6 Takeaways from Our First Virtual Event
In less than six weeks, we launched our inaugural virtual event (Almost) IN-PERSON for over 6,000 event professionals. Here's what we learned.
Last week, Bizzabo brought thousands of event professionals together for the (Almost) IN-PERSON virtual experience. Speakers from SAP, Twitter, Bloomberg Live, HubSpot, Yext, Gainsight and more came together for an afternoon filled with insights and inspiration.
As a marketer at an events company, I understand first-hand the unprecedented impact COVID-19 has had on us all—personally and professionally. Given that other event professionals and organizations face similar challenges on how to bridge in-person events to the virtual environment, I wanted to share my takeaways from this insight-rich event.
For a more behind-the-scenes review, check out this webinar with our event marketing lead.
Key takeaways from our (Almost) IN-PERSON speakers include:
- Embrace Agility as You Revise Your Event Strategy
- Remember the Human Aspect of Interactions to Combat Digital Fatigue
- Building an Authentic Community Starts with Every Request for Help
- Inform Your Decisions Around Your Community
- Get Back to the Basics and Test Formats
- Embrace Disruptive Technology and Uncover New Facets of the Attendee Journey
1. Embrace Agility as you Revise your Event Strategy
This has been an incredibly difficult time. In the last three months, the events industry has seen dramatic changes. We surveyed event leaders and saw shocking results. 64% of respondents have postponed events, 57% have cancelled events, and 60% have pivoted their event strategy to virtual.
Our CEO, Eran Ben-Shushan, said it clearly, “We feel the impact the coronavirus has had on the event industry first hand, through our customers, and through the data we’ve seen in our reporting.”
To produce our first virtual event in tandem with our Virtual Experience Solution launch, the Bizzabo marketing team had to collectively change our mindset and embrace the new normal. While we know resiliency and creativity are fundamental components of every event marketer, another core ingredient is agility. To make a virtual event happen in under a month, we had to revise and refine our events playbook.
Above is a screenshot of one of many rehearsals our team ran prior to the event launch.
Here are the top ways we stayed agile while pivoting from in-person to virtual:
- Say yes: Embracing change means being open and flexible while also collaborating with multiple teams and experts.
- Get executive and organizational buy-in: To accelerate event production, our entire organization was part of our transformation.
- Meet often with your team: We found it essential to meet with the greater team to check-in, go over pressing tasks, and, most importantly, debrief for anything that went wrong, suggest solutions, and determine what next steps needed to happen to get things done.
- Celebrate and learn along the way: Virtual events is new territory for most event professionals. As a team, we remembered to celebrate incremental wins and embrace all our learnings with the goal of delivering an incredible event experience.
The fruits of our agile mindset really paid off. Over six thousand event professionals registered for (Almost) IN-PERSON with more that 50% attendance. Collectively, that equates to more than 500 years of event experience from leaders around the world. Below is an initial screenshot before closing registrations.
2. Remember the Human Aspect of Interactions to Combat Digital Fatigue
During our session Bridging the Gap on Hybrid Events, leaders at SAP, Yext, and Bloomberg Live came together to discuss how events are changing in the wake of COVID-19.
Lindsay McKenna, VP of Revenue Marketing at Yext, brought up the importance of understanding the human aspect of events when moving to a virtual setting.
"It’s not as easy as taking the content for in-person and flipping it over to a digital and virtual strategy. It’s really important to consider the human aspect and how people are interacting."
With so much of our lives in the digital realm that terms like “zoom fatigue” are becoming more commonplace, virtual events play an important role of helping people stay connected.
For example, a fun initiative we incorporated into the (Almost) IN-PERSON event was smaller Happy Hours after the final session. We included up to 30 attendees to join our moderators and speakers for a slightly structured and highly energized conversation that (in some cases) lasted throughout the night!
Below is a quick snapshot of a happy hour where our co-founder, Alon Alroy, participated with attendees:
To make more authentic connections in a digital environment, Jennifer Hoffman Roach, Head of Audience at Bloomberg Live, recommends leaning into the newfound connection between speakers and audience members that only happens in a virtual setting.
"You’re getting a peek into a remarkable person’s life in their living rooms. You’re closer to that highly influential speaker than you were if you were standing right next to them physically in the same room. How do we use these moments to create an authentic dialogue between our speakers and our audience? That is something we’re really trying to make sure we’re taking advantage of at Bloomberg."
As part of the (Almost) IN-PERSON Event, we added an open questions field in our registration form. Based on the questions we received, we reached out to a select group of submitters to request video recordings of their questions that were embedded in the live sessions throughout. This allowed for an additional layer of connectivity between our audience and our speakers.
