The Silver Lining of Virtual Events

The Silver Lining of Virtual Events

Neil Mortimer

Solutions Consultant

You’re approaching your event, thousands of people have registered, the event agenda is packed with great content and exhibitors have thousands of meetings booked through your event success platform. And then it happens… the first visitors start cancelling and the first of your exhibitors start pulling out. Initially, it’s the international travellers, then the travellers from other cities and slowly it builds up.

This was the picture in early 2020 and it seems to be happening again, 22 months later, with the new COVID-19 Omicron variant. In this article, we’ll cover some of the key points to consider when going virtual in a short period of time and the often unspoken silver lining of switching to virtual events. 

Last year, Grip won the UFI digital innovation award for pivoting the ITB Berlin event into a digital experience. Although we can’t control the Covid-19 pandemic, we can equip event organisers with the knowledge and skills to quickly turn in-person events into digital experiences.

Don’t panic it’s much easier than you think

Events have been more revolutionised by digital tools in the last 18 months than ever before. Underpinning your event success with a platform that has the versatility to facilitate content and networking - no matter what the event format - means that switching an in-person session to a virtual presentation is simple.

We spoke to Laurie Delpino, our Customer Success Lead, on how it works in practice: 

“We now have 18 months of experience under our belt; switching from one to the other, digital, hybrid, physical. So, I think the great thing is that event technology companies are prepared for the switch, like Grip. You, as organisers, are also more prepared for the switch but, most importantly, your event participants are more prepared for it, too.”

Laurie adds, “I think it's also important to look at opportunities. Although you might lose some registered event participants, switching from one event type to the other creates an opportunity for other people that would not have come to the physical event to be part of your digital event.”

You can start making preparations, even if you’re not sure of what might happen. Laurie advises: “Be proactive, not reactive. Begin to anticipate what might happen. Communicating that you’ve already planned for every eventuality can actually be really beneficial for your brand.”

Content is key

Ensure you bring the energy of the in-person event to a virtual stage by prioritising engagement tools like Virtual Live Chat, Q&A and Polling. You will want to encourage your speakers to prioritise the inclusivity of the virtual attendees as part of their presentation and think about tweaking the agenda to include shorter presentations to address shorter attention spans online.

In our discussion with Neil Mortimer, Client Success Manager EMEA, he explains: “A virtual event is very different to an in-person event where you've got everybody's attention for hour-long sessions for eight hours of the day. Even if you're making a late switch, you need to make sure that your agenda suits the channel that you're now operating in. In our experience over the last 18 months, shorter presentations work much better. They cut through. People's attention spans tend to be shorter online than they are in person.” 

Abi Cannons, Senior Product Marketing Manager adds: “It’s important to increase the frequency of audience engagement with polls and Q&A, as well. With so many distractions on a person’s desktop, re-engaging the audience, more often just to bring them back into the ‘room’ is a good idea to keep them engaged and an active part of the conversations.” 

It is also important to consider the flow of energy throughout the event.

“In a virtual event, you have to be much more deliberate about the energy flow from experience to experience,” adds Tim Groot, Grip’s Founder & CEO. “You have to think through the whole experience and be much more deliberate about how the energy levels work throughout the day. It's consistently thinking of how you’re going to vary the delivery; "Okay, I've got a round table discussion, then I have an 18 minute presentation. Then I'm going to kick the energy level back up again, where people can join the conversations themselves. Then we're going to do some speed networking. Then it's going to be a little elevated with a music break, and then we're going to do something else.”

Laurie adds: “I think the chat feature is highly underrated. It’s a great way to engage and create networking opportunities. So, while a content session is happening, have someone from your team monitor and engage the audience through the chat to activate that energy that Tim is talking about.” 

Introduce more opportunities for attendees to connect

Virtual Roundtables and Speed Networking sessions are quick and easy to set-up and provide fantastic opportunities for attendees to meet each other virtually and for exhibitors to drive dialogue around specific topics. Both formats can replicate the in-person networking that happens naturally at in-person events. In virtual settings, this needs a little more curation, but when executed well it can be even more effective.

“When organisers do something virtual, I’d always encourage them to have speed networking centred around specific topics, because it allows conversations to happen between individuals more easily,” says Neil. “And if you're not going to specifically pose a question as an ice breaker for your speed networking, definitely try and focus those sessions on particular segments of your audience. Speed networking doesn't replace one-to-one meetings, but it stimulates higher quality one-to-one meetings.”

“Something to consider is creating an icebreaker guide. Have some topics you can bring forward to your users. It can be a fun thing!” adds Laurie. “It can also be really helpful to guide them through the speed networking features, to help them feel more confident about dropping into a call and not knowing who is going to be there. Speed networking is fun, but it can be quite daunting for some. So a nice idea would be to create four or five topics for icebreaker discussions.”

Tim also suggests “if you want to have ‘open forum’ style conversations, you can use the round table functionality where people can just join in and have a discussion between themselves. It works like the Zoom breakout rooms you might already be familiar with. We see some organisers using that as well, and it works great for workshop sessions.” 

