Earlier this year we brought together thousands of marketers, writers, entrepreneurs, executives, small business owners, and activists for a two-day virtual conference called Pros & Content Connect (presented by Knotch and Salesforce).
The conference featured thought leaders, including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, goop CEO Gwyneth Paltrow, and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, sharing their thoughts on how we can overcome the challenges we’re currently facing as a society—including the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice.
Over the course of the two days, we held 34 sessions with 78 speakers. We also had a virtual expo floor with 11 booths, three entertainment acts, and a curated networking feature.
The event was a huge success. We totaled over 3,000 registrants, which exceeded our initial goal. Attendees raved about the event on social media.
Most flattering was that many attendees reached out to us after the conference, all asking a different version of the same question: How did you pull that off?
We thought we’d answer that question with this guide on how to host a virtual event.
What is a Virtual Event?
Let’s start with the basics: A virtual event is an organized gathering that takes place online, rather than in-person.
These events are typically interactive and can be attended from anywhere in the world—as long as you have an internet-enabled device handy.
Virtual events are everywhere nowadays. Examples of virtual events include livestreams, webinars, AMAs (“Ask Me Anything” events), and conferences. They can be hosted on a variety of different platforms, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, Periscope, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Reddit, TikTok, or virtual conferencing platforms like Hopin, Gatherly or Bizzabo.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual events are currently all the rage. Everything from town hall meetings to get-togethers with friends are being done as virtual events.
In this guide, we’re going to focus on the types of virtual events that matter most to businesses: webinars and conferences.
Webinars are typically 60-90 minute sessions in which thought leaders talk about subjects that matter to their audience and (ideally) pertain to their brand. Attendees of webinars are encouraged to ask questions and interact with speakers during the event.
Virtual conferences are like dozens of webinars put together, with additional bells and whistles added on to create even more attendees engagement.
They boast agendas that include keynote speakers, breakout sessions, networking opportunities, expo “booths”, Q&As, and a whole lot more. Some brands sell tickets for their virtual conferences, while others offer them for free.
“The biggest challenge to planning virtual events now is that audiences are ‘Zoomed out,’ says Helen Coupe, Community Director at Knotch and the driving force behind Pros & Content Connect. “To help combat video fatigue it’s important to create an agenda with a good pace to hold their attention and find ways for them to have meaningful connections at the event through networking or sessions where they can engage via live chat.”
Both webinars and virtual conferences have proven to be quite effective. A recent poll of marketers found that roughly 43% are moving at least part of their budget to hosting virtual events like these.
Here are some ways hosting a virtual event could benefit your business.
Why Host a Virtual Event
The reason to host a virtual event right now is obvious: By and large, it’s unsafe to host in-person events due to the pandemic.
But that won’t always be the case. Many marketers predict event marketing will turn to a hybrid approach, where events include in-person and virtual components. The staying power of virtual events is a testament to their efficacy. They’ve proven a worthwhile substitute for brands looking to generate leads and build their brand.
With remote work now the norm, and interest in travel plummeting, it’s going to be a lot harder going forward to attract people to your live event. Virtual events, on the other hand, allow people to attend from wherever they please, ensuring you maximize your reach.
“One of the main benefits of virtual events is you can give people more time to focus on connecting with other people, without the stress of traveling,” says John Boufarhat, CEO of Hopin—which we used for Pros & Content Connect. “Being digital means you can create an engaging experience that connects people worldwide, not just in your locale.”
Renting a space, hiring an event planner, and flying in speakers isn’t cheap. With virtual events, you don’t have to worry about any of these costs. That’s not to say hosting a virtual event is cheap—you still have to pay for things like marketing and event software—but the costs are considerably lower. That can translate to a lower ticket price, which will only increase the amount of attendees.
“We’ve hosted three virtual events over the past two months because we haven’t had to worry about securing a physical venue, insurance, or food and beverage costs,” says Luis Antezana, President of the Seattle chapter of the American Advertising Federation. “Furthermore, we didn’t have to go looking for sponsors to offset these costs.”
The best thing about digital marketing is that everything can be measured. With an in-person event you can track registrants, attendees, and leads generated. But with a virtual event, you can get even more granular and see who attended what session, how long they viewed it for, where they purchased their ticket, how they engaged, and a whole lot more. These findings can then be used to optimize for future events.
Online Learning is Becoming More Popular
The e-learning industry is expected to grow at a rate of 10.9% year-over-year between 2019 - 2025. In other words, more and more people are warming up to the idea of online learning. Virtual events present people with another opportunity to expand their knowledge from the comfort of their own home.
