Events

Live Events Have Changed Forever


COVID-19 has massively disrupted a thriving events industry. In 2019, events were the number one tactic to convert and accelerate leads, and a top driver of engagement throughout the marketing funnel. By April of 2020, 87% of Event Marketer’s survey respondents reported canceling their events.

The Show Must Go On(line)

By September, 68% of event planners reported that half or more of the events in their pipeline were being planned as online-only or hybrid. Just as quickly, concepts like Zoom Fatigue entered the cultural lexicon as half of the workforce began working remotely (and as event planners and designers struggled with execution). Crucially, event audiences started to develop new expectations:

  • To pay less. Skift, the global travel industry intelligence website, recently estimated that “virtual one-day events bring in only about a quarter to a third of what a physical conference revenues used to pre-pandemic,” and that “revenues from digital events will never get close to offline events.”
  • To skip the trip. Many of our clients have privately expressed a reluctance to attend as many events as they have in the past, citing not only health and safety concerns, but also the hectic nature of travel and its imposition on their personal lives. Skift validates this, suggesting that “about 10 to 15 percent of business travel demand may leave the market permanently.”
  • To be engaged. With reduced investment in admission and travel, it’s easy for your audience to abandon you altogether. If your event does not provide real value to your audience, streaming services, video games, social media platforms, and the myriad distractions of home stand ready to capture their attention.

Now What?

These new expectations are not going away after the pandemic. There’s nothing quite like an in-person event to make meaningful connections, but the advantages of digital events are undeniable. Digital allows people to access your event who, due to distance or ability difference, may not have been able to attend before. Digital is more sustainable because it requires a smaller physical (and carbon!) footprint. Finally, digital allows you to scale your audience far beyond the walls of any venue. If you’re in the events business, digital capability is now table stakes, whether you’re hosting an all-online or hybrid event. You’re going to need to learn new skills, use new tools, and have a capable support team. But to start, stick with the fundamentals:

Define Your Audience

Maybe you run a perennial event — you’ve known the attendees for years, and have detailed personas and contact records in your CRM. Congratulations! You’re ahead of the curve — but if you’re thinking about skipping this step: don’t.

Perform a detailed audit of your personas, and make sure your list management is on point. Segment your audience by whether you expect them to attend in person or remotely, and by the content (or content tracks) you plan to offer at your event. Consider adding personas who usually wouldn’t attend because of cost, accessibility, or distance, and make a marketing plan specifically targeted to them.

Set Your Objective

Your objective must be a concrete statement of the specific, measurable actions you want your audience to take. If you want different actions from different personas (different products, service levels, engagements, for example) capture that. If your KPI is sentiment, brand preference, or just to throw “one hell of a party,” make sure you have a way to benchmark it before — and measure it after — your event. Anecdotal evidence is important, but metrics are essential. Your accountability to these measures buys you credibility, and makes the case for your budget.

Show Empathy

Your audience just got larger and more diverse. Take care of them. One experience definitely does not fit all.

An important tool we use in experience design is the user flow. Plot out the totality of each persona’s experience from the first invitation or ad impression to the post-event follow up. Have a detailed understanding of each content track. Budget generously for breaks and networking, both for in-person and remote attendees.

Design your user flowDesign your user flow

 

Other details to consider in digital and hybrid events:

  • Offer a toll-free technical support line that attendees can call if they experience an outage, and announce or make that service visible throughout the event. Staff the lines with human beings, and minimize hold times.
  • Provide Digital Wayfinding. Create email and notification workflows to help guide your audience through their agenda. Monitor attendance and reach out to no-shows personally, if needed.
  • Ensure Accessibility. Ask your platform providers how they observe digital accessibility standards, and how you can help enhance your event for people of all abilities.
  • Make agendas, decks, and support collateral visible and available during and after the event.
  • Keep the collateral. Room drops and swag are a fun and effective way to engage your in-person audience — don’t leave the remote attendees out. Ship it in advance.
  • Collect feedback as often and simply as you can without being interruptive.
  • Staff adequately. Your in-person stage manager will not have the capacity to simultaneously manage the digital experience. You will need dedicated teams for each, working in concert. Consider digital versions of these roles as well: Production Manager, Technical Director, Lighting and Scenic Design and Support, Announcers, and even Ushers.

