My first virtual event was nearly a disaster.
Registration problems. Last-minute speaker cancellations. Terrible audio in one session… video that crapped out five minutes in another…
Whatever you can imagine going wrong did go wrong during that first summit.
It was 2018 and I’d been on the job for 6 months, recruiting new influencers and ambassadors to the brand and working to establish the company as the leading authority in the industry. Prior to that, the closest I had come to putting on a virtual event was a series of live video panel discussions over the course of four weeks a few years prior, so live presentations and interviews was the background and approach that I took.
Boy, did I have a lot to learn.
How It Started
That was my first Social Success Summit. Fortunately, the leadership at Agorapulse loves learning and adapting so even though my event was fraught with challenges, in many other ways it was a huge success.
From a results-oriented perspective, I hosted 16 sessions which created over a dozen excellent pieces of content which could be used and repurposed later, and the summit garnered over a thousand interested and engaged attendees which in turn resulted in new trials, subscriptions and recurring revenue for the company. But it was quite a struggle to get to that point.
I mentioned my prior experience was live streaming so I wasn’t very familiar with what options were available for a registration-only virtual event in 2018. We had been using Livestorm.co for our sales webinars at the time and that seemed as good an option as any. It could handle pre-recorded video as well as a live broadcast, and permitted attendees to comment and ask questions during the presentation.
What didn’t dawn on me until it was too late to change course was that Livestorm was specifically built for single webinar events, which meant that even though I’d lined up 16 different presenters, attendees could only register for one session at a time. Someone interested in signing up for all 16 sessions had to register 16 times and, whew, did I get an earful from some annoyed attendees.
I’d also spread the sessions out over the course of several weeks which, again, turned out to be a mistake. I’ve since learned that the best events take place within a concentrated amount of time, such as one business day.
Yet despite those errors in judgement, I put together a launch campaign that successfully drove interest and signups throughout the registration period. In fact, it’s telling that interest in the event and content was so high, even though the barrier to full entry was 16 signups, many did exactly that.
But then I hit production issues.
As I said, the sessions were a mix of recorded presentations and live interviews. Just days before the first session was scheduled, one of the speakers backed out and ended up re-scheduling their session for months later. That, too, turned out to be a valuable lesson. First, of course, I learned to make sure that every speaker is fully committed and that I’ve issued calendar invites for presentation dates so that the engagement is as locked as possible. Second, I learned that a summit with multiple speakers helps drive its own momentum and interest, far more than any individual webinar. That lone speaker’s rescheduled talk saw a fraction of the registrations garnered by the least popular of the summit sessions.
During one of the live interviews, and sadly, with one of the more well-known influencers on the docket, their audio quality was so poor as to make the resulting recording useless. And during another session where the presenters were broadcasting from their office, their video stopped sending moments after they were introduced and the remainder of the presentation was black with just their audio. They had no idea viewers couldn’t see them!
Again, I learned. I took to heart the valuable need for technical rehearsals and conversations before the event and just prior to broadcasting, and I also realized that while I would prefer not to have to interrupt the flow of a training or presenter, it’s far better to jump in and try to quickly correct any technical issue, rather than letting is fester as a distraction throughout an entire presentation.
Fortunately, despite all of that, not only did attendees gain tremendous value and information from the summit overall, it was sufficiently successful for me to attempt it again. And again!
How It’s Going
Fast forward several years and I now have many, many virtual events under my belt. Multiple “Social Success Summits” paved the way for multiple “Social Pulse Summits” and an “Agency Summit” as well as collaboration with many other brands on summits and virtual events of their own.
Learnings and experiences from each new virtual event were compounded and collected so that the next event was always better than before. I got into the habit of keeping a running note of ideas and observations, and developed a templated Google Sheet for myself to organize each virtual event. From speakers and all of the information needed about them and their sessions, to promotional assets, sponsors, budget & expenses, and more… all of it became engrained into a process that I could duplicate, with tremendous success, every quarter.
I graduated from one-off webinar series using Livestorm to complete virtual event platforms like HeySummit, Big Marker, Run The World, Hopin and Airmeet. These platforms provided unified registration systems and a host of other features to create complete and cohesive experiences for attendees.
