries and 722 universities and colleges, with 2500+ questions asked to presenters and 47,000+ networking chats. The idea was “to provide a forum to identify and promote the best possible pedagogy, techniques and tools by faculty for online and blended learning and to help faculty design the most engaging experience for learners.” They did not hesitate in scheduling the 2021 all-virtual edition. “We’ve learned so much in the last year,” writes David Levin, the event’s producer. “Student behaviors and expectations have changed. Workplace and professional practice have been significantly reshaped. We can do SO much better for our students NOW than we could in January 2020.”

Parse the data, even 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. 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.” 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.

Woman connecting with her computer at home and following online courses, distance learning concept

‘It Helps You Understand Your Audience’; the Data and Connectedness From Virtual Events Give Them Value

It has become a bit too easy to undersell the value of virtual events. People still want to be connected. One media company, Winsight, went as far as not doing them, turning instead to online sponsored communities. (Still emphasizing connection, however.) While it works for them, virtual events can still be successful with the right expectations—on both sides. And even when in-person comes back, virtual will remain vital because we will not want to lose that audience. So may be worth it to get them right.

In a recent webinar hosted by exhibitions association UFI, Liz Irving, EVP, head of marketing, technology and customer experience, Clarion North America said that the need for connection—yes, digitally—has never been stronger than it is now. Her company has spent a lot of time conversing with its markets.

“We found new ways to take our markets forward by helping them address their needs today and connect in new ways digitally,” she said. One virtual event they did offered a series of live product demonstrations from people’s homes. “It doesn’t replace face-to-face, but it allowed those connections to be made further upstream.”

Here are more reasons and ideas for keeping and boosting your virtual events:

Create sub-communities. Irving said you can really “home in on specific customers that sellers are looking for, “just on a smaller scale rather than one massive event every one or two years.

Be proactive about managing customer expectations. Emphasize the positive outcomes that attendees can expect—how-to lists, video examples immediate surveys and polls. “It’s really important to manage those expectations and show them that the value of virtual events lies in the reach of the data,” said Laura McCartney, head of exhibitor experience, EMEA, Informa Markets.

Consider the data you can collect virtually. “When you overlay it, every click, every video they watch, every interaction they have, it’s all trackable,” said John Capano, SVP at Impact XM, on an EventBuzz podcast last week. (There’s a transcript.) “And that really helps you understand your audience and develop your next meeting and prove your ROI to your bosses and all those things that you want to do with an event.” That’s a similar advantage to something in my article yesterday, where Sam Yagan who founded OKCupid wanted every interaction to happen on his site where they can track it.

Smaller audiences can reap bigger rewards. “The key is to really understand the different markets you serve and develop strategies specific to each of those markets, panelists agreed,” Sue Pelletier wrote in Trade Show Executive. “Also, digital events can extend the reach of those audiences beyond just the scheduled day of the show by keeping the community and connections going year-round.”

Look at your virtual attendees as an opportunity to market for future in-person. FOMO is a real thing. Capano offered the words you’re looking to hear: “Hey, I went last year online, and it was awesome and I saw how much fun people had on site, I gotta go this year.”

There is incentive to stay with virtual events in some form to stay connected. “I’m going to spend the extra time and effort to get through this year because there’s a lot of value in that live [aspect],” Capano said. “If you asked anyone about trade shows two years ago, or even some live events that weren’t highly engaging… everyone’s like, ‘oh, trade shows are so old school, nobody wants to go to them.’ And now all of a sudden, people are dying to get to trade shows, like ‘I miss it so much. I want to see my friends, I want to be there.’ So really it’s kind of a snap back to realize that virtual well done, and hybrid well done is going to drive the heck out of your success for live going forward.”

Sustainability is a thing—young people especially have indicated in surveys that it affects their decision-making. “Live events take a lot and have a big carbon footprint,” Capano said. “And so doing an event where maybe it’s a smaller live portion, but a much larger online portion, you can get the same benefit and the same engagement for a much smaller carbon footprint. And obviously, that is important and should be important to many of the folks that we work with. So this is really a ton of benefits there. Your cost per attendee, all that stuff is better when it’s hybrid over just live.”

