The headline of this article was the question we at MarketingProfs started asking ourselves earlier this year as we realized that our annual event, scheduled for San Francisco, wasn't going to happen.

You would think that a company that has been hosting virtual, live marketing education for years would have no qualms about turning its flagship in-person B2B Forum into an online event. You'd be wrong.

We knew the online event couldn't and shouldn't be the same experience, but we wrestled internally about what it should be instead.

Our core mission was to try to create the same energized, connected feeling our attendees get from the in-person conference.

Here are four things we learned during planning and execution.

1. Live virtual event sessions don't mean better

Are you fighting with your company about live sessions vs. pre-recorded? According to our attendees, a lot of us are.

In an effort to mitigate technical issues and have some quality control over the sessions, we decided to have all of the presenters (except for our final keynote with Kevin Carroll) pre-recorded.

However, we were worried about the "canned" feeling of the sessions. To counter that, we...

  • Were transparent and told attendees the sessions were pre-recorded
  • Had a moderator and the speaker say a live "hi" at the start of the session
  • Had the speakers watching their session with the attendees to live-chat, answer questions, and joke with the participants in real-time (we called it a watch party)
  • Encouraged attendees to post questions for a live Q&A at the end (other attendees could vote on which questions they wanted answered)

Takeaway: Virtual became a completely different but not "less than" experience. Attendees actively participated during the sessions instead of just watching. Pre-recording also helped us keep to our schedule!

2. Still expect the unexpected—but realize it's just different

Anyone who's ever planned a live event knows that there are always issues with the hotel, rooms, food, session flow—heck, even with the weather. There is no perfect event, even if it seems that way to your attendees. Virtual events are no different.

  • Leave plenty of time for technology selection. Just as with selecting a hotel, it can take a long time and lots of "site visits" to pick a technology to host your event. Because this tech space has exploded, many vendors are backed up. It may take time to even get a demo. And, though this type of technology has existed for years, the popularity of it means new companies are entering the space every day, which means lots of choices to sort through.

  • Check all of your channels because questions pop up in the most unexpected places. Despite having a "get help" button in the virtual lobby and an info desk that was manned throughout the event, we hopped over to check our PRO Facebook group and saw questions coming in on that channel as well. We quickly started posting important announcements in that group, on Twitter with our #mpb2b tag, and in the event platform itself.

  • Have separate "mission control" real-time communication for the entire team. Since we were all sitting in our homes, we couldn't run to our event lead with problems we were coming across. Using a real-time chat channel, separate from the environment (we used Slack) helped everyone stay connected, quickly report issues, and laugh throughout the day.

Takeaway: Just like with in-person events, anything can happen—just different things. Speakers are late, there are tech issues, a participant's corporate IT blocks the platform provider you selected, and on and on. Have a guide for the event staff team, a schedule, platform training, and a real-time mission control.

3. Rethink everything

Everyone jokes about death by Zoom, but we've all got digital fatigue. We've also have to think about how to keep participants enjoying the experience while they're also home schooling their kids, checking work emails, and worrying about the state of the world.

  • Encourage participants to turn on their out-of-office message. This tip came from our networking lounge chat, and we thought it was a great one. Learning is learning, no matter the delivery method.

  • Keep your sessions short and memorable. We were really worried about this one. Can you really learn from a 20-ish-minute presentation and a 10-minute Q&A? It turns out you can. What we found is the shorter format (along with speaker creativity) allowed speakers to pack a punch in condensed time.

  • Keynotes are no longer just for kickoff. We had four keynotes: one at the start of each day, one at lunch, and one to end the conference on Day 2. Those helped bring people back if they had started to drift away.

Takeaway: Trying to make a virtual event a replica of a live event doesn't work. Some elements can be the same, but many need to be reimagined. In virtual, it's about your content and THE WAY it is delivered.

4. Give participants the human connections they're craving

One of the things people love about their favorite live events is how they feel during and after a conference. It's a rush of ideas, fun, and feeling connected. One of the biggest challenges every marketer faces is how to translate that into an online event. How do you create that experience when you can't have cocktail parties, wow moments, and those random meetups over breakfast?

Storytelling and emotion are even more important

Invite speakers who can engage and present in a virtual environment. And think about sprinkling in sessions that aren't about your industry: We had two sessions at our event that had everyone moved to tears. There should be laughing and crying—even at a B2B conference.

Pepper in different

We kicked off the event with a flashmob exercise led by Lizzy Williamson, author of Two Minute Moves. We invited everyone to get up and move around. We then popped movement into various points of the conference with very popular Lizzy sessions. We also wrapped up Day 1 with a moving song by MarketingProfs Community Director Matt Snodgrass; we also held a photo walk session, convened small roundtables led by our speakers, Ask Me Anything's with two speakers, and a mindfulness class. And Ann Handley's hand-drawn pictures were a huge hit!

In virtual, everyone can and should participate

In a live event, you're so busy making sure everything is running smoothly that, other than cocktails and dinners (and at the info desk), organizers rarely mingle. We're there to help you make sure you get to your session, find lunch, introduce speakers. In a virtual environment, while you're making sure everything is working, you also have the chance to really participate.

The speakers weren't the only ones live-chatting during their sessions; we did, too. We also always had a few staff members in the networking lounge saying hi and participating in the chats. We jumped into session chats (and so did other speakers—which was AWESOME).

Speakers connecting with speakers

Speakers attending other speakers' sessions

* * *

MarketingProfs Chief Content Officer Ann Handley summed it up like this: "If you invite the right people, magic happens. It doesn't matter if you're virtual or in-person."

Want to see what everyone said? Check out the #mpb2b hashtag on Twitter.

TopRank Marketing was kind enough to write up a few articles about the sessions: Check out the coverage of Rani Mani's of Adobe and Ty Heath's of LinkedIn B2B Institute.

Shameless plug: Our next B2B Forum Online is happening in April! It is free to PRO members OR if you haven't gone PRO yet, register now and get all of the November sessions on-demand, Master Classes, special PRO-only webinars, and a ticket to our April event.

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Can You Create a Meaningful Experience in a Virtual Conference?

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image of Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith is the chief marketing officer and Fractional CMO practice lead at MarketingProfs. She has spent over 20 years helping B2B marketing teams prove their value to businesses in the financial services, insurance, manufacturing, technology, consulting, and healthcare industries.