Turning Your Virtual Event Into an Ongoing Series Has its Benefits

In a post on Skift’s Event Manager Blog today, Julius Solaris writes that we need a better business model for virtual events. “[These events] need to help brands keep the conversation alive while bringing in revenue. We risk losing track of the endgame if we get sucked into the vortex of free events without a solid business proposition for what we are doing.”
He gives six suggestions:
1. Decide whether you are a conference or a tradeshow.
2. Use a subscription model for ticketed events.
3. Build a community.
4. Reward live attendance.
5. Offer better content on demand.
6. Offer one-to-one meetings and networking.
Number two intrigues me. “One of the best ideas for ticketed events that happen regularly is to bundle them and offer subscriptions,” Solaris writes. “As Netflix does with shows, planners should deal with events. Bundling creates more value than selling tickets for individual events.”
This strategy makes sense. BVR did something similar with their Virtual Divorce Conference, extending event sessions over the course of a month to do exactly that, add more value. Matthew Cibellis of Cibellis Solutions, an expert on events—virtual and in-person—expressed similar sentiments to me last week in an email.
“I want to emphasize that SIPA member companies might want to (at least for the near term) begin thinking through a sponsorable monthly series, rather than one or two big annual events as a means of engaging their attendees and sponsors,” he wrote. “Could you take each track for an annual conference and now divide it up by month? What about a month-one-track-one, month-two-track-two, etc. approach where sponsors who more closely align with track 2, say, can sponsor the monthly event that focuses on track 2 issues?
“Your attendee price may drop, but the sponsor experience should be far more actionable with real leads that are warm or seeing their business as more Top of Mind,” Cibellis continued. “If [organizations] are flexible in thinking this way, they do not need to do it all themselves. They can hire a marcom events pro or any number of more webinar-focused solutions companies and develop affordable approaches to the rich content developed for their annual meetings.”
Another possible strategy for virtual events that plays off of what Cibellis suggests is something akin to what Netflix has been doing: plan your monthly series, sell the bundle, but then also sell just the first session as kind of a trial. Netflix, which ended its practice of using 30-day free trials in the United States, began using free content sampling as an alternative subscription promotion strategy during the past year.
Writes MediaPost, “Through a free sampling portal (no registration required), prospects can view the first episode of Netflix original TV series like Stranger Things and Grace and Frankie or watch select full movies like Murder Mystery… At the end, Netflix shows a simple message suggesting that if you liked the content, you can join now to see ‘everything on Netflix that everyone’s talking about’ (including the rest of the TV series, if you just sampled one).”
Solaris, who mentioned Netflix, has obviously considered this: “Attendees may be busy for an event, or timing may not work out. That’s missed revenue. Bundling means selling more than the individual event; it means selling the many opportunities available throughout the year. An alternative is to consider a freemium model that offers one event for free and asks for payment going forward.”
I think the content is too good to offer free, especially when other people are paying for an entire series, but I like the idea that it can be an enticement to buying the whole series or “event.”
“Thinking outside the live event box in this way need not take the time of your staff,” Cibellis writes. “Outsource the consulting and have them lead the execution, using your team to drive the content to best align with what your sales team needs or would want. In the end, you don’t have to sacrifice quality for ad dollars.”
Solaris adds that for him, the missing piece is “virtual event technology, still largely unable to offer subscription model features for planners. It’s a pretty stupid feature to miss; we hope they can get on with it soon.”

Ideas to Pump Up Your Virtual Event Volume and Encourage People to Attend

I wrote last week that there can be a lot to like about virtual events—global reach, access to more speakers, expanded Q&As. But one virtual events problem that’s not discussed as much—as say, the networking issue—that we don’t have for in-person events is getting registrants to actually attend. I mean, who isn’t going to Florida or California or Vegas after signing up and booking flights?
But getting on another Zoom-like event in the middle of a busy day takes some coaxing.
“Keep focusing on the what’s-in-it-for-me [angle],” said Matthew Cibellis of Cibellis Solutions. “Remind them on what they signed up for in the first place. It’s a lot of retargeting. You want them there live. You’ve promised sponsors certain types of personas. Send email and text reminders.” Make it easy for them to sign on. “And use testimonials: ‘Here’s why I’m going to the show.’”
When I sign up to attend an online event, the more draws that the organizer can program the better. Interesting topic, check. Q&A check. Some type of networking, check. Some gamification, check. Wine tasting, check.



But there’s always room for newer and more fun ideas. Believe it or not, Goat-2- Meeting will bring a farm animal to mingle in your Zoom boxes. “Need a fresh face to brighten up your video conference meetings?” they ask. “The Sweet Farm Animal Ambassadors are here for you.”

