The recent outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic has adversely impacted organizations across the spectrum. The events industry, in particular, has taken a massive hit as businesses continue to withdraw from planned events, creating a vortex of logistical challenges. While these cancellations were inevitable to ensure public safety, they also represent heavy losses and sunk costs for most firms.
As a result, organizations are exploring avenues to mitigate their financial predicament and this is where virtual event platforms are proving to be a practical alternative. By shifting their conferences, trade shows and exhibitions online, businesses hope to keep audiences & stakeholders engaged and uphold commercial activity.
However, converting a physical event into a virtual one can seem like a daunting and a formidable endeavor. For most organizations, the shift doesn’t come naturally. Therefore, this step-by-step guide will help event organizers understand how they can make the transition with minimal friction.
What is a Virtual Event?
Before we proceed, it’s important to have a fundamental understanding of what virtual events are as the definition might vary from person to person. In essence, a virtual event is an online micro-site that enables real-time networking between attendees, organizers, exhibitors and speakers. The exact feature set available for a virtual event differs from provider to provider.
For example, in the case of vFairs, audiences are connected through a combination of chat tools, webinars and digital content served via a visually rich interface.
Steps to Follow to Move Events Online
Step 1: Get the word out about your online event
Once you’ve decided to go virtual, you need to disseminate this decision to your audience swiftly to reduce uncertainty. If it’s done early enough, it will save a lot of your attendees the hassle of claiming refunds for their travel and lodging arrangements.
Your messaging needs to include:
- How concerns over public health are making it impossible to continue with a physical event
- Clarity that the event is being moved online, and not being completely “Cancelled”.
- Revised date and time of the virtual event, if not occurring on the same day.
- Description of how the virtual event will still deliver value
Here are some marketing ideas to help you spread this information:
- Issue a press release
- Send out a mass email to all attendees with at least 2 follow-ups
- Add posts to all your social channels, especially LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter
- Add a distinct banner on your corporate website sharing this information
- Inform your customer support department and help desk staff
- Request all partners, sponsors and speakers to share the information with their social circles as well
We’ll cover specific communication for speakers, exhibitors and sponsors in Steps 3 and 4.
Step 2: Move registrations online
The next step is to work with your virtual events provider to setup a landing page that explains the benefits of the event and the included features. Typical elements of a landing page include:
- Date/time of the virtual event
- List of benefits e.g. access the event from the comfort of your home or office etc.
- Schedule of speakers & webinars
- List of sponsors and exhibitors that are expected to attend
Next, you need to decide the registration experience of your landing page. This depends on how you were managing attendees in your original event. Your registration policy was probably one of these three types:
(a) Open Entry
This means that the event was open to the general public without pre-registration. In this case, the landing page will have no registration form and will allow access to whoever has the link.
(b) Registered Members
If attendees had to register with your office to gain entry, then you would share the list of registered members with the virtual event provider to create their accounts and also keep a registration form with the fields you wish to capture for future applications.
In this case, you would have a finite list of members that you are planning to invite. You would share this list in Excel format to allow the provider to create accounts and add a login wall to the page to restrict entry to only authorized members.
The purpose of the landing page is to act as the facade of your virtual event, motivate visitors to sign up for the event and communicate what to expect.
If your event was going to include booths and presence for exhibitors and sponsors, then the platform provider can setup a separate page for them as well.
Remember to share this page through PR, email marketing, social media and other planned marketing activities.
Step 3: Request speakers to conduct webinars
The speakers you had in mind for your physical event can still be a part of your virtual event. All they will have to do is join the event with an internet-supported device and deliver their talk.
Email or call your guest speakers & presenters and inform them how you plan to shift their sessions online. Showcase how this arrangement works for them as well as they don’t need to expend efforts on travel.
Create a schedule of webinars for the day (should be reflected back on your landing page once finalized) and discuss a slot with each of your guests. There are three types of webinars that you can choose from for each guest:
The presenter will be asked to share his/her camera or desktop and deliver the talk live using the web conferencing tool of the provider. You can reserve a few minutes at the end of each session for Q&A as well.
In this case, the speaker will pre-record a video of their talk and play it during the webinar session instead of presenting live. However, the speaker will be available for the Q&A session after the video to interact with attendees and field questions.
Just like in (b), the presenter sends over a pre-recorded video of their talk which is played for the audience. However, there is no Q&A session after the video is shown.
Step 4: Setup virtual booths for exhibitors & sponsors
If your original event was going to feature booths/stalls for certain exhibitors and sponsors, then those can be ported over as “virtual booths” on the platform.
The contact person for each exhibitor will be given access to a back-end system that will allow them to:
- Select a booth template (design)
- Upload logos, documents, videos and presentations
- Manage their users
Virtual event platforms that provide high-touch customer support usually assist these users in setting their booths up in time.
Step 5: Inform participants about chat networking
To enable attendees to interact with each other (just like in a conference), virtual event platforms provide a chat interface. Each exhibitor will need to be informed about:
- the types of chat modes available e.g. group chat and 1:1 text/audio/video chat
- the features of the chat service
- finalizing chat agents that will be available for chat during the event hours.
In pre-event email marketing, attendees need to be informed about how they will be able to engage with one another through the available chat module.
Step 6: Verify the user experience
Finally, after the landing page, virtual lobby, virtual booths, digital content and chat strategy are set, it’s important to give the virtual event a trial run to verify the experience. Organizers need to review site copy, design and uploaded content to ensure it aligns with their expectation.
It’s also important to establish a email-based help desk and communicate that to audiences to give them the ability to communicate any technical difficulty they might be facing.
Step 7: Open the doors
Before the event goes live, it’s critical to keep marketing the virtual event as much as possible to ensure maximum attendance and turnout.
On the day of the virtual event, ensure your staff and exhibitors are ready to interact with the attendees and entertain their questions. Addressing them in a timely manner will ensure the success of your event.
After the event, you can access the insights to know how the attendees interacted with your event. Send thank-you emails to the attendees who filled a form or showed interest in your event/services.
That sums up the steps you need to follow to deliver a virtual experience for your event.
In situations like these, where a pandemic is preventing a public gathering, audiences are usually very understanding and more often than not, will respond favorably to the switch to online. This is why marketing messages around the event needs to be early, clear and consistent.
The major impediment most companies face in the transition is the race against time. A virtual event can typically take anywhere between 1 to 4 weeks to prepare and setup. If you’re planning to do it within a few days, while it might be technically possible, it may not give you sufficient time to market and have audiences turn up.
Apart from that, with the right virtual event provider, the move to online can prove to be a viable alternative for most businesses to cover their losses from event cancellation.
How vFairs can help
vFairs is a virtual event provider that helps organizations conduct virtual conferences, online trade shows, virtual career fairs and other online events. If you would like to talk to a virtual event expert, please feel free to reach out to us.