During the first few months of the pandemic, most event marketers were in panic mode, picking up content from canceled in-person events and dropping it into virtual platforms. Their No. 1 concern? They just wanted the technology to work. But as time has marched on, the conversation is evolving and turning back to what experiential pros do best: engagement and connection.
In the spirit of the rising tide floats all boats, event marketers more than ever are looking to support one another and share information to help solve pain points related to virtual events. So, we reached out to a range of companies for candid commentary on clearing hurdles and cracking the code on next-gen digital experiences.
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Indeed, it’s hard to get creative in virtual events when we’re beholden to the technology. But as event marketers get smarter about contingency planning, they’re learning, in some cases, to sidestep platforms altogether.
SAP’s SAPPHIRE NOW Reimagined virtual event team was prepared for any and all issues in the lead-up to its virtual event in June. When the event faced a technical failure that left users with error messages as they attempted to access the opening keynote, the team moved quickly to its content repository plan and redirected the keynote address to Twitter’s Periscope streaming video service as well as LinkedIn and YouTube.
“Have a backup plan for if all your backup plans fail. We had three backup plans and all failed, so model the worst-case scenario in advance to be able to react immediately, have clear escalation paths in place and delegate authority to enable quick reactions,” says Nicola Kastner, senior director-global event strategy and thought leadership at SAP.
Because virtual events are a completely different medium for event marketers, ultimately, part of this pre-planning process should involve bringing in multiple stakeholders, Kastner says. “Do not underestimate the significant amount of heavy lifting required to bring the organization on this journey with you. Sales teams, content creators, you name it, all need to understand how things are different in this new medium, and how to embrace it.”
Event marketers have been so laser-focused on content delivery that the goal of bringing people together gets lost in a sea of on-demand sessions and live broadcasts—and mouth-ajar-screen-time-fatigued-faces. Instead, event marketers are starting to refocus on community building through bite-sized sessions, gamification and discussion forums.
For Cisco Live’s virtual experience in July, the team resized what was a five-day event with 1,000 sessions into a two-day event with “easy to consume” content and contests to keep attendees motivated to stay tuned in.
“There was a lot taking place on social media and it was just buzzing the whole time,” says Kathy Doyle, director-global Cisco Live conferences. “We created contests and real-time social engagement activities, which made it feel like an interactive in-person event.”
Leaderboards kept track of which attendees were posting the most about the event, while designated social media filters gave them a chance to digitally don a Cisco Live hat (the Cisco hat is a big deal at the physical conference). There was also a TikTok dance contest and a dedicated #CiscoLive Social Lounge where attendees could socialize via Twitter and Instagram. Other engagements included Q&As with academics, authors and explorers; Zumba and yoga classes; virtual volunteer activities; session polling and surveys.
As a reward for participating in some of these activities, attendees could earn prizes including phone sanitizer, virtual assistants like the Google Home, Apple TVs, #CiscoLive bobbleheads and Explorer Passes to Cisco Live 2021.
As event marketers steer toward more interactive programming, they’re often faced with unwieldy group dynamics as attendees flood the chat with banter and all use different cues and functions to chime in, especially on video conferencing platforms. Moderators, who used to be able to control the conversation in a room with a microphone and visual cues, have a more active role to play to make discussion forums valuable.
Liberty Mutual Insurance’s event team is zeroing in on its “virtual culture” and establishing and sharing guidelines and rules for engagement ahead of time that, it hopes, will become the new normal and grow stronger with each event it hosts.
“For us, some groups respond better to different norms based on their existing dynamics, so we’re building and evolving the culture of each program individually,” says Kerry Prifty, director-leadership and customer programs at Liberty Mutual Insurance. “I find that after the first virtual program, these new norms create a shorthand for groups to interact with each other and subsequent meetings are more impactful.”
Companies are attracting larger audiences than ever before through virtual events, which makes managing, analyzing and parsing the data a challenge, especially since, for many companies, there’s no baseline to work against.
Ellie Mae for its Virtual Experience 2020 program in late April attracted more than 6,000 registrants—twice that of the in-person show. The team made sure it tracked everything, from how long a user remained logged in to the platform, every piece of content they downloaded, every comment, how much of a video a user consumed, and then established a scoring model to the data. From there, the team created affinity groups of users based on their engagement that they could package and deliver to sales.
“The advice I would give, and this is kind of what saved us, is: collect everything that you can early on,” says Auden Hinton, senior manager-web services at Ellie Mae. “Make sure you have your KPIs lined up at the start of the event and you go in with everybody aligned with what the end goal is. It will help alleviate a lot of the data issues.”
Ellie Mae collected 100 million data points in the six weeks surrounding the event, and 75 percent of everyone that attended online were considered to be an engaged user.
Ellie Mae also leaned on pre-planning to manage content ahead of the virtual event. Leveraging the platform Contentstack, the team empowered its stakeholders to go into the platform to manage their own content, publish their own content or schedule their content (a big one) without needing developers to help. According to Hinton, this allowed the developers to focus on other aspects of the event, like tracking user behavior, data and usability.
“Automate the automatable, and that’s kind of the motto at Ellie Mae—automate everything we can in the mortgage industry, so that’s really our north star and having technology that enables us to do that, not just for our customers, but internally with our tech stack, is incredibly important,” Hinton says.
Serendipitous meetings are nearly impossible without coffee breaks, happy hours or physical hallways in which to bump into people. It’s a challenge for an industry which is all about creating lasting connections. For event professionals like David Grass, director-client strategy at Wilson Dow, personalization and recommendations will play a role in connecting virtual attendees in meaningful ways. Much of this work will need to take place pre-event, however.
“We need to embrace the mindset of a book club, and think about how we can use the data to get people to attend the right sessions and then for those sessions, send them materials to read pre-conference so that the virtual experience becomes much more of a discussion,” Grass says. “Then, it’s how do we use data to connect the right people so that you’re creating the right moments for networking within a virtual experience.”
Creating a sense of community and togetherness in the virtual event space is a big challenge, but some of the tools event marketers use in the live setting do translate well in the virtual space and may help create that sense of “place” that’s missing. Since attendees at home are used to feverishly operating with second-screens, Liberty Mutual Insurance continues to embrace the concept of an event app to help create an event ecosystem for its virtual attendees.
“Implementing a mobile app for attendee contingency communications has been beneficial for many of our groups,” Prifty says. “The notification feature is a great way to communicate instantaneously to attendees and offers a centralized resource that most are familiar with from attending live events.”
Eager to flex some creative muscle and transform an agenda into a journey, event marketers are starting to embrace a multi-platform approach for virtual events that leaves them free of just one environment (that could potentially fail) and, instead, leans heavily on a mix of social media engagements, personalized recommendations, broadcasts and video conferencing-style sessions.
The shift to virtual requires a deep recognition of the fact that everything you know about your attendees has been turned upside down as they tune in from home or socially distanced offices.
“We’re not linear people; we’re task-oriented people when we are on our computer, so the smart event agendas aren’t a Netflix, where you hope people will check it all out, they’re an Amazon with a search box,” says Brent Turner, svp-head of strategy, digital and data at Opus Agency. “What if this is mobile-first instead, what if we’re hosting an audio-only session where we tell everyone to go outside for the session; what if we host a sponsored fireside chat that kicks attendees over to a sponsor’s website. It doesn’t have to be a platform; it just has to bring people together with interesting things.”
And that’s a strategy certainly worth the extra screen time.