Doubtless you’ve seen other organizations and brands in your industry host online conferences and summits, but you may yet be wondering whether the benefits of virtual events are sufficient for your business, specifically. What will the return on your investment be?
I was recently asked by a large organization whether they should proceed with planning a virtual event. I wanted to begin my answer to him with the most recent data and studies that I could find, unearthing relevant virtual event statistics that could help inform a decision, and then layer on my own opinion and perspective. Here’s what I said:
First, let me share a few statistics I was researching over the weekend. From Kaltura’s survey, we’ve learned that 75% of attendees are committed to the vision of the organizers, and say they will attend virtual events even after in-person events have fully resumed. 84% of attendees would like to always have an online option available to them, so that they can attend any event as a virtual or remote attendee if they choose. Marketic reports that the average no-show percentage of virtual events is 35%. This is slightly higher than in-person events. They also shared that 80% of people join virtual events for educational purposes. The next biggest reason for joining virtual events is networking. (This is contrary to in-person events where the single biggest reason for attending is networking.)
Which suggests that not only will virtual events continue to proliferate going forward, even live events should offer a virtual or hybrid approach that affords attendees multiple ways to participate.
The challenge then is to balance your organizational objectives and goals against the potential challenges and necessary learnings for a virtual event that’s an unfamiliar medium. Fortunately, the benefits of virtual events far outweigh the investment.
In other words, even if people prefer virtual events, how worth it is it to you and your brand to sort out how to deliver a virtual event?
While, technically, a virtual event could be as straightforward as a Facebook live video, such an activity would lack the benefits of virtual events that mirror in-person events in structure. Virtual summits and online conferences feature multiple sessions and speakers, networking opportunities, brand partners and sponsors, and many other features that make them attractive to attendees.
Attendees who are very likely part of your SaaS company’s target ideal customer profile (ICP).
So we know that the vast majority of your target audience would prefer to have an online, virtual option for an event from a brand like yours, and they’re very interested in leveraging the event to learn. But just because that’s what they say they want, is that sufficient motivation to deliver a virtual event?
I’m sure if your Head of Product is anything like the ones I’ve talked to in the past, upvotes for a feature request is never the sole motivating factor for committing development resources. There has to be a use-case outlined, demand confirmed, and potential for new or retained revenue established. And the longer it’ll take to build that feature, the more benefits need to be stacked up in response, right?
If you’re the CMO of a SaaS brand taking a feature proposal to your Head of Product, you likely have a brief that spends 2 paragraphs talking about what the feature would do, then 2 pages validating why it’s needed and how it’ll benefit the company.
Hosting a virtual event is a similar level of work and commitment, and you therefore need to outweigh those costs with an even weightier list of benefits, both tangible and intangible, that the company can potentially realize through the event.
That, of course, is what we’re going to walk through today.
You’ll emerge from this article with a clear understanding of what virtual events can and can not do for a SaaS company like yours, and be in a position to customize and present these benefits of virtual events internally to your key stakeholders and decision makers as part of your marketing proposal.
If you’d prefer to watch & learn, you can sign up for the free webinar where I walk you through all of this information in a video.
I should mention that, while my focus is on working with SaaS – software as a service – brands, given that I’ve been in the SaaS space for over a decade, many of the benefits and tactics I share and teach are applicable to any vertical and virtual event type. There may also be additional benefits unique to your industry or locale, such as building community.
Tangible Benefits of Virtual Events
Right off the bat, one of the most tangible and obvious benefits of virtual events for SaaS brands is the shear number of new leads that will come in. While you will assuredly promote your online conference to your existing audiences, resulting in many of your own customers and contacts attending, most brands will reach and attract a predominance of new leads and event attendees.
More importantly, a well-positioned virtual event will bring in hundreds and thousands of qualified leads.
The theme and content of your virtual event should be determined in such a way so that it is of relatively unique interest to your target audience. The more refined and niche your topics, the more applicable and successful it will be.
