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September 01, 2010

Working Smart

10 Tips for Producing a Successful Virtual Event

by Kimberly Medaglia

10 Tips  for Producing a  Successful Virtual EventOne need only look at the growing number of brand marketers using virtual events to see the industry’s rapid growth. In 2009, The Event Marketing Institute cited 300 percent growth in this sector. In addition, a 2009 report by American Business Media and Forrester Research found that 75 percent of business decision makers said they attended three or more Web-based events during the past 12 months.

Although virtual events represent a new medium, many of the same strategies and skills are employed to successfully plan and produce a virtual experience as with a live one. As with an on-site event, producing a virtual event involves extensive planning, careful content development and precise execution. But there are some unique nuances to consider. Have you ever joined a virtual presentation and answered e-mail instead of listening (and didn’t feel the least bit guilty)? Has technology ever prohibited your participation? Did you miss the event entirely, but were able to log on and see what you missed? These are just some of the scenarios in which participants can find themselves.

As a producer of physical and virtual events, we understand the importance of upholding the brand experience—no matter what the communication medium. These 10 tips are the most critical in ensuring a successful virtual event regardless of our client’s business or target audience.

1. Develop a comprehensive event strategy. Before jumping into planning your first virtual event, consider how it fits into your overall event strategy, its goals and objectives. Answering the questions like the ones below will guide the creation of the event and help leverage the experience for the audience and the organization to the greatest degree.
Ask yourself questions, such as:

  • Do we have a live event that needs to expand beyond the physical location?
  • Does a stand-alone virtual event make the most sense? If so, what is the best timing?
  • Do we have key information that needs to get disseminated quickly or on a regular basis that’s best done live (as opposed to print, video, etc.)?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • Is virtual appropriate for the audience we want to attract?
  • What level of virtual makes the most sense: webinar/webcast, virtual events, virtual communities?
  • What do we want our audience to know, feel or do as a result of experiencing the event?
  • How can we leverage the content of this event beyond the prescribed dates?
  • What does success look like when the event is over?

2. Assess the tech-savvy level of your audience. Let’s face it: Not every audience is made up of early-adopter baby boomers or technology-savvy millennials. Throwing too much technology at a novice group could potentially lead to frustration, disengagement and a negative brand impression. Take this into consideration when determining the level of technology you are introducing and the training that will accompany it.

  • What is the technology experience level of your audience?
  • Do they have access to a computer and Internet?
  • What training and-or communication might be needed to help them feel confident with the technology?

3. Start small. Even if the overall goal is to build a virtual business community, it takes time to build a following, get people (internal and external) comfortable with the technology and help them realize the benefits of engaging on a regular basis. Start with a relatively simple internal virtual event, before creating a complex event for your customers or clients. You will gain experience and be more confident the next time around.

4. Create a budget. In an immersive virtual event, many opportunities exist to help offset the organization’s investment. Before building your budget, consider these elements to help determine it.

  • Will we have a trade show component at which we can charge for participation?
  • Will we allow advertising by “sponsors” from which we can generate revenue?
  • Do we want to charge attendees for participation? Or perhaps charge for “premium” content?
  • Do I need a custom-designed environment or is a template environment sufficient?
  • How many days do we want the environment live? How long do we want to archive the content and allow access for ongoing purposes?
  • How many people do we hope to attract?

5. Incorporate sufficient planning time. Virtual events incorporate many of the same elements as live events do, so be sure to build planning time into the schedule and ensure the virtual event is well-staffed. Especially the first time around, place buffers into your schedule in case any unique technical difficulties occur during design and development.

6. Engage your IT department early. Particularly if the event is for an internal audience, your organization’s internal IT department can help ensure the company has sufficient bandwidth and address any challenges with firewalls and access beforehand to ensure a smooth delivery.
7. Keep the content and delivery engaging. Vary your presentation formats with polling, Q&A, breakout groups and chat functions to keep attendees interested. Consider infusing additional media beyond PowerPoint. This will help participants retain information and come back again for more!

8. Consider a soft opening to the event. Opening the event as little as a day or as much as a week prior allows attendees to get comfortable with the virtual environment and provides an opportunity for people to check out the agenda and plan their time in the space. Plus, attendees of the physical and virtual event can begin networking before it starts.

9. Build sufficient rehearsal time into the schedule. Just like a live event, presenters will be able to engage with the audience and content more fully if they are comfortable and well-rehearsed. Schedule sufficient rehearsal time with all presenters to work out technical details, review logistics and allow them to practice their material.

10. Make the most of the data capture, tracking and intelligence of virtual events. Key benefits of a virtual event are the performance and behavioral data that can be collected from attendees and their actions. Take advantage of this and market it to sponsors. Behavioral tracking, including which booths attendees visit, how much time they spend at each and what questions they ask, can be invaluable for event sponsors or an internal salesforce. It also can provide insightful statistics to craft an even more powerful experience next time around.

Fearful of losing your live event audience to the virtual event? Statistics are showing that hybrid events actually increase on-site attendance, as opposed to the converse. People get online, realize what they are missing, and then attend the following year. For those organizations where building communities is a vital component to their business, moving beyond webinars to more complex virtual events is instrumental to their communications and sales efforts. With these helpful tips to get you started, there is no reason to hesitate in exploring the application of virtual events to your business.

Kimberly Medaglia is Vice President for One Smooth Stone, an event and communications agency. Over the last 13 years, she has crafted and delivered memorable events for Creative Memories, Lia Sophia and CAbi in addition to many Fortune 1000 companies. For more information, visit