How to Plan Virtual Events – Ideas for Amazing Online Experiences
Virtual events have been around for more than a decade now, but until the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, they were often more a novelty than a necessity for most event industry professionals.
Now the global shutdowns triggered by COVID-19 outbreaks have forced many of us to reconsider our understanding and opinion of and need for live online events, mainly because they are the only viable option to reach attendees and continue connecting with our audiences. This interest has been evident in both online searches and in the demand for virtual event management software and video conferencing software.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, virtual events were estimated to grow from $14 billion in 2018 to $18 billion in 2023. And one study of marketing professionals reported that although only 50% of them have attended virtual events and only 33% of them have hosted or participated in one, more than 70% of them who already hosted a virtual event said they were likely to host another one.
These numbers are likely to skyrocket due to the uncertainty over the COVID-19 pandemic, but interest in virtual events and hybrid events will probably continue long after societies “return to normal” because event planners will simply not want to put all their eggs into one basket and rely on their live in-person events for their entire attendee base and revenue streams.
So let’s take a look at what virtual events are and some common examples followed by important virtual event tips that can help you prepare to launch a successful online event on your own.
What are virtual events?
A virtual event is an event that is launched, delivered and attended entirely online instead of at a physical location.
Many virtual events or online events take the shape of webinars for online courses, training and workshops; online meetings like small conferences and symposiums; and online broadcasts of speeches, performances, interviews and tours. Presenters deliver information to online attendees via live or recorded video, audio or text, and attendees can often participate by using live chat or Q&A tools.
What are the benefits of virtual events?
Online events have several big advantages over in-person physical events, including:
- No need to cancel due to acts of God (virus pandemics, weather, natural disasters, etc.) - Fairly self-explanatory.
- Broader audience access - Eliminates the excessive travel, costs and time as barriers that prevent many attendees from showing up; all they need now is reliable internet access and a computer or mobile device.
- Less expense to produce - With no venue to hire, no catering, no live production crew, no rentals and other associated costs for live in-person events, your overhead for planning a virtual event drops significantly.
- Less expensive to attend - Attendees no longer have to pay for travel, transportation, parking, lodging to experience an event.
- Fewer logistical challenges - Other than basic video streaming and production equipment (computer, microphone, camera, basic lighting), there’s very little equipment to move around and set up vs. in-person events (think staging, audio video, lighting, tables and chairs, furniture, food setup, etc.).
- Digital assets of event content - Recording video and audio of your virtual event sessions and content creates golden opportunities to monetize these assets post-event or repurpose them for marketing or educational uses.
- Easier interactivity for all - The attendee experience is democratized, so while it's not as immersive as in-person events, all attendees are able to equally participate and may be more likely to participate (especially introverts); this also scales out more when you factor in social media participation.
- Reduced carbon footprint - Actually, practically no footprint when you consider that travel and food are far-and-away the biggest event-related contributors to carbon emissions. No comparison.
What are the drawbacks of virtual events?
Virtual events come with their own unique set of disadvantages, which include:
- No face-to-face connections (duh) - We are social beings, and although the virtual reality of online events can be cool, it is no substitute to meeting and talking to someone face to face. This shows in the premium people are willing to pay for in-person events (which is substantial and will continue to be).
- Diminished attendee experience - There's a flip side to reduced costs. With no food-and-beverage, no immersive activities like networking or dancing, no staged performances and keynotes with amazing production and lighting, no truly personal or visceral experiences, attendees simply take away less from virtual events.
- Shortened attendee attention span - Attendees often multitask while viewing or listening to an online event, diminishing their ability to retain information and take in your whole online experience. This is a HUGE factor and should not be overlooked.
- Less revenues - Simply put, attendees, sponsors and exhibitors don’t expect to pay as much for a virtual conference as they would an in-person conference because an in-person event is a fully fleshed out experience, whereas virtual events are more unidimensional. For example, try approaching exhibitors for a virtual event with the same price point you offer for your live events and prepare for an unwelcome reply.
- Less commitment for attendees - No-show rates for virtual events tend to be much higher than for in-person events (rule of thumb is to expect a 50% attrition rate). This is mainly because many people determine when they are registering they can more easily skip a virtual (especially if the cost of attending the virtual event is free or nothing ... literally nothing to lose).
- More potential for technology issues - At an in-person event, how your event technology performs is dependent almost solely on the expertise of the production team. For a virtual event, the performance of your event technology is dependent on the hardware and software used by event producers, participants and all attendees (yes that is a lot of people), making your margin of error (and need for customer support reps) dramatically larger.
