From dealing with algorithm updates to becoming accustomed to new acquisition channels and technology, marketers are used to being agile. Even so, the widespread cancellation of live events made even the most experienced professionals take a deep breath and rethink their strategies.

In March 2020, our team at Element Three had to transform a three-day in-person event into an engaging digital experience—all in 19 days.

Here are some of the biggest lessons we learned along the way.

1. Digital and in-person conferences are not the same

When transitioning a live event into a digital experience, it can be tempting to simply reformat the content and publish it online. But just because you could do that doesn't mean that you should.

Instead, go back to the foundation: why you're hosting the event in the first place. The purpose of the event should be what drives the strategy of the digital event.

For example, if the goal of the event is to generate sales, the end digital product is probably going to look different from another that has its goal the providing of an engaging networking experience.

Once you know why you're spending time and energy on the event, making decisions about format, packaging and collateral, length, and overall experience should become a easier.

In our case, Newmar's annual dealer meeting was the company's biggest opportunity to showcase new products to dealers. So that was what our virtual event focused on—showcasing the product, engaging dealers, and educating them about the new updates and features of the 2021 product line.

2. Err on the side of being concise

Just because your conference was scheduled to take place over the course of three or four days doesn't mean your digital event needs to last the same amount of time. The more concise you can make the content—while not sacrificing any important information—the better the engagement and retention of your audience.

For the virtual event we launched, we made sure to create distinct paths that attendee dealers could navigate to—from keynote addresses to individual product walkthroughs. The more organized and on-point the content was, the higher the engagement and probability that the audience consumed the entire video.

3. Bring on help if you need it

If you've never planned, organized, or executed a virtual event, chances are good you don't have the necessary technology in place. The good news: martech has exploded over the past few years, and there are lots of options out there. The bad news: vetting technology and getting up to speed on how to use it takes time—a luxury you might not have.

Whether you bring on a partner or you buy a new piece of martech to help bring the event to life, the most important thing is to plan for it. Choosing to own all the logistics and content yourself could save you money, but it will also take more time and internal resources to bring it to life. Plan accordingly.

We had already been planning the in-person dealer meeting when businesses started canceling events. Once we knew the meeting had to take place virtually, we brought in a video platform partner to help with production and the content library that dealers used to access the event.

In the end, it took our team, the video team, and our client's internal team to get the job done.

4. Clear communication is (still) critical

When you're planning an event, people want to know what's happening and when. That doesn't change when you go digital.

Just as you would for an in-person event, set expectations up front. Let your audience know how long they can expect sessions to be, how they'll be able to log on, whom to contact if they have questions, what they can expect to learn from each piece of content, and so on.

For our event, we had to make the decision to go virtual in a matter of days. On our end, everything seemed to be changing constantly, and we didn't want dealers to be confused. We were intentional with how we communicated; as a result, we ended up retaining roughly 85% of the dealers planning to attend the in-person event.

Ultimately, confusion and disorganization give people an excuse to drop off or skip the event entirely. You must effectively and efficiently communicating important event details.

5. Analytics are a major upside of going virtual

When hosting an in-person event, you'd likely gather a few pieces of information—name, email, company, job title, etc.—about attendees through the registration process. In the world of virtual events, the possibilities are endless—but only if you plan them.

My advice: take advantage of the digital platform. If you're hosting a virtual event, think through how you're gathering information, what information to gather, and how you'll use that information to engage your audience.

For example, if you were hosting an in-person conference, it might be close to impossible to track which talks and breakout sessions certain individuals attended. With a virtual conference, you could track the different paths people take, how long they engage with a session, capture every question they have through virtual Q&A, and what kinds of topics they seem to be interested in. Then, with that information, you could follow up after the event with relevant e-books, whitepapers, and blog posts based on their interests.

Though nothing really compares to the experience of an in-person event, the biggest benefit for marketers shifting toward digital events is the ability to gather valuable information—and use it to enhance the customer experience.

* * *

As the marketing world quickly shifted to digital, widespread event cancellation and re-imagination were a lot like ripping off a band-aid: It stings at first, but it needs to happen at some point.

Though they can be tough to pull off, virtual events are a marketing muscle that businesses will need to learn how to flex from now on.

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Lessons Learned From Turning an Event Virtual in 19 Days

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image of Grady Neff

Grady Neff is senior marketing technology manager at Element Three, an Indianapolis-based full-service marketing consultancy.

LinkedIn: Grady Neff