Fine-tune Exhibitor Success

For most exhibitors, return on investment means lead generation and brand exposure. The ‘interest intent’ of attendees needs to be presented to exhibitors so they can act fast to make the connections they are looking for. Grip’s AI-powered matchmaking can help combine demographic data, interaction data and give an organiser the ability to fine-tune the strategy based on a new digital-only format. To ensure the transfer from In-person to Virtual, exhibitor success is underpinned with AI geared to the new format.

“Exhibitor success comes down to the objectives of the exhibitors. So depending on the event that you organise, this will vary and will impact how you can help exhibitors be successful,” says Tim.

“If your exhibitors are mainly there to generate leads, then a strong content experience with great awareness and branding opportunities is a good way to go. You can encourage exhibitors to be part of a session, panel, or any other form of content. If your event is more tailored towards networking and catching up with existing relationships (turning leads and contacts into meetings) then push for the meeting experience and provide exhibitors with webinars leading up to the event. So, if you know 48 hours in advance, you could immediately push out the next day an exhibitor webinar saying, "Hey, this is how you can start scheduling your meetings online”

“It's about understanding the objectives of the individual exhibitors, and then aligning the value propositions of your event with those particular objectives,” Tim tells us.

Laurie importantly stresses not to forget your sales team. “Getting them on board with the messaging is really important because they're the first line into your exhibitors; they're the ones holding those relationships. So, make sure you are communicating with them, also. A big part of the switch is going to be conveying the value proposition; they need to be on board so that when they're speaking to those exhibitors or sponsors, the messaging is all aligned.”

Neil adds, “In virtual more than live you've got to make sure that you encourage your exhibitors to get engaged with the audience. So that might be utilising some of the tools that we've already put in place, like getting involved in conversations that are happening on the live chat. Not selling directly, because no one wants to see that, but just getting involved in the conversation, maximising their visibility and putting themselves out there, getting them to reach out and get engaged with any networking sessions.”

Keep clear lines of communication

As ever, what’s most important when things change is to keep every stakeholder informed at all times. Ensuring attendees and exhibitors know all of the latest information regarding the event and the updated format you are delivering it in now. Giving them clear reasons for why the decision to switch has been made is crucial. Take your stakeholders on the journey with you and share the context behind the decision to make clear the new processes and formats you have put in place to facilitate the content and the networking elements of the event. Be clear on the value the new format will bring, and the additional opportunities it may offer.

"I think one big word right now is proactivity,” says Laurie. “We have all been quite reactive over the past 18 months and proactivity is key, especially when it comes to  communication. I understand that it can be quite daunting to know that you have to switch your entire event to digital, however, being proactive allows you to avoid appearing panicky in your messaging."

She adds, “Make the message super clear, concise and focused on the  most important actions. Always put yourself in the recipient’s position and ask yourself, ‘if I were to receive this message, would I be clear on which actions are the most important for me?”

“When you anticipate that this switch might happen, start building your digital sponsorship packages. Event technology platforms, such as Grip, have many sponsorship opportunities available. Talk to your event technology partner and ask for support. At Grip, we are constantly helping our customers quickly shift to digital sponsorship packages that demonstrate equivalent or even better return on investment to sponsors."

And don’t think of virtual as being stand alone. Neil says, “We understand the ambition of the industry to get back to in-person and how important that is in terms of the way that the event cycle works. But at Grip we see virtual as a huge complement to the in-person feature set of an event. We don't see it as either virtual or in-person. We see both as a set of different channels that we can use to communicate the event message to the audience.”

Do more with your data and insights

As you think about switching your event, consider reframing virtual as an opportunity. One of the biggest benefits of virtual events is the data that can be collected. Enhanced tracking means you’ll receive unique insights into attendee actions and behaviour that can help you understand them on a deeper level. But with lots of data, comes a lot of decisions and it can sometimes be overwhelming. Having a clear focus on proving out your event objectives will help to guide you through the data mountains. 

Tim suggests, “It's really important to understand what you're trying to achieve with data. So, how are you going to make sure that you're using data post-event to prove that the event has been a success worthy of the exhibitor's investment? That goes for both virtual and in-person experiences. You want to be able to track how many leads they have, how many interactions have happened, how many views there were. And of course, how proactive the exhibitors have been in setting up meetings, and having great interactions with potential and existing customers.”

“You need to be very deliberate in asking yourself, ‘how am I going to prove ROI for my exhibitors?’ And for visitors, ‘how can I find data that supports their return on time?’ Start with the end goal in mind, and then look backwards to how you can achieve that through great tracking, which the vast majority of virtual and in-person platforms now have available for you as an organiser.”

As Laurie adds, “Gathering all this data, whether it's a digital event or in-person event, and being able to leverage your pitch with tangible facts, will 100% change the way exhibitors see your event. Knowing how to use that data can really help you drive long-term event strategy."

Final thoughts

We acknowledge the set of difficult decisions event planners are confronted with as we step, once more, into a period of potential disruption. If this pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s to expect the unexpected and prioritise versatility in the planning process.

At Grip we work closely in partnership with event planners to draw on the numerous benefits of virtual events, even if it comes very close to the day of the event.

We’re all in this together. Focus on the silver lining, remain flexible and let us know how we can help!