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Event marketing nay-sayers: is it time to rethink virtual events?

Here we are, five months into a global pandemic, and virtual meetings are our lifeline to keeping business – and arguably life – running somewhat as usual.

Webinars and online events aren’t new to marketers. They’re tested mainstays of a content marketing or lead generation strategy. For organizations that put thought leadership and valuable content distribution above collecting leads, events are perhaps even more beneficial to raising brand visibility. The downside is that any event or presentation is time consuming to prepare and heavy on logistical planning. We’ve heard from many clients that the time commitment seems to outweigh the benefits, particularly for those who lack a marketing department to do the heavy lifting.

Recently, I chatted with an event planner who had been hired in early 2020 by a media organization to launch a series of small, local networking events at breweries and pubs in select cities. Obviously, the strategy for in-person events was immediately shifted to a virtual series featuring guest speakers from across the country. The silver lining? The virtual events have been attracting 3-4x the number of attendees from rural pockets of the state. These rural dwellers can’t make the case for driving an hour or more to a live networking event. But virtual? There are few barriers to participation at a time when people are longing for ways to connect and talk about something other than COVID.

Is transitioning to virtual events a smart choice for your business? First off, it’s a safe bet that your clients and industry peers are looking for ways to re-connect, whether that’s through professional development, continuing education or networking. Creative webinars, educational conferences and featured keynotes serve as not only a touchpoint with current clients, but as value-adds. Better yet, promoting your virtual event can help connect your brand with new audiences in expanded geographic footprints.

Before you decide to jump in, consider a few critical planning steps:

Develop a meaningful topic

We always start by making a list of the FAQs from clients. If a handful of clients are concerned about a topic, you can bet there are many more in their industry or position interested in the issue. Start with the top 3 questions you’re asked the most and build from there. What about email blasts you receive that capture your attention? Can you revamp a topic to fit your profession or industry? Also, how are you helping clients plan for the future? We’re still hearing from companies we work with that tackling COVID-related challenges is a top priority among their clients. Of course we’re all fatigued by COVID talk but that doesn’t erase the need for businesses to deal with a wide range of issues that spin off from the pandemic. A meaningful topic is one that audiences will find enough value in to register, attend, ask questions and engage in the topic.

Think strategically about guests and co-presenters

The purpose of this step is two-fold. Of course, you want an engaging, knowledgeable guest that your attendees will be excited to tune in to, but the right co-branded event can benefit both speakers by offering opportunities to reach each other’s audiences. Think of the people you refer clients to on a regular basis as well as other industries your clients might be turning to for various services. Chances are, their clients may be interested in what you do as well, and seeing you featured with a speaker they already know and trust gives you instant credibility and an opportunity for them to see you in action.

When thinking about a guest strategy, you might also invite a well-known speaker with name recognition that will attract a wider audience. Think about local political figures, big business names, “celebrities,” or individuals who will appeal to your audience and be able to contribute to a conversation on your selected topic.

Build an invitation list

There’s a lot of room for experimentation when you’re inviting and attracting attendees. This step will be highly customized to your strategy. While trade associations typically invite members only, you might start small with a client-only invite and build from there. Another silver lining of virtual events is that you’re not typically limited on size. And with cost effective geo-targeting tools to promote your event, you can target attendees based on audience interests and geographic location.

Don’t neglect the Q&A session

Leave plenty of time at the end of your event for audiences to ask questions of you and your guests. This is a great way for attendees to feel engaged, and to get a deeper sense of additional topics your key audiences are concerned about. You might opt to give them the chance to submit questions in advance, so you can prep your answers and go more in depth on a topic if there’s an overwhelming interest.

Be prepared for lack of participation

In a perfect world, audiences will be jumping for their chance to contribute to the conversation. But we’ve all been at an event (behind the scenes or in the audience) where the audience is just not that engaged. Have some backup questions prepped in advance, so that if you’re hearing crickets from your virtual audience you can still keep the conversation flowing. For inspiration, think about common questions you’ve been hearing from clients, or use these questions to help address certain points you want to be sure don’t get missed.

Poll your audience for feedback after the event

Even as we shift back to more in-person events, the past several months have opened a new world of virtual connectivity, and with virtual events up 1000% since COVID-19, they’re not going away any time soon. Give your attendees the opportunity to share their thoughts after an event so you can find out what’s working, what’s not, and how to better engage your audience the next time around. A simple survey within a thank-you email is a thoughtful touchpoint that provides attendees with a chance to offer feedback.

Keep in touch

There’s a networking opportunity after every event. If nothing else, find the attendees and invite them to connect on LinkedIn. Keep in touch by adding them to your list but be cautious about email fatigue. Remember, the initial strategy was to provide valuable, helpful information at a time when your audience truly needs it. Don’t get spammy with unnecessary email blasts.

Reflect, repurpose, repeat?

Your first event will likely have some bumps or glitches but take a deeper dive into your event’s performance before you decide how to proceed. Consider the number of attendees, the quality of their engagement and questions during the event, and their feedback. Did you receive direct responses after the event? What about new connections or introductions to new people or markets? It’s tempting to write off an event as a bust because it didn’t draw hundreds of people. For most professionals, the highly-qualified prospect is the one who came, engaged, asked questions and truly reaped the benefits from your content. Look holistically at the event’s performance against your original strategy before you take the next step. And if nothing else, your content can surely be repurposed into numerous other marketing initiatives.

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