Why Is Customization Important?

One of the more important options you have when selecting a virtual event platform revolves around customization options.  You’re already putting in major effort in creating and providing your virtual event, so the customization (being able to contribute your own look and feel on several key elements) is the fit and finish to your event that can make a huge difference.

This is part of a series of posts that supplement the “5 Things to Ask…” free planning guide, available at the top of the right column of this page. Get your free copy here.

There are several areas to consider for your customization: they include items that are based in the platform, but also items that are things you control entirely for the presentations.  Here’s a quick look:

Slide templates – make sure your slides have a common theme and look and feel.  While this seems perhaps tedious and odd, it’s important to have your event (even if it’s a webcast), have your logo information, your branding, you “look and feel.”   These things reinforce to the attendee who is providing the event, and where to turn with questions on the overall event and information provided.  Creating templates in your presentation tool (like Powerpoint, for example) is typically pretty straightforward.  Taking the time to create the template and distribute it to your speakers is a small step that has a big branding and consistency pay off for your event.

On-screen elements – talk with your provider about options you have for customizing the environment.  Things to ask about include:

  • Your logo placement throughout the event environment
  • Your graphical backgrounds and designs (1)
  • Your graphics and designs on the registration pages and microsite

(1) examples of this include one event where we were doing some work with school busses.  We changed the lobby to include a school bus and used the windows of the school bus as the navigational elements in the event (instead of conference room doors).  Consider using your offices, or your campus or other items that relate to your business and the industry you are serving.

Exhibitor booths – if you’re having booths inside your virtual event, consider the options you have for booth designs and how much your exhibitors can easily take advantage of those options.  Graphics sizing, options for using the “margins” on the page (some exhibitors like to include coupons in these spaces), custom menu and button options, custom videos and assets, along with general customization to the look and feel are the things you’re looking for here.

Emails, (Attendee Correspondence) – How much control do you have over the branding, look and feel and other elements that make up the email contact capabilities for notifications, announcements, etc.  These are important because you may be able to offer sponsorship opportunities (as an example) where you can include sponsor logos in the emails about your event.  In addition, you will want to make sure your branding is prominent and consistent.

There are many different components to customization.  While most platforms will indicate that customization is allowed, the “how” of it all – the options available – vary widely, as do the tools and approach to implementing the customization.  Ask lots of questions, find out the various things possible and make sure they align well with your company and show branding and functionality requirements.

Help Viewers Understand First

Many people approach a webcast or virtual conference session as an opportunity to sell. This ends up driving the content for the session, and it drives the focus and presentation style as well.

While it’s certainly possible to present a “pre-sales” type presentation with information about your product or service in hopes of driving the sale, you might want to consider a different approach, particularly if you don’t have a captive audience.  A “captive audience” is one that can’t leave, that must watch your presentation.  This might be the case if you’re presenting sales training or other required materials.

But, if you’re talking with potential customers, or trying to woo customers into upgrades and enhanced service offerings, presenting a sales pitch or making sure you cover your marketing bullet points might be the last thing you really want to present.  You’ll probably find that this causes people to click away, to stop listening and to become disengaged with your message, brand and presentation.

It’s just too easy to click away, or become distracted with email or have a thousand other things that get in the way of the attendee’s attention.  An online presentation is, by necessity, a different animal from an in-person presentation.  You need to turn on the expertise, the creativity and answer the “what can you do for me” question that all of the attendees are struggling with in their own minds.

To do this, consider providing information.  REAL information – lessons learned, best practices, etc.  These are the things a viewer can watch, learn from, and apply to their own world.  Talk about things you’ve run into.  Talk about customers and situations that have come up that show you have both a sense of humor and a problem-solving approach.

When you provide real-world information and experience, and you provide take-away, actionable information, the viewer will appreciate it.  You’ll be seen as the expert, the one to go to for more information, more services.  With an online presentation, it’s much more like a conversation with a viewer than a presentation AT a viewer.

