Welcome to your guide on virtual events in 2020 and beyond. Discover best practices for launching a virtual conference, aligning with your organization, identifying key metrics and more.

What are virtual events?

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Virtual events allow event organizers, speakers, attendees, and sponsors to interact remotely through a virtual environment. While webinar and virtual conferencing tools have been around for a while, innovative approaches and tools are quickly emerging to more closely align in-person event goals to the virtual channel.

As an example, Salesforce quickly pivoted their Sydney World Tour in-person event to a virtual format. Organizers created an engaging program of broadcasted virtual content that featured many elements of a traditional in-person event including live speakers, panelists, virtual consultation rooms, and live product demos.

How To Launch a Virtual Conference - Salesforce World TourSource: Salesforce

We’ve approximated the unique advantages of different event formats—in-person, virtual, or hybrid events—in the graph below. A strategic point of success for virtual events are delivering the most targeted content and speakers.

How To Launch a Virtual Conference - Hybrid Events GraphSource: Bizzabo

The transition to virtual conferences

While nothing can compare to the power of in-person, unprecedented circumstances have had a major impact on the future of events.

In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic of 2020, many event professionals have shifted from leading events to navigating a crisis—including creating contingency plans to protect the health and safety of their attendees, sponsors, customers, and teams, finding new opportunities to repurpose event content, and taking courageous steps to see what the next era of events will look like. 

We predict that in the near future, event marketers will be leaning into virtual conferences as part of a larger hybrid event strategy—that combines both in-person and digital experiences. While virtual events are not new, we’re seeing signs that they will become more commonplace and complimentary for in-person events in the future. 

Here’s an overview of what we’ll cover in this post. You can click the below links to jump to the corresponding section:

Let’s get started!

3 Considerations for Pivoting to Virtual 

Given the rapidly changing times with an ongoing health crisis, it can be difficult to know when to change your events strategy. In our recent Customers Come First webinar, we spoke to several event leaders who gave key insights into the topic. While we don’t recommend making seismic shifts in any ongoing plans, we hope these key areas from event leaders will help you find the right decision:

1. Prioritize the safety of your audience and team

At the end of the day, it’s important to consider the health and safety of your team and attendees, sponsors, and speakers. If there is reason to believe your in-person event can be impacted by the ongoing health crisis, work to find solutions to either move to virtual, postpone, or cancel an upcoming event.

2. Consider your event and marketing goals

As you make decisions around your roster of upcoming events, take a step back to assess your core goals. Why are you planning to host this event? What are your goals? Use those answers to help determine whether your current event strategy aligns with both the current climate and your larger strategic priorities.

3. Look at a crisis as an opportunity for growth

A positive outcome of any obstacle is a solutions-oriented mindset. While in-person events may be off the table for the immediate future, it gives marketers the opportunity to shift focus and re-adjust their strategy on what makes an engaging attendee experience in different types of environments.

What’s the difference between virtual events and webinars?

Webinars are a valuable channel for connecting with an audience. They can be viewed as one type of virtual event but they differ from other virtual events in a few key ways.

Uniform vs. Curated: 

Webinars provide attendees with a single session to attend while virtual events offer flexibility in single-track or multi-track agendas that span across hours or days. Because of this, attendees have the opportunity to curate their own experience and determine which sessions they’d like to attend in a virtual event.

Passive vs. Interactive:

Webinars can feature polls, surveys, and Q&As but the majority of webinar interaction is limited to these outlets. Virtual events feature communities where attendees can connect with one another during and in-between sessions. These same community features make it possible for attendees to communicate with speakers and sponsors, as well, as part of the greater event experience. This is in addition to other presentation tools like polls and surveys that are similarly found in webinars.

Similar Experience vs. Unique Experience: 

Because a virtual attendee has the opportunity to curate their own experience and interact beyond a single session, they are able to carve out a unique event experience. By this same coin, event organizers can better learn about the preferences of their attendees by analyzing their journey across a virtual event. The resulting insights can help organizers send more nuanced follow-up messages to attendees, better tailor both virtual and in-person experiences to their audiences, and drive more personalized touchpoints.

5 Types of Virtual Events

Before launching your first virtual event, you’re probably thinking about the type of virtual experience you want for your event attendee. As discussed in the previous section, virtual events have evolved beyond the typical webinar format. We’ve included the top five event types that organizers are currently using to connect, engage attendees, and amplify the voices of their brands.

1. Roundtables

Roundtables are a great venue for providing exclusive in-person experiences to a small group of attendees. Roundtables can function similarly in a virtual environment, allowing organizers to curate their attendee list and offer exclusive content for a limited or broad number of guests.