People Still Want to Get Together
COVID-19 has helped people realize the value of social interaction. Large swaths of the workforce are now full-time remote, and many are seeking opportunities to interact with others through virtual events.
“There’s this feeling of normalcy that comes with talking to colleagues and meeting new people, even if it’s online,” says Michael Alexis, CEO of virtual events company TeamBuilding. “Remote workers don’t have a social outlet, but virtual events can help fill that need.”
How to Host a Virtual Event
Pulling off a great virtual event is an all-hands effort that requires detailed planning and preparation. Here’s what you need to do before, during, and after the virtual event to make sure it’s a hit.
Before the Event
The success of your virtual events depends on what you do to prepare for it. There are a lot of tasks that need to be completed, and attention to detail is key. Here’s how to plan for a virtual event.
Pick an Event Theme
What is the event about? Why are you hosting it? These should be the first questions you ask yourself. The most important part of the event is the content, so you need to identify areas of focus that will appeal to your target audience. Only from there can you determine what your goals will be, who your speakers are, and how you can promote the event.
Pros & Content Connect originally started out as a virtual version of our annual in-person conference in which we bring together marketing leaders to talk about innovations in the field of content marketing. However, as 2020 wore on, we realized we needed to change the focus of the event to talk about how content and marketing relate to the broader issues we’re facing as a society today. This changed the topics we addressed in our panels and the speakers we invited.
"Relevancy felt very important to us when we were planning Pros & Content Connect,” Coupe says. “To not talk about COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter would have been tone deaf. So we found a way to weave those important topics into the broader theme of our event, and attendees and speakers seemed to really appreciate that.”
What needs to happen for your event to be considered successful? Do you want to attract a certain number of new leads? Build brand awareness? Promote a new product? Generate revenue? And what KPIs will help you meet these goals? For instance, is there an attendance threshold you want to hit, or a certain clientele you’re looking to attract. Answering these questions will help you fine tune your event so that it delivers the highest possible ROI.
For Pros & Content Connect, we created a document detailing all of our goals, as well as what we would need to do to achieve those goals. This helped us plan the event around what would most move the needle for our business.
Pick a Time
Timing is very important for planning a virtual event. You want to pick a time that is amenable to your target audience and that doesn’t interfere with any holidays or other major events. Since it’s virtual, you’ll also want to consider different time zones too. For Pros & Content Connect, we started at 12 PM EST so that people on the West Coast would also be able to join.
Once you have your date picked out, you want to assign roles to all stakeholders. Key jobs for hosting a virtual event include Host, Tech Manager, and Chat Moderators for every video session. By assigning roles, your team can focus their efforts which will help keep your event flow more smoothly.
Choose Your Virtual Event Software
Once you have the manpower you need, it’s time to choose the software you will use to host your virtual event. Virtual event software is a platform you can use to create a long-form online experience featuring live video recordings and tools that allow attendees to interact with each other.
We’ve already mentioned a few vendors you can turn to, including Zoom, Bizzabo, and Hopin. Other popular options include Gatherly, Hubb, and ON24.
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Here are some tips for choosing your virtual event software:
- Features: Different softwares come with different features. Depending on your event, you may need virtual lobbies, public and private chats, user polls, sponsor areas, vendor channels, ticketing service, and data analytics. Creating a list of the features you require can help you whittle down your options.
- Pricing: Next you want to figure out how much your virtual events software will cost you. This will likely be your largest (and most important) expense. Marketers we’ve spoken with told us you should be prepared to spend at least several thousand dollars on your platform. As far as pricing, most platforms charge based on the number of attendees as well as features required.
- Support: Nothing sinks a virtual event faster than technical troubles. Therefore, it’s important your virtual event software vendor offers a high level of support—even if you have to pay extra for it.
“We opted for the highest tier of support with Hopin for our first event, so we would have a direct line of communication to their team during the event,” says Coupe. “They also managed a troubleshooting booth for us to help any speakers that had trouble getting connected.
Coupe also suggests speaking with people who have used the software before to host their own virtual event to get an honest assessment of how stable the platform is.
“I talked to a lot of people in my network before settling on Hopin,” Coupe says. “I also sought out a few online event planner communities and picked their brains for recommendations. The deciding factor for me was attending an event myself on the top two contending platforms.”
We ultimately chose Hopin because we wanted to provide an excellent attendee experience, and we felt Hopin offers a simple UX and lots of interactive features for attendees to use.
