Sorry, but your online event is probably going to fall flat


Trying to copy a physical event online is not the way to drive engagement.

by Richard Broughton – 19th April 2020

While we are all sat at home, speaking to colleagues over Zoom and trying to understand what the next six months looks like, my inbox has been slowly filling with invitations to virtual conferences, exhibitions and seminars. Everyone is responding to the realisation that their 2020 events calendar is worth less than a Blockbuster Video card and all those opportunities to get in front of their audience have suddenly evaporated. For many businesses, this presents an almost catastrophic scenario, depriving their sales and marketing teams of critical sources of new leads and opportunities to meet customers face-to-face.

So, is the answer to simply pivot and quickly move your events online, as so many seem to have done? It could be, but there’s a lot you need to consider. Switching a large or even relatively small in-person event to an online one is not an easy feat – it requires careful thought, extensive planning and often a new set of achievable objectives if it is to be a success.

At our core, most of us are fundamentally social beings. Our memories are defined by social interactions, moments are heightened by a sense of community and we absorb the wisdom of the crowd. How we learn also differs for each of us. It isn’t all logical and cognitive, much of it is emotional and achieved by connecting with others at a personal level.

For too long virtual events, of all types, have ignored these considerations and neglected to understand from where the value of an event is derived in the eyes of the audience. Let’s be honest, for those of us that have sat through them, online events have often been boring, confused and derivative – the poor, ill-conceived cousin of the real thing.

I am not saying there aren’t incredible online events, there most definitely are, but, when you look at business-driven offerings, those that move the needle are in the minority. Too often they place the onus for making them a success on the audience, asking everything of attendees and not providing the structure and tools that help translate the value of a physical happening into an online one. Alternatively, the fact that the nature of the content, the business or its audience is just not very well suited to this approach is drowned out by the desire to be ‘digital first’ or simply the need to do something.

These poor experiences have likely already had an effect on your audience, making them less inclined to sign up for the next online ‘event’ for fear of facing another one sided and entirely passive lecture. Few people will get excited about sitting through a pre-recorded 100 slide PowerPoint presentation with no opportunity for interaction – that is not an event. They may pick up a nugget or two but fundamentally they haven’t enjoyed the experience and left feeling cold about the brand or speaker.

It genuinely doesn’t need to be this way. New technology and new online services have enabled the delivery of emotive and highly engaging digital experiences that are so much more than a video conference or a window for a static presentation. But getting it right requires the consideration of a range of interdependent factors. So, if you are looking to explore how you could switch your plans online, here’s some suggestions for creating an inclusive and dynamic virtual event.

Horses for courses

Last week I was invited to something being billed as a virtual boat show. In reality, a single yacht builder had created a small floating pontoon in virtual reality (VR). Customers could ‘walk’ up and down the pontoon before clicking on a yacht. Once inside the yacht there were a few 360o images of the cockpit and cabins to explore. I have no doubt the idea sounded great in the pitch meeting, unfortunately, it was missing important details and the execution let it down. In this instance I could surmise that perhaps budget or the availability of more engaging content was a challenge, or maybe time was an issue. Regardless, what I, the customer, got was not an exciting experience. There was no interaction with the brand, and it did not leave me wanting to extend my interest, even if I had, there was no obvious chat or video call function and no calls to action.

I use this example to demonstrate why trying to mimic a real-world environment for the sake of it is destined to feel cheap and gimmicky, especially if you don’t identify where the value of the physical event is coming from and translate that into something you can deliver online. This brand could have created something far simpler and far more effective if they had spent more time considering what would excite the audience and less about how they could create something that is ‘on trend’.

We all naturally gravitate to the lux looking opportunities, like VR, but VR obviously isn’t right for every business or every event type. The same can be said about every other approach too – it’s horses for courses. To create something meaningful you need to understand where that meaning is coming from. You need to ask what it is you want to achieve and if the planned approach is going to meet your commercial objectives, whilst also, and even more importantly, provide an experience of value to your audience.

Engagement doesn’t happen on its own

A big part of any physical, in-person event is the opportunity to engage with your audience and for your audience to network with their peers. Online events make both these things much harder to deliver – you risk losing that essential sense of community and your ability to connect at an emotional level.

Consider how you are going to achieve the right levels of engagement from the first stages of planning. It is vital that you think of engagement as part of your criteria for success and plan accordingly. Chat functions are the obvious starting point but think bigger, how can you create an environment where all of your audience wants to be a part of the conversation.

When it comes to the event, start to seed the chat early on, ask for people to say hi and where they are from, tell them they can pose any questions they already have. Think about other ways to get people talking, such as polls, quizzes or Q&A sessions after a presentation. Managing all this before, during and after an event is a skill in itself so make sure you appoint an event manager or facilitator that knows what they are doing and is able to drive the tone and increase the value of the audience’s experience.

The cream rises to the top

Without a sunny location, a glamourous venue or a networking reception to persuade your audience to attend, the thing that is going to attract them are your speakers, the content they deliver and the perceived value it is going to provide.

With this in mind, make sure you create event programme that aligns with your audience’s needs and wants, with speakers or presenters who can engage your audience with something valid to say and the reputation or experience to give it weight. You also need to be honest. Your audience doesn’t want a sales presentation unless that is what you have told them they are getting from the start. If you’ve promoted an educational seminar on emerging technology, don’t spend 90 per cent of the time trying to sell a new piece of hardware.

