Black musician preparing to do a liveshow

The Small Business Guide to Creating Sensational Virtual Events

10+ min read • Jul 25, 2020 • Jesse Sumrak

The “new normal” is upon us. Businesses are reopening, operations are resuming, and toilet paper is lingering on the shelves. However, it’s clear that some things will never be the same again—or not for a very long time. Soccer teams play in empty monolithic stadiums under the shouts and screams of a pre-recorded crowd. Restaurants serve customers outdoors with chefs and waiters always wearing face masks. And small businesses that used to rely on 1-to-1 sales meetings, conferences, and other in-person events must adapt to the new normal, too.

Company meetings, conference calls, presentations, fireside chats, demos, and more—many of the events we once enjoyed in person are going entirely online. Some brands are shifting to survive, while others have discovered that virtual events are an untapped source of marketing, sales, and team-building potential.

Virtual events were already seeing a big uptick before the coronavirus outbreak. Over 67% of consumers worldwide had streamed live video content, and 47% said they had increased their livestreaming since the previous year. And this year, due to the pandemic, Eventbrite reported a 1,100% increase in business and professional online events in April 2020 compared to April 2019.

Facebook’s Oculus Connect, Twilio’s SIGNAL, Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference—all are going virtual in 2020. Will these events remain virtual in future years after the lockdowns lift? Time will tell.

In the meantime, however, virtual events are hot. If your business is looking at hosting a virtual event, you may be a little intimidated. There’s a lot that goes into planning, hosting, and promoting a digital event. Don’t panic—we’re here to help!

This guide will walk you through everything you need to know to produce, promote, execute, and measure successful virtual events. Whether you’re hosting an internal all-hands for 20 employees or 100, or taking a conference on the digital road, these tips and best practices will help you to move forward with confidence.  

Why Your Business Should Capitalize on Virtual Events

Don’t invest in virtual events just because everyone else is doing it. Make sure these events support your business initiatives first. Here are a few pros and cons to consider before you give virtual events the green light:

Pros:

  • Safety and security. COVID-19 showed us how quickly the physical world could shut down. However, unless universal internet access fails (which might be scarier than a global pandemic), you’re always secure health-wise hosting a virtual event—and your attendees will feel safer, too.
  • Less expensive. Remove the cost of staff, a venue, hotel accommodations, meals, travel, and more, and you’re looking at much lower event production costs. Plus, lower costs mean you can sell tickets for cheaper, making it more affordable for attendees.
  • Global access. You can now invite the world to your virtual event, and it’s realistic for anyone to attend. As long as you provide on-demand viewing and other global-friendly services, the location and time zone aren’t super important.
  • Attendee growth: Since you’re not limited to a hotel or conference center’s max capacity, you can invite as many attendees as you like. 
  • Easier to measure: Gathering data and feedback from virtual events is seamless. Most software hosting platforms will gather important quantitative data for you (attendance, time in the event, engagement, etc.) as well as enable you to request additional insights (surveys, Q&As, polls, and more).

Despite all these benefits, virtual events aren’t all sunflowers and rainbows. They have their cons, too.

Cons:

  • Limited networking: A lot of event-goers attend for the networking benefits. It’s still possible to have breakout rooms and other virtual networking opportunities, but it’s a lot harder to build connections online compared to in-person. 
  • Shorter attention span: When you attend an in-person conference or event, you’re usually committing your time and money to focus on the content. However, it’s easy to get lost on your phone and in your inbox when you’re sitting at home attending digitally.
  • Increased “no-shows:” When it’s easy to attend, it’s usually easy to skip, too. Expect more digital registrants but also expect more no-shows.

If you’ve decided the pros outweigh the cons, you’re ready to move on to the nitty-gritty process of producing a virtual event.

How to Produce a Virtual Event

Your virtual event could be as simple as a video conference call or as complex as a whole studio-produced shebang with all the lights, cameras, and action. You’ll need to do research and make strategic decisions about what kind of digital event you want to produce.

Identify a Need

Make sure you have a purpose and goal you’re trying to achieve. Are you trying to increase awareness around a new product launch or build trust in a new audience? Do you want to build high-quality leads, or do you hope to drive straight conversions? Answers to these questions will dictate the kind of virtual event you should create.