“It’s hard to find fun things to incorporate into our virtual events right now. It’s like, how many wine tastings can we do?” said Katrina Kent, head of events for TD Ameritrade, in an article on Successful Meetings.
Here are a few ideas from that article and others I’ve seen:
Add a musical component. Since March, SongDivision has put on more than 400 digital events, with attendance ranging from 15 people to 15,000. TD Ameritrade hired them to write a custom song, “Invested Forever,” to honor the company’s 40-year history and highlighted major accomplishments from over the years. (That brings up another recent article I wrote here about celebrating company anniversaries.) The song kicked off the one-hour event. “People were completely blown away. It was totally unexpected and everyone wanted the MP3 of the song right away,” said Kent.
Add trivia or fun quiz questions or a giveaway. “There’s always been this big separation of church and state in the meetings industry. So, we have content and learning over here and engagement and fun over there, and don’t let them get anywhere near each other,” said Sharon Fisher, CEO of Play with a Purpose. “…the meetings that we’ve seen that are really, really successful blend the two and put engagement and content together.”
Add virtual photo elements. “There’s usually a line at the photo booth at every in-person event” writes Samantha Whitehorne in Associations Now. “And while you may think this is one element that has to go by the wayside in the virtual environment, think again. There are plenty of options out there that will allow participants to create and share fun photos and animated GIFs.” Donna Jefferson of Chesapeake Family has enjoyed success with her magazine photo contests—pets, kids, scenery. There could be a virtual contest during an event if it’s done in an expedient way.
Do a Digital Dine Around. I’ve missed my share of meals to take part in virtual events. In their Influence 2020 conference, the National Speakers Association made sure you ate well: “Have you ever wished you could share a meal with one of NSA luminaries?” they wrote in August. “This year, you can! We’re hosting Digital Dine Arounds where you can sit down for a casual ‘meal time conversation’ with NSA’s Board Members, Past Presidents, Cavett Award Recipients, CPAE winners, and more.”
Come up with an intriguing interview pairing. I saw another great example of this yesterday when Politics and Prose, an incredible independent bookstore in Washington, hosted a reading of author Tim Weiner (The Folly and the Glory) being interviewed by Asha Rangappa, CNN analyst, Yale lecturer and former FBI special agent. It proved to be a must-see-and-hear conversation. I was also sure to tune in last week to an interview with Nataki Garrett, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. One big reason was the interviewer: 67 year-old Scottish director John Doyle who reimagined The Color Purple to Broadway success a couple years ago. The juxtaposition of the backgrounds of the two made for must-see Zooming. Often the interviewer can be just as important as the speaker.

Virtually Amazing. SIPA 2020 Day 1 Talks up Data, Events and Value.

“If you ever wanted to do things differently—change your culture—now is a great time to start,” said Don Harkey, CEO of People Centric Consulting Group. “This is a big opportunity. We’re all disrupted. It’s a good time to put in new habits…. Focus on systems that impact your culture.”
And with that table-setting quote, the first-ever SIPA 2020 Virtual Annual Conference was off and advising Monday—on the new revenue paths to pursue like virtual events—and revising our 2020 and beyond outlooks.
“Start off by revisiting the value you provide for customers,” Harkey said. He gave an example of a group he works with that meets at a community center every week. “The center had to close down and everyone thought that was it. But is the value the building or the community that we build? It’s really about the community itself.
“So the question is, ‘Can we create community without a building, without getting people together physically? And the answer is yes. What are our customers needing now? The community center did exercise. So we started yoga online for that group, and 1000 people logged in. Are you providing something valuable that your customer might pay for?”
Here are more highlights from Day 1. You can still register here for Day 2 and the full on-demand privileges of both days.

Reach out and do everything but touch. Harkey strongly encouraged customer conversations now. “It’s not about, ‘will you buy this.’ It’s about, ‘can I help you recover?'” Speaking about virtual events, Matthew Cibellis, director of programming, live & virtual events, Education Week, said it’s important to “survey your readers and sponsors before to ensure buy-in ahead of the event. “We asked oddly simple questions: What time of day is best for you? What month would you come? Why? We thought we might get 25 or 50 responses but we received 2,200 responses with email addresses.” They learned a lot from them, including a call for deeper content.

What’s the big idea? “Build a sustainable, trusting, idea-sharing and internal product development approach process,” Cibellis said. Use a transparent, internal form for idea generation. Through this they came up with A Seat at the Table With Education Week, an interactive video series that’s been very popular. “It’s yielding more collaboration and less competition,” he said. “You want to encourage intra and cross department idea-sharing.”

Look at your data. “[Data] value is in the eye of the beholder,” said Michael Marrale, CEO, M Science, in an informative Alternative Data 101 session with Meg Hargreaves, COO, Industry Dive. “You’ll find value in surprising places. Typically, we’ve partnered with companies that don’t fully realize the value of their data. They can be surprised” when told their data has value and content licensing potential. “Don’t think that size of the company is the main factor. It’s really about the data. You can have relatively small revenue but big data capabilities.”