As Irving said, “We do have to educate folks on the value of digital and how it looks different than face-to-face. But Clarion’s business model now will have digital, and it will have face-to-face. You can take some or all of it to help reach the suite of folks you want to find in your industry.“

While Hybrid Events Are the Clear Destination, Doing Them Well Will Take More Thought

“What makes for a great hybrid event is really finding a kind of the core idea of the multi-screen experience.”
John Capano, SVP of Impact XM

If pivot was the events word for 2020, then hybrid will hopefully be the word for 2021. An overwhelming 78% of those surveyed by Pathable plan to host events with both in-person and virtual components, if in-person gatherings are allowed. What’s more, just 17% of those surveyed planned to host in-person-only events when that’s permitted. But staging a good hybrid event will take some creativity and thought.

I listened to a good podcast from EventBuzz this week between Capano and host Savannah McIntosh of PurplePass. (I love that they include the transcript!) Of course, the tendency of late has been to say that we’ll all be doing hybrid events soon, when in-person events are allowed to take place again.

But Capano contends that hybrid cannot simply mean having your regular in-person conference, and then live-videoing it for folks who can’t attend. A lot of thought has to go into what works for an event that is designed both for in-person and on-screen attendees.

Here are some thoughts from Capano and others who are thinking about the return of in-person events:

Augment the live aspect. “It’s really how do you build an event that’s engaging across all areas, and really leveraging technology in such a way to augment the live aspect,” Capano said. “And so when we talk to our clients a lot, they talk a lot about virtual reality, we actually talked a lot about augmented reality because this idea of hybrid really is augmented reality. It’s let’s take a live event and let’s lay on a digital layer in an augmented way and have everyone have a connected engaging experience.”

Virtual can boost in-person. “It used to be almost everybody you talked to felt like, ‘Well, I don’t want to do a strong virtual event because it’ll cannibalize my [audience],’” said Capano. “And people have now realized that having a great virtual part of your live event is the best way to increase your attendees at your next [in-person] event. [See FOMO.] It becomes the kind of the marketing engine that scalability is the marketing that drives your future attendees.” Adds Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association: “One half will see the event virtually. They will see how safe it is and want to come in-person next year.”

Virtual is still about knowing your audience. “What’s the purpose of your meeting and what are you trying to achieve?” Capano asked. “Then design the technology to fit that. Once that’s done, just ideate the heck and brainstorm the heck for ways to get people more engaged, like shorter content, snackable content, ways for them to interact, ways for them to not only interact with, say, the speakers or the acts, but also other people at the event, adding in gamification to kind of make it fun and interesting and a little bit competitive.

Pack a surprise. “Add in some ‘Easter eggs,’ because that’s something again, that we try to do [to keep virtual people engaged],” Capano said. “What are the cute, little surprise, delight moments, those things are all very possible in the virtual world, you just have to put thought against them, because they’re a little different than they would be like exactly what you might do in a live setting.”

Here are a few ideas from an article in Trade Show News Network this week:

Decisions will need to be made quickly. Virtual events pioneer Pathable predicts that 38% of decision-makers will choose between hybrid, virtual or in-person for their events within the first quarter of the year. Furthermore, about 40% of planners say they will settle on a platform to host their events by March.

Virtual must stay in the conversation. “INVNT Co-founder and CEO Kristina McCoobery is optimistic that brands will return to in-person events, albeit smaller than past levels. But of note is that 2020 opened the door to reaching larger numbers of attendees through virtual events—a fact that won’t be lost on savvy groups. ‘Virtual attendees mustn’t be treated as an afterthought, and their experiences need to be carefully curated in the same way they are for an in-person audience,’ she said.”

Look for more customization. “How do you get attendees to engage more at events? Start by adjusting your event rather than expecting your guests to change their behavior organically, said David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Global Events. ‘By better understanding our event guests, we can design more personalized experiences for their event journey,’ he said. ‘Most importantly, we need to let design dictate event structure and content rather than simply cutting and pasting from previous live event agendas.’”

Get creative with offerings and pricing. McCoobery believes that “we’ll start to see more and more monetized interactive competitions followed by exclusive content offerings to unlock, immersive activities that allow audience members to create their own avatars and explore a space or live gig with others, and tiered payment plans, including VIP packages.” That is a mouthful!