As barriers between speakers and attendees are broken down in the digital environment, we’re also seeing roles and responsibilities of teams evolving with our circumstances.
Nicola Kastner, Global Head of Event Marketing Strategy at SAP candidly remarked how her organization has pivoted thousands of events across the globe with different degrees of precision. As a result, the barrier between digital teams and events teams is blurring as expertise from each become more critical.
"How do we make people who are event professionals ramp up from a digital skill perspective holistically to understand the intersection of the two? If this becomes a truly digital tactic - what is the role of the event team versus the digital team? As we move forward, it’s not just our team we have to bring along—it’s the rest of our organizations."
With this rapid transition to virtual, there are endless areas of discovery and new opportunities to engage, connect, and break through some of our initial ideas of what virtual could bring to the event world.
3. Building an Authentic Community Begins with Every Request You Get for Help
In our session, Powered By Customer-Centricity, our Co-Founder and Chief Customer Officer, Alon Alroy, chatted with Gainsight CEO, Nick Mehta to define how event marketers can build communities in the virtual space.
In 2013, Gainsight launched and later produced their flagship event, Gainsight Pulse, creating a growing community for customer success professionals. With a mission to create a human-first approach to business, Nick had a simple and profound way to spark community.
"Community starts with every request you get for help. Do you take that request from that person whose son is looking for an internship? Do you take that request from a job seeker who just lost their job? That’s what community is. It starts one by one and eventually you can bring them together."
At Bizzabo, we expanded our (Almost) IN-PERSON community by offering channels to connect, ask questions, and build meaningful relationships through our (Almost) IN-PERSON Slack Community. Event registrants could join prior and during the event to engage in different channel-specific discussions or network with other event professionals through our match-making series. Throughout the sessions, we included a slide (shown below) that advertised how to join the community. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
In a virtual setting, the momentum of community-building can also be facilitated through more structured direction including ice breakers or bringing in a celebrity guest. It can also, as we saw, happen by opening up a window to your virtual space as Nick and Alon removed their virtual backgrounds to reveal where they were during (Almost) IN-PERSON.
4. Make Decisions Around Your Community
We had another fireside chat with Brandon Rafalson, Head of Editorial and Host of the IN-PERSON Podcast, and Carina Bauer, CEO at IMEX for Staying Resilient: A Toolkit for Today.
The in-depth discussion revealed the step-by-step process Carina and the IMEX team took to cancel their flagship event in early March and reimagine their event strategy. Within a matter of days, Carina says, the IMEX team evaluated the entire event ecosystem from vendors to exhibitors to make a clear decision on whether or not IMEX would be able to deliver the ROI to their exhibitors and attendees.
Unrolling a crisis communication plan of this scale and time sensitivity was successfully executed because of two things:
"We had a whole crisis communication plan. We created a plan which meant the same minute we announced to the industry as a whole, each of our team members had that same message personalized to their contacts. For our exhibitors, they got a message from their account managers detailing what we would do for them. For us, it’s about customer service."
For other event professionals, a crisis communication plan and a 1-to-1 messaging process are critical during a period of uncertainty. Additionally, putting your community first and prioritizing the information and resources they need is critical to a successful event pivot and customer happiness.
As IMEX began to develop a plan to create a new event experience, a key factor in their discovery process was making sure there was a distinct purpose for leveraging the virtual environment.
"We’re not trying to replicate a trade show in the online world. What we did is look at our strategic priorities for an event and identify what we would want to deliver in an online event. We didn’t want a one-off event. We wanted an ongoing online experience."
Creating an ongoing experience in the virtual world helped Carina and her team plan and design a whole new event experience that would incorporate ways to engage and explore Planet IMEX.
A common question we saw during this session was the challenge exhibitors at in-person events have when translating their role in a digital world. We saw many event professionals looking for advice on how to develop a successful sponsorship program for virtual. The humbling reality, as Carina explained, is that it’s still a work in progress.
"The honest answer is we don’t know at this stage. This is the first time we’re doing this in the virtual world. For us it is an experiment. We want to take this opportunity to experiment to see what works and what doesn’t work, adapt it, and improve it."
In this discussion, Carina shared we already have best practices and tools in place to help event professionals pivot and successfully weather any crisis. However, being able to identify gaps and exploring options openly and courageously will help pave the way for a successful future that carries your event community forward.
Our internal team shared the screenshot below of their at-home streaming of the inspirational live session:
5. Get Back To The Basics And Test Your Formats.
We explored new terrain with Money 20/20, HubSpot, and Twitter during our powerful session New Channel, Same Audience.