- Difficult to make changes on-the-fly - It’s difficult to make wholesale changes to any event - in-person or virtual - in real time. But for virtual events, the logistical challenges of having staff and participants dispersed virtually across the Internet can be unusually difficult, especially if you need to make changes fast to topics, formats, presenters, technologies, etc. And for presenters themselves, it’s very difficult to read a virtual room to adjust your presentation as opposed to reading a real room full of in-the-flesh guests.
- No swag - Hey, it may seem small, but sometimes the small things (like gift bags, goodie bags, giveaways, etc.) can make a big difference for individual attendees.
Types of Virtual Events
It should come as no surprise that the specific advantages and disadvantages of virtual events work in the favor of events that are focused on conveying content and not so well for events that are focused on creating and developing relationships (like networking and meet-and-greets).
NOTE: In the study we cited earlier in this article, of the marketers and sales pros who were surveyed, 85% stated that they preferred in-person events and 92% said they believed they would receive more leads at an in-person conference. That's no coincidence.
As such, here are typically the event types that make for the best virtual events:
Training and Classes
Courses, seminars and the like translate well into the virtual world, simplifying audio and video content delivery and allowing attendees and students to learn and interact with the presenter.
Interviews and Presentations
Whether it’s one-on-one interviews, virtual panel discussions or TED-style presentations by keynote speakers, virtual events are great ways to attract and keep an audience.
How-To’s and Tours
The old saying goes “showing is better than telling”, and that’s why a great engagement strategy for new customers or users of your product/service is to walk them through what you offer and how to make the most of it. Perfect for virtual venue walkthroughs and product use instructions.
Marketing and Sales
Online events are fast becoming a key element in the marketing strategy for many product and event marketers, especially for reaching a broad audience to promote an idea or product (like product launches) or as a content marketing tactic.
Although there is no substitute for a live musical or comedy performance, in a pinch a virtual broadcast of performance will do, especially if the audio and video recording is well done. Great for presenting multiple artists at multiple locations.
Meetings and Conferences
Virtual events platforms are beginning to make it possible to approximate the total engagement of a larger meeting or conference, creating an online environment with many virtual rooms and spaces for keynotes, sessions, exhibition halls and one-to-one or group networking.
You can see we left relationship-building gatherings out of the virtual event examples listed above, but that’s not to say that you can't build participation and engagement into your online events through tools like live chat, as we will discuss next.
Key Technology Elements of Virtual Events
If you are a virtual event planner, there’s no escaping the wide range of technology tools you will need to embrace to ensure your online events are successful. With that said, you are probably using many of them to run and promote your current in-person events, so the learning curve is already shorter than you think.
Here is a quick rundown of the elements and tools you should at least familiarize yourself with if not become competent with.
Event Website / Webpage
This is the focal point of any virtual event because it’s the primary portal for marketing your event; creating online content for marketing and SEO; collecting registrations; communicating updates; and having attendees log in on event day to participate. Your event webpage or website should have the ability to post image galleries (for speakers, sessions/tracks, etc.), event schedules, videos, registration/RSVP forms and more.
Email is still the best way to 1) promote your event to your target audience and communicate with registered attendees, and 2) coordinate with your virtual event planning team and participants. For the former, use tools like MailChimp or Constant Contact. For the latter, use an email client like Gmail or Outlook.
Virtual Event Planning Tools
Just as essential as video conference applications, event planning software apps like Planning Pod help you and your team track all the vital details and enable you to collaborate with participants (speakers, performers, etc.), trade virtual event ideas online and share event schedules, detailed event budgets, files, digital assets and more. Also, team collaboration apps like Slack are also a big help.
Event Registration Form
You want your attendees to be able to sign up for your online event effortlessly, and you also want to be able to collect their data and payment details (if you are charging a registration fee) efficiently. Hence you need an online event registration form that you can embed on your website.
Live Video Conferencing
Most virtual events include broadcasting a live video and audio feed of presenters, so a video streaming or conferencing tool will probably be a requirement. This will need to be browser-based and compatible with a variety of devices (computers, tablets, smartphones) and platforms (PC/Windows, Mac, Android, etc.).
Here are the types of video conference applications available that fall under the broad heading “virtual event software” that you should be aware of.
Live streaming tools
These tend to be the free variety of video streaming tools like YouTube Live, Facebook Live and Instagram Live where you can stream a video and audio feed through your YouTube/Facebook/Instagram account to users of those platforms. Although these aren’t meant to be comprehensive webinar or conferencing platforms, they can serve you well if you simply want to broadcast an event for free using a basic set of tools.
Virtual meeting software
These applications are built more for private one-to-one or small team meetings and span from basic video meeting software to larger applications like Zoom, GoTo Meeting and WebEx. Common tools include screen sharing, session recording and integration with business tools like electronic calendars and group chat. Most online meeting software limits the number of attendees/participants per session.
