Hosting Successful Virtual and Hybrid Events

Hosting successful virtual and hybrid events requires careful planning, great data, and agility. Nothing can replace the experience of a live event, however most virtual events can provide a similar experience by sharing knowledge and engaging with the audience online.

The growth of virtual conferences in the near term is attributable in large part to the implications of COVID-19. Prior to 2020, most associations that hosted virtual events often had a difficult time convincing members of their merit. Now, there is no longer a need to make the case.

Virtual Event options range from offering virtual activities that extend and enhance an existing conference or workshop to creating an entirely new, distinct event scheduled at a different time. Here is a description of the four main formats:

1.Online Training / Workshops are popular online event formats. These are sessions where participants learn a skill or complete a course or certification. The trainer can have one or more interaction with the attendee, solve queries via live Q&A, share content via screen and more. It allows students to attend online classes that offer instructional videos, exercises, and practice tests.

2. A Webinar is a virtual seminar on a topic where usually the host presents a lecture or demo or you have a moderator with one or more panelists. The audience can ask questions over chat or audio and the presentation may be available for download. Webinars can feature polls, surveys, and Q&As, but the majority of webinar interaction is limited to these features.

3. Virtual Summits / Conferences are web based events that replicates many aspects of a traditional conference. In a content-laden virtual event, attendees access classic conference elements— including but not limited to multiple sessions, keynote presentations, prerecorded sessions, training and education workshops, discussion areas and/or boards, panels, networking opportunities, exhibit areas for vendors, and even sponsored experiences— all through their computer. Activities in a virtual conference may take place in real-time (synchronously), on demand (asynchronously), or some combination of the two.

Speakers and attendees usually can have two-way communication between them via audio/video in real-time. Virtual Conferences are differentiated from other online association events (like webinars) due to their more-intensive nature and they are often a multi-day and multimedia experience. Most include live sessions delivered in real-time coupled with archived recordings after the virtual conference ends.

4. Hybrid Events combine the power of in-person and virtual events. It’s a way to capitalize on the increased accessibility of virtual events while maintaining the traditional in-person event structure. An in-person event (such as a conference) incorporates livestream portions, or all of the event so members near and far can participate. Some hosts create virtual event communities for their distance attendees, such as an online discussion forum. It’s also helpful to add virtual event-specific elements such as a virtual reality tour of the venue space for the distance attendees.

Benefits associated with hosting a virtual event include increased accessibility, saving in time and money, and content to leverage ongoing. Challenges associated with hosting virtual events include lack of in-person interaction, variation in attendee technology knowledge, often a disconnect with on-demand versus live offerings, and reduced revenue and profit.

Business questions associated with virtual events include:

What “type” of event to host?

What is the length of the event?

What is the content plan?

What technology features and functionalities are needed?

Which platform or platforms will power the event?

Do we need to contract outside experts or partners to help execute the event?

What is the revenue model and what do you charge for registration, sponsors and virtual exhibitors?

The virtual conference model has evolved to be more distributed, more bite-sized, and more focused. It can’t be the same model that you’ve had face to face. Revenue can be recovered by offering smaller and more distributed options over the year. Keep in mind that expenses usually depend on the complexity of the technology of the event, not the number of attendees.

Creating an attendee-centric experience is predicated on two key factors: providing a wide variety of engaging content and providing an outlet for attendees to engage with one another and if possible, the speakers and panelists.

According to Forrester, going virtual with events that would otherwise take place in-person will require some additional pre-event communication. You cannot over-communicate in a virtual event. Be very clear on when and where attendees need to be. This will help them get more value from your event. Encourage attendees to sign off from their work email and instant messaging, just as they would for an in-person event.

What should attendees expect from your online event? How can you make them more comfortable with the experience? What should they be prepare for the online event? Answering these questions upfront will ensure attendees remain committed. Researchers recommend using speaker notices, social media sharing, and “what to expect” updates to highlight value and prevent people from “blowing off the event because it won’t be in person.”

When creating your online event registration form, add a field to ask attendees what they’re most interested in learning. Then, when you integrate registration with outgoing email messaging, you can use customize confirmation messages and updates based on their needs, goals, or interests.

If you create opportunities for engagement, your audience will be more engaged. Plan each day from the perspective of someone calling in from their living room or home office. Expect that their kids may be playing nearby.

Think of your speakers as the marquee of your virtual event. Ensuring they have an exceptional experience and good preparation beforehand will set them up for success. Provide them with technical instructions for participating in a virtual session, best practices for speaking virtually (speaking to a camera is much different than speaking on stage), and establish virtual rehearsal times to get them familiar and confident in a virtual setting.