For instance, when Agorapulse determined that marketing agencies entering a growth mode were their new target ICP in early 2021, I planned and executed an “Agency Summit” which delivered 50 sessions to help agencies grow and scale their services. And as a result, over 2,600 agency owners and technicians attended – most of whom were entirely new contacts.
In addition to attracting the right leads with the right virtual event, you can further qualify attendees by including key questions within the registration process to help determine specific qualifications for your SaaS pricing profile. Whether that’s number of employees or company revenue or something else, virtual events can obtain that information from the outset and help funnel new contacts to the appropriate sales pipeline.
Which brings us to the second tangible benefit of virtual events, sales!
And I’m not referring to sales derived from the virtual event leads that have been nurtured over time after the event – I’m talking about prospects who learn about your brand and unique solutions during the virtual event itself and make a decision to buy of their own accord.
This is predicated of course by the complexity of your solution and the typical buying cycle but regardless, there will be attendees at your event who are ready to buy as a result.
They will participate in key sessions and conversations that help them to frame their challenges and opportunities. They will discover your brand and realize that your solution is precisely what they need at that moment. And they will be positively impacted by the entire virtual event experience and build so much rapport and brand affinity that the conversion will happen immediately.
The more expertly you are able to strategically build out the content and theme of your event, with tactical integration of your solution, the more immediate sales you will realize.
This is where it’s particularly helpful to take the time to think strategically through your virtual event from top to bottom:
- Who are you targeting?
- What are their pain points and struggles?
- Where are they in their buyer journey?
- How can you position your brand and solution to effectively help them?
It will take more effort initially, but the most successful events are ones where the organizing brand determined their audience and theme and key learnings in advance and built an entire agenda and slate of expert speakers to accomplish that.
This is actually one of the major pitfalls confronting first-time virtual event planners! All too often, the planner (and I’m guilty of this too!) will select a theme related to the brand’s industry and simply recruit whatever speakers and experts they can get. They’ll be attracted by the names and the feasibility of contract, and let the speakers dictate topics.
As a result, the event will not be a cohesive series of sessions, but rather a hodgepodge of seemingly random topics. When I work with B2B SaaS brands to help them put together their virtual event strategy and agenda, we go through an exercise where we brainstorm their target ICP needs and use that to craft the event’s strategy and agenda. Only then do we start recruiting specific speakers or panels for specific topics and takeaways.
One topic that we address early in the planning stages of an event is whether or not there will be a cost associated with the ticket.
And in fact, simply having the conversation is important because for many brands, it either wasn’t a consideration, or there was an assumption that the event would or would not have a ticketed cost, without any real determination as to why.
Suffice to say, this is not the time to have that discussion – there are a series of questions and angles to consider that will help guide whether or not to charge for tickets. But if the conclusion is that yes, you will charge for tickets to your event, then ticket revenue is suddenly on the table!
Consider an event that I organized in 2019, Social Pulse Summit: LinkedIn Edition, which featured dozens of the top LinkedIn marketing experts and solutions. My budget for the event, which included speaker fees and promotion, was $10,000. Had I charged just $10 per ticketed attendee the event would have grossed over $40,000.
Of course one can argue that a fee of any kind might discourage some attendees, but the flipside is also true – when there’s a cost to something, there’s a perceived value to that thing, so for some audiences a registration fee may actually have a positive consequence on attendance and, of course, revenue.
One benefit of virtual events – and events of any kind, really – that is often overlooked is the creation of content. Every keynote, session and panel has the potential to become a lasting part of your content marketing strategy in some way.
Imagine what it will be like, six months from now, when you’ve pulled off your own virtual event and hosted 25 keynotes and sessions from amazing speakers in your industry.
That’s 25 recorded videos likely ranging from 20-45 minutes in length, right? You can:
- Build out an amazing YouTube Channel with those videos
- Edit the audio into a podcast and release a new episode every other week for a full year
- Publish 25 recaps & transcripts as epic blog posts
- Publish 25 sexy eBooks that you offer as digital downloads on your site or on Amazon to further brand reach
- Build a library of the content on a learning system for longterm playback and lead generation
And of course you can create mountains of social posts and short form video & blog content using pieces and snippets from all of the sessions.