Robust virtual meeting software platforms like Zoom, GoTo Meeting and WebEx as well as Adobe Connect and ClickMeeting also offer webinar capabilities, which allow you to broadcast an event to dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people. Webinar software is what most event planners think of when they are looking to broadcast a virtual event, and this category of software will probably suit the needs for a wide majority of online events. Typical features can include HD video/audio broadcasting, scheduling, registration forms, email notifications, live chat, Q&A, polling, session recording/hosting and reporting. It also typically has much larger limits than meeting software on the number of attendees, depending on the package you purchase.
Virtual conference software
If you are planning to go big and try and simulate a larger conference or exhibition on the Internet, this is the kind of platform you will need. Virtual conferencing tools offer everything that webinar software has plus things like virtual lobbies, unlimited virtual meeting rooms and classrooms, room-to-room “navigation”, exhibition halls with virtual booths, networking lounges, silent auctions, resource centers for attendees and lots of live chat and communications tools for attendees, presenters, sponsors and exhibitors to interact. These tools let you recreate a trade show online, and they include applications like 6connex, vFairs, Accelevents, INXPO, BigMarker and ON24.
Presentation and Recorded Video Content Streaming
Your streaming/webinar tool will also need to have functionality to present slideshows or presentations (PowerPoint, Google Slides, etc.) as well as pre-recorded videos, images, PDFs and any other asset that you may want to show attendees during your event.
Engagement and Participation Tools
Enabling two-way conversations between presenters and online attendees as well as between attendees themselves is a great way to boost engagement, so look for platforms that offer live chat, virtual networking rooms, Q&A capabilities, live polling, attendee note taking and personalized asset libraries.
Video and Audio Recording Equipment
This element always gets short-changed but can be the most critical, because if the equipment you use to capture the audio and video signals are of low quality, then why bother planning the event at all. High-res web cams or even nice mirrorless cameras or DSLR cameras are solid options for videos. Well-built external microphones can be a huge asset to capture great sound (and don’t have to cost a mint). And a ring light will do wonders for the quality of the presentation (not to mention make your presenters look great).
Best practices for virtual event planning
Virtual event management requires you to assemble all the skills and insights for planning in-person events but with a special focus on key elements and with a larger emphasis on technology and data.
To be honest, more than a few event industry professionals feel as if they have skimped or let down their audience if they don’t try and pack as many amazing details and elements into in-the-flesh events. And although this strategy usually works in-person, an over-the-top approach can sink your virtual events.
In fact, it’s best to try and keep virtual events uncomplicated and straightforward so your attendees have a few clear choices of activities and content and aren’t overwhelmed with options. It's best to try and do a few things amazingly well instead of lots of things that will get overlooked or might fall flat.
With that said, here are 12 virtual event ideas and some additional do's and don'ts that will keep you on the path to planning a memorable live online event:
Know your audiences' needs and desires
There is no substitute for knowing exactly what your target audience wants and appreciates, and it’s a great idea before you begin your planning process to send out an electronic survey to your target attendees to identify upfront what kind of experiences and content will resonate with them the most.
Have a singular purpose of what you want to accomplish
The best brands in the world have a singular message and identity, and this is the kind of clarity you should strive for in defining the purpose behind every virtual event. Narrow your focus so that all planning activities serve one overarching objective that you want to achieve. After that, you can start to brainstorm virtual event ideas and scope out your content and programming.
Pick a date and time that is convenient for your audience
Because virtual attendees can be so easily distracted with multitasking or "work emergencies", the date(s) and time of day that you present your virtual event are of vital importance. Find the days of the week when your attendees are less busy, and identify those dayparts where they naturally take breaks and breathers. Those are your golden moments.
Keep your technology as simple as necessary
Loading up your virtual event with lots of tech bells-and-whistles won’t impress most attendees (unless they are an early-adapter tech-hungry audience); they will most likely scare them away. So keep your technology simple and easy-to-implement for your virtual audience.
And if you feel over your head, either hire an expert or pair back your tech, because if you implement a virtual event platform or video technology that takes too much time, effort or expertise to manage, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Keep your sessions on the shorter side
Because of the challenges keeping virtual attendees’ attention, each session should be in the 15-30 minute time frame. Nuf said.
Have two point people - one behind the scenes and one on camera
Ideally, a well-organized in-person event should have a lead coordinator directing staff, vendors and participants on the floor as well as a master of ceremonies ensuring everything flows smoothly on stage. Same goes for virtual events, except the coordinator is communicating via cell phone, text message and/or Slack and and the emcee is handling introductions and transitions online.
