Let’s Take This Online: How to Shift Your In-Person Events to Virtual

Samantha Gilmore

TBH—there’s not a lot we don’t do online these days. If we want to shop, we hit up Jeff Bezos and order the sweater we saw in an Instagram ad by EOD tomorrow. If we need to know how to do something, we watch strangers do it on YouTube. If we’re hungry, we can make a burrito appear from across town to our doorstep in 30 minutes flat.

While we believe strongly that in-person events will continue to be an important part of learning, growth, networking, and entertainment forever—we also know how much we like being able to do things on our phones, from the comfort of our couches, whilst shoveling burritos down our throats.

Enter: Virtual events in the Covid Era

We’ve all heard of conference calls and video calls and facetiming our parents, but the idea of taking on a full scale event—a conference, a board meeting, even a tradeshow—in a way that feels serious and valuable in an online setting can still seem daunting. 

That being said, Swoogo Founder Leonora Valvo compares running a virtual conference to running a virtual company (of which Swoogo is one.)

“When you run a virtual company, you don’t set out to reinvent what your business looks like from top to bottom. Look only at what’s truly different—that your employees don’t sit in the same building—and seek tools that help close that distance for them.” But as far as changing your game plan in other ways goes? Don’t overdo it.

“You don’t have to operate differently to operate remotely; you just need to set expectations and lean on technology to bring everything together.”

So how does that ethos apply to running virtual events? We’ll dive into five basic steps and tenants for making your online events feel just as effective as they would IRL.

Your pre-event marketing determines how your virtual event will be perceived

It’s pretty simple; if you make your virtual conference feel like a webinar before it even starts, it’ll be treated like one. 

If you choose not to blow out your marketing materials just because the event is taking place online, you signal to your audience that your event isn’t important: it’ll feel optional, unexciting, and small. 

Instead, use the money saved on not having a physical space to make your marketing shine. Create event pages like speakers, sponsors, and sessions just like you would for a live event. Spring for customized site and email design to really give your online event a brand. While most online conferencing tools allow you to set up registration pages from within their services, making a whitelabeled, beautiful event site and registration pages (and capturing robust event data on the back end) will still depend on using more sophisticated registration software, like Swoogo.

If your marketing doesn’t make your virtual event feel like a destination, you’ll be doomed to low attendance and low success. Instead, use engaging copy, widespread social and influencer support, well-designed advertisements, robust emails, and a truly [email protected] event page to convey that “online” and “unimportant” aren’t synonyms. 

And while we’re on the topic of online destinations … 

Choosing the right virtual space for your event is just as important as choosing the right physical one

Choosing a venue for in-person events is a huge part of the planning process. Not all venues are created equal in terms of size, layout, vibe, or even what kinds of services are included. 

Surprise surprise: virtual event spaces are just as diverse.

You’ve probably already heard of Zoom, RingCentral and GoToWebinar, all excellent conferencing tools used widely for internal gatherings and … well, webinars. But did you know RingCentral and Zoom can both handle gatherings of up to 500 attendees? With GoToWebinar, you can have up to 1000 guests on a call at once. 

Lesser known tools, like LiveStorm, have similar capacities. 

For most events, the tools above would more than cover the size needed to house even your largest keynote, but it’s also worth considering their vibe. 

Play around with all the conferencing tools you can find to see which has a user experience that most closely matches your brand and your event brand, to keep your event feeling as continuous and meticulously planned as it would IRL. You wouldn’t choose a venue without doing a walkthrough, right?

And if you’re ready for something more robust? 

ON24 is an awesome tool focused on delivering a virtual experience that’s even more useful than an in-person event would be. ON24 lets you provide more than just sessions—you can create full on hubs of useful content surrounding your topic, the same way you would at a live event. 

If you want to get even more branded, you could also try a proprietary tool like Communiqué’s conferencing software, which allows you to create 3D, virtual environments for your events, trade show booths and all. That’s right—just like the Sims. 

You have a big opportunity when it comes to speakers

Remote employers know the biggest advantage to virtual workspaces is the ability to hire the best of the best talent, regardless of where they’re geographically located. 

When you’re running a virtual event the same rings true; you can work with experts in your field from anywhere in the world, without having to fly them out to a venue or even requiring them to take a full day away from their work. 

This boon means your virtual event is the time to shoot for the stars; the actual rockstars in your industry who may have felt unattainable for a live event. 

Pitching an hour of someone’s time from the comfort of their home or office means lower speaker fees, no incidentals, and a higher chance for a yes, so go big or go home.

Clear direction will be more important than ever

When in-person event attendees aren’t sure where to go next, they wander around the venue until they find an appropriate session, stand, or activity. 

When online event attendees aren’t sure where to go next, they leave your event via a single click back to their email inbox.

Directions are a pretty high-stakes game in this scenario. 

Digital signage can happen in a lot of ways. For starters, building out a comprehensive agenda page with easy to navigate links to all of your sessions is a must. 

From there, send every attendee a unique email with links to each of their selected sessions, so they can follow a personalized step-by-step guide as the day goes on. If your event registration allows it, add each of their selected sessions to their calendar. 

Lastly, use the last 5 minutes of each session to promote others where there’s leftover space; even if attendees still don’t know where they were originally supposed to head, you’ll be able to catch their attention before they click to exit. 

Be choosy about what’s recorded and distributed

You wouldn’t tape every session of from your live event and throw it unedited onto the internet for everyone to see free of charge; make sure you’re equally discerning with your virtual content. 

We’re used to handing out recordings of webinars to non-attendees; all we were ever after was the email address, after all, and now we have it: might as well give away the content. Eventually those recordings end up on blogs, on social media, passed from the sales teams to leads—all gates, if there ever were any, eventually come down.

The same doesn’t apply to your virtual event. 

Registrants who paid for tickets should, of course, be allowed to browse your recordings at will. The key is keeping them in a gated place, where only ticketed registrants can access them. 

You can even choose to only upload partial sessions, in a bid to encourage participants to attend on event day vs. browsing content like a library later (this helps you get a better grip on your attendance numbers and session data.) 

Regardless, avoid services like YouTube where anyone can access your videos. Hosts like Wistia give you gating, better data, allow your audience to interact with your recordings, and can help you point them towards more content when they’re done watching. While there’s an added cost to host your videos privately, it also keeps your event exclusive and engaging. 

Make sure you’re clear up front about what kinds of content you’ll make public after your event; if website visitors know they won’t benefit from your sessions without buying a ticket, you’re sure to see an uptick in revenue. You can also incentivize ticket sales by running sessions that are exclusive to day-of attendees. 

Wrap Up

All in all, running a virtual event follows the same basic principles as running a live one. While they can require a little extra elbow grease to make sure things run smoothly and attendees feel like they got their money’s worth, there’s no barrier to the value and experience level of events held online. 

Plus, in an emerging space there are unlimited ways to get creative with how you engage and elevate the attendee experience; where everything’s new, it’s a great time to be an innovator.