June 3, 2020 by Terry Starr

Top 10 Tips and Tricks Every Marketer Needs to Consider When Pivoting to Virtual Events


While the shift to virtual events has become the new normal in 2020, just how to do you make your event stand out from not only the competition but every other company vying for attention. Over the last several months, we researched, studied, tested, analyzed and participated in hundreds of virtual events to begin to scratch the surface of what is happening in the world of Virtual Events.

On the heels of what would be one of our first out of the gate most visible virtual industry events, the “NTCA Marketing and Sales Conference,” which like so many others pivoted from in-person to virtual, we knew we wanted to be ready to put what we learned successfully into practice.

As part of our ‘Virtual Events 180° pivot’ journey, and in the spirit of what others have done for us so kindly, we thought we would share our learnings. Here are 10 of our favorite tips, tools and tricks on how to engage your audience and leave them wanting more:

1. Audience Goals/Value Proposition (Determine key selling points)
It’s important that you determine the unique selling points for each virtual event. How might your goals change with the transition to virtual. For example, it could be a noteworthy speaker, skill sharing, an opportunity to network, and more. Whatever you choose, make sure the value proposition is clear in your marketing. This will also help inform your audience and content strategy, as well as the attendee registration goals. How will you charge for your event? How will the quality of the experience align to the perceived value?

2. Understand your Audience and Attention Span (Or Lack Thereof)

In a time when attendees are suffering from “Zoom-fatigue”—how long should a session last? We have found that 90-minutes is the maximum time you can keep someone’s attention. Think about having a panel where more than one person is speaking to make it more engaging rather than a one single person speaking (otherwise, you have got to be a strong speaker). Break up sessions with a couple of polls, maybe a video or VR. Perhaps, a giveaway where the attendee must be present to win.

3. An Agenda that Works

One of the main struggles in planning a virtual event is determining the timing (How many hours in a day? How many days? Or weeks in some cases)? Traditional in-person conferences usually run at least two days, some as many as five days. With a virtual event however, there are more factors to consider when creating your agenda. You will be up against many more factors that potentially pull your attendees away.   

How do you best structure your agenda? We have found that breaking up the sessions over at least two days with no more than four to five hours a day keeps your audience happy. Many of the Associations’ events we have traditionally sponsored in-person have gone to a series of “one-hour webinars” that run once a week for four to six weeks. 

Another factor to consider, is how many sessions do you run concurrently when thinking of breakouts. We have seen that while in-person events have four to five tracks with multiple breakout sessions, switching to a more concentrated agenda for virtual (likely due to audience attention spans) is a more successful route. 

4. Compelling and Inspiring Content and Speakers

Content is always king and with a virtual event it’s even more important. Given the number of distractions you are competing against here, your content has tomust be not only compelling, but absolutely awe-inspiring. You want your audience to remember key points about your session and be even more excited for the next one. 

Don’t weigh down your session with a crammed PowerPoint deck that can’t easily be seen. When recruiting speakers, make sure they are vibrant and energetic. A monotone speaker can lead to your audience tuning out big time. For those presenters who haven’t done many virtual events, consider training. At Calix, we invested in virtual event training for our Regional Sales teams in our transition to hosting our “Brown Bag” virtual sessions. We knew this investment in our talent would be important, especially in the ‘new abnormal.’

5. Fee Structure

Virtual event fees are always tough to gage. Should you charge and, if so, what is the right amount?  Most would not think to charge the same that you would for an in-person event, but you need to assign some sort of value to the content/experience you are offering. We have found multiple events that offer both an individual and an overall company fee. Our research found most charged some type of fee. Those fees have run from $100 to $2800. This also relates back to your audience goals, if you are simply looking for contact acquisition, with a lower consideration for upfront commitment, then a free event might be best for you. If you are looking to target a set segment where you need to generate new logo contacts, a comp pass for that segment is a good way to go. Find your sweet spot! Consider creating a strawman with three options that may make sense, what those outcomes and attendee numbers could look like at each price point.The answer will become clear.