Test everything and practice for every circumstance
A dry run - complete with a full run-of-show timeline - is a must for all events, virtual ones included. You should also test every piece of event technology, communications system and internal process over and over again and prepare for technology failures and outages, even going so far as to have backup systems and protocols in place.
Use every marketing channel at your disposal
Because virtual events don’t have physical capacity limits like in-person events usually do, if you want to maximize attendance and/or revenues, you should also maximize your usage of online event marketing tactics, including email, pay-per-click ads, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, content marketing (blogging, guest posting, etc.) and affiliate marketing (like having your presenters and speakers sell registrations to their customer/marketing lists).
Be prepared to fully support attendees
Consider it a given that your attendees will have a variety of technology issues, including logging in, browser and equipment incompatibilities, inadequate or choppy bandwidth and no video or audio signal. Identify the issues you will most likely have to address and then work backwards from there to come up with a playbook that your support team will follow to walk through these issues with attendees on event day.
As another great way to support your attendees and to expand your audience even more, you may want to consider translating your virtual event into multiple languages and offering closed captioning.
Measure every piece of data you can
One huge asset that virtual event planners should take advantage of is the immense trove of data available to you. Because everything is online, most of it is measurable, including:
- Total tickets sold or RSVPs collected
- Signed-in attendees vs. registered attendees
- Sessions viewed, session interactions (chats, questions) and dropoff rates
- Website traffic (new vs. returning visitors, etc.)
- Email stats (opens, clicks)
- Social media engagement (likes, comments, follows, etc.)
- Downloaded assets (videos, white papers, etc.)
- Survey and poll results
- Return on investment / ROI and total revenues
By tracking all these metrics, you have a wealth of information with which to better market to your target audience and craft an even more appealing online experience for them next time.
Record and repurpose all content
The other huge asset available to virtual event planners is the recorded content you have at your disposal after the event is over. This evergreen content can be used for a variety of purposes, including marketing future events or repackaging and monetizing.
Follow up with attendees post-event
Once the final session ends, you are not finished. Now is the time to post all those content assets on your website or virtual event portal so your attendees can view sessions they missed or view them again. Now is the time to send attendees a post-event satisfaction survey so you can see where you hit the mark or can improve. And now is the time to start laying the groundwork for your next virtual event by pre-marketing it to your attendees.
How to monetize virtual events
Speaking of monetizing … let’s consider all the ways that you can generate revenues from your virtual events.
But first, a little about the life cycle of a virtual event and how it differs from in-person events.
Because virtual events involve fewer logistics, fewer moving parts and fewer personnel to run them, the turn-around time for planning them is usually measured in weeks, not months like in-person live events. So everything is condensed with planning virtual events, meaning you can start planning 3 months in advance rather than at least 6 for in-person events, and your marketing push can start 4-6 weeks before the event date.
Oh and registrations usually spike for virtual events around 2-3 weeks prior to the event date, so it’s advisable to concentrate your marketing efforts in that final 2-3 week window.
Based on those parameters, here are some tried-and-true virtual event ideas for generating revenues from your online events:
Ticketing and registration
Generate an initial surge of signups with an early-bird pricing special and then use regular pricing for the final 2-3 weeks prior to your event to maximize revenues. Also offer affiliates or resellers (like partners, professional organizations, your speakers or participants, etc.) a commission and possibly even a discount to their lists or members.
Start selling sponsorships the minute you have set your schedule and have booked your main presenters. Include advertising packages and maybe even a speaking or interview slot for each sponsor.
Advertising sales and exhibitors
You can sell website display ads, email ads and bumper ads on your recorded video content (depending on how much you want to dilute your primary message on your event website and email marketing blasts). If you are doing a virtual convention, virtual exhibitor booths enabling live chat with attendees can be part of the ad packages.
If your virtual event is geared more toward sales and marketing a product or service, obviously the event isn’t the product but rather you will be focused on selling your product during the event or creating sales opportunities for down the road. Building brand awareness is always nice, but your goal is to collect as much prospect data as possible and in following up with your prospects after the event. Connecting your virtual event software to a robust event CRM solution is a great idea here.
This revenue source is especially vital for non-profits. Make sure to allow for attendees to donate above-and-beyond ticket fees and consider registration ad-ons (like clothing, swag, VIP experiences, etc.) and online auctions to bump up your revenues.
Are you planning more virtual events after this one? If yes, put together a multi-event package where you sell registrations to multiple events for a significantly discounted rate.
That’s a wrap on our virtual event ideas for now. But let us leave you with one thought…
If there’s one thing you should focus on above all others in planning an online event, it’s to give your audience something of true value. Get that one thing right and your attendees will leave satisfied, feeling like their time was well spent and likely to attend another one of your events. Which is all any virtual event planner can really ask for.