Keynotes, while viewed individually, can employ live polling to engage attendees. Sessions can still involve live Q&A. The engagement tools provided in the form of event technology are still available. With messaging capabilities in a mobile app, attendees can meet each other virtually and set up meetings. Make sure you have a clear no-solicitation policy. And social media is a great engagement tool to leverage. Create an event hashtag and encourage attendees to post pictures of favorite takeaways from the day, office setups, and more. You may even want to explore options for sending your attendees gifts or swag via digital

Incorporate designated networking breaks between longer sessions to chat, take polls and network with other attendees. Consider hosting a video happy hour with a charismatic host to help guide discussion. And for large groups, you might host “birds of a feather” break-out happy hours where attendees can opt-in based on a specific topic or interest.

Engage virtual attendees using high-quality videos, animation, and graphics.  This includes text, videos, photos and graphics, and even gamification elements. While this may appear obvious, make sure clear language, large fonts, and high color contrast is used at all touch points—including presentations. Provide captions and visuals where possible for audio, and provide descriptions where possible for visuals. And present content in a variety of mediums. Attendees grow bored with repetitive slide presentations and pre-recorded webinars.

Survey attendees while their recall is fresh and get any follow-up materials posted as quickly as possible. Access to videos and presentations are important enough to have a dedicated team member working on it while the event is taking place.

Sponsorships and exhibitors are a critical piece in making virtual conferences profitable.

By going smaller, the quantity of connections vendors make is lower, but, with matchmaking to pair vendors with the appropriate community, the quality is much higher. How can you optimize this opportunity for sponsors and advertisers? Some ideas include:

  • Digital Lead Generation. As attendees begin to search for the right solutions ahead of our event, give them a way to follow sponsors and download content. And then turn that interest into qualified leads notifying the sponsor, each time someone expresses interest. This delivers qualified prospects.
  • Collateral and Handout Distribution. Allow sponsors to disseminate digital collateral and on-demand video before, during and after the event. This extends sponsor reach and it can improve their sales results while at the same time making environmentally responsible decisions.
  • Sponsored Content. Whether your experts are speaking at sessions or you are providing solutions that are mentioned in educational context, sponsor solutions can be part of your event. One option is branded sponsorship of sessions with digital collateral delivered to every attendee interested in that session. Also think of sponsoring tickets, virtual networking events/lounges, etc.
  • Streaming Video. In addition to putting sponsors in context with content, they can actually create content. Give sponsor presentations more reach through live or on-demand video that can be viewed on any device. This expands sponsor reach – and attendees are happy to learn on their own schedule.
  • Mobile Messages. Put sponsor messages in context with your attendee experience by selling opportunities to notify attendees about booth sessions, demonstrations or sponsored social events. Scheduled broadcast messages, which are generally pushed to a mobile device, are powerful and an effective way to generate exposure for your messages.
  • Personalized Recommendations. Attendees come to events to learn and to find solutions. When attendees browse for the right solution or look at interest-based recommendations, allow them to pay to appear at the top of that list just like they do in online search advertising.
  • Interest Tag Sponsorship. Sponsorships for “interest categories” in applications can allow sponsors to display ads or send target messages to people with specific, relevant interests.
  • Targeted Advertising. Offer ads based on target segments of your audience. Those can be based on interests, session preference, company name, title or any other characteristic.
  • Sponsor Profiles. The latest digital applications give sponsors a new, media-rich way to present their services/products and solutions. Profiles can include elements such as product descriptions, digital collateral, video and even streaming video.
  • Linked Banner Ads. Link all event ads to sponsor profiles that are tied to show-specific lead generation.

While the options for creating and delivering a virtual conference can feel overwhelming, a standard set of technologies has emerged as core components of most events.

  • An event portal functions as a “home base” for your conference. Members are able to navigate to educational resources, conference sessions, a virtual exhibit hall, networking experiences, speaker and sponsor information. It serves the same purpose, regardless of whether the event is virtual or in-person.
  • Email marketing can drive demand for an event and increase registrations, keep attendees informed before the event, and be used to engage attendees leading up to your virtual event, and finally through feedback surveys. Email is the best way to communicate with attendees at all stages of the event. Use an email marketing tool that can deliver branded, personalized emails, automate when emails are sent and to whom based on attendee data, and provide open rates and click-through metrics.
  • Registration tools allow attendees to register for virtual events, submit preferences and personal information, and provide payment if required. A robust online registration tool allows attendees to register easily and provides planners and marketers with the data they need to plan a great event.
  • Integrations ensure that vital registration and attendee data is shared between your event technology system and your virtual event platform.  It also enables this data to be shared with you marketing automation, and CRM systems. These tools keep your attendee data in one place to allow you to analyze key insights from events such as session attendance and engagement.
  • Webinar and/or webcasts tools deliver audio and video content presented by experts, facilitators, sponsors, and exhibitors. It’s common for virtual conferences to include multiple real-time presentations, and most organizations also archive these presentations for on-demand access. Additionally, organizations may develop the virtual conference experience based entirely on pre-recorded, or podcast presentations. These can be enhanced by the use of various communication tools to enable attendees to ask questions and interact with experts and facilitators in real time.
  • With virtual trade show capabilities exhibitors can create virtual booths wherein they provide presentations and educational material about their product as well as accepting live chats from interested members.
  • Online event guide and mobile event apps are the main information hub for attendees. Agendas with links to sessions puts content at attendee’s fingertips. This is where attendees pick and choose what sessions to add to their agenda and where planners gather data on session popularity and attendee engagement. These tools also connect attendees and provide messaging tools that allow attendees to network and foster connections virtually during and after the event.
  • Communication tools allow for interaction among attendees, subject matter experts, and exhibitors. These tools range from the text chat features included in many Webinar platforms to integrated discussion board capabilities in virtual conference platforms to social media tools such as Twitter. Use of social media tools is particularly appealing in hybrid events as they allow for the free flow of communication among online participants and attendees at the face-to-face portion of the event.
  • Document- and resource-sharing provides attendees with information that complements and supports presentations from subject matter experts These documents and resources may include articles, case studies, checklists, and copies of presenters’ slides—in short, the same types of materials an attendee would typically receive at a place-based event would typically receive. For events with sponsors and exhibitors, the materials may also include white papers, brochures, and other marketing materials.

