If you’ve ever run an event on behalf of your organization before, you probably have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. There’s something of a rubric of the things you need, the things you can have if your budget allows, and the things you know you need to avoid. It’s not a huge mystery or anything.
When events go digital, though—whether you’re shifting a planned in-person event online or you’re starting from scratch—you aren’t going to be able to simply rely on what’s worked in the past. Sure, some of the things you’re used to having to care about will transcend the physical/virtual distinction. But there are plenty of things you’ve “known” about past events that are going out the window.
So when you’re planning a virtual event, what’s staying, and what do you need to ditch?
What to Ditch
First, let’s talk about the bits of your in-person event plan that you’re unlikely to be able to simply carry over into a virtual event. We’re not going to get into the obvious—things like catering and signage—because hopefully, if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve realized that you don’t need a bunch of posters and food if everyone is calling in from their home office. They’re going to have to make their own sandwiches.
When you plan out a typical on-site event, you’re building out the schedule within a certain template. There are variations, of course, but certain things are a given. For example, you need to schedule a check-in period for people to grab their goodie bags, get their nametags on, and probably slam a quick cup of mud to get the engine going for the first session. You’re going to need to schedule an extended mid-day break for people to eat lunch; that’s probably going to be even longer if you’re a small event and you’re expecting people to run through a drive-thru rather than providing food for them yourself. You even need to build in space between sessions for people to navigate the venue, hit the restroom, and get a quick breather.
The fact that you’re planning a virtual event doesn’t mean that all of this is totally torpedoed. You’ll still need lunch no matter where you’re participating from. People will still want breaks. But you can structure the schedule to match the way that people are participating. Build in a fun lunchtime conversation that’s a little lighter than the meat of your conference, but still informative. Make your check-in period an introduction to your event, or even an icebreaker if you’re running something a little more interactive. Don’t worry about people not having enough time to get from Banquet Hall D to Conference Room 3, just make sure there’s time to freshen up and maybe grab a snack from downstairs before clicking the link for the next Zoom session.
Years ago, we here at Element Three had a marketing conference of our own, and while it was a fun day and a really awesome opportunity to do something for the marketing community in Indianapolis, it was a LOT of work. Some E3ers were concentrated primarily on the conference for a good part of the year, and the week—and especially the day—of the conference, it was more or less all hands on deck. Everyone had a role, and while it was a great team-building day and very fulfilling, it meant that basically none of our day-to-day work got done. It was worth it, but for a virtual meeting, it’s just not necessary.
This, obviously, doesn't mean that your employees can’t participate in your event. If they think they can get something out of it, they should definitely join in! And it also doesn’t mean that a digital event is going to run itself. You are going to need some help from a few of your teammates, at least, and that team’s makeup is going to depend on the type of event or conference you’re running. But you aren’t going to need people to staff a sign-in table, or show people around the venue, or set up signage early the morning of the event. You can make do with a far smaller group of helpers that you would with an in-person event, and you should—that way, your event will be far less disruptive to the everyday operations of your organization.
Your promotion plan
For most of us, when we’re throwing an in-person event the audience is pretty simple. You aren’t likely to have the reach to bring in people from across the country and around the world, so you stay local or regional in your outreach. Space and budget constraints probably limit the scope of what you’re doing on the day, so you’ll be deciding beforehand whether you’re using your event to boost thought leadership (meaning your attendees are going to be your peers) or to attract leads and prospects (meaning your preferred attendees are going to be your ideal customers). This means that no matter whether you’re going traditional, digital, both, or something altogether different with your promotion, you’re targeting a fairly limited geographic footprint.
But if you don’t have to worry about whether or not people can afford to get to your city and stay there for the duration of your event, all bets are off. Obviously you still need to be precise about the target audience, but the options are much more diverse. This means your messaging might need to change to cater to your new target audience—at the very least, you’ll need to spend some time thinking about that rather than just going with what’s worked in the past.
What to Keep
While obviously there are some pretty major differences between an event that’s held in person and a virtual conference or event, you don’t have to totally scrap everything you think you know about events. There are some things that will carry over no matter where you’re holding yours.
When you were originally planning your in-person event, or when you dream about the all-star cast you’d bring in if you threw the perfect conference, there’s a reason you picked the people you did. They have something to provide your audience, they’re good at presenting ideas to a large and diverse group—frankly, they’re just smart people, and there’s good reason to just keep the same roster for your virtual event that you would have had for your in-person event.
There might be some turnover from your planned group, or there may be some speakers you wish you could get who simply can’t make it. But that’s okay—and that’s honestly not unique to a virtual event. Sometimes the person you want just can’t show up. There are plenty of fish in the sea, and you can make a great event with a lot of them.
Your physical collateral
I know that earlier I said you can probably toss your signage, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Usually when you go to an event, you come home with a bunch of stuff. A lot of the time you’ll get a goodie bag at check-in with pens and pads for notes, stickers, and the like. Sometimes, depending on the event, that goodie bag might get pretty fancy. Whether you’ve already budgeted for this for a planned in-person event or you’re starting your virtual event from scratch, either way you can keep the spirit of this hallmark of conferences worldwide as a part of your online event.
You will have to make some changes, though. The full range of things that people get handed at an in-person event won’t make sense for a virtual event. You’re not exactly going to be handing out business cards, after all. And you might have to make some adjustments for the fact that you’ll be sending these care packages to people’s homes, rather than handing them directly to people over a folding table. For example, a branded plastic shopping bag is not going to get through the mail unscathed. You’re going to want to go with something a little sturdier, like a box of cardboard or wood, depending on your budget. But going the extra mile to make your attendees feel taken care of will do wonders for your event.
Technology can be a wondrous thing. Obviously the easiest way to network is to get in a room with a bunch of people you don’t know—preferably within your own industry, or the industry you sell to—and talk. And obviously that’s not really possible right now, and never really will be for a virtual event. But that doesn’t mean you can’t provide a forum for attendees to network.
Honestly, for lots of people networking is a big part of the reason why they attend a large event. So if you make it known that this critical facet won’t be missing from your event, that’s big. You can do it a lot of ways—organize chats within your presentations, offer “tickets” to a virtual afterparty Zoom, or whatever cool and creative idea you can come up with. But it’s important to make sure that while your event is virtual, you still provide a venue for people to make human connections.
Your in-person event expertise need not go to waste.
Planning a virtual event is, obviously, not simply as easy as taking a typical event and moving it online. There’s a lot more thought that has to go into it than that. But there’s plenty that you can learn from in-person event planning, whether it’s adjustments to make to typical parts of the process or it’s things to throw out altogether. Take everything you know about putting on an amazing event, and think through what applies, what doesn’t, and what can be made to fit. Your virtual event is sure to be a hit.
Thomas wears a few hats—writer, editor, and European soccer expert—but his passion is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content, he's coaching high school running, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.
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