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Why virtual events demand a new approach

5 min read
Jan 12, 2021

Virtual events are nothing like in-person ones.

You can’t control an attendee’s environment, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to feed off the energy of the audience, and exchanging business cards is decidedly off the table.

Despite these differences, many organizations have tried to replicate the characteristics of in-person events when going virtual—whether that meant maintaining a hefty price tag or positioning the event as the digital equivalent of their annual meeting.

But the truth is that virtual events are a significantly different experience for organizations and attendees alike.

To succeed in the virtual realm, organizations must not only acknowledge these differences — they also need to build marketing plans that support them.

This is part one of a blog series that will identify core considerations for any organization going virtual and provide battle-tested digital advertising recommendations to maximize your return on investment.

Virtual events offer a lower barrier to "attend"

A virtual event asks very little of potential attendees. There are no travel requirements, no need to book a hotel or take time off from work, and the chief thing determining whether people will sign up is their own level of interest in the subject matter.

But the relative ease of attendance doesn’t guarantee that your audience will show up and see the event through. Given the lack of commitment required of potential attendees, it’s often more difficult to drive attendance and engagement due to three main factors:

Less (or no) financial commitment

With many organizations dramatically reducing the cost of their annual event—and in some cases, making them free—your attendees are no longer committing to a high-price ticket when they register, which might make them feel less committed to fully engaging with the event.

Less psychological commitment

Anyone who’s ever attended a professional conference knows the unspoken taboo of abandoning a session before it ends. With a virtual event, attendees can tune in and out as they please without fear of judgment.

No escape from the daily routine

With travel off the table, virtual events don’t offer attendees the opportunity to escape their daily home and work routines. Most people will attend from the comfort of their homes where they’re less likely to focus intently on event content—and more likely to multitask or become distracted.

Taken together, all of this means your attendees will make minute-by-minute decisions about whether to keep “attending” your event while the many distractions inherent to being at home compete for their attention.

If an event session doesn’t seem valuable or isn’t particularly compelling, the opportunity cost of catching up on work emails—or fixing themselves a snack—may become more attractive than giving your speaker the same level of attention they would in person.

Most virtual events are going for free (or cheap)

With many organizations offering virtual events for free, the question of whether to charge your attendees will come down to the event’s value proposition.

What promise does your virtual event intend to fulfill for those who attend—and how does that differ from the value delivered at in-person meetings in the past?

To help define “value” in the virtual context, compare the limitations of the attendee experience to the standard annual meeting:

  • No change of scenery or opportunity for a vacation extension
  • Reduced value of big-name keynotes (similar content may exist on YouTube)
  • Limited socializing options with existing connections
  • Limited opportunity to engage with potential new connections
  • Limited exhibit hall
  • No food/beverage, meals, or parties

This doesn’t mean your association shouldn’t charge, but it does mean there’s significantly less of an “experience” to leverage when marketing the event.

Earning attention and buy-in will require an organization to communicate the unique value of their virtual event by:

  • Showcasing what the experience will actually include
  • Figuring out how to differentiate the event from an everyday webinar

This is especially important for an organization still planning to charge attendees. With so many of the in-person perks no longer available, asking people to pay for a virtual event won’t work with last year’s promotional playbook.

Marketing doesn’t end at registration, especially if free

Most associations build six-month marketing plans to support an annual meeting or conference.

This has changed dramatically given the shift to virtual. As organizations have unexpectedly pivoted to virtual this year, most have seen their marketing plans become as short as six weeks.

But beyond accelerating timelines, the most successful associations have also changed the nature and scope of their event marketing efforts to extract the most value from the virtual experience.

In practice, this means virtual event marketing is both fluid and ongoing:

Marketing doesn’t stop at registration

Assuming your registrants will show up is a safe bet when an event carries an $800 ticket price, but it’s not enough to hang your hat on when an event is free.

Without a significant financial investment, most registrants won’t think twice about changing their minds down the road—they may even forget about the event altogether.

To offset the risk of drop-off between registration and attendance, any organization hosting a virtual event needs to engage their guest list on an ongoing basis after registration – that means way more than you normally would.

Marketing doesn’t stop at the first session or keynote

Traditionally, the bulk of an event marketer’s work happens before an event, with attendance serving as the ultimate measure of success.

But with attendees tuning in from home, keeping them actively engaged throughout the course of a virtual event is key to preventing drop-off.

Given the switch to virtual, your marketing plan must now consider strategies and tactics to drive engagement during the event itself—and it’s every bit as important as any “pre-marketing” activities.

Marketing doesn’t necessarily stop at the last session

If your virtual event includes assets that will remain available indefinitely, like session recordings, you can extend the shelf life of those assets to continue marketing after the event. You might also extend the value of your virtual event by bringing attendees back together for exclusive post-event discussions.

Up next: Why digital marketing is key

Going virtual comes with a unique set of new challenges, but most of them can be solved quite easily. With the right digital marketing tools, you can develop a promotional strategy that helps you maximize virtual event turnout and provides you with data to make your audience targeting even more precise. Stay tuned for part two, where we'll go into more detail on digital strategies for promoting your virtual event.

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