The key is to think about how you can and should repurpose the content before your event so that you can plan accordingly. One of the strongest plays is to use a learning system like Thinkific to house your event content after the event. All of your attendees can be given access to the recordings and replays (for free or for an upsell), and once the site is ready, that can be an ongoing source of lead generation for your brand that leverages that event’s content for years to come.
It’s best to plan this in advance though so that you have the mechanism and platform in place from the start, can communicate that to attendees, and have the appropriate agreements in place with your speakers. With proper planning, you could have tiers of tickets available for purchase, with more expensive tiers including lifetime access to the session replays. That, too, is something I cover in depth with my client brands in our workshop.
Intangible Benefits of Virtual Events
That was the fourth and final benefit among what I call the tangibles. Leads, sales, ticket revenue and content creation are all benefits that you can and will easily track and measure. They are really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of virtual event benefits, but an important tip. Without these tangible benefits, and without sufficient volume to these benefits, it’s doubtful you would receive approval from management to continue hosting events. So it’s important to identify the cost and budget associated with your events and the exact value you can associate with leads, sales, revenue and content.
If, for instance, you spend $10k on a virtual event and you know that your marketing qualified leads are worth $35 each on average, then once you hit 285 MQLs you know you will have at least broken even on your event based on that metric alone.
But let’s talk about those intangible benefits, the ones that are very real but also very nearly impossible to measure. Benefits like relationships or brand awareness. These are important because they create opportunities for sales and retention in the future. They establish authority and awareness of your brand and solution so that, six months from now when the prospect is ready to buy, it’s you they think of.
Conceptually it’s the same as any brand investing in broadcast media such as a 30-second Super Bowl spot. You cannot and will not buy Doritos from your couch during the Super Bowl. You also wouldn’t even scan a QR Code on your screen to go check out and buy a new Chevy. But these brands and marketers know that by leveraging those moments of audience attention, they add to top of mind awareness and can watch the impact on sales afterwards.
Similarly, the next six benefits will be seen each and every time you host a successful virtual event, and there will be positive impact on your business bottom line.
Starting with the relationships you have with your existing clients.
Each and every client you have today is with you because they believe in your brand and the solution you offer. However, they all have unique businesses of their own and unique histories and experience levels. Therefore, some of your prospects are better positioned than others to fully utilize your solution.
Do you know what happens to clients who don’t feel like they’re getting the most out of your solution?
They see that monthly or annual subscription fee come up and start to wonder whether it’s worth it. They question the value they’re getting and they’re not wrong, because for them, the pain of the expense outweighs the pain of the alternative.
But what would happen if you were to help those customers achieve more? What if you could show them how to not only better utilize your solution, but better organize or manage or position their business so that it makes sense how to use your solution more?
Ecamm is a great example of this. If you’re not familiar, Ecamm offers a live streaming video solution for Macs that allows you to create a fully customizable and branded video streams, complete with guests, transitions, overlays and more. You can even use it for meetings and video recordings, as I’m doing right now. It’s powerful and sophisticated which means there’s also a level of complexity to it that some might find intimidating.
And the folks at Ecamm know this. They know that not only is their tool complex, the very nature of live video streaming creates additional technological challenges and other hurdles. So to help both prospects and existing users, Ecamm put on the Leap Into Live Streaming Bootcamp, a virtual event that brought in experts from a variety of backgrounds to help the community of attendees with every aspect of live streaming. They learned about gear, platforms, and of course the Ecamm tool itself.
Attendees came away from that event feeling confident and empowered and inspired, and existing Ecamm users were instantly better prepared to use the more advanced features of the product which, as a result, made them less likely to churn in the future.
If you include strategic content within your event that supports use of your solution, you will see a positive impact on churn afterwards.
