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‘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.