Real Insights About Virtual Events
This week’s blog might seem a bit contradictory. To save you from having to attend another webinar or virtual event, we’re connecting you directly to some real-world, expert advice on creating and marketing better webinars and virtual events!
We’re guessing you feel like most of us do: The novelty of online events is wearing off, even if the necessity isn’t. Chances are we’re going to be planning and attending strictly virtual or hybrid events for the foreseeable future. So, we asked Trey Smith for some insights about keeping these experiences fresh and successful.
A certified meeting professional and digital event strategist with nearly two decades of experience designing and executing B2B events, Smith is vice president of events for Simpler Media Group, Inc. (SMG). He currently oversees executive-level conferences and online events aligned with SMG’s popular native digital publications, CMSWire and Reworked.
Marketed to an audience of three million plus digital professionals, SMG/CMSWire events—including its flagship DX Summit—made a very quick and successful pivot to virtual last year in response to the pandemic. Using what they learned in the process, Smith and his team at SMG responded by making some year-over-year changes in both its virtual event marketing and design strategies.
We were curious to hear Smith’s insights for not only adapting to shifting circumstances but also taking virtual events to the next level. We began by asking him two very basic questions.
SLS: What criteria determine the success of a virtual event? What could possibly go wrong?
TS: Number one question—does it work? Functionality is fundamental. And everyone is susceptible to failure. Recording content gets lost. Or only certain people can see and hear what’s going on. Not all platform companies are necessarily prepared to accommodate the stress of a popular event. New players in virtual event hosting keep popping up, but there is a lack of stability.
Even the most seasoned pros saw issues during the pandemic when they were pounded with high usage. It just wasn’t possible to build up infrastructure fast enough. And we’re still seeing some epic fails for big events. I recently learned about a major industry tradeshow where the exhibits were completely inaccessible to attendees. A lot of money had to be refunded to exhibitors and attendees and sponsors. No one wants to be in that situation.
SLS: So, how can you anticipate and solve for all the potential pitfalls?
TS: You really can’t. Like I said, no one is immune to potential problems. But you can be smart. From the start, you need to plan an event that is platform agnostic and scalable. And you need to have three or four back-up plans in your pocket. If possible, prerecord some of the presentations on video and augment with live Q&A or other interactive elements during the actual event. Always, always create a library of content people can access easily if the event fails. It won’t be the exact experience, but if done right, it can be very successful.
The other big thing to remember is keep it simple. So many new platforms think they have to be super designed and flashy. That just means it’s complicated. If the audience could spend a week or two playing around with the platform and figuring out all the bells and whistles in advance, it would be fantastic. But that’s not realistic.
People prefer simple UX. They don’t want to spend time finding what they need. They appreciate not having to jump through hoops to do what they want to do. And that includes the “fun” stuff meeting planners add to make virtual events feel more engaging and interactive, from gamification and dance contests to virtual happy hours. It must be easy to participate—otherwise, it’s a waste.
SLS: Are there distinct advantages to virtual events? Is there a silver lining?
TS: I suspect, given the option, most people would choose in-person experiences. But, on the plus side, virtual events have really democratized things.
They give a lot more people access to a lot more content—content that probably would have cost money pre-Covid but is now either free or more affordable. Not having to plan or get your boss’s approval for out-of-office time or a piece of the travel budget is a very attractive proposition.
There’s also a financial advantage for organizations with limited budgets. They can leverage high-profile speakers they never would have been able to book in person to boost interest and attendance.
And virtual events also democratize networking. There’s a whole social psychology at play with in-person meetings that just isn’t a factor virtually.
SLS: So, what holds people back from registering for virtual events?
TS: The audience has become a much more discerning crowd. That keeps pushing us to execute well and market more strategically. One big lesson: The registration process better be frictionless.
For us, that goes beyond prefilled forms. It also means alleviating fear of commitment or worry about possible conflicts coming up that might prevent participation. These aren’t big deals for free virtual events. The stakes are low. But if there’s a fee involved, it can affect decision-making. So, we always let potential attendees know the content will be available on demand after the live event.
There are varying opinions about this in the event industry and valid arguments for both sides. If your organization is big on engagement and exclusivity, pushing FOMO makes sense. But if it’s numbers you’re looking for, you’ll want to push post-event access to get as many eyes on your content as possible.
For Simpler Media/CMSWire, pushing on-demand access makes sense not only before the event but also after. It actually opens up some valuable marketing opportunities. We run a 30-day post-event campaign offering access to event content that not only generates activity among registered attendees but also delivers new people who didn’t respond to our original event marketing and sign up beforehand.
SLS: Can you share an example of how your experiences moving to virtual in 2020 have influenced your current event and marketing strategies?
TS: Probably the most significant change was moving DX Summit from one big event last year to a series of quarterly virtual events in 2021. For years, this conference has been—and hopefully will be again—a highly anticipated and attended in-person experience. But we realized moving it online offered a different set of opportunities—opportunities to extend our reach, increase engagement, create multiple touchpoints, and support our ultimate goal of building a ‘community’ that’s active and engaged year ’round.
We just hosted the Digital Experience Summit Winter Session in February, and there’s already conversation and excitement building for what’s coming next. Our approach for the quarterly sessions is much like it’s always been—offering a wealth of valuable content and using various marketing streams to promote it. But we’re also introducing the quarterly events one at a time to keep the door open for adding some kind of in-person component in Q3 or Q4.
And we’re capitalizing on the new cadence to make it effortless for first session attendees and anyone accessing the post-event content library to get access to the remaining three virtual events in the 2021 series! The goal is to compound attendance rates and increase word of mouth.
SLS: Thanks, Trey!
At Street Level Studio, we use creative branding, design, and marketing campaign strategies to boost registration and engage audiences before, during, and after our clients’ events. We’d be delighted to help make your next webinar or virtual event an exceptional experience, too!