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Virtual Events: The 2021 Guide

Everything you need to know about hosting high-quality virtual events in 2020 and 2021. Featuring examples, stats, best practices, and insider tips.


Virtual events have exploded in popularity due to the circumstances of 2020 — and we don't see this trend changing anytime soon. Digital experiences will continue to be an incredibly useful and cost effective way to reach a large audience when the pandemic subsides.

In order to slay the virtual event game, organizers will need to have a thorough understanding of virtual events, including common formats and event types, successful event examples, and how other event marketers are thinking about virtual events. We’re breaking down everything you’ll need to plan a successful and engaging experience. 

From choosing the right hosting platform to working with sponsors and production services, we’ve got you covered.

What is a Virtual Event?

Let's start with a definition…

A virtual event is any kind of digital gathering that happens over the internet and allows attendees to learn and interact with each other from remote locations.

Virtual events can be built for thousands of people around the world or small, intimate gatherings. Either way, they offer event and marketing professionals unparalleled access to their ideal customers and target audience. For a deeper look into how to plan a successful online event, check out these virtual event resources.

3 Examples of Virtual Events Done Right

So what does a great virtual event look like? Here are three examples of virtual events that will inspire you:

(Almost) IN-PERSON by Bizzabo

 

In May 2020, we hosted our first-ever virtual summit, (Almost) IN-PERSON. Our intention was to build community, inspire creativity, and drive purpose within the events industry.

Thousands of event marketers from brands like Google, Disney, Adobe,Bloomberg Live, and Amazon attended (Almost) IN-PERSON to discuss and learn about the continuous evolution of events, strategies to promote future events (online or in-person), and how to drive customer engagement and satisfaction. 

In case you missed (Almost) IN-PERSON 2020, you can still request access to the session recordings to learn more about the future of the events industry and get tips on how to successfully host a virtual gathering of your own.

Pulse Everywhere by Gainsight

Pulse Everywhere - Virtual Events GuideSource: Gainsight

Gainsight has been hosting the flagship Pulse conferences (and the Pulse event series) for years.In response to COVID-19, the company adapted the annual in-person event into a virtual experience. Gainsight’s Pulse Everywhere event was a huge success and was as informative and engaging as their past events.

The Gainsight event teams secured quality speakers from companies like Adobe, Salesforce, and IBM—and they were also able to lock down an impressive array of sponsors. Virtual events have made it easier to find sponsors and speakers because travel and timing commitments aren’t as prevalent as they were for in-person events

Check out the recorded Pulse Everywhere sessions for free and find out how Gainsight was able to pull off a successful virtual conference.

INBOUND by HubSpot

Inbound - Virtual Events GuideSource: Grit Daily

HubSpot's INBOUND experience is one of the most anticipated events of the year. Attendees come from all over the world to learn the latest and greatest marketing strategies, network with industry peers, and enjoy top-notch entertainment from rock concerts to afterparties.

When this experience went digital in 2020, many wondered if INBOUND would still be able to create an engaging experience attendees had grown accustomed to. Of course, HubSpot was able to create a valuable and exciting experience, just like they had before. 

Attendees got to hear from presenters like Bob Iger, Kerry Washington, and John Legend. They were able to ask their most pressing questions; and interact with their peers in 1:1 digital networking sessions.

If you’re dying to hear more, you can watch some of INBOUND’s recorded 2020 sessions for ideas to incorporate into your own virtual event programs.

10 Must-Know Virtual Event Stats

To truly understand the current state of virtual events, we need to look at the data. In addition to compiling a laundry list of event marketing stats, we also conducted an in-depth study of virtual event benchmarks from over 210 virtual events and 799 sessions that took place on the Bizzabo platform between March and June 2020.

Have a look at our own findings, as well as the virtual event metrics gleaned from a few other trusted resources, to better understand where the industry is and where it might be going.

1. 93% of event marketers plan to invest in virtual events moving forward.

While in-person events will undoubtedly return, virtual events are becoming increasingly popular. Even in the post-COVID-19 world, we expect virtual events to play a big role.

The last 9 months has allowed event marketers to see the benefits of Virtual events. They allow organizers to reach more of their target audience while reducing the high costs and stress levels normally associated with planning large scale gatherings. 

