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Best Practices for Flipping an In-Person Event Virtual

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Fewer hiccups with in-person event than expected as live events go online in the age of COVID-19

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies had to immediately and completely transform how their live in-person events were held. Now that virtual events are the “new normal,” having a well-developed plan in place is an absolute necessity. A recent survey by The 614 Group finds 51% of marketing professionals expect virtual events to stick around. And while it’s bad news for the events business, only 19% expect in-person event attendance to return to pre-pandemic levels once the health crisis subsides.

People are working from home and sitting on Zoom meetings for multiple hours per day. With screen fatigue on the rise, virtual events need to work hard to engage their audience. Short presentations, a multitude of presenters and perspectives, and a virtual event that also allows attendees to hear from each other and share examples should pique interest.

Recently, my company turned Xperience, our annual multi-day conference hosting approximately 2,500 attendees, into a half-day global online event taking place over two days in successive time zones with regional content for North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia Pacific. The objective was to make the event as informative and engaging in the digital world as it is in-person. And we succeeded beyond our hopes — more than 5,000 registrants, 138% beyond our goal, of which 61% were from new logos. We attribute this interest to topical content, a shortened agenda, free programming, and the convenience of on-demand viewing.

Here are five key takeaways we learned by transitioning our conference into a virtual one:

Focus on the Needs of a Narrower Audience

When we shifted gears and began planning our virtual event, we knew we had to narrow the focus to the core topics our customers needed at that moment. The COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to adapt to surges in customer service inquiries while supporting a newly remote workforce.

Helping our customers figure out how they could adapt to these challenges became the priority. Therefore, we centered the event on tactical best practices for cloud-based contact centers and on licensing teleworkers with the same capabilities and technology they normally leveraged in the office. We also made the event free this year to test customer appetite and made sessions available on-demand so participants could attend on their own schedules.

Make Sure the Event Platform Is Easy for the Audience to Use

At the time we had to reschedule our conference, practically every company in the world was canceling physical events and looking for digital platforms to host a virtual version. This created a seller’s market, making negotiations next to impossible.

We chose a platform for our online event that we were already used to and understood. We knew the platform technology and capabilities could produce a high-quality virtual event including offering stability for hundreds of simultaneous attendees and audience engagement tools. When choosing a platform, it’s important to know it’s accessible to almost anyone, regardless of the system and set-up they are using.

For example, something that runs on a web browser from a computer with a speaker has a low barrier of entry for the audience.

Build in Time for Extra Preparation If You’re Holding Live Sessions

There is a risk in doing things live, but there is also a real reward if done well. The audience is able to engage in the moment and the presenter can provide responses directly to questions and play off the reactions of the participant base.

For our event, we did a mix of pre-recorded and live sessions. To prepare our speakers, we provided a comprehensive kit that outlined best practices such as where in their home could work best for recording, and how to ensure the optimum lighting, camera, microphone, and appropriate background. We also offered suggestions on positioning, so it looked as though speakers were facing each other during panels.

As is always the case with in-person events —traditional or virtual— every detail counts! And, with every speaker participating from home, we knew there were going to be occasional obstacles or interruptions from family, kids, pets, or even neighbors. While our participants face similar challenges to the presenters, we took every step we could to balance authenticity and professionalism.

Create Opportunities for Attendees to Engage With Each Other

Networking opportunities and sidebar conversations with colleagues and new acquaintances drive major attraction to physical events. It is hard to have those conversations during a virtual event. In order to compensate for that missed in-person element, we established online forums and encouraged their use by attendees to connect with other participants.

The platform served as a mini social media site in the sense that attendees could “friend” others. However, while these opportunities were available, we saw limited participation. In the future, we plan to create ways for customers to interact and engage in topical areas around subjects relevant to them, or to react to things they have heard.

Nurture a Close Relationship With Your Event Vendors

The travel and hospitality industry got hit from all sides with event cancellations.

As a result, there has never been a better time to develop close working partnerships with your vendors, including production and staffing suppliers.

Look beyond the next year and assume that in-person events will return eventually, and when they do, companies will need vendors again. While physical events probably won’t be the same as before COVID-19, I predict a hybrid model will take form. Being empathetic with your vendors now and taking a position of partner rather than hard negotiator will pay dividends in the future. Fortunately, we created some lock-in contracts with vendors for multiple events in several cities on numerous dates. This gives us more flexibility and wiggle room in rebooking than single-event hotel or vendor contracts.

While you may not be certain exactly when you can hold your next in-person event, you can spend this time perfecting the virtual one. When done right, an online event can attract a wide audience more cost-effectively than a traditional conference.

But most importantly, it can serve as another impactful tool in your arsenal as you strive to forge meaningful connections with customers that translate into long-term loyalty.

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