Can you create a meaningful experience in a virtual conference?

The headline of this article was the question we asked ourselves at MarketingProfs earlier this year when we realized our annual event in San Francisco was not going to happen.

You would think that a company that has been providing live virtual marketing training for years would have no qualms turning their flagship B2B personal forum into an online event. You would be wrong.

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

Our main task was to create the same energized, connected feeling that our attendees get from the personal conference.

Here are four things we learned while planning and executing.

1. Live virtual event sessions don’t mean better

Are you struggling with your company over live sessions versus recorded ones? According to our participants, there are many of us.

In order to mitigate technical problems and to control the quality of the meetings, we decided to include all moderators (with the exception of our last keynote with Kevin Carroll) in advance.

However, we were concerned about the “potted” feel of the sessions. To counteract this …

  • Were transparent and told attendees that the sessions were pre-recorded
  • A moderator and the speaker said “Hello” live at the beginning of the session
  • Speakers watched their session with attendees to chat live, answer questions, and joke with attendees in real time (we called it a guard party).
  • Encouraged participants to ask questions for a live Q&A at the end (other participants could vote on which questions they wanted to answer).

Bring away: Virtual became a completely different, but no “less than” experience. The participants actively participated in the meetings instead of just watching. The pre-recording also helped us stick to our schedule!

2. Still expect the unexpected – but find that it’s just different

Anyone who has ever planned a live event knows that there are always problems with the hotel, rooms, food, and schedule – hell, weather too. There is no such thing as a perfect event, even if it seems that way to your attendees. Virtual events are no different.

  • Allow enough time to choose the technology. Just like hotel selection, it can take a long time and many “site visits” to select a technology to host your event. Since this technical area has exploded, many providers are being secured. It may take a while to receive a demo. And while this type of technology has been around for years, its popularity means new companies are entering the room every day, which means there are plenty of ways to sort it out.
  • Check all of your channels as questions will pop up in the most unexpected places. Although there was a “Get Help” button in the virtual lobby and an info desk that was manned throughout the event, we went to our PRO Facebook group and saw questions on this channel too. We quickly started to publish important announcements in this group, on Twitter with our tag # mpb2b and on the event platform itself.

  • Separate real-time communication for “mission control” for the entire team. Since we were all seated in our homes, we could not run to our event management team with problems we encountered. Using a real-time chat channel separate from the environment (we used Slack) allowed everyone to stay connected, report issues quickly, and laugh all day.

Bring away: Just like with personal events, anything can happen – just different things. The speakers are late, there are technical problems, a participant’s corporate IT is blocking the platform provider you have chosen, and so on and so forth. Have a guide for the event staff team, schedule, platform training, and real-time mission control.

3. Rethink everything

Everyone jokes about death from zoom, but we all have digital fatigue. We also need to think about how attendees can enjoy the experience while home schooling their children, checking business emails, and worrying about the state of the world.

  • Encourage attendees to turn on their vacation message. This tip is from our networking lounge chat and we thought it was great. Learning is learning, regardless of the method of delivery.
  • Keep your meetings short and memorable. We were really worried about this one. Can you really learn from a 20 minute presentation and 10 minute Q&A? It turns out you can. What we found is the shorter format (along with the creativity of the speakers) that allowed the speakers to deliver a punch in less time.

  • Keynotes are no longer just intended as a prelude. We had four keynotes: one at the beginning of each day, one for lunch, and one to end the conference on day 2. These helped bring people back when they started moving away.

Bring away: Trying to make a virtual event a replica of a live event does not work. Some elements may be the same, but many need to be redefined. Virtual is about your content and how it’s delivered.

4. Give participants the human connections they crave

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 the feeling of being connected. One of the biggest challenges any marketer faces is translating this into an online event. How do you manage this experience when you can’t have cocktail parties, wow moments and those casual get-togethers at breakfast?

Storytelling and emotions are even more important

Invite speakers who can engage and present in a virtual environment. And remember to sprinkle in sessions that aren’t about your industry: we had two sessions at our event where everyone was moved to tears. People should laugh and cry – even at a B2B conference.

Pepper in different

We started the event with a flash mob exercise led by Lizzy Williamson, author of Two Minute Moves. We invited everyone to get up and move around. We then got various points in the conference going with very popular Lizzy Sessions. We also ended Day 1 with a moving song from MarketingProfs Community Director Matt Snodgrass. We also ran a photo walk, held small panel discussions 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 the virtual world everyone can and should participate

At a live event, you are so busy that everything runs smoothly that the organizers rarely talk except for cocktails and dinner (and at the information desk). We’re here to help ensure you come to your meeting, find lunch, and introduce speakers. While making sure everything works in a virtual environment, you also have the opportunity to actually participate.

The speakers weren’t the only ones talking live during their sessions. we did it too. We also always had a few employees in the Networking Lounge who said hello and took part in the chats. We jumped into session chats (and other speakers too – which was great).

Speakers connected to speakers

Speakers attending other speakers’ meetings

* * *

Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, summed it up: “When you invite the right people, magic happens. It doesn’t matter whether you are virtual or in person.”

Would you like to see what everyone said? Check out the hashtag # mpb2b on Twitter.

TopRank Marketing was kind enough to write some articles about the sessions: Check out the coverage of
Rani Mani from Adobe and Ty Heath from the LinkedIn B2B Institute.

Shameless plug: Our next B2B Forum Online will take place in April! It’s free for PRO members OR if you haven’t gone PRO yet, register now and get all November sessions on request, master classes, special webinars just for PRO and a ticket to our April event.

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