How to host an event in 2020: Pivot from in-person to virtual

How to host an event in 2020: Pivot from in-person to virtual 

This year will go down in history as a significant moment in time for many reasons. It’s been a year of rapid change and steep learning curves for most. In the wake of COVID-19, many businesses have been forced to postpone or pivot upcoming events by shifting to an online format. While webinars provide another way to host an event, marketing teams are under pressure to keep audiences engaged without being physically present.

Here, DocuSign event experts Katie Steed and Bethany Youngwho have been pivoting from physical, in-person events to virtual events since March–share their insights into virtual events. Jamie Bothwell, Senior Director of Marketing in Europe joins them in reflecting on these changes and how virtual events have been integrated and supported up the chain.

What is a virtual event?

Katie: In essence, it’s an event with no ‘physical’ location that takes place using an online platform. 

Why host a virtual event?

Katie: Oh, where do we start? Obviously, they are usually far more convenient for people as they are accessible from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection. They can also be much cheaper than a physical event as you don’t have venue, AV or catering costs to the same degree. 

Beth: And, as we’ve seen more recently, sometimes there’s no other option. 

What differences have you found between in-person and virtual events?

Both: We see a much wider audience with virtual events.

Katie: Plus, we are increasingly aware of tracking and engagement as the event progresses. Whilst you can track delegates at a live event, this often requires RFID technology, which might not be financially viable at all events. With virtual, there’s no getting away from it. You can easily see the attendee numbers rise and fall as you’re speaking. 

Beth: Although the turnaround time can be quicker, since you don’t have the venue sourcing/ contracts or bills to pay, lead time to make high-quality virtual events really doesn’t vary so much. Developing good content and additional rehearsals to keep virtual events engaging means working with new teams internally and has exposed us to lots of great new content ideas that we may not previously have come across.

Katie: If you ask any event professional, they are always conscious of the AV glitching or the technology failing at an event, it’s not all that different in virtual, except there’s often more technology that you have less control of; wifi issues in various locations, AV/laptop or microphone issues with all speakers, we’ve even had a powercut at one of our speakers houses during a run through.

Beth: And live demos do not go the smoothest–though we like to think that the slight blips sometimes re-add that ‘human’ element back to the virtual, as everyone is in the same position and can sympathise.

Katie: Vendors are always the bread and butter of an event. They can make or break it; and that’s no different with virtual events, a good hosting platform is crucial. 

How have attendance rates compared to physical events?

Katie: It’s generally accepted that virtual events often have a lower attendance rate than physical events, but we’ve found the actual attendance number is often higher, as people who previously couldn’t attend due to time out the office and/or travel restrictions are now able to.

Beth: We are quite open in our marketing that we turn the majority of our virtual events into an on demand asset, and those that sign up get the first preview. So we do see an increased registration to get the on-demand recording, for example.

Jamie: That is definitely one benefit, if someone is unavailable during the event, we always offer on-demand versions of our events. Katie and Beth have done an incredible job at making sure that our webinars are really engaging so that watching on-demand is still highly beneficial for the viewer. 

How have you been keeping attendees engaged?

Beth: We prepare for webinars, of course, but we like to keep things as conversational as possible, that’s why we find having live Q&A and polls so important.

Katie: Yes, we are also conscious to not ‘overwhelm’ our audience (‘Zoom fatigue’ is real) so we avoid hosting anything too frequently or making sessions too long. I read that, when listening to a public speaker, our average attention span has dropped from 40 minutes to 20 minutes and is now closer to 5-10 minutes. With technology it’s now something like 8 seconds, down from 12, so we use a reliable hosting platform and try to keep content as concise as possible.

Beth: Also, DocuSign encourages us to have our cameras on during work meetings whilst we are all remote and it has made a huge difference to feeling connected to the team. This is equally important for virtual events; it adds to the ‘human element’.  

Katie: We also align our goals, select the topics and curate our content with the audience in mind, and make sure all communications are clear and relevant so we don’t target the wrong people for that particular session.

Do you think that virtual events will continue even when in-person events are allowed?

Katie: Of course, they’ve always been part of our event strategy but lockdown has meant we’ve been able to put even more focus on them. And what we’ve seen is that people who were perhaps reluctant to join them in the past have had no other option, and now they see how convenient it is. 

Beth: I agree, we’ve sort of tapped into a world of unknown potential, and it’s great to see our audience are as excited for this as we are.

Jamie: Seeing how our team is always adapting to create successful and engaging events has been a testament to their hard work. In Europe, we have led some great projects and been able to share our best practices with wider teams. 

Are the networking and connecting opportunities lost with virtual events?

Katie: Not entirely, there are still plenty of ways to network and connect and we’ve loved brainstorming these, but they do raise other challenges which are important to think about.

Beth: For sure, virtual events present different opportunities, it doesn’t mean they are lost or non-existent. Even internally we are forced to be creative, including doing virtual candle-making workshops. 

What have been your key findings since pivoting to virtual events?

Katie: We have always run virtual events. But especially at the beginning of the year, pivoting an event from live to virtual was a challenge for my imagination and perfectionism. It’s been great to see how many more people we can reach, and the feedback we’ve had has been brilliant. It’s interesting to see how many more people now consider attending a webinar, when previously they wouldn’t, or not as frequently, anyway. 

Beth: Yes, I agree. The change throughout COVID-19 means there hasn’t been an alternative, and people are still requiring the same content. We’ve seen our attendance rates have been really successful virtually and in fact, we are just seeing it continue to grow.

What do you miss most about in-person events?

Katie: As we are all increasingly aware during this time, humans are sociable animals and we crave human connection. Face-to-face contact and live events are great for this. 

Beth: Exactly, I think even the opportunity to step away from your desk or screen means you connect with the event and content at a deeper level. And of course it’s always nice to go to a special venue.

Are you excited for the day when events can ‘return to normal’?

Katie: We are always talking about this. I play devil's advocate; define ‘normal’? Will the events industry ever be the same again? Globally, we are more aware than ever about health, safety, and social-distancing. We’ll have to monitor how things evolve but we are humans and will always crave that interaction that virtual events can lack, and we are excited for the new challenge of the new normal, whatever that may be.

Beth: For sure the events industry has been changed irrevocably. More companies have invested in remote working and likely will be carving this out as a strategy for the foreseeable future. And we’ll be excited to greet our great customers back to a venue again.

Can you give us your top tips/ best practices for hosting an event in 2020.

Jamie: As with all events, be it in-person or virtual, preparation is key. 

Katie: I 100% agree. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Run throughs are a must. Plan for B, C, and all the way through to Z. We pre-record demos and things that are especially risky, but thankfully haven’t had to use them yet!. And of course, tailor the content to your audience. Every company is in a different position, especially right now, but there are themes that are relevant for everyone.  

Beth: Keep it human, we are all in the same boat. If things do go wrong, then it’ll likely be out of your control and there is no harm in letting your audience know, such as when the wifi cuts out. Chances are it’s happened to them too.

Katie: Absolutely, great point. People have been so understanding and empathetic.

Virtual events have their benefits, and as Katie and Beth mentioned, there’s no other choice in the current climate. Being creative with the format and understanding of what your customers and prospects really want to hear and see at the time is crucial. It helps ensure businesses continue to captivate and engage the audience, despite being stuck behind a screen. Thanks to Katie and Beth for some great insights. 

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