To kick the discussion off, Helen Stoddard, Head of Global Events at Twitter recommended simply getting back to the basics of truly understanding your audience.
"We’re seeing a lack of clarity in the audience. That’s work we have to do in the best of times and especially in the worst of times. If we don’t understand who we’re talking to, we don’t know what to talk to them about, or how we should program our activation, and ultimately what that activation should be."
For the Bizzabo team, our audience has never been more clear. Thousands of event professionals have been impacted and events around the world have been postponed, canceled, or pivoted by various degrees to virtual. The need for relevant content, thought leadership, and inspiration has been our rallying cry to develop the most in-depth and targeted programming and event agenda for our audience to date.
As Vice President of Marketing at HubSpot and Executive Producer of INBOUND, Kim Darling has seen firsthand the growth and sustained community that INBOUND draws every year. Inspirational content, education, and connection are core principles her team uses to deliver an unparalleled in-person event. In the virtual world, she adamantly describes the need for event professionals to do better by asking the right questions.
"We have always seen ourselves—whether in-person or virtual—as the curators of this experience and guiding the ship. How do we allow people to identify with our brand, with the content we’ve put out, with the experience we still need to provide in a virtual environment that allows them to have the conversation and to dictate that shared experience happening in one moment of time?"
There’s a lot to be excited about given Kim’s words and the new virtual event channel that is rapidly growing. While there are candidly big gaps between in-person experiences and a virtual environment, Monique Ruff-Bell, Event Director at Money 20/20 and VP of Events at Ascential plc., has some easy-to-implement advice for all event professionals. In line with her philosophy of KISS (Keep It Simple, Silly!), it’s all about learning, thinking outside the box, and experimenting along the way.
"We’re trying different formats and we’re putting it out there. We’re not learning much from what everyone is quickly pivoting to during these circumstances, but we are going to the industries that have figured it out. We’re looking at gaming, entertainment, and television. I’m also really trying to incorporate video production."
To tackle this brave new channel, our event leaders are taking what they know from the in-person world—specifically understanding and defining your audience as well as making them co-creators of the event experience—and testing all the feasible technologies and strategies to help engage, educate, and inspire attendees wherever they are.
For some inspiration on what virtual tools to explore, check out our 10 Tools for Hosting a Virtual Event.
6. Embracing Disruptive Technology and Uncovering New Facets of the Attendee Journey
For our closing session, Eran Ben-Shushan, CEO and Co-Founder at Bizzabo, and Marco Giberti, Venture Capitalist and Founder of Vesuvio Ventures, discussed the opportunities that lay ahead in The Future of Event Marketer.
Marco has a wealth of experience in the events world, having managed over 500 events (from a few hundred to seven hundred thousand event attendees) and weathered multiple crises during the course of his career.
Despite the current challenges, Marco is keeping a resilient and optimistic view.
"I’m learning day by day. There are fantastic opportunities for assuming additional risk layers. This is a time for experiments, testing, learning, and doing it again."
Marco predicts that ten to twenty years of innovation will occur within one to two years. With this comes the expectation of rapidly innovating, understanding how to enable event goals with technology, and unlocking new meaningful insights into the attendee journey to ultimately improve face-to-face connection as he emphasizes below:
"Tech is just a tool to improve face-to-face. I hope everyone can use technology to improve face-to-face to make it more relevant, improve meetings, create deeper conversations, and better business opportunities. That’s how tech can improve the value proposition of our industry."
As a testament to the discussion, Bizzabo’s Virtual Experience Solution allowed us to capture valuable insights before the event ended. We could see attendee engagement and participation throughout the event at a granular level of detail as shown below:
The outcome of the event and the team’s collective work allowed us to truly understand first-hand the impact of staying agile, embracing new experiments in the face of the unknown, and leverage technology and analytics with the goal of connecting and delivering a positive experience to your attendees.
Final Thoughts: A New Journey Together
The outcome of the (Almost) IN-PERSON event, community, and movement was a powerful testament to the desire to connect. It also proved what we already know, which is events have the potential to become bigger, better, and more energizing every time an organization commits to creating them.
We hope these insights can help other organizers navigate uncertain times and remind us all how resilient and powerful the desire to connect is in spite of these challenges.
For a detailed behind the scenes look at how exactly (Almost) IN-PERSON was brought to life, join Event Marketing Manager Alysha Parker and Brandon Rafalson, Head of Editorial for a live discussion on how to accelerate a vision to a successful event program.