The field is fragmented with options running the gamut from platform-only offerings to full-service. Sometimes associations use a mix, blending in other technologies (such as a learning management system (LMS) or an online community platform) to achieve their goals. Many associations likely already have a webinar platform and/or  a learning management system. You can coordinate with your speakers to have them present their session via an online tool (GoToMeeting, Zoom, WebEx, etc.), recording the session, editing the session, and capturing into an .mp4 file. Once you have all the sessions recorded, you can use them in your learning management system along with other LMS features to host a virtual conference. To add a live component, you can use live chat and have the presenters available at designated times to answer questions.

By live streaming sessions directly into your learning management system, users are in a familiar environment rather than introducing a new software for them to learn. You’ll need to work with your AV company at the in-person event and coordinate with your LMS provider. If your LMS is integrated with your registration system for the conference and you have Single Sign On already enabled, your users will experience a seamless transition to watch your event live. By using your LMS, you can also get feedback on the sessions, and automatically award credit and certificates to those users that are watching live.

The size and complexity of your event—think number of sessions, attendees, speakers, exhibitors, etc.—directly impacts technology. It’s harder and more expensive the bigger your event. Quick pivots do not allow for a comprehensive technology selection process. For some new to virtual conferences, your choice of technology may be a decision to revisit.

When it comes to managing the various aspects of your virtual conference, you might want to license a virtual conference platform that brings each aspect under one integrated umbrella. And there are vendors and consultants who can help you bring a virtual event to life by helping with any or all of these elements:

  • Create digital branding elements and carry these elements throughout the conference platform.
  • Configure the conference lobby, virtual trade show, and other navigational elements.
  • Upload users and create accounts.
  • Set-up educational and virtual networking sessions.
  • Produce webinars, including broadcast recording, question moderation, live streaming and podcasts.

Data you collect, what you do with it, and how it differs from an in-person event should all be top of mind for those of you making the switch to virtual or adding it to your live events. The easiest way to do this is to integrate the platform hosting your virtual event with your AMS, so data flows seamlessly between the two systems.

Pay attention to what members engage with such as specific speakers and courses, and what members struggle with, such as specific tech difficulties. You can optimize popular experiences while fixing common issues, ensuring that each time you host a virtual event, it’s even better than the last.

  • Metrics like email open rate, click through and registrations are just as helpful when hosting an event virtually as they are when you’re meeting face-to-face.
  • Tracking social media impressions for your pre-event content can more directly be translated into attendance expectations since the event is online. Online events also have specific metrics you can track that vary from in-person offerings.
  • Much like a live event, you’ll want to track how many individuals are actually attending your session. This involves tracking speaker engagements and views on your online platform. When you host multiple webinars, see what platform performs the best and maintains the highest number of views and engagement. Review the content they provided and how it was delivered if you can. Different tools, such as live polling, Q & A and surveys offer a unique view into how your audience is consuming your content, as well as signaling highly engaged attendees for follow up once your sessions end.
  • Track number of session attendees, number of questions in virtual sessions, number of poll responses, number of highly engaged attendees, number of networking community check-ins.
  • When looking to increase revenue with your virtual event, metrics that revolve around leads generated, sales pipeline, opportunities created or influenced and deals won can help you determine your event’s impact to the bottom line.
  • Following up within 2 to 3 days of the conclusion of your virtual event concluding can provide a wealth of information. Ask attendees what did they like? How can you improve the experience for the next event? The more specific feedback you can get from your attendees, the better you can make your next virtual event.

Having a plan, and the proper technology in place, will mean a pivot to digital that can be an alternative and/or complement to traditional conferences and you will develop full confidence in your ability to deliver the engaging, informative experiences your attendees expect.

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