It’s no secret that the events industry was obliterated in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying need for social distancing. According to the International Congress and Convention Association, 88% of 2020 planned events were either cancelled, postponed or conducted virtually. Many wonder if the industry ever fully will return to pre-pandemic levels.
Taking the place of cancelled events, however, was an unprecedented surge in virtual events. Online events were valued at almost $78 billion in 2019, but they skyrocketed to 94 billion in 2020. Now, that growth is forecast to increase by more than 23% annually until 2028 when it will exceed $500 billion. Instead of attending crowded spaces packed with thousands of people, individuals are connecting over the internet, meeting with friends, family, colleagues and total strangers through everything from direct messaging, group chat and Zoom meetings to webinars and massive virtual extravaganzas.
What does virtual event mean?
A virtual event is any event held online, including anything from an invitation-only webinar or publicly-accessed livestream to an AMA or live tweeting session. If two or more people connect through an online medium, that could be considered a virtual event. Other examples of a virtual or online event include on-demand workout classes, video conference meetings and concerts broadcast online. Even the legendary annual Consumer Electronics Show went fully online in 2021.
Hosting In Person Events Vs. Hosting Virtual Events
Prior to pandemic-related closures, many businesses and marketers doubted if virtual events could be as successful as live events. Out of necessity, they quickly discovered that online events can achieve the same levels of engagement and success. People can be reached as they sit in front of their computer screen, and a face to face event can be replaced by virtual ones. Yet, that doesn’t mean the two are similar in terms of planning and execution.
An in-person event can include a variety of features such as activities, speakers and demonstrations. In-person attendees are there to witness the festivities. A virtual event, on the other hand, is all about content. Even if the content received by virtual attendees consists of speakers and demonstrations, it’s the recording and presentation of that content that will engage them.
Planning an in person event differs from staging a virtual event. Instead of focusing on a facility to hold their attendees, for example, virtual event planners must choose the best platform to host their online event.
People don’t want to attend a virtual event to be bored by speakers droning on and on… even on a topic of interest. When planning for your virtual conference, be sure to plan for attendee engagement. Be sure to include activities that involve their participation, whether that be a Q&A session, polls, quizzes or games.
How to Host a Virtual Event in 15 Steps
Want to host a successful virtual event? Check out the following 15 steps for event planning tips that will help you plan and execute a virtual event that attracts, engages and inspires online attendee in a virtual environment.
1. Know Your Audience
Would you engage a room of retired business associates the same way you would interact with a group of fourth-graders? Just as you would identify your audience for a live event, you must know you audience before determining any virtual event ideas. What will engage your target market? What are their interests? With what platform will they be most familiar?
2. Set Event Goals
What goals do you hope to accomplish with your virtual event? It’s vital to set event goals before planning activities and content. Do you hope to inform or persuade your audience? Are you interested in marketing a brand or concept to event attendees, or do you hope to provide value to your audience for some other purpose?
Without setting event goals, you won’t be able to measure event success as effectively. Goals for a virtual event should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. These goals might include:
Attract and retain customers
Boost attendee engagement with a brand
Educate attendees on a timely topic
Test a product or a platform among attendees
3. Choose Your Host Platform
In such a booming market, another virtual event platform is introduced each day. How do you want to host your virtual event? Small virtual events might be hosted with a video conferencing tool like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, while larger online extravaganzas take place on platforms such as Eventcube, Bizzabo, Intrado and Filo.
Even social media platforms like Instagram Live and Facebook Live are popular resources for hosting a virtual event. Many event planners will choose to host their virtual conferences on more than one platform to prepare for any possible yet unwelcome technical errors.
4. Acquire Right Technology
A virtual event can’t happen without technology. Without at the very minimum computers and mobile devices, nobody could broadcast or attend. A truly successful virtual event, however, requires more than video conferencing tools. Consider acquiring the following technology when planning your virtual event:
Event website for promotion and registration
Mobile app with event guide
Presentation design software
Spare power cords, batteries and other support technology
5. Plan the Date and Time Carefully
When will you host your virtual event? What dates would be most suitable for participants and attendees? What times would be best, considering various timezones from which live event attendees might be found?