2. 80% of virtual event registrations are free.

One of the reasons that attendees love virtual events is because most of them can be accessed for free. Whereas a lot of in-person events were ticketed, the majority of virtual events are free for attendees. By lowering the barrier of entry, companies are able to expand their reach and connect with more of their target audience.

We do expect the percentage of paid virtual events to grow, though, as the quality of digital gatherings improve and attendees become more familiar with them. 

Event Registration - Virtual Events GuideSource: 7 Must-Know Virtual Event Benchmarks

3. The average price for a paid virtual event in June 2020 was $254 USD

Ticket Pricing - Virtual Events Guide

Source: 7 Must-Know Virtual Event Benchmarks

Speaking of paid virtual events, attendees spent an average of $254 USD per ticket in June to access paid-for digital event content. This constantly changing number suggests that organizers are focused on experimenting with virtual event pricing and understanding the effects of those models. 

We believe that this trend has more to do with event marketers eliminating barriers of entry, rather than a decreased interest in digital conferences and seminars. 

4. 54% of virtual event registrants convert to virtual event attendees

Many people have experienced "virtual fatigue" in 2020, but that hasn’t stopped them attending virtual conferences at a high rate. Over half of the people who register for virtual events do, in fact, end up attending them.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why conversion rates have been so high for virtual events. But if we were to venture a guess, we’d say it’s because event marketers have done a great job creating relevant content and attendee engagement and networking opportunities.

5. The average number of sessions per virtual event is 12

There are many different virtual event session types. These include keynotes, panel discussions, fireside chats, workshops, roundtables, happy hours, and even entertainment. Given the range of session types organizers can choose from, it’s no surprise that the average virtual event featured 12 different sessions.

This gives event planners multiple opportunities to connect with their target audiences via virtual events — if they plan them correctly, of course. Keep reading and we’ll give you the information you need to make sure your digital conference is a success.

6. The average attendee watches 68% of a virtual session

Virtual event goers aren’t just watching a lot of sessions, they’re watching them for longer. Statistics show that attendees watch, on average, 68% of virtual sessions.

This suggests that many event marketers have hit the nail on the head in terms of event programming and digital engagement opportunities. This stat also proves that attendees are more than willing to engage in virtual environments.

7. 58% of virtual sessions are smaller and more interactive.

Another reason engagement at virtual events is so high could be that the majority (58%) of digital sessions are smaller and focused on creating opportunities for interaction. This allows for more personal connections and deeper engagement.

Over half of virtual sessions enable attendees to go “on stage” and participate. When attendees are able to ask questions and interact with presenters via Q&A polling, engagement levels will naturally go up.

8. 62% of virtual events are a single-day event

Event Length - Virtual Events GuideSource: 7 Must-Know Virtual Event Benchmarks

Many virtual events try to give attendees as much quality information as they can as quickly as possible. Of the 210+ virtual events we analyzed, 62% of them were single-day events, which is the vast majority. In second place was three-day events at 10.5% 

We should mention that while one to three day events are most popular, certain brands are finding success with longer digital gatherings, too. When planning your digital conference, evaluate your audience and content to pick an optimal conference length for you.

9. 54% of organizations are increasing webinars.

Many event planners are also scheduling smaller digital events like webinars to provide valuable content to their audiences.

This is a great strategy because webinars allow you to connect with your ideal customers in real-time without the need to plan a major event. Because of this, many companies host webinars on a monthly or even weekly basis.

10. 55% of respondents say that customer relations, education, and retention are the main goals for their virtual events.

The majority (55%) of virtual events are intended to drive customer relationships. This is also a reason why most companies choose not to charge attendees for access.

Virtual events are a great way to connect with your target audience, no matter where they happen to be. They can also build brand authority and elevate your company in the eyes of the people who matter most: your prospects and customers.

Understanding Virtual Event Types 

There are many types of in-person event types which can carry over to virtual. Your job is to pick the right event type for your specific goals. We've outlined the seven most popular virtual event use cases and an example of a successful use case for each.