For example, Bizzabo recently launched Customer Roundtables, a series of virtual roundtables where customers can network and discuss top-of-mind challenges and best practices with their peers. Event attendees are split into smaller breakout groups with a moderator to ensure every participant can contribute. 

When looking to design a virtual roundtable, consider breaking out the event into smaller groups of 10-15 attendees with a moderator in each breakout room to allow for a more personalized virtual experience. Check out the detailed event website and instructions Bizzabo provides for attendees below.

Virtual-event-guide-customer-roundtableSource: Bizzabo

2. Keynotes

Keynotes set the tone for large conferences and summits weaving together storytelling, insights, and predictions of the future that can solidify your event’s core theme and messaging. Bringing a keynote speech into the virtual space is a great way to amplify your speaker’s message and reach a broader audience.

Demandbase chose to virtualize their keynote speech from The ABM Innovation Summit, which was moved to a virtual format in March 2020 given the public health crisis. Their CMO, Peter Issacson, provided valuable content to a broader audience of marketers who may not have had the chance to view his speech if it was given at an in-person event.

Demandbase created an intro video featuring images, graphics, and logos to set the stage for the content of the keynote. The added intro video gave the digital experience a more polished feel. 

How To Launch a Virtual Conference - The Future of ABM KeynoteSource: The ABM Innovation Summit

3. Conference

Conferences are a fantastic way to bring together users, customers, and thought leaders in your industry to celebrate and learn. Virtualizing your user conference or summit can not only help you reach a broader audience wherever they are, but it also gives your team new ways to engage and interact with attendees.

Gong recently launched their first virtual conference, #celebrate Online! With multiple sessions, speakers, and sponsors participating. With features like live chat, Q&A, and networking capabilities, Gong was able to break away from a passive attendee experience and offer engaging opportunities before, during, and after event sessions.

Incorporating designated networking breaks also allowed attendees to take a breather between longer sessions to chat, take polls, and network with other attendees.

How To Launch a Virtual Conference - #celebrate OnlineSource: #celebrate Online

4. Employee Appreciation Event

Virtualizing an internal event can be a fun and convenient way to get your organization involved in larger team bonding experiences like lunch and learns, happy hours, or even yoga sessions! A key component to virtualizing employee appreciation if bringing a more human aspect. Creating jeopardy style quizzes during a virtual happy hour can keep everyone engaged and create lots of laughs.

But just as it’s important to create novel virtual events for external audiences, so is it important to keep things fresh for your internal audiences. 

As one example, Bizzabo’s co-founder Boaz Katz recently lead the team in a virtual cooking class. Seeing everyone cooking in their kitchens—often with a little help from their family members—provided a way of digitally connecting with the team in a way that was very much different than the typical virtual happy hour.


5. Networking Event 

Live panel discussions on a relevant industry-specific topic can be a valuable way to bring professionals together in a virtual space event during a time of social distancing. A live panel including two or three thought leaders and a moderator can be a great way to replicate the same after work networking events that typically happen in the work week. 

Having a second person manage a live Q&A during the discussion can keep attendees engaged—bonus points for giving any sponsors for your event a shout out during the beginning of your event.

For example, WISE (Women In Sales Everywhere) created an online networking event that included three sales leaders and a moderator to discuss pressing challenges female sales professionals face today. To keep the experience interactive, WISE used a live chat for attendees to comment during the discussion as well as the ability to ask questions that could be addressed live with the panelists.

How To Launch a Virtual Conference - WISESource: WISE

5 Tips For Keeping Attendees Engaged

As you get a more detailed picture of your ideal virtual audience, you can start the creative process of building the ultimate virtual experience.

In-person event organizers and marketers may be concerned about what this new territory means when adjusting to the expectations and needs of attendees.

Fortunately, the strategies that make event organizers successful with in-person events—delivering exceptional experiences, attracting the right audience, and aligning with different stakeholders—is just as relevant in a virtual environment. 

Here are five key steps to designing a great attendee experience:

1. Identify Attendee Needs

Designing the perfect experience starts with your individual attendee.

Start by asking questions like:

  • What are your attendee’s goals?
  • What discussion formats are the most engaging?
  • What is the most valuable content?
  • How will this event make my attendee successful?

These questions will help you plot out the key areas of focus as you put together event content, speakers, sponsors, and procure the technology to keep your attendees engaged.