But Hopin is just one of many options. We asked some other marketers what software they used to host their virtual event, and why. Here’s what they had to say:
“Our default platform is Zoom. We use Zoom because of the breakout rooms feature, which allows for small group interactions. At almost all of our events, we do two three breakout rooms, which divides a large group into groups of 4 or 5 people. These small groups give more people opportunities to talk and share ideas, which boosts engagement and participation.” — Michael Alexis, CEO, TeamBuilding
“We used a live video feed from YouTube to host our virtual event aimed at teaching people how to invest in the stock market. The service allows for comments from those in attendance, which helped boost engagement. YouTube also allows you to record the event as it happens, so that you can then share it with people who weren’t able to make it. — Matthew Dailly, Managing Director, Tiger Financial
“We used Vimeo Enterprise and Vimeo Studio 6 to produce, package, and stream our company convention. They both required a bit of practice, but overall they were able to do everything we needed them to do.” — Leigh Bentley, Meeting Services Manager, ServPro
Hire an Expert
If it’s your first time using a virtual event platform, bring in someone who has done it before. If you don’t have an in-house event planner, it pays to outsource this job. That’s a step we took when hosting our Pros & Content Connect conference.
“We brought on someone who had produced events on Hopin before to manage tech checks with speakers backstage and provide A/V,” Coupe added. “Having the experts we could turn to for the unexpected when we needed to troubleshoot live issues was a big part of our success.”
Find a Core Group of Speakers
For Pros & Content Connect, we started with a core group of speakers that we knew would be great for our audience. From there we encouraged them to invite people that they’d like to share a panel with. This is how we were able to attract such a strong roster of speakers.
“Having our moderators reach out to people they know was a very effective way to attract great speakers,” Coupe says. “It also led to more authentic conversations than if you were to put four people on a panel who have never met before.”
If you’re trying to attract speakers to your event, here are a few tips:
- Utilize your speakers’ networks: It’s not just about who you know, but who your speakers know, and who those people know as well.
- Offer speakers flexibility: Speakers will be more likely to participate if they can craft their own session. For Pros & Content Connect, we offered every speaker the opportunity to be on a panel, participate in a more intimate “fireside chat,” or host a TED-style talk. We also allowed them to adjust their session to focus on topics that better suit their interests.
- Minimize the amount of work on their end: For every speaker, we provided a sample topic and list of questions that we thought might work for them. While most chose to make adjustments, reducing the work on their end made it easier for them to participate.
Some conferences charge speakers to participate or make them apply. We chose not to do this for our virtual event, instead going with an “invite only” format.
“We wanted the best people to be in our conference, and you don’t always get that when you charge people or make them apply to speak,” Coupe says.
We co-sponsored Pros & Content Connect with Salesforce. Having a big name brand helped us expand our invite list while providing the event greater visibility.
With in-person events cancelled, many brands are looking for new ways to attract customers—and running a virtual vendor table can be an effective way to do so.
Charging brands for sponsorships can also help generate some revenue. Alternatively, you could use it as a lead generation tactic—allow brands you're interested in working with to sponsor your event for free, and use it to foster a stronger relationship.
The only way to build excitement for your event is to promote the heck out of it. To do this you need to build out a marketing campaign that includes the following elements:
- An event page/website
- An FAQ page
- An event registration page
- An email marketing campaign
- A social media marketing campaign
- An event guide listing panels, speakers, etc.
You also need to understand what the value proposition of your virtual event is. What will people get out of attending? This should be made clear in all of your promotional emails, social media posts, and ads. And don’t forget to create an event hashtag, as this will drive conversation about your event online.
Outside of your website and social media, you should also promote your event on third-party platforms like Eventbrite. And make sure to leverage your speakers as ambassadors for the event. They should be promoting it to their networks as well. Make it easy for them by offering to connect your social marketing team to theirs and providing them with a social media kit.
In terms of timing, Adobe says most people register for an event 2-3 weeks in advance. Therefore, you should start building excitement roughly one month out.
Perform a Tech Rehearsal
When dealing with new technology, things have a tendency to go wrong. So it’s important to have multiple dry runs before the actual event. Event planning expert Gina Rosales of Make it Mariki Events, who we worked with on Pros & Content Connect, says you can never have enough practice before the big day.
“With virtual events, I recommend actually practicing more than if you were doing a live event,” Rosales told us. “Make sure you perform rehearsals with all your speakers, your tech team, and your moderators so you can go through your run of show, order of events, who is introducing who, when you're going to spotlight certain speakers, etc.”
Also make sure all of your equipment is functioning. This includes video and audio equipment and internet connection. It would be disastrous for a session to be cancelled because of poor connectivity.
