‘We’re Looking for Ways to Deeply Engage’: Virtual Event Innovations

What could have been better this early morning than sitting on my patio with a velvety layer of fog over the lake and Zooming into a scones-making session with Stacy Brooks, director, communications and social media for the American Physiological Society (APS)?

Okay, having her send the scones over, of course, would have been sublime. But I will happily make them myself another day. This was part of AM&P 2020—the annual conference of a sister division here, Association Media & Publishing—and it put me in the perfect mood to watch their keynote speaker, Mario Garcia, the distinguished author and Columbia professor. (I will also soon write about Garcia and a terrific session Brooks co-hosted yesterday on writing and editing in this age.)


“We’re looking for ways to deeply engage with The New Yorker reader,” Eric Gillin, Condé Nast’s chief business officer of the culture division, said recently for the seven-day long New Yorker festival. Besides all the virtual interviews, they added a tactile component, a session where meals were sent out to paying attendees who then tuned in for a related panel. There was also a drive-in film in Queens, NY for local attendees to see a premiere.


These elements are critical to getting audiences to pay for virtual or hybrid events, said Eric Fleming, executive producer of experiential agency Makeout. Particularly “exclusivity” and a “swag-like experience” that audiences can engage with to help increase ticket sales by providing something that feels substantial.


Here are four other innovative ideas:


Make your virtual platform year-round. In June, the United Fresh Produce Association transitioned their popular annual conference into United Fresh 2020 LIVE! With 50% more attendees, they decided to create 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, of the United Fresh LIVE! 365 platform, told Convene. “[The platform] serves as the connection point,” adding that exhibitors whose engagement strategy went beyond the show floor reaped the best results.


Mugs for the camera. To foster a spirit of connectedness at their annual conference, BIO (Biotechnology Innovation Organization) Digital changed the meeting’s tagline from ‘Beyond’ to ‘Nothing Stops Innovation.’ Then, in advance of the conference, the group mailed all speakers a custom mug with the new tagline.” It was an added expense, but worth it because it gave speakers brand recognition onscreen that reflected togetherness, said Erin Lee, VP of marketing operations and customer experience at BIO. She added that engagement has become “more about building loyalty, the power of the brand, and giving members access to resources and connectivity in a time of need.” BIO surveyed members—always like to hear that—to find out what would be most helpful for them. “We focused on being a service to the industry.”


Start a Niche-Within-Your-Niche Week. Two years ago, Access Intelligence’s Event Marketer put on a Women in Events Week. While they already had a Women in Events print feature, the special 2018 Women in Events Week brought it to life, as “the editorial team transformed the franchise into a week-long series of experiences across 15 cities that engaged more than 1,000 industry women in panels, presentations, professional development and networking activities that ultimately generated [thousands of dollars] in sponsorship revenue.” There were also unconventional networking functions like sneaker art classes and offbeat museum tours. All of this can be translated for this virtual age. Our own FISD did a splendid virtual FISD Week a few months ago that also featured a women’s panel—not the norm for this financial division—and other engaging activities.


Make the content a series. 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.” Added Matthew Cibellis of Cibellis Solutions: “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.”


And, maybe, make scones for those monthly events. I’d be in!

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