Smart marketers know how important brand is. It goes so much deeper than a logo and color scheme, it’s the thing that makes what you’re trying to tell people resonate with them, and allows them to connect with your business. But an organization with a healthy approach to branding isn’t just going to think about the business as a whole. There are times when the business brand isn’t suited for the task at hand, and that’s not a failing of the work you did to build it—it’s just a fact of circumstances.
One of these times is when you’re planning and executing a virtual event. In reality it applies to all events, but it’s 2020, so “all events” pretty much means virtual events right now. Your business’ brand could be strong or it could need a lot of work, but either way it’s unlikely that it can shoulder the full burden of your event. What your virtual event needs is its own brand. Here’s how to get started on thinking about what that should look like.
Don’t throw an existing brand out entirely
As we’re entering Q3 of 2020, it’s likely that if you had an event planned for this year, you’ve already pivoted it from in-person to digital. We’re several months into the COVID-19 pandemic and, for the most part, organizations have made the adjustments they need to make for this calendar year.
But “for the most part” doesn’t mean everyone. Some businesses held out hope longer and are just now ready to go online. And for others, 2020 isn’t the issue—it’s time to start planning for the 2021 version of an annual event that either occurred before shutdowns and social distancing started, or events that had to be rushed online (or canceled altogether) for this year but deserve a more thorough treatment than they got for 2020.
If there’s an existing brand for your event, you do not have to completely abandon it. Especially if it’s an annual deal, or if you’ve already started promoting the event, your audience has seen your content and they’re familiar with your brand. Making massive changes now just for the sake of making them is only going to lead to confusion and annoyance, and it could hurt your attendance.
This is the situation that IMPACT found themselves in for Digital Sales & Marketing Day 2020. Director of Demand Generation Kristen Harold lays it out:
We only had a few weeks to develop Digital Sales & Marketing Day, so in our case, we pivoted our existing DSMW branding to the virtual event. This wasn’t just because of a short timeframe; we didn’t want the virtual event to feel disjointed from the in-person event since we were marketing to the same audience.
They’d already hit the homestretch for marketing the event—scheduled for early April—when the coronavirus hit, so not only did they only have a few weeks to act before the day of the event, but the bulk of the content was already out in the marketplace. Changing things drastically simply wasn’t an option, and whether your event is in a month or six, it’s not necessary for you to make major changes if the horses are already out of the barn.
Adjust for the virtual setting as appropriate
All that being said, there are likely going to be changes that you have to make. After all, there are real differences between an in-person event and a virtual event. You’re not going to have to balance between what looks good on a screen and what looks good printed, for the most part, because a lot of the signage and other collateral you’d be handing out won’t be necessary. Color and design can be based solely on digital needs.
Most importantly, if there are things you’d planned to do for the in-person setting that just don’t work for a virtual event, do not force it. Going online can be both a blessing and a curse. You’ll have the kind of freedom you wouldn’t imagine otherwise, but there are things that could end up on the cutting room floor. Don’t try to fit your favorite square peg into a round hole.
Don’t downplay digital
In the past, there was maybe a bit of a stigma towards virtual events. I know that at least for me, somehow a webinar felt like less of a big deal than going to an all-day conference at an event venue. This was always a little silly, but the first half of 2020 has brought that to the forefront. We’ve been forced online, and many of us have run or attended virtual events just as good or better than in-person events of the past. Everyone’s in the same boat and we all know the score. People are not going to look down on your event because it’s online-only.
So don’t hide it, or even downplay it. Be upfront and proud about running your event virtually. Show off what makes it awesome. Talk about the ways you’re making it unique, the things you’re going to do that you wouldn’t have been able to do in person. Running an event online no longer means it’s “lesser” than another event—and frankly, it probably makes it more attractive to a lot of people—so lean in.
Don’t let the brand waver or change
Brand consistency is critical to marketing success. The whole point of a brand is to provide a solid foundation for repeatable marketing wins, and to give a touchstone or connection point for your audience to hold onto. If your brand is constantly changing, and doesn’t carry over between different media or even just different ads, it’s going to lead to confusion.
The move to digital means you’ll have a different set of assets than you would have for an in-person event. Signage is out, but you’re likely going to need expanded or improved presentation decks, built in harmony with the event software you’re using. Landing pages, social posts, and ads take on an even greater importance—potential attendees might be able to overlook mediocre work if your event is in person, but for a virtual event, it’s critical that you show your digital chops from day 1 of promotion all the way through to your final post-event communication (and, honestly, beyond).
Don’t allow brand instability to torpedo your hard work. Keep it consistent, and allow it to guide your audience from their first encounter with your event all the way through.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
If you’ve been a good brand steward, your overarching company brand should be in good shape. It’s consistent, you know who your audience is, and you know what they’re looking for and how to give it to them. Brand management and stewardship is really important, and if you’ve done a good job with it, that’s about to pay off.
When you’re branding your event, you do not have to completely divorce it from your existing organizational brand. In fact, it might be a good idea to try to harmonize between them as much as you reasonably can. There are two major advantages to this, and which one carries more weight will depend on the status of your existing brand(s) within their marketplace.
Bolster your event’s brand
Your organization’s brand likely has a lot of blood, sweat, and tears put into it. You didn’t just start that process yesterday—it’s been ongoing since the business was founded, whether you all knew it or not. If the brand is strong, it has a lot of equity with the audiences you care about. In other words, when your brand speaks, people will take notice.
You can use that to kickstart your event’s brand. Obviously if you’re putting on an event you’re going to announce that, but building a relationship between your event’s brand and your organization’s means that even post-announcement, everyone who sees anything related to the event will know for certain that it’s connected with a brand they know and trust. That’s momentum.
Bolster your business’ brand
If your organization’s brand isn’t a heavy hitter, this can work the other way as well. People might not think of your company as a thought leader in the space today, but if they spend a day or part of one listening and learning from a collection of speakers you gathered and facilitated, they’re going to walk away believing in your business.
That belief will take hold all the faster if you do a good job of synchronizing your event brand with that of your business. Attendees will naturally associate the experience with your brand and vice versa, which means whenever they come across you in the marketplace, that positive association will come through once again. And again, that’s momentum.
Smart branding, successful event
Your event will suffer if the extent of your branding effort is to spend five minutes brainstorming a name before you announce it. Dive in deeper, like you would with any other branding project, and figure out what the true essence of your event is and put that at the center. With that, and with these tips, your virtual event should have a brand strong enough to go toe-to-toe with the biggest names in your industry.
Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.
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