Here are some quick ideas to get you started:

  • Provide a quick 5 or 10 tip best practices sheet they can download.
  • Provide an idea sheet that gives unique ideas that can spur other ideas the viewer can use to be successful.
  • Provide a “common pitfalls, and how to avoid them” sheet
  • Give a checklist of things to cover or consider

By providing takeaways, and giving actionable items, your viewer will be engaged and care about what you’re presenting.  It’s not enough to just have great slides.  Give a worksheet or other item that can be put into play immediately.  Make the viewer look good in the eyes of their boss and/or customers and you’ll immediately be seen as a benefit to their work, and you can show that you’re trustworthy.

Sure, you can show a slide or two about your product or service at the end, but first give the viewer something they can relate to and depend on.  Then help them see how your offering can help.

One last thing – don’t handicap the information you provide.  In other words, provide ALL fully-usable information in the sheets or takeaways you provide.  Don’t give 3, then say “contact me for the other 10.”  You’ll only make your viewer resent you and feel like the whole thing was a setup for sales.

People understand that sales are needed, they just don’t want to be sold.  Help them understand first.  The sales and marketing will follow.

Fundamental Choices: Live vs. Pre-Recorded or Pre-Produced

One thing we constantly work with clients on understanding is the use of pre-recorded, or pre-produced sessions vs. live, on-the-air content.

Generally speaking, the decision from a quality and control standpoint is extremely clear.  You want to pre-record your sessions.  Why is this?  It comes down to quality of content and control of your event.

If you pre-produce your sessions, you have the opportunity to mix different media types (perhaps a recording from your phone,  a recording from a camera, bits of PowerPoint, etc.), and then put these together to create a great session for your attendees.  Of course you can switch between sources live, you can do your talk with your slides, present your materials, all live.  But you are faced with issues that just don’t have to be there.  This is especially true if it’s not just you presenting, but perhaps a whole group of speakers.

The logistics of managing schedules, getting speakers connected at exactly the right time, addressing bandwidth issues at their location, etc. – all of these come into play.  Here are some examples that, frankly, didn’t need to happen.

  • A speaker showed up more than 15 minutes late.  He jumped on the line, then started talking about why he was late, complaining about traffic and how he was having a bad day.  Then he realized he had jumped on the live conference line and was talking about his woes to the world.  Live.  We had had to start without him and in joining late, gave the world a very unprofessional, very personal look at his troubles.
  • We had a speaker do their presentation over the top of dogs constantly barking.  The speaker would do part of the presentation, then have to stop to try to quiet the dogs as they announced the arrival of the package delivery service.  Then the mail carrier.  Then a door-to-door salesperson.  It went on and on in an amazing display of home activity that didn’t need to be part of the session.
  • Another presenter spent about 25% of their time scolding children who would not only be too noisy, but would come up and interrupt.  Would knock on the door when closed for noise control.  Would ask permission to use the restroom.  All nicely broadcast out to the audience.
  • We’ve had presenters who attempted to do their sessions from hotels with such poor quality internet that they were unable to show their demonstration correctly.  They would lose their connection, have poor quality images, etc. – all because they were presenting from a location they did not control.  In one case, the presenter actually announced to the world that they apologized, but they were sitting in the hallway for the presentation and hoped it would sound OK.

These are all life and reality for many presenters that do their work from the road.  But the fact is, you don’t need to be at the mercy of presenters.  Using great tools, you can record segments, create a great session and play it out on a timed, pseudo-live basis.  The presenter is then able to participate in chat from anywhere in the world in a clean, quality-controlled environment.

If you think about television, most shows (especially other than news programs and sporting-type events) are pre-produced.  It’s about control.  It’s about great quality and it’s about having excellent content for your attendees.  Your attendees may not even realize it’s not live.  It’s the best of all worlds.

Where Do I Begin?

Getting your first virtual conference or event up and running can be a daunting task – but it’s really not as big of a hill as it may seem initially.  Remember the old adage, “How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time*.”  It’s the same with an event.

