Use Virtual’s Strengths, Integrate Sponsors and Offer a Mix of Content Types for Successful Event Pivots

By Ronn Levine, originally published on AM&P blog. 

Thursday morning, Eric Shanfelt, founding partner of Nearview Media, led a Connectiv Digital Media Council on virtual events, and perhaps the first thing he advised was not to simply move your in-person event to online, but reconfigure it. “I think we know this intrinsically. But I see the biggest problems are when we’re trying to emulate an in-person event. Take advantage of the unique strengths of the virtual.”

This reminded me of an article I just read on the ASAE site by Angela Hickman, director of research and marketing at the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) in Alexandria, Va. “As we began planning for a virtual event, we knew we didn’t want to simply move our event online,” she wrote. “School counselors were frustrated, exhausted and concerned about what virtual education was going to look like. We wanted to inspire, energize and inform these critical educators on the front lines.”

ASCA’s members now depend on the strengths of virtual communication. Knowing this, ASCA did the following: 

  • found a high-quality platform that met their needs—HUBB; 
  • sent every registrant a pre-event gift package; 
  • provided multiple learning formats for the event; 
  • made it fun with happy hours, live trivia, a movie night, a live awards presentation and cocktail demonstrations—which coincidentally, Shanfelt mentioned was the most popular session at a virtual show he recently helped to put on; they called it “a master course on mixology.”

Here are more tips from Shanfelt, who said that a survey he saw this week rated the likelihood that marketers would attend an in-person event through mid-2021 at just 3 out of 10:

  • Focus on the profitability, not the revenue. Your dollar numbers will, most likely, be lower, so better to look at your profitability. “It’s really about cash flow,” Shanfelt said.
  • Mix the content. Use keynotes, Q&A, video, panels, how-to information, market intelligence, data findings—short and long, but nothing too long. For a paid event, the bar for good content is so much higher. “While most ASCA@Home [the name of the rebranded event] sessions were 30-minute breakouts followed by live Q&A, we also offered keynote speakers, brainstorming sessions and special events,” Hickman wrote.
  • Consider a series. Shanfelt said that rather than burn people out with a long, multi-day event, one publisher pivoted to a successful series. “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.”
  • Integrate sponsors into sessions. Don’t put them off in separate areas. Even if it’s short, give them a role in your sessions.
  • Facilitate chat with specific questions. Even if you record your sessions, you should try to do live Q&A’s. 
  • Video/audio quality is critical. Require that any presenters use webcams. Test on the days before.
  • Give people post-event access. This is crucial, as not everyone registered will be able to attend your event. Make it as simple as possible for them.
  • Choose your platform carefully. Conferences are having a more successful time transferring to virtual than trade shows. One of the biggest problems is when trade shows use virtual event platforms built more for conferences.
  • Use a moderator for the entire event. Can add cohesion to your event. Do you have a podcast host who is comfortable in that role?

You must work hard at getting people not just registered but to attend. This is not a problem for in-person events. Who isn’t going to Florida or California after signing up and booking flights? But it is an issue for virtual events. “Keep focusing on the what’s in it for me [angle],” said Matthew Cibellis, formerly of Education Week. “ 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. Email and text reminders.” Make it easy for them to sign on and use testimonials: “Here’s why I’m going to the show.”

Consider having a Preview Week. Make it a week earlier than the event, and attendees can make their plans about what to see. Could be a big push.

Provide opportunities for people to meet one-on-one. Shanfelt 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.

Try (intentionally is okay) to put more content in your event than people can watch—and then strongly promote the on-demand. “Watch the sessions that you missed!”

This ongoing situation “will force us to keep thinking and reinventing,” Shanfelt concluded.

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