How to host virtual events: Tips for publishers on how to respond to coronavirus pandemic

Media and publishing businesses have relied on live events to connect their communities and generate revenue from sponsors and exhibitors for years.  Now many are realising that their next event will have to be delivered online and are wondering how to host virtual events.

First you need to step back and work out exactly what your reader community and your sponsors are looking for from a live event, and then build up the elements that can deliver that online.

Why virtual events are different

I ran a virtual version of the live Specialist Media Show a few years ago, using the Ivent platform. We ran a dozen webinar sessions over two days, attendance was good, and it doubled over a four-week on-demand period.  But the online stands attracted very little traffic.

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Beware of thinking that you have to replicate all the elements of a live event online. It’s a different medium, just like a web site isn’t a print magazine.

You can’t trap your audience into listening to boring speakers or sponsor sales pitches, they can click away at any time if they are bored. They are unlikely to spend all day glued to their screen and headset. They might want to dip in and out during the day or catch up a week later.

Planning your schedule and content

But the great advantage is that online content is not as ephemeral as a live event. As a media brand, you use your influence to convene the influencers and innovators in your market. The content you create together can be accessed by your audience for weeks or months. You can turn it into premium content on your main website or use it as a promotion on social media.

The first assumption to drop is that all your content has to be crammed in one day in multiple streams. You can spread it out over several days, allowing your attendees to select the sessions they want to attend, and avoid clashes. And an on-demand period, even just for a couple of weeks, is essential.

Online content has to work harder without the live presence of the speaker. If you can, include video, to hold the attention of the audience. Mix up your sessions, with interviews, panels, and TED style keynotes as well as set piece presentations.

This style of event requires top notch moderation skills. Your host must be as good as a broadcast anchor, teasing out good answers from their guests, and bringing in audience questions. Speakers need to be coached, have time to rehearse, and do a tech check. Consider pre-recording crucial sessions as a backup.

Creating value for sponsors

Virtual stands don’t always work. Push your sponsors towards creating valuable content, whether that is a presentation or taking part in a panel.

Virtual event platforms track who attends which session, who asks questions, and who downloads sponsor content. All valuable intelligence for sponsors.

Sponsors measure RoI on live events by leads generated. So pitch your pricing at a similar level if you can generate a large online audience and get them engaged.

Offering networking for delegates

Delegates value the networking at live events, but how can you replicate this online? Many virtual event platforms require fairly detailed registration and offer the chance to create a profile, possibly populated via a LinkedIn profile. Even the simpler platforms like Crowdcast have a live chat stream, so attendees can spot who else is attending a session and connect directly.

Some more sophisticated platforms like Hopin offer small group sessions, where those interested in a specific topic can join a video group, or just participate in chat.

Or you can use a separate private online community platform (eg Guild) to help delegates connect and chat about popular topics, moderated by the event host.

Delivering value to delegates

Many live events depend on attendee/ visitor revenue as well as sponsor revenue. How do you establish a price for a virtual event, especially when it is replacing a regular live event?

You could consider bundling with any other paid online content subscriptions you offer. Or offering a “two for one” so a colleague can also access the content.

How to market an online event

The usual principles of live event marketing apply. Make sure your database is comprehensive and accurate. The event website is even more important than for a live event, as it controls access to the content as well as promoting speakers and topics.

Remember that if registration is free, only 35 to 50 per cent will show up on the day, so have a strong programme of reminders.

If your event is spread over several days, you will need a marketing campaign to maintain interest during the event. And don’t forget the on-demand period – this can be crucial for delivering on lead gen promises to your sponsors.

Segmenting your audience is more important than ever, especially as you are now marketing the individual streams and sessions, not just the entire event.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan (pictured) has launched, grown, acquired and sold specialist media businesses across print, digital, live and virtual events. She now advises independent media owners on digital strategy, and chairs media conferences.

Find more practical articles on all aspects of digital media strategy here.

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