6. Incentive/Giveaways

A staple of in-person events has always been that traditional handy tote bag (that can sadly end up in the closet in the ‘tote bag graveyard’), t-shirt or notebook that you get when you register. People love goodies and the question is how does this work with a virtual event? We feel it’s important to offer some incentive to either help draw people in to register for your event or a giveaway during the virtual experience. 

A recommendation is to work with a gift fulfilment company where your attendees could select from 2-3 different gifts that could be personalized. We have also seen other suggestions where you offer the item as part of the event and attendees click on it to request it. Raffles should be done where the winner has to be present to win. This again helps keep audience attention and ensures you have someone there at the end. Last, just like an on-site experience, let’s not forget how the incentive or giveaway enhances the experience and your brand.

7. Live or Simu-live/Recorded Sessions

This is crucial to an event success. We have all seen it in the last 60 days: Progressive has even done commercials about it! Zoom meetings where someone ends up on mute or their internet dies. This leaves you scrambling to cover. [Yikes.] We have found during some of our own webinars that there are time delays while transitioning slides due to the platform while transitioning slides which likely wasn’t a concern six months ago. 

While you do want to have some sort of “live” portion to really engage your audience, pre-recorded sessions with “Live Q & A” can be a great way to go. If it’s simply a one-hour webinar, there may not be a need to record. If you record, be sure to provide all your speakers with the proper equipment if they do not already have it, and please do expect the unexpected. 

8. Platform choice

Should Do you select a custom build or off- the- shelf solution? That could depend on your audience, industry and goals. A custom build provides you the opportunity to offer a unique experience to differentiate yourself from everyone else. An off-the-shelf solution is established and a potentially “safe and conservative solution”. This is where understanding your audience and your event goals really helps to inform your decision. Many of the Associations who have gone to virtual are using Zoom or Go to Meeting/Webinar for 1-hour long sessions where they are not looking for polling functionality. Other events we are participating in are using virtual event platforms like ON24, Intrado, as well as those with that allow for custom builds. Younger participants might prefer a “light-weight” virtual event optimized for social media, AR/VR and mobile devices, requiring minimal login processes and a richer mixed reality experience. A more conservative audience might be comfortable with a traditional login with a higher-production value.

9. Social Mmedia on Ssteroids

There has never been a more important time for social media than now. As events pivot to digital world, we need to step up our reliance on earned, owned and paid social media.

If you don’t have a brand ambassador program, this is a great time to start to build one. Start small. Identify 5-10 SME’s who you can best be the voice of the brand: Speakers, Loyalists, Influencers and Industry Bloggers who can to participate in your event (pre-, during and post-event). Ask them to engage participate by blogging or vlogging about preferably someone meaningful in your company (preferable) and/or if more appropriate, you interview them (live, simu-live, podcast series, fireside chats)…it’s all goodness. Build your brand ambassador army over time. If you already have one, you know the drill. Know your audience. Are they social? If yes, as a marketer, you know the importance of an event #hashtag. For a virtual event, it’s even more important. Ensure you search your hashtag online and make sure no one else has claimed it. Make it relevant, as short as possible and easy to remember. Stay away from impersonal sponsored posts. Do share the event details on social media with a clever teaser campaign. If you plan to run ads, target them strategically and choose the right format that will resonate with your audience that fits the personality of your brand.

10. Networking, Networking, Networking

One of the most named reasons for attending an in-person event is networking with peers, customers and prospects. A virtual event makes that a major challenge to overcome. How can you mirror that face-to-face experience when you aren’t in the same state or country, let alone the same room? We have seen companies/organizations use virtual happy hours, dedicated “invite only” virtual booth time or Zoom rooms to facilitate networking. There are so many virtual VIP experiences available now, but the important thing to consider is what makes sense for your audience. Would an invite to a virtual cooking night with Chef Wolfgang Puck play well with your customers? Or are they more of a “spend an hour with NBA star,” Stephen Curry? What we do know in the age of Zoom? Video interaction is key. A simple chat room is less personal and, in our opinion, doesn’t provide much more of an interaction than an email.