Lessons From the Front Lines of Virtual Event Planning

COVID-19 has changed our ability to get together for the foreseeable future. Here's how to thrive in the new event landscape.

By Mark Kats

The pandemic has presented a remarkable set of professional challenges for event marketers. With almost all of last year’s events canceled, organizations that still rely heavily on events have been forced to rethink how to meet their business goals in 2021.

Simply repurposing what your organization would have done in person in an online format won’t capture your audience’s attention in a now-congested virtual world. A better strategy: Unearth the intent of the event and the reason for the marketing investment in the first place. With the right virtual event plan, it is possible to trade in-person for virtual in a seamless, well-thought-out way.

As with all good marketing, the best path forward is to hone in on the audience needs you’re aiming to meet. Matching event types to objectives is your first order of business.

Event Types and Objectives

  • Industry events from trade associations: The objective is to facilitate a marketplace where buyers and sellers can exchange ideas, make connections, and do business in a concentrated fashion.
  • Product launch events: The objective is to increase brand awareness and understanding of a product or service, or to improve brand perception among committed audiences who will travel.
  • Educational events/industry conferences: The objective is to increase knowledge or skill levels, to improve product use and retention rates, and to facilitate connections and networking.
  • Partner/customer events: The objective is to drive partner value and customer engagement, to generate upselling and cross-selling leads, and to encourage referral business.

Once you pinpoint the objectives of your event, keep in mind that each one has a unique set of inflection points—a buildup before the event, event execution, and post-event follow-through. These three distinct stages require an audience acquisition and engagement strategy to return value. So, how do you shift the strategy?

Pre-Event Buildup

Leading up to an event, organizations should try to craft an emotional experience for attendees. Connecting with them where they are could lend itself to an even more meaningful experience than an in-person event. With this in mind, be more creative about how you approach messaging.

Another thing to consider: Not all aspects of your planned in-person event need to be a part of your virtual experience. Always err on the side of less. Also, think about the technology you will need to engage your audience. And finally, remember that targeted social engagements—such as Q&As, stories, call-to-action buttons, and polls—can help inform event content and audience acquisition strategy well in advance of the event. These tools can position your organization as the authoritative voice for the event’s duration.

Event Execution

While this may seem obvious, it bears repeating: Speakers have to work much harder to keep and entertain attendees without a live audience to get the adrenaline pumping. Far from being captive, the virtual audience is a click away from being distracted, and attendees are more than likely multitasking. Speakers and panelists should be purposeful about making their points, and use dramatic skills to do so.

During the event, smart organizations activate their social channels to ignite conversation where their audiences are engaging, highlighting emerging themes and insights in real time. Polls are a good way to capture what’s on your audience’s mind. This creates a chance to deploy multimedia content that provides a richer experience more akin to conference attendance and participation than to reading or surfing the web for content. Audio content can be engaging on social media, too.

Post-Event Follow-Through

When bringing attendees together virtually, you’re responsible for creating a safe place that encourages further conversation. Content created at the event can extend the event’s value well beyond the actual date. Continue event conversations on your blog or social media platforms to extend your virtual footprint. Post-event follow-through is an impactful way for your organization to provide value and engage your target audience in an ongoing conversation.

While social distancing remains our new normal, this window of time may be a great opportunity to refocus on your audience’s needs in the virtual event space. Attendees will reward you with their continued attention if you meet those needs—or punish you by making a fast exit if you don’t.

Mark Kats is vice president, portfolio consulting lead, at Manifest.

(Howard Georg/Stone Images/Getty Images)