What is a virtual event? Something as small as a webinar or as large as a digital conference with thousands of attendees. More than ever, virtual events are serving not just to supplement in-person events — but are replacing them as a way to save on production costs, minimize headaches and engage audiences in a whole new way.

If the marker for perfect vision is 2020, one thing’s become certain in this year of all years: the future’s never been blurrier.

When it comes to putting on live, in-person industry events that were once mainstays on our annual calendars (conferences, festivals, digital summits), there’s been a pivot of pandemic proportion as we adapt to living in a world of social distance.

But the truth is that, even before COVID-19 arrived, content creators and marketers were already shifting their thinking on how to execute virtual events — reimagining them in terms of how optimal digital experiences could live online, without the need for significant investments of time, travel and money. Both for the people who put them on — and those who attend.

It started with the birth of the webinar in the aughts; got its big-boy pants in the teen years with Skype — and now, in the age of hyper-connectivity and phygital marketing, it’s evolved to where things once thought to be tricky are now entirely workable.

As we look at a post-pandemic world, the sobering reality is:  Never before have so many in-person industry events been at risk.

The good news? When you live and breathe the world of marketing and technology, you’re in the greatest position to pivot. But, if the extent of your virtual event toe-dipping has been limited to only webinars thus far, don’t fret. With a global health crisis forcing the cancellation or postponements of events like South By Southwest, NewFronts and Microsoft’s Build (amongst many others), virtual events are having their big moment. New thinking (by necessity) is ushering in a new era of creativity for all.

Need proof? Ad Age actually has an event tracker for you to keep up with events being canceled, postponed or “moved online.” Moving events online is what we’re tackling today. Namely, decisions that should be made and things to consider when executing them. Also, some visual examples of how these new experiences could look and feel, for inspiration. If you have a role in producing these “live” virtual events in a crunch, or with time for lunch, here are a few things to consider along the way.

How to transform an in-person event into virtual: Redefine what the term "engagement" means.

8 tips for converting your physical event to a virtual event:

1. Decide what your virtual event needs to be.

For some kinds of events, the digital world just isn’t right. A virtual food or wine-tasting event comes to mind as a rather horrible way to spend an afternoon. However, for most other events, there’s great potential to bring it into the online world. Whereas there’s no replacement for the experience of standing next to someone and getting a palpable sense of who they are — there is untapped potential to bring people together to gather in the online world that could give the physical one a run for its money.

Here are three questions to ask yourself:

  • What type of event will work best? When you’re brainstorming what your event needs to be for its online debut, consider the types that exist. Must it be fully digital or could it be a hybrid — half in-person, half digital?
  • How can we best map it all out? Like any decisions of magnitude, putting the plan into a creative brief is always a smart idea to map out the different features of the event, budgets, goals/metrics and how sponsors can be integrated. That part is key. You may not be able to charge as much per ticket at the gate, but you can always involve sponsors more visibly to offset the loss of that revenue. That said, always make decisions in the context of putting on the most engaging event possible!
  • How should we promote it? Whether you choose all digital or a hybrid, you’ll need to develop a rapport immediately with your attendee to keep them excited about it across all channels — email, social and push. For example, when a notable new speaker or event gets added to the virtual event agenda. Hook ’em early and keep them engaged.

2. Think of your event as a global one.

With a virtual event, you might lose the human-to-human contact that a live event can bring, but there is a positive sign of things to come if you expand your event out to the broader universe.

When Sophie Amoruso initially announced this year’s cancellation of the Girlboss Rally, there was a sense of unknowing around how the 1,300+ attendee-base from last year would respond. Their first move was to announce that it would be a free, fully accessible one-day livestream event, and their attendee pool grew immensely. “We had 25,000 women/people RSVP in the first few days and we’re anticipating a 10,000-woman conference now instead of a 1,000-woman conference,” Amoruso initially revealed in this interview with Ad Age.