Plan the Content

What kind of content do you plan on presenting? Will it be product-focused or thought leadership? Once you have an idea about the content you’ll produce, it’s time to find the presenters:

  • Employees: Your leaders, managers, and frontline employees have a lot of expertise to offer your audience. 
  • Industry experts: Don’t be afraid to reach out to other businesses in the same industry or those with complementary goods. Their brands, positions, and insights can give you access to a whole new audience.  
  • Customers: Sometimes, the customers say it best. Invite your clients to present and be a case study for your product. It’ll give you credibility—and your customers gain free exposure.
  • Influencers: You don’t always need a brand-relevant person to speak at your virtual event—and you don’t necessarily need a celebrity, either. Ask local influencers like your city’s mayor, a nearby YouTuber, or a well-known blogger to present.

Once you’ve chosen the content topic and your speakers, it’s time to decide how best to present the information. Will you have slide presentations, panels, interviews, pre-recorded videos, or live demos? Do you want to hold live Q&As with the audience?

Answers to these questions will determine the next step—choosing which tools you’ll use.

Choose Your Tools

If you’re offering a free event, you can leverage social networking tools like Facebook Live, Instagram Live, YouTube Live, or even Twitch to stream it. These free solutions provide basic yet practical streaming tools that’ll allow you to connect and engage with your audience. Plus, they’re easy-to-use and straightforward for both you and your audience. However, if you want more functionality, you may want to consider other tools.

Webinars

There is no shortage of webinar-hosting platforms. You just need to choose one that fits your use case and budget:

ON24

ON24 empowers you to create professionally branded audio and video webinars. With in-depth studio tools and data-rich integrations, ON24 offers everything you need to develop high-quality webinars.

Zoom

In 2020, everyone from your nephew to your dear grandmother knows how to use Zoom. While Zoom is primarily used for 1-to-1 conversations and small group chats, it also has webinar capabilities to host anywhere from 100 to 10,000 attendees.

Crowdcast 

Crowdcast allows attendees to join through a single URL—from registration to the live event itself to replays—helping you to create virtual events with simplicity.

Conferences and Networking

If you need greater scale for conferences or networking events, consider one of these solutions:

Run the World

If you want to go from talking at your attendees to talking with them, Run the World is the online event platform that makes it happen. With live feedback, group chats, and “cocktail parties,” your attendees get networking and a virtual event bundled into one. 

HeySummit

HeySummit includes everything from landing pages to speaker onboarding and management. You’ll still need to integrate the platform with another live-streaming tool, but it’ll manage all the other backend to-do lists necessary to put on a successful digital event.

Set the Virtualand Real-LifeStage

You’ll still need a professional virtual setting to create a polished virtual event. Make sure your slides or hosting platform have all your brand’s relevant logos, fonts, and imagery. This is an opportunity for an easy brand-awareness win—even if attendees are coming for different speakers or the content.

Don’t forget to prepare your physical environments, too. You’ll want to make sure your presenters have dressed appropriately and are presenting from a conducive location. Ensure the lighting, audio, and microphones are all functioning correctly to contribute to a professional atmosphere.

Practice, Practice, Practice

For something like an internal event or fireside chat, you’ll want to ensure you do at least 1 start-to-finish dry run. If there will be more AV and tech involved, do multiple dry runs to ensure there are no technical hiccups.

Plus, dry runs will help ease nerves and make sure everyone involved—from the IT team to the keynote speaker—are comfortable and confident with the virtual setup.

Create Backup Plans

What went flawlessly yesterday could go tragically wrong today. Make sure you have backup plans to mitigate risk wherever possible:

  • What will you do if the slides stop working?
  • Who will step in if there are audio difficulties?
  • What happens if a presenter’s internet connection dies?

Have documented backup plans ready for everyone on the team. Who knows—maybe your internet will die and you won’t be able to execute the contingency plan yourself.

Make the Magic Happen

Congratulations! You made it to event day! Now, it’s time for you to reap the rewards of all your hard work. If you’ve followed all the other steps, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. You’ll still need technical support on hand in case anything unexpected goes awry, but most of the work for a virtual event happens well before go-live day.

Repurpose Your Content

Don’t let all that high-quality content go to waste—once the virtual event is over, repurpose its content into other forms for reuse. Turn presentations and keynotes into blog posts. Compile top tips from each presenter and bundle it into a guide. Post replays on YouTube or Vimeo.