(source)

The really great thing is that there are several areas you can focus on  – and they typically happen sequentially.  This can give you the time you need to put the effort into each area:

  1. The public site – these are the micro-pages, the web site devoted to getting the word out about your event.  Put this up as quickly as possible and begin taking registrations.  Remember, you can update this page (or pages) as you go along, adding speakers and other information about your event. However, the most important thing is that you provide information about your event.  As you talk with speakers and potential sponsors, they’ll want to see what your event is about and this will be the starting point.
  2. Speakers – who is presenting the content?  Whether you’re hosting a single webcast/webinar session or a full virtual conference event, you’ll need to have content and speakers.  The speakers (and, more specifically their content) drive attendees.  Attendees drive sponsors.  Sponsors base their expected attendee counts on your content.  Speakers and their topics are key.
    One interesting thing we found in talking with attendees at various events is, while the speaker is important and big-name speakers can help an event, it’s really the topics that drive people to register for and attend your event.  In nearly every survey we’ve conducted, we’ve found that attendees look at the content (the session title and abstract) to be presented, then the speaker to see if they are qualified to talk about it.  If so, and it’s a topic they’re interested in, they’ll register.  People don’t typically register solely based on the speaker’s name and reputation.  There are clear exceptions to this for celebrities and such, but generally, it’s all about the content.
  3. Sponsors – who will be sponsoring your event?  Start talking with them early, but the real process of signing them up will get underway as you beef out your content and show your attendee interest.  Create your packages, know what you’re offering, but talk with them as your event starts to fill out in terms of content, direction and the style of event you’ll be having.
  4. The event platform – there will likely be things about the platform you need to set up.  This includes getting the content into the system, doing housekeeping and making setup decisions that will impact attendees during the event.  This can be done fairly late in the setup process as no one will be seeing this until the event is open.  Know what you have to do, but save this to the last portions of your set up calendar.

By attacking the things you need to do in a serial way – instead of looking at all of it at once – you’ll be able to work through the steps and have a great virtual event, without losing your sanity.

* Of course I’m not saying you should actually eat an elephant.  That’s just not a good idea on so many levels.

Do Virtual Events Hurt Your In-Person Events?

This question comes up quite a bit.  The short answer… if you do it right, is…

No.

If you can market the virtual event in conjunction with the in-person event, you end up boosting the value of the in-person event.  If you market one, then move to the other, then back again, the messaging can get very confusing to your audience.  You need to work the shows together, then you can clearly show how your audience benefits from each venue.

One of the successful things that is done is using the online event as a promotional tool, but also as a pre-event tool.  Using this approach, you can help your audience attend the in-person event in possibly a more prepared, informed way.  Here are some ideas to help integrate the two types of events:

  • Hold pre-conference pre-sessions.  These sessions are presented by your speakers and include information that will get the audience ready for the in-person event.  Of course you don’t need (or want) to present the entire in-person session, but you can present the items that help people better understand what will be shown.
  • Consider pre- and post-conference classes or supporting sessions.  You can offer these as an add-on to your in-person registration.  These can be multi-session presentations and provide deep information for attendees.  Then, when they come to the event, they can learn how to apply and further use the information from the pre-con.  These can also be a way to get deeper involved in the materials presented, since the multiple sessions will be focused on a single topic whereas sessions in the in-person event typically are single sessions and stand alone.
  • Use pre-sessions to introduce topics and introduce homework to get people thinking along common lines.
  • Use virtual events to provide additional information about and by your vendors and sponsors.  These virtual events are great ways to further leverage your relationships with your sponsors and provide additional opportunity for the sponsors to interact with and gain information from your audience.  Keep in mind, you can keep the virtual event online after the in-person event, so your vendors can continue working with your audience in on-demand mode.
  • Consider adding “best of” type sessions after the in-person event has completed.  You can add them to the virtual event and use it as an additional touch point to work with your audience.  Simply capture the sessions at the in-person event, then announce that you’ll be adding the top 5 (or 10 or whatever works well for you) sessions to the virtual event in the weeks following the event.
  • Consider live-streaming your keynote presentations or key presentations from industry experts – this can further integrate your events (online and virtual) and show why people should attend both.  They get to see the live session and they get to experience the online virtual event.

There are a whole host of ways you can leverage virtual conferences, webcasts and webinars and in-person events.  From marketing to extending content to outreach to follow-up, the virtual event platform can significantly boost your in-person events.

