Five Strategies for Turning a Virtual “Oh Well” Event into a Success

Almost six months into our new reality of social distancing and virtual everything, we are now seeing articles, including a recent one from Wealth Management , wondering whether in-person conferences are dead. This speculation is fueled by questions about when it will be safe to mingle inside with hundreds of other people and by a growing recognition that virtual conferences – when executed creatively and thoughtfully – not only can have advantages over in-person but that there are ways to mitigate the disadvantages. The key, as we discussed in a previous post, is to think about virtual not as a “better-than-nothing” substitute, but as a viable alternative.

In this vein, we have developed a list of the key components for developing a strong virtual conference strategy that can help sponsors and speakers to maximize their value:

  • Get intimate. To a great extent, conference experiences are defined by physical limitations of space: 50 breakout sessions with 5 people in each or 100 one-on-one private discussion sessions would be very difficult to manage. But, within reason, you can in a virtual environment. Speakers can break an hour-long session into three 20-minute sessions each serving a smaller, more homogenous audience. Speakers and sponsors can also set up and promote virtual office hours for private discussions.
  • Short and sweet. Combat the disengagement effects of distractions and lack of physical proximity by making the presenting part of sessions shorter and the Q&A longer. Leverage the polling and “hand raise” features of most virtual meeting platforms to solicit and field comments and feedback to better engage the audience. (Pro tip: If you’re a speaker, make sure you have some “friendly” attendees who will get the interaction started with questions in case other attendees are hesitant.)
  • No limits. In a virtual world, time and space are no longer a barrier to engagement. Sponsors should powerfully leverage more senior management, who only need to make themselves available for short periods rather than committing to days of travel and attendance. Speakers are also likely to obtain greater participation from a broader range of partners and panelists who don’t have to weigh the benefits against the days out of the office.
  • The Journey not just The Destination. With live conferences, there’s a tendency to under-leverage the pre- and post-conference opportunity because you know that the time spent together in (fill in hotel in Florida here) will be what makes the event worthwhile. Sponsors can work to make up for the loss of that capstone opportunity by making better use of the pre- through post-conference communications to engage and spur conversation. Pre-conference, ask attendees what they want to get out of the conference and develop a connection to a sales resource. During the conference, use social media to initiate conversations. Post-conference, ask what they found valuable and send out related content.
  • Value-added on-demand. One of the best things about virtual conferences is that everything can be recorded and shared afterwards. Sponsors can use that as an opportunity not only to broaden the reach of their content, but also to further engage with their customers. Consider offering commentary and curated lists of sessions/topics that would be of interest, both to customers who registered/attended and even those that did not.

The bottom line is that many 2021 conferences have already announced as virtual. For B2B companies, the investment in these events is too great to just cross our fingers and hope that things return to normal soon. Necessity is the mother of invention: It’s time to develop approaches that make the most of our “new normal”.

Will we still wear lanyards? Addressing the challenge of B2B financial services events during social isolation

Thousands of people flying in from all over the country. Hotels filled to capacity. People packed shoulder-to-shoulder in an enclosed room. Handshakes and exchanges of business cards. Buffet dinners.

Almost everything about conferences seems foreign in our current reality. Indeed, most fall conferences have already announced that they will not take place in-person. Some have been postponed, some cancelled, many turned virtual. In a few cases, such as some recent investor conferences and a Forrester conference, the switch to remote has been seen as a success. In most cases, however, the decision to waive registration fees betrays a lack of confidence on the part of both sponsors and attendees about a virtual event’s ability to deliver value. But, you say, registrations and log-ins have increased as no travel expenses, no missed work and no registration fee lowered the decision bar almost to the floor. The problem: Any quantitative improvement likely masks a significant qualitative drop in engagement.

If we take a step back and think realistically about how conferences provide value, the situation becomes clear: Conferences create an opportunity for sponsors to get concentrated exposure to and interactions with their prospects; attendees get a break from their daily routine with the valid justification of an immersive opportunity to learn from experts and peers. Move the conference to the web and all those things disappear. Indeed, a virtualized conference in the form of a series of presentations becomes almost indistinguishable from a thematically-connected series of webinars.