Do whatever you can to take full advantage of this content. Hours have gone into making it, and it’s ripe for repurposing.

Host a Post-Mortem

Once the event has concluded, plan on hosting a post-mortem with all the involved parties. A post-mortem is a meeting to uncover lessons learned (the good, the bad, and the ugly) from your virtual event. 

Gather your key players in a virtual room and hash it out:

  • What went well?
  • What could have gone better?
  • What was a disaster?
  • What could you do differently next time?
  • What processes need to be refined?
  • What needs to change?

Avoid making this a blame game—that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to discover holes and opportunities so you can make your next virtual event even better.

Promote Your Virtual Event Like a Pro

There’s no point hosting a top-notch, over-the-top virtual event if no one shows up. Always follow the 80/20 rule of content: spend 20% of your time creating your content and 80% promoting it. That might sound radical, but it’s key to hosting a well-attended event.

With so many businesses hosting virtual events, there’s a lot of competition. Think about what messaging you’ll need to employ to entice your audience to attend your event instead of another.

Decide on the channels you’ll use—this will be largely dependent on your existing customer data and list sizes:

  • Email: If you have large email lists of leads, prospects, and customers, tap into this audience with personalized invites and discounts to attend your virtual event. However, never ever buy an email list—that could do more harm than good.
  • SMS: SMS, or text marketing, is an increasingly popular way to connect with customers. Since everyone has a smartphone in their pocket these days, SMS will help you to increase awareness around your event and encourage signups.
  • Display ads: Create compelling ads to showcase on your customers’ favorite websites.
  • Content marketing: Write articles on your blog teasing out the upcoming virtual event. If you can swing it, try to write guest posts for other relevant websites where you can include a CTA (call-to-action) signup for your upcoming virtual event.
  • Social media: Post organic and paid content to drive traffic to your event. Encourage your employees and presenters to also share event-related details on social media by providing canned messages and creative assets that they can copy and paste.

Segment Your Audiences

You likely have a wide variety of targets you’d like to attend your virtual event: front-end users of your product, decision-makers, leaders, executives, etc. 

Each of these audiences will have different incentives for attending your virtual event, which is why you need to segment your promotions. To increase engagement and signups, send personalized messages to each target audience.

For email and SMS, this means creating separate list segments based on your available customer data. On social media, you’ll need to create different audience profiles and develop the appropriate messaging to resonate best with them.

Measure Your Progress

A bulk of your budget is going to be spent on promoting your virtual event, so you need to learn what works—and what doesn’t. Fortunately, tracking your promotional tactics is easy with most digital marketing mediums—they have tracking built right into their software.

However, if you’re investing time and money into traditionally harder-to-track tactics, like content marketing, you’ll want to explore using UTM parameters. UTM parameters are simply tags you add to the end of your URL that Google Analytics can track and organize.

Use your tracking data to influence which channels you invest in for future virtual events. For example, you may find that the bulk of your signups came from your email lists—if that’s the case, it may be more cost-effective to lower your social media ad spend and increase your email marketing budget.

Nail Your Timing

You need to send your promotional campaigns to the right people, on the right channel, with the right message, at the right time—and getting any of these elements wrong could hurt your conversion rates.

For example, if you’re sending email invites in the middle of the afternoon, your recipients may never see them. You’ll also want to consider frequency. Too many invites could aggravate your audience and cause unsubscribes—and damage to your reputation. Remember: it’s quality over quantity with your promotional campaigns.

Launch Your Virtual Events

Trying something new will always be a nerve-wracking process, but don’t let that stop you from experimenting with virtual events. No, your first digital event probably won’t go perfectly—and that’s okay. Try again and make your next attempt better.

Virtual events contain too much business potential to ignore—and they’re not going to cool down anytime soon. While many new businesses are getting their hands wet with this trending marketing medium, you’re not too late to the game. Start launching virtual events now and capitalize on all of their fantastic benefits.

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Jesse Sumrak

Jesse Sumrak is a Social Media Manager for SendGrid, a leading digital communication platform. He's created and managed content for startups, growth-stage companies, and publicly-traded businesses. Jesse has spent almost a decade writing about small business and entrepreneurship topics, having built and sold his own post-apocalyptic fitness bootstrapped startup. When he's not dabbling in digital marketing, you'll find him ultrarunning in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Jesse studied Public Relations at Brigham Young University.