With the cancellation of physical events, companies have been scrambling to host their annual conferences virtually. This is uncharted territory for many so I’ve reached out to several marketing leaders who have already made the leap to fully digital events. Alix Hart, global head of digital marketing at NVIDA, helped her organization convert its GPU Technology Conference (GTC) into a multi-week collection of live keynotes and on-demand learning sessions. Lisa Riley, head of events for Forrester, guided the annual SD Summit to a fully digital conference in only 45 days. And Mary Ellen Dugan, CMO of WP Engine, hosted the company’s annual forum last week.
Here are nine tips based on their experiences to help you plan your virtual conference.
- Set clear goals – Riley outlined three clear goals for the SD Summit: provide compelling thought leadership content from its analysts, build a sense of community for its participants and create a marketplace to connect buyers with sponsoring sellers. She believed clear objectives helped them be agile, “We didn’t have the fear of failure because we knew we were heading in the right direction. And that was really important because we had to be brave and we had to make some decisions [quickly].”
- Determine length of the event – The SD Summit retained its contiguous three day schedule but limited the times from 10:00-2:00 EST to maximize scheduled participation. NVIDIA took a different approach. Hart shared, “We elected to make GTC an extended conference and make it free. Our six-week event gave us time to develop the content, to work with our partners, and to work with the presenters to really make sure that we got the content right. Our keynote and our launches were six weeks after the start of the GTC event.”
- Integrate events and digital marketing teams – Often digital marketing teams are responsible for the pre-event promotions and post-event follow-ups. Events teams manage the experiences from registration to tear down. Virtual events are different. Hart advised, “GTC became a ‘during’ activation for the digital marketing team. There were a lot more emails and social content as ways that we could connect and remind people what’s available and bring them back to the session catalog to plan the events they want to participate in.” Riley agreed, “I think the biggest learning for us was that we had to promote much more colorfully what our virtual event was. I think we probably could have shared a lot more of the experience.”
- Balance live appointment sessions with on-demand content – Most live conferences are organized around main tent presentations that inspire a broad audience and break-out sessions that provide tailored information to smaller groups. Virtual events are no different. Riley shared that Forrester “put up our biggest thought leadership keynotes at the beginning of the day, at the beginning of the week.” and then scheduled 175 sessions to follow the keynotes. NVIDIA saved their big keynotes for the end but conducted on-demand Deep Learning sessions throughout its multi-week event. All sessions for both companies were available on-demand after their original air time.
- Optimize sessions for virtual viewing – How do you keep participants energized and engaged in a virtual environment? WP Engine’s Dugan shared, “We streamed live music and had DJs from our own employees, which was a huge hit.” Riley added, “We took a very broadcast view of how we were going to create our experience.” She continued, “The TEDx model is successful for a reason. So we shrunk our sessions down to 20 minute from 45 minutes.” And don’t forget to schedule breaks so participants can get up and move periodically. They will stay more refreshed and attentive.
- Facilitate participant interaction – One of the benefits of attending events is interacting with speakers and networking with others in your industry. Virtual events can accomplish the same goals using different techniques. Dugan explained, “We had the full video streaming of keynotes, but we also had seven chats rooms that people could go into, plus the full attendee one. We saw significant traffic in chat for those who wanted to network and ask questions.” Forrester facilitated chat sessions with every speaker after their presentations, including having speakers pose questions to their audiences. “It took attendees going through one or two sessions to understand the full capabilities. Once they got through that, it was fantastic!” said Riley.
- Select supporting technologies – Given the different types of sessions, different technology platforms will be needed. Main tent live sessions and recorded break-out sessions can often use similar platforms. Q&A moderation may need to be a different tool. On-demand certification classes may leverage your existing infrastructure. Community building and sponsor showrooms may require identifying completely new platforms. Not sure where to start, here is a link to G2’s summary of virtual events platforms.
- Make wayfinding easy – Programs and signage helps direct participants to their desired sessions at physical events. But the user experience is different for virtual events. The event platform UX is critical to assure participants can find the relevant sessions easily. Hart acknowledged this in an area that NVIDIA will enhance in the future. “We’ll try to get better about how you move from one session to the next. That might be user experience design, such as ‘If you like this then, the next thing you should be watching is this.’ We’re thinking about those kinds of recommendation engines, and how you navigate people from the first session to the next.”
- Don’t forget the sponsors – The economic model of most conferences includes funds from sponsors who are willing to pay for targeted visibility and the opportunity to have conversations with prospects. Dugan explained, “We had separate demo rooms for each sponsor. They were there to talk to attendees and show videos. It was a great way to engage sponsors.” Forrester went event further according to Riley, “We knew lead generation was a big priority. So we were able to showcase presentations and sessions by the sponsors. They had community and chat functions so they could engage with attendees. And the wonderful piece about the digital platform is that we’re data-rich. We were able to provide almost real-time data not only about who they actually met, but also who went to the session so they could go back and follow up on the leads.”
Now may be the time to plan your first virtual conference. These marketers executed theirs with as little as five weeks preparation time. With new found agility and sensitivity to delivering great content in a digital environment, you too many be able to engage your customers and prospects in a new way.