It is harder to promote in advance but think about how you are intending on delivering your content. Going virtual means you are not tied by the limitations of physical events so consider how you can make your content more engaging through the method of delivery and the technology you use. No one wants death-by-PowerPoint so identify ways to bring your content to life. It could be through collaboration on screen, performing a process or task live, or leveraging video and animation to illustrate your point. Whichever format, technology or media you choose, think about how your audience will react, will it interest and excite them?

Live, recorded or hybrid?

A more practical tip is to consider is whether your event is going to be entirely live, recorded or a combination of both. There are benefits and shortcomings to each approach, so you need to decide which is going to deliver the best results for you and your audience.

All things being equal, hybrid will give the greatest flexibility, especially for larger events with multiple speakers and presentations. A hybrid approach usually involves pre-recording the main presentations but having things like chat, Q&A and breakout sessions with speakers all live. This way you don’t need to worry about the speaker choking or your equipment failing on the day, and you can edit the presentation to keep it tight and remove any bloopers, like when the speaker’s five-year-old comes to ask for a sandwich. Equally, all the important aspects related to engagement are still available, so you are giving the sensation of the whole event being live.

Another important advantage of recording in advance is that it means the presenter is free to be working the chat, responding to questions and engaging with your audience throughout. The speaker is the person they want to hear from so having them available to provide a backstage commentary heightens the sense of event. Practice how this could work with your facilitator and get a relaxed back and forth going.   

Having just said you should edit your presentations; I will contradict myself slightly and say sometimes mistakes are fine – great even. Granted, no one wants to watch a five-minute coughing fit but that five-year-old I mentioned could easily be left in the final cut, the audience will likely enjoy it and the presenter is there to laugh about it with everyone on the chat. It is little things like this that can help set the tone and make a big difference to the levels of engagement you achieve, so don’t worry if things don’t run entirely to plan!

Get Flexible

A big one hit live event is great if you are Apple announcing the next iPhone but not many businesses can expect that level of attention, both from customers and the media. For everyone else, it is worth thinking about whether a single live event is the best strategy. If your audience is global, an event at 2pm GMT is not going to be seen by the majority of the planet and even if you are only trying to target UK residents, a single time just won’t work for everyone.

Instead, think about how you can create a campaign around your ideas for virtual events. A luxury yacht manufacturer recently asked us to look at this exact challenge, considering all their specific opportunities and limitations. The solution we developed was a dedicated website housing mix of existing VR assets, a calendar of live events taking place around the world, dealer contacts and simple call back forms, and a 24/7 live chat function to instantly answer questions and direct enquires to the relevant parties. A social media and direct comms campaign helped create interest in its launch, with a range of branded and co-branded assets created for dealers to use with their customer and prospect lists. It was a cost-effective solution that maximised the value of existing brand assets, whilst creating a new experience and new opportunities for the customer to interact with the brand and start conversations with members of the team.

Measure everything

Whenever you are moving into new territory and trying something for the first time, having clear objectives and KPIs is key to focusing your attention on the things that matter. However, determining an accurate ROI from a virtual event campaign can be difficult, just like with real events. Your average prospect nurture period could be 12 months or more, meaning several events and other interactions may have all contributed to getting a customer over the line. That said, we are talking digital so there are still plenty of ways to extract valuable insights with which you can base future decisions.

The level of intelligence you can extract will depend on the tools you are using to deliver your events. A website can capture a lot of information through analytics, as can social media platforms, whereas a dedicated virtual event solution will offer more in the way of rich metrics and behavioural data, with the ability to gather insights in real-time and build profiles for individual delegates based on their responses. Imagine being able to gain feedback on a session’s agenda and make adjustments based on who is actually in the room and where their interests reside. It is powerful stuff if you know how to leverage it effectively.

Even without the latest technology and proprietary algorithms behind you, there are other approaches to gaining a detailed understanding of how your event has been received and where improvements could be made. You chat records will tell you a lot about when and where people engaged and surveying your event attendees can provide more qualitative feedback.  Combine this with your analytics data and you should be able to extract some valuable intelligence to determine if you have met your objectives. And of course, don’t forget you can ask attendees explicitly whether they have enjoyed the event and which interactions have been a benefit.

Keep the momentum

After a stressful few weeks planning and delivering your event, it is too easy to sit back and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Unfortunately, the job has really only just started. With all the information you have gathered through analytics or your event platform during and after the event, you now need to find ways to leverage this knowledge.

It should influence all your follow up activities and campaigns but there are several different ways to maximise its value depending on your business strategy and priorities. At an individual level, it could be added to your CRM and used to create an account-based marketing (ABM) campaign for a specific prospect, or used more widely to create content and messaging groups for prospects with common needs and interests.  The feedback should give you a firm understanding of the areas your audience responded to best so use it to identify where investment will deliver the best return.

Final thought

No one knows what the future will hold for physical events. Will social distancing drive a dramatic and long-term shift away from exhibitions, seminars and summits? I hope not, I think we would lose a lot more than disappointing food and sore feet. Regardless, virtual events can and should be part of your marketing arsenal, especially during these unprecedented times.

I may have laboured over the potential pitfalls of running your own virtual events but that shouldn’t dissuade you from giving them a go. For all the challenges you’ll need to consider, the opportunity to have total control of the event, and run it exactly as you choose, means the success rests with you and your ability to create something that your audience actually wants. Remember that your event needs to have real value or satisfy a known need, and it should also add to your brand story at the same time. If you can do that, if you can exceed your audience’s expectations, you can positively impact your relationship with them and your bottom line.