As you write up your attendee and sponsor offerings, consider adding an option to add the virtual event items you’ll be offering.  Do the inverse on the virtual event registration – adding options to include the in-person event.  By integrating the two, you can leverage your audience, not split your messaging and gain additional ways people can take in your events, talk with sponsors and more.

Virtual events can be a powerful add-on and powerful marketing tool for your in-person events.  So many people make the mistake of assuming it’s one or the other for their audience.  Done right however, it allows you to extend your in-person event’s interaction with your audience in exciting ways.

Keep Virtual Event Attendees Engaged

Keeping attendees engaged is a tough battle with an online event.  Let’s face it, distractions abound!  Email arrives, instant messages beckon, heck just typing a new URL in the browser is a threat to their attention to your event.

What can you do to retain attendees – to keep their attention and make the event all it can be for them and for you and your stakeholders?

One thing that has worked repeatedly is the use of between-session messaging and content.  As you move through your event, offer additional content between sessions.  Rather than just showing “the next session starts in 5 minutes” type messages, consider putting additional content, tips and other elements in the space between sessions.

Here are some great examples that work very well, time after time:

  • Interview the speakers – talk to them about real-life, ask for advice, talk about their pets.  Basically what you’re looking to do is to help your speakers be “real” to your audience, help your audience get to know the speaker.  These are very powerful and can be relatively short.  If you’re concerned about topics, pick a central 2 or 3 topics, then ask the same questions to each speaker.  This can be things like “what’s your favorite board game” or “what movies have you seen recently” or “are you a dog or a cat person?”  All of these are great ice-breakers and can can offer a bit of fun between sessions.
  • Add polls between sessions – ask questions of your attendees, see what you can learn, and then present, about your audience.  Perhaps even ask the same questions as those above.  Then you can get a feel for your audience and help them relate to the content presented.
  • Add contests – have treasure hunts in the virtual environment have treasure hunts in the sponsor’s and speaker’s web sites.  This is a great way to get people involved and learning all that’s available.  You can even score the activities (for every “X” you find, you gain 20 points) – then award a keychain or t-shirt to the winner by points.
  • Have chats on Twitter or in the chat tools – guide the chats to include materials just presented (the speaker may be able to provide interesting topics and questions) or on completely unrelated topics to help people get to know one-another.
  • Create news segments – talk about very recent headlines between sessions.  Make sure the headlines are related to the event.  Perhaps even just one or two headlines, then suggest people move to chat or social media you have integrated into the event to discuss the headline.  Be sure to give them your opinion (or the opinion of the person presenting the headlines) on the items.
  • Have a fun mini-session – this could be an exercise session, a yoga session, stretching that you can lead.  This can also be a completely spoof-based segment.  Remember, it’s only a few minutes maximum.  Have fun with it.

By doing these types of activities, attendee retention jumps by up to 80%.  These are real benefits and can substantially impact your event, the attendees involvement in your show and their impression overall for the event.

Virtual Conferences Are, Indeed, Underrated – Here’s a Look at WHY

Great article posted to Convince and Convert about virtual events, what it can do for your business, impact of the sessions, community and more.

Here’s a link to the article

It’s a great way to work with your community of customers, partners and contacts – it’s also an excellent tool to educate and generally get the word out!  I think one of the key things (that you’ll see in the pictures people tweeted as well) is to have some fun with it too.

Check out the article – great information and review of the technology!

How Long Does It Take? (To create and start an virtual conference?)

This may be one of the most often asked questions about setting up an event: how much lead time do you need prior to getting an event up, running and online to allow it to be successful?

Unfortunately, the short answer is, “It depends.”

Fortunately, we can pretty reliably call out what specifically it depends on.  You’ll probably find that it comes down to a few key factors.  Each of these has a very real role in determining your event’s lead time.

The three areas are:

  • Required marketing
  • Speakers
  • Exhibitors

Typically setting up the platform, getting things rolling, setting up graphics, making choices on scheduling, etc. don’t impact your production timelines, especially not in a “critical path” kind of way, to any significant extent.  It’s usually these other areas that really deserve your planning and attention.