Keep lines of communication open and be transparent. With over 500 employees, you might not think that Chris Ferrell, CEO of Endeavor Business Media, would have time for one-on-one staff calls. But he does “try to call a handful of people each week that I don’t normally talk to and ask where the company could be supporting them more and what they might need. My direct reports I talk to every week, of course. But we’re doing that throughout the organization, making sure people are not falling through the cracks [during this challenging time] and people are getting the support they need.”

This virtual may be more than a fad. In a fascinating panel discussion about creating long-lasting value, Stephanie Eidelman, CEO of iA Institute, said that she is excited to see how their now-virtual events perform. “Each industry is different, but it would be awesome if it worked for us. Expenses and margin are much more favorable. And the calendar is so crowded—finding a place that doesn’t conflict with this or that event. Trying to shoehorn a live event in a place in the calendar [can be tough]. Virtual gives you [more options], and I like the risk elimination about committing to the hotel contracts.”

Install processes to up value. “We’re always looking at companies through the lens of valuation,” John McGovern, CEO and owner of Grimes, McGovern & Associates, said in that same panel. There’s a misconception about “smaller companies that have a high amount of owner involvement. One of the smartest things owners can do is manage their org chart. If an owner is extremely involved in their business, you’d think that buyers want to hear that. Actually the opposite of that is true. They want to see the owner moved off and the successor being groomed—doing reviews, looking at salaries.” Organic development has staying power, he said.

Think scrappy but scalable. In a session about Mastering Memberships, Elizabeth Petersen, product director, Simplify Compliance, and Delaney Rebernik, membership and content strategy consultant, spoke about keeping long-term sustainability top of mind. “It’s really important to dazzle end users, not just buyers,” Petersen said. Included in their targeted engagement strategies is a strong welcome series. “You win stakeholder support through collaboration, education and process development. And you want to recruit internal staff who are energized and not drained by the process.” As for the increased customer service, Rebernik said that “because we put our editors into customer service roles, it was important for us to come together as a community… and develop processes and workflows.

Again, you can still register for today and the opportunity to watch ALL the sessions any time you want! I really just was able to give you a taste of the great content we have. There’s so much more!

Global Audience, Discussion Rooms, Polling – The Virtues of Virtual Events

“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. At the SIPA 2020 Virtual Conference June 1-2, Matthew Cibellis of Education Week will speak about Creating a Stand-Out Virtual Event. Their Online Summits were revenue producers even before the pandemic hit, so they’ve been at this longer than most.
Here are other ways to take advantage of virtual events.
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. “Consider how you can make the sessions and conversations viewable after the fact,” Bejan writes. “At Microsoft, we publish event recordings to Stream and Yammer for people to watch when it works for them.”
Audience access to editorial staff. EW’s Online Summits provide readers with a unique opportunity to interact directly with reporters, practitioners and experts. Attendees can participate actively in reporter-expert-peer/peer conversations around niches within K-12 educational topic areas. At live events, it may not always be easy to interact with who you want. They could be popular and busy, or there just isn’t time. In a virtual event, you can have a place where, for instance, Education Week journalists and guests staff online “discussion” rooms on a host of topics within a broader niche. This can also give good exposure to your editorial staff.
Try to bring in tougher speaker gets. There was a 90th birthday tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim a couple weeks ago and they had every star imaginable—Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald, Sutton Foster. And why shouldn’t they? Everybody’s home probably with some time on their hands. I’ve also seen online conversations with famous authors and playwrights. If there’s a speaker or two you couldn’t get before, try again now.

Offer content—video, gamification, polling—and then bring people together around that. Speaking at the ongoing-through-May CES Deconstructed Jesse Serventi, founding partner, Renovus Capital, said (in a virtual discussion) today that we’re really just starting to learn how to “have a keen understanding of how to engage an audience virtually. A lot of it is asynchronous. You’re on an island. You’re going through it by yourself. It’s tough to engage. But then it’s also synchronous where you might be watching many hours of content. That’s tough too. The companies doing the best job are bringing in both. They might be starting off with prerecorded asynchronous content, watching video, doing a multiple choice quiz, and then coming together to do a group exercise around that and developing relationships—reaching you through multiple modalities. That’s just a great way to engage the customer or get customers hooked in an even better way than live in-person training. I do believe there’s great opportunity to use all these different tools to create a better experience.

