Staying Connected During COVID-19: Reimagining Events and Conferences for a Virtual World

In-person events, conferences, and conventions are empirically important, sometimes planned months or even years in advance with massive budgets and the desire for massive returns. They are often relied on to bring in new business and establish valuable connections. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has limited in-person interactions, organizations are faced with the difficult decision of postponing, cancelling, or transitioning planned events into virtual formats.

If your organization is one of the many currently contemplating these options, here are some essential questions to answer regarding your attendees, your organization, and your strategy.

Think About Your Attendees

For starters, how have your attendee’s lives been changed due to the pandemic? Just as your team’s priorities have shifted, so have those of your attendees. It’s important to always keep their best interests in mind and be aware that many people have taken on unexpected responsibilities caring for children, elderly, or sick individuals.

The unique advantage of a virtual event is that you have more autonomy over the schedule. It’s a lot easier for someone to open a link from the safety of their home than it is to take days off to travel to a physical location. It might be beneficial to follow a non-traditional route for your event by setting aside several hours per day over the course of five days rather than doing one full day.

When working through the important components of your meetings, how will you prioritize keynote presentations versus small group sessions? If education is most important, a simple webinar hosting tool with little to no learning curve like Zoom, Vimeo, or Webex will do the trick. However, don’t just turn to Zoom because it’s the popular option right now. Do some extra research and find creative alternatives that other people may not be considering. Make a list of things that you want from a third-party platform like cost, analytics, split-screen features for guests, customer support, video quality, and social media compatibility.

Our team has recently started experimenting with Ecamm Live, which easily integrates with Twitch, Facebook Live, and Youtube Live for a more interactive experience. Virtual meetings that want to emphasize two-sided conversations may benefit more from LinkedIn Live and small group breakout sessions can be done through a platform like Freeman Digital.

Finally, what are you doing to align your brand with consumers? As we mentioned in an earlier post, brands like New Balance have connected to their community in a brilliant way by shifting their production capacity to deliver high-quality materials to help first responders. What are your attendees looking to gain from this virtual event and how can you solve their pain points?

Think About Your Organization

While it can be tempting to transition everything into a virtual event, organizations need to temper their benchmarks for success. The conversion of an in-person event to a virtual one will have different variables like link downloads, number of attendees, engagement, and social media shares. Your events may be better off canceled, postponed, or reformatted into an email campaign or blog series. Another alternative is to combine several smaller events into a larger, single event.

When evaluating the success of a virtual event, it’s really about managing expectations – both internally and externally. For example, your organization surely has a wealth of information to share, and that’s great, but what if your members also greatly appreciate the opportunity to network at your event? Don’t downplay the importance of these typical benefits, and instead consider incorporating small group sessions and/or virtual happy hours.

We hosted a virtual happy hour on behalf of one association last week and it went really well. Rather than leaving the format loose like a typical happy hour, we found it useful to have a prompt. Each person was asked to come prepared to “show and tell,” which kept the conversation flowing.

Ultimately, we recommend organizations set aside their most important outcomes from a meeting. Do you want to engage with your audience? Teach them something? Bring them to another page? Due to the current crisis, your priorities for all marketing efforts have probably shifted. How will that impact your meeting?

Think About Your Strategy

There are three components to your event marketing strategy: pre-event marketing, intra-event marketing, and post-event marketing. For pre-event marketing, really strive to paint a picture of your experience that is unlike anything else out there. Every brand is pushing out free content right now. What are you going to do to be different? This is a great opportunity to lean on your brand’s mission, visual storytelling, and core personality. Maybe you create a humorous introductory show to your event or send out teaser trailers. Unfortunately, there’s not going to be a magic button you can push to generate excitement about your virtual event. Figure out what your audience will benefit from the most right now to spark their interest.

If your team uses a marketing automation tool, mapping out a schedule to keep attendees informed will help you hit certain milestones later on. A live event offers a massive upside to personally engage with your audience. Obviously, the technology you use to stream the actual event matters. But what platforms are you using to effectively promote the event? Knowing your target persona will play a critical role in pre-planning an event. Be sure to build out a checklist, consider time zones, designate a moderator, choose your hardware, and do several test runs. Also, don’t forget to decide how people register. Will you be sharing a link on social? Is it exclusively sent in an email blast?

During the event, holding attention spans is the leading priority. Shorter, interview-style recordings seem to be trending right now, but you don’t have to rule out a longer stream if you can keep it interesting. Explore avenues that will give your audience the means to interact while the stream is happening. Several options are an event-specific hashtag on Twitter to ask questions, a live stream landing page with a form for feedback, and acknowledgment of questions or comments from the moderator.

Post-marketing is about capturing as much data as possible and informing attendees of any future engagements. Was this just a one-time thing? Can they follow up with questions? Is there a resource page on your website that will house all of the videos? You can always send a follow-up email to thank attendees for their time, provide contact information if they have further questions, and attach a relevant piece of collateral.

The live streaming studio StreamYard mentioned the following in a recent LinkedIn post: “Building a live streaming audience doesn’t happen overnight. When you start going live, you want to design a show that’s going to survive regularly scheduled broadcasts until viewers start finding you.” And this is true of all virtual events. It might take several tries to really nail the formula and gain dedicated followers. Be patient. Be unique. Be valuable.  And consider your audience, organization, and strategy.

As COVID-19 pushes teams into remote, virtual workspaces, our “Staying Connected During COVID-19” series is here to help. Let’s commit to keeping ourselves, our families, and our communities safe, one step at a time. Follow us for tips on how we can further your mission together.

Jonah Malin's headshot

Jonah Malin

Jonah Malin is a creative marketing professional, crafting story-driven content to execute a diverse range of digital, print, and social deliverables.

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