2. Personalize the Experience

The advantage of a virtual conference is the ability to break down physical barriers of an in-person event. Your audience can be wider or more narrow depending on your event goals. Thus, when designing the experience you can take a more maximalist approach, giving your creative team more avenues to delight with personalized messaging, or by using different technology to give every attendee a space to connect and interact. 

Learn more about event personalization here.

3. Align with Team Members

When designing a virtual or in-person experience, a big part of success lies in the collaboration of multiple stakeholders including: event teams, marketing, sales, and product organizations. 

Arm your sales team with customized outreach to prospects and customers. Generate innovative content with your marketing team in the form of event sessions, campaigns, polls, surveys, and more. And stay in lock-sync with your product teams to find areas where product discussions will be most relevant to your audience.

4. Set Your Speakers Up for Success

Think of your speakers as the marquee of your virtual event. Ensuring they have an exceptional experience and stellar preparation beforehand will set them up for success. Remember to provide technical instructions for participating in a virtual session, best practices for speaking virtually (speaking to a camera is much different than speaking on stage), and establish virtual rehearsal times to get them familiar and confident in a virtual setting. 

5. Take Care of Your Attendees

Be proactive and prepare your virtual attendees for a great experience by consolidating your virtual event to limit fatigue, establish housekeeping rules, include Q&As in sessions, create an on-demand library, and make every experience interactive. You may even want to explore options for sending your attendees gifts or swag. Keep in mind that many of your virtual attendees will be tuning in from their homes. Since sending B2B mail to home addresses is still not the norm, explore ways of digitally sending gifts through services like Thnks, Sendoso, or another option.

4 Sponsorship Ideas for Virtual Events

An important component for many in-person and virtual events are event sponsorships. Sponsorships can provide much needed financial support and can also assist in increasing the reach and credibility of your event, in exchange for having the chance to engage with an event audience.

Naturally, interacting online is much different than interacting in-person. Here are several ideas to consider:

1. Sponsored Event Sessions and Event Speakers

One way sponsors can add value to a virtual event is simply creating a sponsored session to provide education, thought leadership, and actionable takeaways that are relevant to attendees. Sponsors can pitch session content and provide speakers for keynotes, workshops, roundtable discussions, or panels. 

For example, Discover MarTech is made up entirely of sponsored sessions that offers a variety of content for virtual attendees.

How To Launch a Virtual Conference - Discover MarTechSource: Discover MarTech

2. Sponsored Giveaways

One way to keep attendees on their toes during a virtual event is by hosting fun giveaways throughout the event. Sponsors can participate by providing prizes like gift cards, streaming service subscriptions, non-profit donations, or swag that attendees can keep with them after the event has passed.

3. Sponsored Virtual After Party or Happy Hour

Networking is a key component to in-person events. Sponsors can create similarly exclusive experiences during a virtual event by hosting a happy hour or after party that includes a special guest like a celebrity for an AMA or a musician who can live stream a fun performance. 

4. Collaborate with Sponsors

You don’t have to come up with all of the ideas yourself. Virtual events offer new and exciting opportunities for sponsors to get creative. Encourage your event sponsors to come up with unique ideas for virtual activations and give them the support and resources they need to make it happen. This will allow your sponsors more agency in building a valuable experience during the event.

KPIs for Measuring Virtual Event Success

When determining the right KPIs for event success—regardless if the environment is virtual, hybrid or in-person—it’s important to understand how your specific business calculates event ROI

Below are a several specific event metrics to consider based on your event goals.

Goal: To Generate Brand Awareness

When looking to measure brand awareness during your virtual event, consider tracking the number of registrations, the number of social media impressions, media placements, website visits, and event website visits. All these metrics can help you determine the demand for your virtual event.

Goal: To Drive Revenue

When looking to increase revenue with your virtual event, metrics that revolve around leads generated, sales pipeline, opportunities created or influenced and deals won can help you determine your event’s impact to the bottom line.

Goal: To Educate and Delight Customers

Events centered around customer and user engagement will want to look at a variety of metrics centered around product usage, survey results, and retention numbers. Explore different measurements like the number of monthly active users before and after your event, product usage, number of demos given, net promoter scores, post-event survey results, and the number of 1:1 meetings with customers.

Goal: To Satisfy Event Attendees 

An important area of focus for any event is attendee engagement and satisfaction. When looking to measure event engagement, consider the following measurements: number of session attendees, number of questions in virtual sessions, number of poll responses, number of highly engaged attendees, number of networking community check-ins, 

5 Tools for Running Virtual Events

There are a few key areas where you’ll want to review the type of technology to power your virtual event. This includes tools for broadcasting or recording a live event session, creating opportunities to engage event attendees, and solutions to integrate your virtual event data into your event management platform.