Design Matters

You invest in set, environmental, and exhibition design for the your in-person audience. Make sure you invest commensurately in your remote attendees — especially presenters or panels. Ensure they have the appropriate bandwidth, capture equipment, and lighting on hand to participate without any technical outages. Budget time to rehearse with your talent. This may seem like an onerous investment, but consider the alternative.

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Invest in capture equipment

 

Remote production design is a nascent discipline and done right, can ensure a magical experience. A few ideas you can consider:

  • Scale down your in-person event to comply with COVID restrictions. Think of your event space like a live TV studio, rather than a convention hall. The scale is much smaller, but you’ll get dividends in sustainability and intimacy.
  • Seamlessly integrate remote presenters and panelists with in-person programs
  • Use virtual and augmented reality experiences to connect remote and in-person attendees with your content — and each other
  • Consider engaging a wardrobe consultant for your presenters and panelists. It’s friendlier than a dress code, and it should derail any possibility of participants in less-than-professional attire.
  • Digital backgrounds can enhance the design, but use a green screen. A Zoom virtual background is never ok. Green screens are inexpensive and easy to set up — even for your remote presenters and panelists. Or go the extra mile and design physical environments for your remote presenters.

The more technically advanced a program is, the more time you’ll need to invest in good old-fashioned rehearsal. Err on the side of simplicity — it’s usually more credible anyway.

Engagement

Everyone wants engaged attendees, but if that engagement doesn’t ladder up to your objectives — or isn’t measurable — it’s wasted. Anecdotal evidence of engagement is helpful, but your stakeholders demand real metrics. Get clarity on your KPIs before the event, so that you can design experiences that give you results. A few items to consider:

  • Great food is always integral to events — especially in the food and beverage industry. Invest some time brainstorming how to connect with your remote and in-person audiences through their tastebuds.
  • Facilitate networking with cocktail hours in virtual and physical breakout rooms
  • Consider VIP-specific breakouts and pitch meetings for mixed audiences. How and where can you achieve this safely, and with privacy?
  • Build in meaningful ways for all attendees to participate in each segment of the program. Don’t simply open the floor to questions after a long presentation. Keep programs short, and design formats that allow you to collect feedback and react to it in real time.

Follow-Up

Don’t bombard your audience with a boilerplate survey. The default NPS question — how likely are you to recommend this event to a friend? — is generally not very useful once the event is over. If you followed our recommendation to collect feedback often and simply throughout the event, the post-event follow up doesn’t need so much riding on it. Get the quantitative feedback you need, compare it to your benchmarks, and celebrate — but don’t forget to use this opportunity to continue the conversation. Get qualitative feedback on the topics discussed at the event, and share it with your content creators; this is how relationships and brand preference are built.

Extend Your Investment

The value of the content doesn’t have to vanish after closing remarks; this is where digital events shine. Use the content you’ve created in this event as part of your overall content strategy and infrastructure. A few pointers:

  • Integrate event content into your brand’s content ecosystem. If it feels obsolete on your next regular content audit, retire it.
  • Atomize the content for publication on social media, and point those posts to the canonical content on your website.
  • Convert your audience with value offers, contact forms, live chat, or a tasteful combination of these, placed adjacent to your content.
  • Ensure that you own the proper licensing on all talent, music, and media before repurposing content for different media. If you can’t obtain the licenses, nothing stops you from publishing transcriptions or thought leadership connected with the event. You invested a lot of time and money in this content — make it work for you.

Get Started

If this all sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. But what seems like the events industry’s greatest liability — the inability to meet in person — is actually its greatest opportunity. The accessibility, sustainability, and scale unlocked by digital technology is undeniable, but the success or failure of your event still depends on the fundamentals. Design matters more than ever, and there is an explosion of new technology and best practices to stay on top of. How have you navigated this new world of remote and hybrid events?

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