Get a top moderator. This is important in live events, of course. I don’t know how many Q&As I’ve been to where moderators let audience questioners go on far too long or don’t follow up enough on key questions. It might even be more important virtually. It’s so easy to turn away at home. The moderator needs to keep the conversation flowing and not get bogged down. And then she gets to choose which questions to ask; the QA&A could be the best part. When it’s live, you don’t have that choice in front of you.
Be creative. “Your exhibitors are in desperate need for leads,” said Brian Cuthbert, group vice president, Diversified Communication, who will also present at the SIPA Conference on 5 Things to Include in Every Event Contract. “So whether it’s virtual tradeshows or webinars with companies like Webex, or ON24, your vendors need leads… Everything is drying up and that lead funnel is critical. It’s about content and education. Can you create certificates, master classes, certification? Using a learning management system that tracks their progress through the experience. We’re thinking of a way to use e-learning as a component. Whether you try to replicate or go with webinars and e-learning, they’ll pay for it. Create it once in these platforms and sell it as many times as you can. It’s something we do a lot. We’ve used vFairs. The single most important thing is realistic expectations about what the sponsor and attendee can expect.”

Virtual Event Platforms Are Out There, Listening and Ready to Fill in

I peeked into Education Week’s Online Summit last week and was very impressed. Halfway through they already had almost 1,000 live attendees and 550 comments! It took place on a platform called Brazen, that’s usually associated more with virtual career fairs. But it works very well for their summits which are centered around text-based chats with editorial staff—and experts in the K-12 world—and entering various “reporter” or “sponsor” rooms.
“Brazen has been with us since the beginning of our online summits,” Matthew Cibellis, director of programming for live and virtual events for Education Week, wrote to me today. “That’s because we were already using them for our online job fairs. The price tag back then was too high, and we didn’t have sufficient job fair sponsorship to merit keeping them. But my production director asked me to meet with them to discuss how versatile it could be for more content-driven meet-ups. Brazen only convinced me when I started vamping about what I’d like to create. They were nodding their heads and offering to come back to the table with solutions.
“With that negotiation settled, we learned what didn’t work in real time and what features we had to disable for the platform to work better. As the interactive experience is nearly completely text-based—we do show videos and livestreams which we embed in the event navigation—it didn’t seem that it would provide educators the cross-chatter interactivity that Brazen ensured me of. However, they were right. Professionals began cross-communicating within discussions, hearing something meaningful from another attendee and then replying to the attendee in real time.”
With Online Summit producer, Emma Prilliaman, Cibellis hopes to bring in new features soon—ones that he’s told Brazen they are seeking—and Brazen has already updated the platform in part with feedback provided last year.
Of course, it’s no mystery why virtual event platforms are top of mind now. In the webinar we held last Thursday—you can listen to it or download the transcript here—the three panelists mentioned some of the most popular platforms.
“We’ve used vFairs,” said Brian Cuthbert of Diversified Communications. “The single-most important thing [for a virtual event] is realistic expectations about what the sponsor and attendee can expect. You are not reimagining the show. How many leads can I expect? How will the learning be? Are you implementing video? Are there trainers or is there an audio webinar?”
Rich Luna of Meeting Professionals International named Facebook Live, YouTube Live. Discord StreamKit, Vimeo and IBM Live Streaming. “There are a number of really good platforms out there.” Alicia Evanko-Lewis of Northstar Travel Group has been pulling together an appointment event for sellers and buyers that they will use Zoom for. Other platforms that she named include Brandlive, eZ-XPO, Bravura Technologies and 6connect.
In an article on virtual platforms last week, Jennifer Cannon of Marketing Land wrote about the rush to these platforms taking place now. Mark Bornstein, VP of marketing at digital experience platform ON24, verified the uptick in business.
“In some cases, we see companies moving seminars and turning them into interactive multimedia webinars, which is great,” said Bornstein. “In some cases, there are larger trade shows and conferences, which we’re moving to more Netflix-style content or engagement hubs.” Bornstein highlighted two events that were repurposed from live events to digital-only, and both proved very successful.
Cannon then listed these tips for virtual-event seekers:
Start with the platforms you already have. Cibellis didn’t even know what Brazen was capable of doing until he met with them. In fact, they might not even have known what they were capable of until he told them what he needed—great lesson.
Leverage the communication tools you have. Skype, Slack, even Google Hangouts Meet gives you the option to live-stream and record meetings.
Think video. “What matters most is translating your scheduled live event content into a digital presentation,” Cannon writes. “And while live event platforms offer so much in terms of registration, Q&A, networking, virtual booths and more, if the main goal is to engage your audience and customers with your scheduled content, tools are within reach… Wistia’s Soapbox tool is another interesting option for recording presentation-style videos. Whatever you use to capture video, you can use a number of platforms to build collections akin to an event agenda (Ahem, YouTube).”
Experience matters (to a point). Yes, that was Stephen Colbert uploading videos from his bathtub last week. NPR’s “Live From Here” variety show is now a collection of home-based performances on Instagram tied together by a #livefromhome hashtag. “Content and authority is king, but experience is certainly changed right now. Don’t overthink it.”
Remember the landscape. There is no shortage of tools out there and, in the current atmosphere, they are ramping up each day.