For a comprehensive list, check out 10 tools for hosting your next event.

1. Zoom

How To Launch a Virtual Conference - ZoomSource: Zoom

You may already be familiar with Zoom, which is a popular video conferencing and meeting solution. This cloud platform is used for video, phone, content sharing, and chat across mobile, desktop, and telephones, and room systems. Features like high-quality video, recording and transcripts, built-in collaboration tools, calendars, and chat allow you to make virtual meetings or happy hours fun and convenient.

2. Soapbox (Wistia)

How To Launch a Virtual Conference - SoapboxSource: Soapbox

Video content and editing tools are essential for amping up the quality of your video production at your next virtual event. Soapbox is an easy to use, free Chrome plug-in that allows you to record, edit, and share videos instantly.

Create highly engaging video content that weaves screencasts and split-screen views, gives you the option to customize your player color and thumbnail to make video recordings easy for anyone on your team. This is a fast, free, and seamless way to create a variety of video content for your next virtual event.

3. GoToWebinar

How To Launch a Virtual Conference - GoToWebinarSource: GoToWebinar

GoToWebinar helps event organizers easily create large scale live or recorded webinars. It’s packed with valuable features including custom webinar invitations, registration page and automated email reminders, analytics, and presenter tools to make your next webinar a highly engaging and easy experience. HDFaces allows presenters to share their webcam adding an additional layer of engagement during your next virtualized event.

4. NetworkTables Virtual

How To Launch a Virtual Conference - NetWork TablesSource: NetworkTables

NetworkTables helps event organizers manage table seating at large scale in-person events and virtual events. NetworkTables Virtual allows event organizers to meet relevant attendees through interactive roundtables, 1:1 meetings, keynotes, and breakout sessions.

NetworkTables Virtual allows event organizers to confidently personalize attendee schedules no matter their timezone. NetworkTables Virtual also integrates with some of the most popular webinar/video tools including GoToMeeting, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and more.

5. Bizzabo’s Virtual Experience Solution

How To Launch a Virtual Conference - Bizzabo Virtual ExperienceSource: Bizzabo

While different tools and technologies can support facets of your hybrid or virtual event, it can be difficult to find a tool that takes a holistic approach to in-person, hybrid, and virtual event experiences.

Bizzabo’s Virtual Experience Solution delivers impactful and engaging event experiences whether your attendees are coming to meet in-person or virtually. Make any event session virtual or create hybrid events using powerful live streaming and on-demand capabilities that are integrated to your larger event marketing solution while features like Q&A, chat, polling, and whiteboard offer a variety of ways for attendees to stay engaged and connected during virtual sessions.

10 Questions to Ask When Evaluating a Virtual Event Solution

There are a variety of tools and solutions you can use to produce your next virtualized event. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed or unfamiliar in the territory, check out these key ten questions to ask to make sure you can get the most comprehensive platform to cover all your virtual event needs.

  1. Can I integrate this solution into my current event management platform?
  2. Can I create gated virtual sessions based on ticket types?
  3. Can I create multi-track and single track virtual experiences?
  4. What analytics can I capture?
  5. Can I host multiple presenters? 
  6. Can we upload content?
  7. Are there ways for attendees to engage via chat, polls, Q&A, whiteboard?
  8. Does the solution include breakout rooms?
  9. Can attendees access virtual events through a mobile device, tablet, or computer? 
  10. Can attendees access virtual events and recordings on-demand through the event 

Your Virtual Event: Key Takeaways

While the current environment is in constant flux, event marketers are moving forward with creativity and empathy as they tackle new territory in a virtual space.

Hosting a virtual conference is no walk in the park and can be a great opportunity for marketers to expand creative muscles. To make your event stand out from the noise, here are the key areas of opportunity.

  • Differentiate your virtual experience from a webinar by creating and active experience for attendees that allows them to engage in a variety of ways.
  • Pivot to virtual once you evaluate important areas like health and safety, event goals, and the open opportunities in your marketing strategy.
  • Launch a successful virtual conference by identifying your audience and designing attendee-centric experiences.
  • Collaborate with your sponsors to maximize your partnership.
  • Define your key metrics for virtual success.
  • Evaluate the right tools for your event.
  • Focus on a comprehensive virtual solution by asking the right questions.

Looking for more ways to nail your next virtual experience? Check out our latest ebook, Going Hybrid, to get an in-depth look at how to bring your virtualized experiences to life.

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