This is, in fact, one of several virtual event ideas I wrote about for SaaS brands, in particular, as you could host an entire virtual event just for users or clients.
I’ve been working directly with influencers for years and one of the interesting observations I’ve made is that no matter where in their career an influencer is, they still have the same basic human need to feel wanted and appreciated. Regardless of whether an influencer ends up actually speaking at your event, the very fact that you approach them to talk about it will stroke their ego and make them feel good about you and your brand.
Of course some influencers will be so flattered and appreciative of the opportunity that they’ll be willing to speak for free, while others will be accustomed to charging a fee. If you have too limited budget to afford a particular speaker, that’s ok! From a relationship perspective, that’s still a positive experience for both of you as you’ve learned about them and can be gracious and complimentary. They’ll remember how you made them feel and perhaps a different opportunity will come up in the future, and that’s a valuable benefit of virtual events.
For those influencers who do become speakers for your event, you now have an additional opportunity to not only leverage their expertise and audience for this event, but to also cement a relationship that will potentially last for years and possibly multiple events.
If you start connecting with and investing in your relationships with influencers today, it will open doors of opportunity tomorrow I promise. These influencers can become speakers, promoters, partners and colleagues. And many will deeply appreciate opportunities you can afford them to be a part of your events.
Similarly, virtual events are a great opportunity to establish and deepen relationships with other brands. Because every virtual event is a potential win-win opportunity for you and a partner brand.
If you connect with another brand in the industry that doesn’t overlap your solution, but has a similar target audience, you now double your reach and event impact, don’t you?
There are many ways that you can partner with other brands, including:
- Lead sharing
- Virtual event booths
- Sponsored speaking slots
- Paid sponsorship
It just depends on your goals for the event, the platform you select, and what options you wish to employ. Make sure when you’re doing your initial planning you consider these options and determine some guidelines for how you want to structure your brand partner and sponsor opportunities.
My favorite benefit… Magical Moments
In the nooks and crannies between keynotes and breakout sessions, impromptu conversations take place between attendees, speakers, and brands. Each conversation, chat and message is a spark of opportunity for what I like to call, Magical Moments. A magical moment is when two or more people create a connection through conversation that leads to something greater, something outside of and beyond the event. That might be a partnership, a business relationship, or perhaps a lifelong friendship.
An easy example for me is how I met Emeric Ernoult, CEO of Agorapulse, in 2016. That chance meeting over lunch at an event changed the course of my career. It’s had a magical impact on my life and livelihood and as a result, it’s a meeting I’ll never forget.
I will also remember, forever, that it took place at Social Media Marketing World put on by Social Media Examiner. That brand is forever linked in my mind to that magical moment and therefore has a tremendous amount of brand affinity associated with it.
This is why incorporating opportunities for networking, connection and engagement are critical to the success of any event. When you allow your virtual event attendees to meet and talk to one another, you create space for magical moments like the one I just described to take place.
Will you have a Magical Moment Metric? Not likely. But if you listen on social media and invite your event attendees to share their feedback, you’ll hear plenty of anecdotal stories of their experiences – enough to know that you’ve successfully created an event experience that will be remembered and associated positively.
I know brand awareness gets such a bad rap, it’s often ignored among the benefits of virtual events for fear of being laughed at.
So that’s break this down.
According to RAIN Group, it currently takes an average of 8 touches to generate a meeting and reach a conversion event with a prospect. We therefore must have a blended, consistent approach to marketing that leverages a variety of channels and mediums to maintain a steady stream of touch points.
But let’s not forget the axiom from John Wannamaker, that “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half.”
When we create a social post or publish a blog post, and people start to see it, we cannot know if that’s their first or third or eighth time seeing our brand solution. So we need to keep creating those touch points.
And that’s the first beautiful benefit of virtual events: when executed well, it creates a dearth of touch points from a variety of sources.
- You’ll promote your event to all of your channels before, during and after the event.