The event has since shifted away from being a virtual event in favor of transforming this Girlboss Rally into “an ongoing hub of conversations and resources — accessible for free, and for anyone” dubbed The Girlboss Guide to Now. However, that doesn’t change the nature of the first response, which showed an appetite for doing a digital event.

This could be a sign of big things to come for virtual events — especially with social distancing here to stay for a while. When you go virtual, you can go global. There’s literally a world of possibilities.

Tip: Take the opportunity of doing a live, digital event to unearth new markets and expand the reach of your attendee pool outside your usual sphere. If Amoruso can potentially amplify her event’s attendance by 1,000 percent, you can too!

3. Redefine what the term “engagement” means.

You know the old proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Well, has there ever been a better time to rethink how you engage your audience than when you’ve got an event to throw and suddenly, it all must happen digitally?

Be creative in this approach.

When you’re trapped at home attending a live event, there are many reasons for attendees to turn the channel. They might be present at the beginning, but by hour four, their dog’s in their lap, a kid has homework and logging off has newfound appeal.

Attending from home is one-step removed from being physically present, so you must take extra strides to bring your event to life. Roger Courville (CSP and author The Virtual Presenter’s Playbook) recently did a GoToWebinar event on the topic entitled, “Key Strategies to Maximize Engagement.” He says one of the biggest questions a host or moderator has to ask themselves is: “How do we engage an audience we can’t see?”

According to Courville, the answer is relatively simple. “Take the best of human connectedness online.” This ranges from creating a custom dashboard with the latest on-demand tools to interacting with attendees directly (by name) during the online event.

Tip: Have a smart visual storytelling strategy that gives attendees a reason to be interactive. From online quizzes to audience polls to virtual Q & A’s, you can initiate interaction with attendees through live, active participation, not passive viewing. Even gamification features can work and come with built-in tracking, a leaderboard and prizes for the winners who are most involved.

4. Make sure to employ humor in your virtual event strategy.

By being in a two-dimensional world versus three dimensional, there are going to be challenges in keeping people’s attention. That is, the palpable sense of humanity and collective energy of being in a crowded room is essentially gone. What’s not gone?

Humor as a tool to bring people people together. No matter where they are. The ability to entertain a captive audience with relatively little potential for visual disruption is harder than it might be in person. Consider the avenues you have at your fingertips to do such a thing. It could be a funny online poll that quickly encourages bonding: “Q: How many windows do you actually have open right now?” Or employing a stand-up comic to do a five-minute Zoom-bomb during a breakout session.

Something seamlessly and humorously woven into the context of an actual event — in other words, something non-traditional.

Given the ability to engage that many more people than you would’ve before (taking from points two and three), it would behoove you to take advantage of your newer, bigger audience by playing to the strengths of the platforms that you’re using.

Tip: Like with other mediums, glean inspiration from those who’ve done it before. From the “mini-logues” delivered by late-night hosts during the coronavirus to the makeshift low-budget setup like John Krasinki’sSome Good News,” consider the use of mixed media to tap into something real and of the moment. It could make people feel good (and even go viral) if done right.

5. Partner with someone who knows what they’re doing.

Throwing a live event online isn’t just a matter of downloading Zoom and making sure your computer’s audio mic works. When you’re transforming something from live to online, there’s an entirely different skill set associated with that experience.

To that end, there are companies who specialized in this pursuit long before we were sheltering-in-place.

One of the bigger and most well-known ones is Cisco Webex, a platform you’ve no doubt heard of that creates “powerful online events and effective webinars for up to 3,000 attendees” and streaming for up to 40,000 attendees.

Another one is ON24, a global platform based out of San Francisco that allows marketers to “build data-rich, interactive webinar and content experiences.” According to Mark Borenstein, the VP of Marketing for ON24 and “Chief Webinerd” who recently did a webinar on the topic, a huge plus is that digital events don’t just live in the moment — they can be kept around for some time. “A really great experience is one that has a live day and then you keep it on and continue to promote it, and drive demand for it.”

On a related topic, ON24 also hosts an event called Webinar World (slated for June 15-16) that preaches best practices for experiential marketing. If you want to learn more about this topic, you might consider attending (be it live or as a virtual event).