1. Virtual Summits

A virtual summit is the closest thing to a classic in-person conference. They usually involve keynotes speakers, multiple sessions topics, and even product demos. For most companies, the goal of a virtual summit is generate leads, build brand awareness, and create long-tail content.

JOIN@Home is a great example of a virtual summit. This online event took place on October 13th, 2020 and featured a live keynote followed by 40 pre-recorded breakout sessions.

2. Virtual Conference Series

Think of a virtual conference series as a virtual summit that lasts for days, or even weeks. They are large-scale events that allow companies to engage with attendees for a longer period of time. This longer event format creates opportunities to tailor the event to your audiences. For example, a one or two day event may not be ideal for some audiences. Similarly, you may have a lot of content to showcase, and a series allows organizers to split up the content rather than overwhelm attendees.

The Unleash Summit Series took place over three Thursdays in September, 2020. Attendees tuned in for a few hours each week to learn "innovative strategies and best practices for sales directors and VPs."

3. Virtual Trade Shows and Expos

Virtual trade shows and expos are designed to help companies showcase their products in a digital environment. They're typically much less expensive to produce than their in-person counterparts, yet they still allow attendees to discover new and relevant products while generating new leads for the company.

In June 2020, IPackEXPO hosted a virtual trade show for the first time. The event is open until the start of 2021 and you can drop in 24/7 to browse products from 2,000+ exhibitors.

4. Virtual Workshops

Virtual workshops are geared toward educating the attendees about a specific topic. They usually also have interactive opportunities so that guests can network with noteworthy professionals in their field.

The virtual workshop that Intuit hosted on September 11th, 2020 is a great example. The training event gave attendees insight into Intuit's approach to design thinking. Virtual workshops are perfect for building brand authority and customer loyalty.

5. Virtual Happy Hours

A virtual happy hour is a casual event that lets attendees kick back and relax. People from all over the world can log in - drink in hand - to socialize and network. Virtual happy hours are often for employees to get together and celebrate, but they can also be used as a networking element for large-scale online conferences.

Women in Sports and Events (WISE) has hosted several virtual happy hours in 2020. Their attendees were able to come together for casual conversations as well as pointed networking interactions. 

6. Sales Kickoffs

A sales kickoff event, also known as an SKO, is an internal event that is held annually. The entire sales team, along with other top executives comes together to talk best practices, share product updates, and set goals. These kickoffs, like this one hosted by Remax, are great for boosting departmental excitement and typically set the tone for the upcoming year. 

7. Webinars

Webinars are similar to virtual workshops in that they are generally shorter digital events that zero in on a specific topic. You can host a webinar if you’re looking to build brand authority, engage accounts, or educate customers.

This recent webinar featuring DataRobot is a great example of a short session where they cover specific content, allowing them to dive deeper into the topic of discussion.

Before planning your next (or first!) online gathering, ask yourself, "What am I trying to achieve?" Then select the virtual event type that best fits your goals.

How to Differentiate Your Virtual Event

To make your virtual event a success, you need to differentiate from the myriad of other digital gatherings hosted online every day.

It’s easier said than done. But these five tips will help you produce a virtual event that stands out.

1. Offer Multiple Session Types

In order to keep your audience engaged, make sure you have a variety of session types. Your audience will quickly lose interest if each of your sessions looks and sounds the same. Switch things up and keep attendees guessing with multiple session types.

For instance, you could host a whiteboard session that allows viewers to easily give input, and a roundtable that brings experts together for a unique debate — in addition to more traditional sessions like a keynote or panel.

This is exactly what Gong did for its #celebrate20 virtual event. The online experience featured keynotes, labs, entertainment, networking sessions, and other sessions that kept the excitement going for attendees.

2. Prioritize Audience Engagement

Keep your audience engaged by allowing them to ask questions during presentations, offering multiple breakout sessions, and providing digital networking opportunities. It’s also a good idea to keep it short and sweet to accommodate for short attention spans, especially in a digital format.

Need inspiration? Look no further than Adobe MAX 2020. The free virtual event featured amazing speakers, hundreds of breakout sessions, celebrity appearances, collaborative art projects, and networking opportunities for attendees.