- Your speakers will promote that they’re speaking.
- Your partners will promote that they’re involved.
- Your attendees will share their excitement and takeaways from the event.
This barrage of activity works so well, if a brand doesn’t have the manpower to live tweet their event I recommend outsourcing to a professional FOMO-creator like May King Tsang. Your target audience will learn about you and your event and will be attracted to all of the positive posts being shared. They’ll want to learn more and be a part of that community.
The second wonderful aspect is that, when taken on the whole, the virtual event will create multiple touchpoints with a highly targeted audience and therefore speed the time to conversion. What might have taken 8 touches may now result in a conversion after just 5. A prospect might learn about your event from an influencer they’re following, see one or two other posts from your brand about it, sign up, attend the event, visit your virtual booth, and book a meeting with a sales rep <snap> that results in a sale.
Great virtual events are flashpoints and springboards for your brand and brand awareness.
Our final benefit of virtual events is thought leadership and I know, I know… what the heck is thought leadership, really, and how can it even be a benefit of virtual events?
WGU defined it as, “Thought leadership is the expression of ideas that demonstrate you have expertise in a particular field, area, or topic.” That’s nice, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet. By that definition, any professional could be considered a thought leader.
Michael Brenner from Marketing Insider Group further defined thought leadership as, “a type of content marketing where you tap into the talent, experience, and passion inside your business, or from your community, to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience on a particular topic.”
Now I think that’s a far more specific and applicable definition. As a thought leader, you aren’t just demonstrating expertise, in general – you’re consistently answering the biggest questions in your field. And when doing so, you’re leveraging your own experience as well as from your community.
“Thought leader” as a phrase is just a label applied by marketers and business coaches. What our target audience sees and feels is “authority.” Do they see you and your brand as an authority in the industry? Are you answering their biggest questions and demonstrating your talent and experience and passion?
And how do you accomplish that level of authority?
What our target audience sees and feels is “authority.”
Certainly any of the traditional content marketing tactics would apply, but it should be obvious by now that hosting your own virtual event should be at the top of the list.
An expertly organized virtual event, with your brand name front and center, will lean on expertise both within and outside of your organization to answer those questions that are weighing on the minds of your target ICP. Show attendees how passionate you are about helping them achieve success, and bring in whatever influencers and experts you need to help you accomplish that vision, and you will be seen as THE authority in the field. It’s your brand that put on an amazing event that helped transform their businesses and turn things around for them. And as we mentioned earlier, all of the content and buzz that is generated during the event itself can be leveraged for weeks, months, even years after the fact, to further grow and solidify your reputation.
My friend, Thought Leadership is indeed a worthwhile and powerful benefit that will absolutely be achieved as a result of your next virtual event.
I have no doubt that by this point, you’re convinced of the overarching benefits of virtual events for your brand and are ready to start planning your online conference.
If you do not have the budget for a large event that would bring in thousands of attendees, start small, with the resources you do have. You can cut your teeth on live streaming video like I did back in the Google+ days, or use a platform like eWebinar here to host smaller, single session events, more affordably. And you can steal this virtual event plan for free.
But maybe that’s not you. Maybe you’re ready to Go Big or Go Home, as they say, and want to hit a home run for your brand. Maybe you’re looking to bring in thousands of new leads for your business and establish yourself as a thought leader in the space.
Maybe, just maybe… you’re more interested in stretching for the stars than in shuffling along slow, familiar streets. If launching a rocket ship sounds more like your speed, I want to invite you to talk to me about your event and let’s discuss how I can help you make it success. I devote just one or two Saturdays a month to giving B2B SaaS brands a complete VIP Strategy Day so they can walk into their Monday feeling confident and armed with a full plan for successfully pulling off their next virtual event.
If that sounds like the right move for you. If you feel like investing a little more up front is worth it to ensure your event is a huge success. If you’re looking at the big picture of what your brand (and boss) wants to accomplish this year and you’re ready to do whatever it takes to make it happen, let’s talk.