But speakers aren’t the only ones who need to be primed. You should also inform attendees of how they can best prepare for the event:
“We see a lot of event organizers prepare a quick video or FAQ page to guide the attendees through their event,” says Boufarhat. “These pre-event communications help make sure your browser is compatible, your internet connection is stable, and lets your attendees know there will be a link to recordings if they can’t make it.”
Make it Accessible
Lastly, you need to make sure your event is accessible for everyone who wishes to attend. This means incorporating things like captions, translation services (Streamtext can translate captions into multiple languages), and the ability for users to customize their screen with different colors and font sizes.
“Going virtual should not limit people’s access,” Rosales says. “There are many ways to incorporate accessibility easily into your virtual events.”
Day of the Event
The big day is here! If you’re well-prepared, things should go smoothly, right?
The best way to approach live events is to hope for the best and plan for the worst. That way you’ll never be caught off guard when things inevitably go wrong.
“Have backup plans in place and operate under the assumption you’ll need to use them,” Coupe says.
With that in mind, here are some other tips for pulling off your live event:
Stick to a Schedule
You need to have a rundown of all sessions and events going on at all times—and try your best to stick to it. The schedule should make clear who needs to do what when, so that your entire team can focus their efforts. Building in a buffer in between sessions for quick networking/coffee breaks can also help you stay on schedule and provide your team with a few minutes of relief.
“Everything should be planned down to the minute,” says Coupe. “Sticking as closely as you can to your Run of Show will help you stay on task and know what each team member needs to do and when.”
Make it Personalized
If you’re hosting a conference, you should try to make it as much like an in-person conference as possible. This means including not just panels and speakers, but virtual vendor tables, breakout sessions, workshops, Q&As, 1:1 chats, networking opportunities, and a host or MC. Offering multiple events going on at the same time allows the attendee to customize their experience.
“We wanted Pros & Content Connect to be personalized to what our attendees cared about,” Coupe says. “So for most of our event we had at least three sessions going at once, so that attendees could drop in on whichever one they found most interesting. It also helped create excitement because there was so much going on.”
The flipside of this is that some attendees can get overwhelmed by all of the options. TJ Hoffman, COO of Sibme, found that this was an issue with his company’s recent virtual event.
“Some people do need guidance in finding the right sessions,” Hoffman told us. “With in-person events, people can walk out of a room and go somewhere else if they aren't interested. In a virtual event, it was very easy for them to move from one room to another, but not everyone could easily make a choice. It’s something we’re going to keep in mind for future virtual events.”
The solution here is to make sure you provide attendees with a schedule and FAQ sheet so that they know what’s going on and when. You should also have staff ready to answer any employee questions via a support channel.
Do It Live
People love events because they want to feel connected to other people. If you make your entire event pre-recorded content, people can tell, and your engagement will suffer.
“I've seen many organizers create ‘virtual events’ that were essentially webpages with Youtube links. No shade on that approach, but it's not engaging,” says Rosales. “There's no way to meet anyone, to chat with anyone, or see anyone. Allow for live chat conversation, call out things that are happening in the chat during the session, and engage with the audience live. That will make them feel connected to you, and make them feel seen.”
According to Eventbrite, people are more likely to interact with others during virtual events than they would during live events. But you should still help push that interaction along by asking attendees ice breaker questions via the live chat feature. Icebreakers will make people feel more comfortable chiming in, and encourage conversation amongst attendees.
One of the things attendees enjoyed most about our event was the music we played in between sessions. It may seem like a simple thing, but good music can really liven things up and increase engagement. It can also come in handy when there’s technical issues—let attendees listen to some tunes while you troubleshoot the problem!
“Music inspires movement, laughing, smiling, and dancing,” Rosales says. “Think about ways you can bring music into your event breaks to keep things engaging even while guests are just hanging out. Open your sessions with a song as people enter. Play soft lo-fi music during brainstorming sessions, etc.”
Promote the Event While It’s Happening
During Pros & Content Connect, we were continuously sharing key insights and updates on our social networks using the hashtag #ProsandContentConnect. This not only allowed new people to find our event, but also encouraged attendees to talk about our event with their social networks, which helped increase the number of people who attended on Day 2.
Most virtual event planning softwares have a “backstage” function where you can prepare each speaker for their event, including testing their video and audio. Remind each speaker before they go on to arrange good lighting, maintain eye contact with the camera, keep an upright posture, and to not speak too loudly or too softly. A poor presentation can make an online event unwatchable.