Carefully planning the date and time of a virtual event can be a challenge, for example, when live streaming to a global audience. Will people attend in one part of the world at 3 a.m. just to see what someone around the globe watches at 5 p.m.? And what about the times when speakers are available? Be sure and start coordinating dates and times well in advance of scheduling the event.
6. Market Your Event
What could be worse than carefully and meticulously planning a virtual event only for practically no one to attend? Marketing your virtual event is pivotal to its success. Since attendees will be utilizing technology to attend your event, it only makes sense to use similar tools to engage them and attract their attention.
Market your event with virtual attendees by emailing invitations and reminders, and establish a website with a landing page to promote the virtual conference. Include a link to the page in the emailed invitations. Be sure and regularly reach out to relevant communities and groups through social media, also including links to the landing page. Adding a blog to the event website offers an opportunity to update information as the date draws near, and optimize the content for better search ranking.
7. Plan the Agenda in Detail
The last thing you want for any event is for attendees to wait around aimlessly for extended periods of times, wondering what will be next or waiting for a disorganized schedule to proceed. In a virtual event environment, they are likely to simply log off and not return. Be sure to develop a clear agenda of speakers and other event participants, including not only their scheduled start times, but the timeframes in which their presentations will occur.
8. Prepare Your Attendees
Don’t assume your entire audience possesses the same technological savvy, especially with so many new virtual event platforms emerging every day. Before your event, create a participant guide with user-friendly instructions detailing how to access and navigate the platform. Be sure to address troubleshooting steps for issues that might arise, including the inevitable user errors. If feasible, take a moment to walk attendees through the basics of lesser-known platforms at the start of the online event.
9. Brief Your Speakers
Be mindful when choosing the speakers for your virtual event. Just because someone is an expert on or has written about a topic, that doesn’t mean their expertise will translate into audience engagement. Be sure your speakers know your goals for the virtual event, and they understand to what audience they will be speaking. Also be sure your speakers thoroughly understand what technology you will be using to record them, and through what platform they will be broadcast.
10. Host an Amazing Event
It’s the day of your virtual event. Be sure you’re organized and prepared. Have your technology ready ahead of time, and be sure you and your speakers are prepared to follow your carefully-planned agenda. Remember, your audience is more likely to have fun if you and your team are also enjoying yourselves at the virtual conference.
11. Debrief Your Team
Following the conclusion of your virtual event, be sure and take some time to meet with your team. Discussed the event’s highlights and any obstacles encountered. How were the challenges overcome, and what could have been handled better? What changes would have helped the event be an even greater success? This debriefing will help plan even more successful virtual events in the future. Similarly, you should also look into virtual team event ideas for team building.
12. Maximize Attendee Engagement After the Event
Continue to engage attendees following the conclusion of your virtual event. Using social media channels, start encouraging conversation about the speakers at your event. That conversation will help to develop your brand recognition, and it can grow into continuous marketing leading up to your next online activity. Also be sure and email attendees, as well as those who sent regrets, with a link to watch the webinar back at their own convenience.
13. Ask for Feedback
What did attendees like about your event? How did attendees feel about your speakers, and what was the attendee experience? Reach out to them for feedback on what they enjoyed, and what they would like to see changed for the next time. It’s not too early to generate excitement for your next online event, and there’s always room for improvement. At the same time, not everyone who attended will turn out to be the right target demographic, and their feedback will also help you improve your future marketing efforts.
14. Measure the Event Success
Be sure to collect and analyze available data about your event. How many registrations did you have for the event as a whole and any individual sessions? What were the demographics of the attendees? Did you reach your target audience?
How many people opened the emails you sent them, and how many clicked on the link to the event landing page? Who filled out a post-event survey, and what were those responses? Did you generate any leads from the event? All of this data can be used to help you measure the success of your virtual event.
15. Repeat the Process
Now that you’ve completed your first of many such events, you’re ready to repeat the process and host multiple events! The more you host virtual events, the better your process will become until you’re a seasoned pro.
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