3. Pay Attention to Visuals

When it comes to translating a physical venue into a digital space, the visual experience matters. Give your virtual event a leg up by making sure your speakers have production kits that include a quality webcam, proper lighting, and a branded background (real or virtual). Additionally, you can encourage your speakers to use graphics, charts, and videos during their presentations.

Domopalooza really took its appearance seriously with videos, special effects, and other high-end production elements. While you don't need to go to these lengths to make your virtual event visual appealing, it's a good example of what's possible.

4. Replicate In-Person Excitement

In-person events are filled with anticipation, from picking your attire to traveling to the venue to getting your name tag and coffee in the morning, it’s a sort of ritual in the events world. Try to replicate this feeling during your virtual event by hiring a talented DJ to play before you kick off your sessions, including a giant countdown timer,or promising to make an exciting announcement during the event.

Apple's streamed events do this incredibly well. People tune in from all over the world to hear what exciting new gadgets the company will announce next.

5. Personalize the Attendee Experience

Personalization is a big part of events, whether they are in-person or online. There are many ways to add elements of personalization to your virtual experience. For example, you could create multiple conference tracks and let people choose which breakouts to attend. You can also facilitate 1:1 networking sessions based on attendee interests and/or career goals.

#SMWONE featured over 170 hours of content that attendees could choose from, allowing them to really customize their experience.

Virtual events are a new format, and planners are still testing and learning what works best, so it’s the perfect opportunity to use these tips to experiment with ways to make your event stand out. 

5 Virtual Event Ideas

Virtual events have come a long way since they were first introduced a few years ago. In fact, online conferences, seminars, and the like often rival in-person. To make sure you are set up for success consider using a few of these virtual event ideas:

1. Select a Dedicated Virtual Event Host

A virtual event host will make your online event feel authentic and more engaging. A master of ceremonies can help get attendees excited for the day's content, keep event schedules on track, and tie separate sessions together with engaging interludes.

You can choose a company employee with an outgoing personality, a keynote speaker who doesn't mind additional duties, or a professional host with virtual experience.

The type of host you choose is up to you and your budget. But choosing to add a dedicated host will make your virtual event feel just like an in-person experience.

Virtual Event Tech Day didn't have an event host… It had three! Each moderator helped keep the virtual event moving smoothly from one session to the next, introduced speakers, and made sure attendees knew what was happening next.

2. Provide Networking Opportunities

Making connections with peers, industry leaders, and other companies is a part of the event experience that people have come to expect. Networking is a big part of the event-going experience, but it’s also an important opportunity for your attendees. Providing a networking element at your virtual event will be invaluable to your attendees and create more face-to-face interactions

There are many ways to incorporate networking into your virtual event. For instance, you could pair like-minded individuals together for 1:1 Zoom chats. Or you can create dedicated Slack groups that allow people in similar positions to chat with each other.

That's what Bizzabo did for our (Almost) IN-PERSON event. Attendees were able to join a dedicated Slack channel and message their peers during the virtual summit, in addition to limited-capacity networking sessions that we hosted after the event.

3. Make Your Event Content Actionable

The best event content is actionable. Your attendees want to learn skills and information that they can put to use. Making actionable content will help your guests validate their investment in your event and make it more likely that they'll attend again in the future.

So talk with your keynote speakers, session teachers, and breakout leaders and ask them to prepare content that will help attendees accomplish specific things.

As mentioned earlier, 58% of virtual sessions are small and interactive, which means attendees find a lot of value in more personal and relevant content. And nothing is more relevant than actionable content.One way to ensure your content is actionable is to limit session durations. While long-winded talks enable speakers to share plenty of tips, they also leave room for attendees to get restless. Plus, the avalanche of information can cause analysis paralysis.

4. Share an Exciting Announcement

While the bulk of your virtual event will probably revolve around attendee-focused content like education, you have the opportunity to incorporate other forms of content as well. For example, you could provide people with fun entertainment options in between sessions.

You know what else you could do? Share an exciting announcement!

People love to be in the know. If you tell them about a new product your company is working on, or some other big news, it will make your virtual event more memorable. You can also use your announcement to entice people to watch more of your content — "Stick around till the end of the keynote because we're going to announce something HUGE!"