As the threat of COVID stretches into the foreseeable future, it’s incumbent on all parties involved—the conference organizers, the sponsors and the prospective attendees—to think creatively about how to fashion virtual events into something that takes advantage of the positives and mitigates the negatives. Nothing about greater registration volume and potentially greater expert participation for a virtual event inherently leads to lower attendee engagement and fewer sales prospect interactions. In fact, it’s potentially quite the opposite. The first step down a path of creating valuable virtual events is to identify and isolate the key components of live events that people find valuable:

  • For sponsors: The value comes from getting their name and capabilities in front of their target audience and being able to engage with them directly to generate sales opportunities.
  • For attendees: The value comes from the opportunity to learn from industry experts and their peers, as well as the potential to find solutions to their business challenges.

Having identified these elements of value, the question then becomes: How can we create this value virtually, irrespective of the way it was generated in live events? The answers should produce a framework that would be more productive than putting two days’ worth of presentation sessions on the internet and offering virtual networking lounges that will never be used. Here are some of our ideas.

Generate marketing and sales value for sponsors:

  • Sponsored structured virtual chats and roundtables that create opportunities for peers to discuss topics of high relevance and interest to them, moderated by sponsor representatives
  • Sponsored virtual group icebreaker activities to help forge connections between peers from similar businesses and/or geographies
  • Tinder-style (“swipe right”, “swipe left”) sponsor pitches for 1:1 meetings to enable attendees to choose the sponsors with whom they want to interact, thus ensuring higher-quality conversations

Generate learning value for attendees:

  • A greater number of shorter sessions, spread over more days, because nobody will sit through multiple 45-minute online presentations
  • Asynchronous Q&A spanning the entire duration of the conference so that attendees have an opportunity to reflect on content, discuss it with teammates, and then pose questions
  • Multiple instances of live sessions to increase the options for attendees to join (thereby also increasing exposure for sponsors and presenters)
  • Small, structured breakouts to create substantive opportunities for attendees to learn from each other

We believe that these ideas serve as a good starting point and also enable a wide variety of iterations, depending on the specific sponsors and attendees and topics. They represent a sincere effort to do more than bide time until the business world “returns to normal” because at this point, it’s doubtful that anyone can accurately predict when that will really occur.

When Engineers Speak: 4 Key Cloud Marketing Implications

For marketers, almost nothing is as valuable as hearing the unvarnished, unfiltered point-of-view of buyers. At last week’s Massachusetts Tech Leadership Council’s “Cloud Seminar: Choosing the Right Cloud for Your Business,” marketers would have had a lot to listen to.

Speaking to a sophisticated, engineer-centric audience with over 20 years’ experience in development and operations, GitHub’s Mark Imbriaco didn’t pull any punches in presenting his perspective on the myths and realities of the benefits of the cloud.

  • Cost savings? Myth.
  • Means of avoiding IT bottlenecks? Myth.
  • Driver of increased agility and speed to market? Definite reality.

From a value proposition perspective, the implications are clear: be wary of emphasizing cost and operational advantages of your cloud solution because they’ll like meet with skepticism.

A panel discussion featuring engineering executives from Carbonite, Ipswitch, Acquia, and Scribe built on Mr. Imbriaco’s perspective. In responding to questions about their infrastructure evolution, they said that decisions about when and how to deploy IaaS, PaaS, and S(torage)aaS would always be based on the strategic business needs for a given initiative or project: when time-to-market is critical or in which utilization is highly unpredictable, cloud is attractive; in a scenario with consistent demands and a need to control variable costs, cloud is a poor choice.

This nuanced view of the application of cloud services should point marketers towards the development of materials and campaigns that enable the customer to drive the buying process based on specific requirements for specific projects. Specifically, the following would likely be effective:

  • Inbound marketing to allow prospective customers to pursue the information most useful to them
  • Web-based self-diagnostics to help prospective customers learn which cloud solution may be the right one for them
  • Sales enablement tools to facilitate sales’ role as a partner and helpful guide
  • Cross/up-sell marketing based on utilization data to take advantage of natural evolution of needs