Required Marketing
If your audience is a closed audience, like an internal meeting or presentations where your staff is compelled or expected to attend, you don’t have many hurdles here.  On the other hand, if you’re in a position where you need to market to outside people to help them become registered and attend, you have more time requirements.

Typically we suggest about 60-90 days for externally marketing events.  What’s aggravating about all of this is that you won’t be taking registrations that whole time, but you will be talking to your audience, explaining about your event and pointing them to your micro-site.  This is where it’s key to have solid information on the site about sessions, speakers, what they expect from the event as an attendee, etc.  The maddening truth is that most people will register at the last possible minute.

You can help people decide by using contests (those registered before X date are eligible for…) and by having a complete site, but the fact is, most will register as late as possible.

Speakers
If you’ve worked on any type of event where you were working with speakers, you know: speakers are busy, busy folks.  You need to plan on providing as much information, guidance and scheduling deadlines as you can.  This is critical so they know all of what they need to know in order to participate, produce the session materials, etc.  Any type of delay to get additional information, or any additional steps, and you will quickly find it escalates into delays getting their content.

Respect your speakers.  Give them templates, help them understand both what is needed and how you’ll support them.  If possible, have them work with someone directly on the event team or on the platform team as they can quickly answer questions and keep the speaker moving forward.

One caveat – if your speakers are internal and you have more “control” over them, you can shorten times to deliver content.  The longer timeframes come from speakers that are either volunteer or paid presenters for your event.  They typically are pushed in many directions constantly and you are at their mercy when it comes to getting materials in.

Be sure you provide them as many resources and guidance as possible to keep them “in the flow.”  For internal speakers, many times this is a much easier process.  You often have leverage to set deadlines and present other requirements.

Exhibitors
Exhibitors present an interesting challenge for scheduling.  You need/want them for your event, whether they are external to your company or an internal department.  At the same time, they need similar assistance as your speakers do.

Many times exhibitors are working with many different areas of their own companies to provide materials.  They may have PDF documents, graphics, videos and people to coordinate and they’ll look to you for guidance on setting up the booth, providing information to attendees and selecting the right packages for sponsorships.  This (again) is a great time to get your platform provider involved and working with your sponsors.  Get as much assistance as possible so your exhibitors can make the most of their booth.

Often, exhibitors are so busy just doing business that they put off the setup of the booth to the last-minute.  If you, or the team you work with, can provide them quick choices, best practices and assistance, you can help vastly shorten the time to set up the booth, get it online and have it be excellent for the exhibitors.

Summary
Taking control and specifically addressing each of these areas can help control your timelines, your surprises and best of all, keep you sane in setting up the event.  Make sure you have a good vendor partner that can provide the help, best practices, tips and ideas to make each of these areas flow as smoothly as possible.

If you make it your goal to remove obstacles and provide unique and helpful input to each of these areas, you’ll take big steps toward having a great event and still maintaining your sanity.  Your attendees, speakers and exhibitors will thank you, as will your stakeholders in the event.

Digital Marketing Tips, Experiences and Blood, Sweat and Tears

While the virtual event is over (it’s still available on-demand, and free, watch it here), the learning and application of the different experiences and all of the information presented (and there is a LOT there), is just getting started.

The GroupHigh event is on-demand and ready to watch – make sure you check out this great summary – there is information here on everything from the conversations you have with your customers and advocates to tools and techniques for reaching out to your community.

In a word, priceless.

Kristen Matthews, the guru behind the event and getting things going for GroupHigh, put an excellent summary of sessions together.  Check it out here.

Great Resource for your Digital Marketing Projects

If you haven’t seen it, check out The Outreach Marketing Virtual Summit (it’s free) – it includes key information from a whole host of experts.  There is so much great information in this free event – it’s incredible.

Here’s the direct link:
http://www.vconferenceonline.com/event/home.aspx?id=1092

This was a project by GroupHigh, an outreach marketing firm that rocks working in this space.  They have a great toolset, and the series of sessions they put together are excellent.

There is also a session there by me (Stephen Wynkoop) about virtual events and how they work in the marketing cycle.  What’s more, you can see the platform in action and check out some examples.

Enjoy!