Microsoft demonstrated this idea during its 2020 Build conference, which is usually an in-person event, but went virtual this year. During the event, Microsoft announced software enhancements that many developers could appreciate.

5. Balance Pre-Recorded and Live Sessions

Virtual events give you a distinct advantage over in-person ones: you can pre-record your sessions. This is a great strategy to use if you want your presentations to be extremely polished and mistake-free.

It will also allow you to work with top speakers who aren't available to present live at your event, but are willing to pre-record a session for you to stream to your audience.

In a live event format, attendees would be able to interact with speakers and ask questions. In order to replicate that experience, try using a combination of pre-recorded and live content. For example, you can use platforms like Bizzabo to play simulive recorded sessions as if they were live, and then instantly switch to a live Q&A that looks seamless to the audience.

Gather Voices puts a unique spin on this idea by asking event attendees to pre-record videos of themselves asking questions. The footage is then shown during the company's live virtual events. 

3 Virtual Event Sponsorship Ideas

Event sponsors can add value to your virtual event in a couple of important ways. First, they can provide funds to help you host a quality gathering without spending a significant amount of money. And second, they can lend your event credibility. Potential attendees will say, "Hey, if [Company] is sponsoring it, it must be good, right?"

Virtual event sponsorship is a little different than in-person. With that in mind, here are three virtual event sponsorship ideas you can use to get the most out of your sponsor partnerships:

1. Virtual Sponsor Booths

Exhibitor Hall - Virtual Events GuideSource: 8 Virtual Event Sponsorship Ideas

Booths allow sponsoring companies to interact with event attendees in personal ways. The virtual equivalent does the same thing, though it must be handled differently.

We suggest setting up a dedicated web page for sponsors with links to their website, communication options, and contact information. That way attendees can peruse the sponsorship page and talk with sponsors in real time via phone, chat boxes, or Slack.

While this experience will be different than engaging with attendees face-to-face at a booth , there are still many ways to provide value to your sponsors.

2. Sponsored Tracks and Sessions

Sponsored Session - Virtual Events GuideSource: 8 Virtual Event Sponsorship Ideas

If your virtual event has multiple tracks and/or sessions, why not let other companies sponsor them? For example, if Bizzabo sponsored your online conference, you could let our team host a session called "The 10 Event Marketing Stats You Need to Know - Presented by Bizzabo".

This would allow the sponsor to get their brand in front of a targeted group of professionals and interact with them in real time during the presentation.

3. Pre-Event Email Promotions

Email Promotion - Virtual Events GuideSource: 8 Virtual Event Sponsorship Ideas

In all likelihood, you'll be emailing registered attendees before your virtual event goes live. You'll want to remind them about your online seminar and build anticipation for it. You can do even more with your email communications by using your messaging to create sponsorship opportunities.

Allow sponsors to send targeted communications to your audience in exchange for a fee. That way you have more funds to work with and your sponsors have the chance to reach new potential customers with sales messages, content offers, etc.

4 Tips for Working with Virtual Event Production Companies

If hosting a virtual event sounds overwhelming, don't worry! There are companies out there who are ready and willing to help — especially when it comes to virtual event production. Working with a professional company will help boost the production value of your event.

1. Choose the Right AV Production Support

What kind of AV support do you need? Perhaps you need technical help during your live broadcast or maybe you just need some pre-event training or help packaging recorded sessions into shareable content that you can distribute in the future.

Before you hire an AV production company, understand what your needs are so that you can select the right partner.

2. Always Keep Your Budget in Mind!

Different AV companies charge different rates for different services. You need to know what kind of support you need and how much of your budget you’re able to allocate to it. That way you can immediately focus on companies who fit the bill.

3. Establish Open Lines of Communication

Once you've chosen an AV production team to help design your virtual event experience, you need to establish open lines of communication with them. You can use Slack, WhatsApp, old fashion email — whatever works best for you and your partner.

Open lines of communication keep everyone on the same page and working towards the same goals. Take the time to check in with your AV production team on a regular basis.