Virtual Event Case Study: MDMC
When the pandemic hit in 2020, the Midwest Digital Marketing Conference with its three full days of workshops and sessions and thousands of attendees filling St. Louis Union State was confronted with a major problem: decide whether or how to go forward with an event in the midst of a worsening global health crisis that was forcing events like SXSW and others around the world to cancel and postpone.
As a speaker and member of their Advisory Board, the MDMC team knew I was experienced in putting on virtual events and brought me in to help them determine the feasibility of transitioning a completely in-person event into a completely virtual event. Logistically, there was a lot to cover, but within a few days we had a game plan put in place that the MDMC team executed flawlessly.
While the event already had a website and registration process that was up and running, they needed to quickly turn to a secondary platform to host the 100+ virtual event sessions. On my recommendation they utilized HeySummit and I helped them work through technical considerations, such as where to host the session videos to stream them into HeySummit on the appointed day.
As a result, MDMC was able to successfully make the transition to 100% virtual and offer their attendees a terrific learning experience, a format they successfully duplicated in 2021.
There was a critical learning that was far more important than the logistical details and processes that were documented and improved over the years, and that was Attendee Achievement.
In an Agency Accelerated interview with Guy Kawasaki, Stephanie Liu asked Guy about a comment that Jon M. Chu made to him about how Rotten Tomato scores and box office revenue for his films weren’t important to him. Instead, Jon would talk endlessly about what his talented actors and actresses were doing now, what they had achieved since they’d worked together. Jon was more invested in the success of his people than he was his own projects.
That’s the approach that I’ve learned to take with my virtual events and what’s led to them being massive successes in the industry. With each new summit or virtual event, I ask myself, what will the audience achieve as a result of their participating in this event? What will their takeaways and successes be?
And while the easy answer for an event organizer is that an attendee will learn X, Y or Z, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s rare for a virtual event to convey some knowledge which couldn’t just as easily been shared in a blog post or YouTube video.
Just ask any in-person event attendee why they invested the time and money into traveling and spending a day or more in a conference space with hundreds or thousands of other attendees. They’ll tell you straight up it’s not really for the sessions! It’s for:
- Speaker Q&As
- Table Talks
That’s where Magical Moments can happen. Sitting at a table or standing in the hallway outside a session… serendipitous opportunities to have a conversation with someone which could lead to business, partnerships, friendships or more in the future.
When I realized that truth, and started building into my virtual events space for those magical moments to occur, that’s when attendees minds were blown and they would take to Twitter to talk about how interesting and engaging and fun the events were! But when I looked close and read between the lines or looked for the context behind such statements, it is always thanks to the fact that we built time into the event for networking and conversation between attendees.
No more static, one-off, boring videos. The content is always there – that’s the hook – but the real gold is in the gab.
How I Help Brands Build Virtual Events Now
Over the past few years, having worked now with hundreds of speakers and brand partners, many in the industry have seen first-hand how deftly I organize and execute my virtual events and have come to me for consulting and guidance. The most comment questions revolve around topics like which platform they should use but, inevitably, the most productive conversations delve into strategy and best practices.
The truth is, you can host your virtual event on practically any platform and achieve success. Just like Google doesn’t care where you built and hosted your website, attendees don’t care where you host your virtual event.
What attendees care about is what they’ll be able to achieve as a result of attending your virtual event.
So how do you make that happen?
That’s where I can help.
I offer articles and resources here as a virtual event planner and virtual event consultant, and have started The Virtual Event Strategist Podcast if you prefer to listen rather than read.
Rather than try to figure it all out on your own and have to go through several event iterations before you really get a handle on how things are supposed to go, let me help you get over that hurdle.
The pandemic obviously pushed an exponential number of events into the virtual space, which means that attendees today are used to virtual events and their expectations are high.
Can you afford to take a few years, as I did, to learn and hone your skills?
If you have an event coming up within the next 3 – 6 months, and you want to make sure it’s a success, I invite you to learn about my virtual event intensive, Sold Out Summits, where we’ll spend a day making sure that your next event is brilliant.