Want to explore other virtual event platforms? Poke around INTRADO and 6CONNEX to see the latest technology being used. Here’s an example of a cool environment — a virtual lounge — that INTRADO created for their client Anytime Fitness.

Intrado's virtual lounge for client, AnyTime Fitness
Image source: INTRADO

6. Make it easily accessible/available.

At a live event in the physical world, there are plane tickets, hotel fees, and an overall cost to attend. Due to the cash outlay, there’s a greater chance that people who say they’ll show up… will. With a digital event, those numbers go down. Considerably.

Depending on what numbers you subscribe to, the ratio of registrants to attendees is roughly 35-45 percent. That’s a pretty big no-show rate. That’s why you’re going to want to limit the barriers to entry wherever you can. It’s not enough to just stir up interest, you have to nurture the people who are already in and promise an experience that will keep them engaged at every turn.

With people able to log in from around the world, you should consider broadening your appeal to target them. Whether they’re French Canadian or live in the French Alps — logging in from San Francisco or San Juan, ask yourself these three things:

  • How many reminders are you sending? Virtual events need regular reminders especially as the event gets closer. Without non-refundable plane tickets, hotel reservations and other concrete plans, people won’t assign a harsh penalty to not attending. So stay in touch with them on a fairly regular basis to announce reasons why they must not miss this event. The more perceived value there is by virtually attending your event, the more chance they’ll show up on game day.
  • What should the event sound like? Are there language considerations you need to make? Translation programs? Accessibility issues? Considerations around closed-captioning? One of the good things about doing things online is that you can capture attendees from all over the world, but you must be prepared for it. For instance, the ON24 platform “supports the ability to auto-translate captions into more than 60 languages.” In real-time. Take advantage.
  • Can you zig where others zagHow can you shape an event that feels different from what people are expecting? Is there an angle of approach that doesn’t just sound serviceable, but gets people excited to attend your virtual event?

The Adobe SUMMIT, originally scheduled for Las Vegas, moved online for the first time in its 16-year history in 2020. As you might expect, a company known for creative and cloud-computing solutions probably felt a bit more pressure not to cancel.

It was short turnaround, but they did respond by making the SUMMIT free to the online world with over 100+ breakout sessions involving various leaders from Adobe serving as speakers. Most are talking to you from their safety of their own homes, but they still made the experience relatively seamless and easy to navigate for all newcomers. As a plus, the content still lives on their site.

How to transform an in-person event into virtual: Reimagine your virtual background(s).

7. Reimagine your virtual background(s).

The phrase “virtual background” is trending up in ways its creators probably never imagined. With the mass migration to Zoom by the remote workforce, there’s a desire to block out the “natural” backgrounds in our homes to appear as if we’re elsewhere.

A similar strategy is being used at virtual events. Take Salesforce World Tour Sydney, for instance. The event was supposed to take place live on March 4, 2020, but became one of the first major events to quickly pivot due to global health concerns. As a result, the event was reimagined digitally and launched to a more global audience on a stage using amped-up enthusiasm from its speakers, set against colorful motion graphics and virtual backdrops behind the speakers. It’s on display during Salesforce CEO (ANZ) Pip Marlow’s keynote, which is set against a cool backdrop of the Sydney Opera House surrounded by flowing water.

8. Finally, there’s always room for networking.

There’s one common thread that all the live events and conferences I’ve ever gone to share: the networking cocktail hour. It’s the moment when everyone winds down, gets their business cards ready and collectively has a drink (with alcohol or not).

It’s an opportunity to digest the day’s activities, approach people from panels, keynotes and let your personality go to work.

Virtual networking events exist too. Think breakout rooms (aka virtual hangouts) where people can connect through shared experience, share a virtual Quarantini and even splinter off to a side-chat room outside the group for a private powwow.

You might not be able to exchange actual business cards, but you can do one better — by exchanging vCards and sending people to your website and socials in one fell swoop. A more meaningful connection that will thrive long after you log off.