Perhaps most importantly, make sure they have notifications turned off on their phone and computer, as that can be very disruptive to viewers.
“I tell speakers to pretend like their best friend is sitting three feet behind the camera,” says Austin Iuliano, owner of Austin Luliano Inc., a social media marketing consultancy. “This will naturally make you smile and pick up your energy.”
Make It Fun
A virtual event doesn’t just have to be all business. You can liven things up and increase engagement by including some form of entertainment. For instance, at Pros & Content Connect we included a wine workshop, yoga, stand-up comedy, and a live DJ set.
Boufarhat says his clients use “micro-breaks” throughout the day to keep attendees engaged.
“Micro-breaks are another great way to keep your audience engaged with the content. By building in 15-minute breaks within the event, your attendees can refresh, catch up with emails, grab a snack, etc,” Boufarhat says.
After the Event
You made it! But your work is far from done. A common mistake some brands make is allowing their employees to take a few days of R&R after the event concludes.
There will be time for that later, but there’s important work to be done now. The days after the event are critical. It’s when you capitalize on the momentum generated from your event, and use it to meet the goals you set out to accomplish.
Here are some important post-event steps to take:
Keep the Conversation Going
Post-event outreach is a must. Send an email thanking your attendees, write a blog post recapping your event, and start booking follow-up meetings (if your goal is lead generation).
Another creative tactic is to leverage the shared experience of attending your event to foster a community amongst your attendees. Hoffman said this was an unexpected and welcome byproduct of his virtual event.
“People have continued to leverage our platform to connect with other attendees, have discussions, and share,” Hoffman says. “Of course, this helps us achieve our mission as a company, but it also helps us know what our customers (and potential customers) are most concerned about during this time, which has served as great market intelligence.”
Have a plan in place to follow up with attendees and registrants, then make sure you act on it within 24 hours of your event's conclusion, so that you continue to stay top of mind with them.
Send Out Recorded Sessions
As we just mentioned, post-event outreach is critical. And one of the best things you can use for outreach is the content from your virtual event. Send out the live video recordings of each session to your attendees, as well as registrants who were unable to attend.
By sharing the recordings, you allow attendees to revisit the parts of the conference they found most useful. You also show them that you can continue to provide them with value.
For Pros & Content Connect, we published all 34 speaker sessions on our blog, and also sent them out in a follow-up email to attendees and registrants. We’ve even found ways to repurpose some of the sessions and continue to use them in our email marketing.
How can you leverage the content generated from your event, and use it to further your marketing initiatives?
Thank Speakers in a Creative Way
Without your speakers, there would be no event. So they deserve a big thanks from your brand. But rather than a boring email, do something memorable that will leave a lasting impression—especially if they’re prospective customers.
Our design team created physical quote-books with salient insights from our conference, which we mailed directly to all of our speakers’ homes.
Of course, something like this takes effort, which is why you have to have a post-conference strategy in place before the conference even starts.
“I’d recommend organizers know exactly what they’re going to do for post-event follow-up both for attendees and those who couldn’t make it—as well as an original way to thank your speakers,” Coupe says “Everyone will be exhausted so you don’t want to have to come up with something on the fly.”
Parse the Data
The last thing you need to do is review the data collected by your virtual events software. This will help you measure just how successful your event was.
Some metrics you should pay attention to include:
- Number of registrants
- Number of attendees
- Demographic information of attendees
- Session registration
- Email open and click-through rates
- Social engagement
- Leads generated
- Average amount of time spent at conference
- Session attendance rates
- Chat engagement
- Qualitative feedback from sessions
Knotch can help with post-conference data collection. Our content intelligence platform, Knotch Measurement, allows users to collect quantitative and qualitative data from event attendees across a variety of platforms to provide you with key insights into the performance of your event.
How to Host a Virtual Event: Closing Thoughts
We pulled off Pros & Content Connect in 60 days.
It was a mad dash that wouldn’t have been possible without an all-hands-on-deck effort from our entire organization. By the time it was over we were all exhausted—but extremely proud.
The point is, hosting a virtual event is hard work. But if it’s well planned, relevant to your audience, and entertaining, it can be a powerful way to build your brand and attract a whole swath of new customers.
“Producing Pros & Content Connect in such a tight turnaround on a new platform we were all learning wasn’t easy, but the Knotch team has a can-do spirit that made it possible,” Coupe says. “Looking back it was a rewarding experience that was very valuable for our business and brand. I’ve already started planning our next virtual event and am excited to use what I learned to make this one even better.”
If you're interested in watching the Pros & Content Connect conference in its entirety, visit our events page.