4. Rehearse Your Virtual Event Before Going Live

Preparation is the key to confidence. Similar to a dress rehearsal, hosting a virtual run-through will help you and your team to feel at-ease about your event. Include anyone who will be a part of the live portion so that you can work out any technology issues, cues, or anything else that might come up during the rehearsal. 

We created a series of templates for working with virtual production services companies, and we’d like to share them with you. Download the Virtual Event Production Kit.

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14 Questions to Ask When Evaluating a Virtual Event Platform

When it comes to your virtual event platform - the technology you use to host your event - there are a few key questions to ask yourself that will help you evaluate the options available to you and pick the right one for your particular event goals. 

Before investing in any virtual event solution, ask yourself these 14 questions:

  1. Can I get a demo of the product? 
  2. Can I record my virtual event sessions?
  3. Can I create interactive virtual experiences between attendees and speakers?
  4. What A/V and system requirements do I need to use this platform?
  5. What analytics can I capture?
  6. Can I host multiple presenters? 
  7. Can speakers take questions from attendees?
  8. Can speakers create quizzes or polls?
  9. Can speakers use a whiteboard to engage the audience?
  10. Can speakers upload external videos?
  11. Are there breakout rooms available for smaller groups?
  12. Can attendees access virtual events on any device?
  13. Are there ways for attendees to engage via chat, polls, and whiteboards?
  14. Are there ways for attendees to network with each other?

Of course, there are plenty of other questions you could ask as well. 

Check out the full list of questions to ask when evaluating a virtual event solution.

Why You Should Be Thinking About Hybrid Events

The virtual event space is growing, but in-person events are still incredibly valuable. The solution: Hybrid events. This best-of-both-worlds solution will be big in 2021, and some companies are already incorporating both virtual and live aspects into their events. 

A hybrid event is a conference, workshop, trade expo, etc. that encompasses both online elements and in-person components. For example, a company could host an in-person seminar for 100 people, but also broadcast the keynote speeches to thousands around the world in real time.

Hybrid events are beneficial because they offer:

  • More Reach: In-person events are naturally exclusive. After all, not everyone will be able to attend due to space restrictions, budgetary concerns, etc. By live-streaming elements of your in-person gathering (i.e. making it hybrid) you can reach infinitely more people.
  • Better ROI: Virtual access to your in-person events can be sold for reduced fees, which can improve your bottomline. Or the content can be repackaged and used for promotional purposes, which can lower your marketing costs.
  • Deeper Data: It's incredibly easy to track virtual attendee engagement because every move they make is logged in the virtual event platform. This means you'll have a wealth of data to sift through and use for future events.

Hybrid event ideas offer attendees the excitement of in-person and the convenience of digital. Because of this, we expect to see a lot more of them in the near future.

Key Takeaways

Virtual events will continue to grow in popularity over the coming years. Having a robust understanding of the virtual domain - from event types and examples to engagement ideas and tactics - will help you stay ahead of the game as the virtual event world continues to change.

Here’s what you need to know about virtual events:

  • The stats prove that virtual events are becoming more popular. While COVID-19 has a lot to do with that, the effectiveness of digital conferences can't be understated.
  • There are different kinds of virtual events that you can host. Identify the main goal of your gathering, then choose the virtual event type that will help you best accomplish it.
  • When brainstorming virtual event ideas, audience engagement is key. Think of session topics, entertainment options, and technology tools that allow attendees to interact.
  • Just because you're hosting a virtual event doesn't mean you can't have sponsors. Find a way to bring value to sponsors and they'll bring value to your digital event.
  • An AV production company can help give your virtual event a sense of professionalism. Do your research and choose a reputable company that fits your budget. Then communicate effectively with them to ensure you're on the same page.
  • You need to choose a virtual platform to host your online event. Ask the right questions to make sure the platform you choose will fit your needs.
  • Hybrid events are a combination of in-person and virtual events and are a great solution to getting the benefits of both virtual and in-person.. Industry experts expect them to grow in popularity in the coming year.

For more details about how event marketing leaders are planning their virtual events and navigating this new digital landscape, download the Evolution of Events Report.

Evolution of Events Report - Download the Report

Editor's Note: This post was originally published on November 14, 2019 and has since been updated.