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- Andrey Khusid is the founder and CEO of Miro, the ‘online whiteboard for visual collaboration,’ that has over 5 million global users and is used in 80% of Fortune 100 companies.
- Before the pandemic, Khusid and the Miro team organized a virtual event in just six weeks that drew over 14,000 attendees.
- To host a successful virtual conference, Khusid says to design the event’s content around education and information, rather than marketing or self-promotion. Incorporate interactive elements like live polls or ice breakers to keep your remote audience interested and engaged.
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One of the industries hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the conference and trade show industry. The conference industry generated over $13 billion in revenue in 2017, but COVID-19 grounded it to a halt along with the travel, hospitality, and food service industries that support it.
As a result, one of the fastest evolving trends I’ve observed since the start of the pandemic is the rapid and explosive rise of virtual events.
I’m hit with rounds of invitations to these online events almost daily. Sometimes it’s a virtual edition of a previously physical conference, and other times it’s a new virtual event designed to lay out a vision for the world of business post COVID-19. One time, there was even an invitation to a virtual event about the future of virtual events.
These online experiences are the only option in a world with restricted travel and social distancing, but they also have a few added benefits that we shouldn’t overlook. For one, they reduce costs and environmental impact of travel and save promoters hundreds of thousands of dollars on space in convention centers and conference halls. They can also make attendance inclusive for people with disabilities, and those who may not be able to spend a week or so away from their families.
Last year our team at Miro ran our first virtual event — which we planned and executed in approximately six weeks (try pulling that off with a physical conference).
It drew over 14,000 attendees — with over 50% coming from our key audience segments.
Here are some of our learnings from that process on what it takes to plan an event that people want to attend.
Options trading 1. Ask yourself the million dollar question: Do you really need your own conference?
Everyone needs to ask this question before hosting a virtual event. The main purposes of brand events are to create relationships with prospects, educate customers to recommit to their services, and ultimately turn those activities into new revenue opportunities.
Unfortunately, some events I’ve attended felt like they were an exercise in ego. When brands throw themselves a party to show the world how successful they are, whether it’s to look bigger than their competitors or try to generate buzz in the media, they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. When you’re planning an event remember that the attendee experience is the key to success, not your own feeling of pride in hosting one.
To gut check if hosting an event is a decent idea, do some simple modeling. If you have any data about how personal engagement with prospects improves your customer conversion rate and lifetime value, you can estimate how many attendees you’ll need to break even. If you feel that number is realistic, it’s time to get to work planning your event so you can hit that attendance target.
Options trading 2. Prioritize ease of attendance
With no flights, airport shuttles, or endlessly long conference center hallways to navigate, virtual events are inherently easier to attend than in-person ones. Still, a painful registration process can harm attendance. And if the event rooms themselves are difficult to access it can leave your social feeds flooded with tweets from people struggling to enter them rather than engaging in discussions about the content.
There are countless technology solutions that enable virtual events. Our event used Zoom, but On24, GoToWebinar, and new startups like Hopin are also great options for managing presenters and attendees and making sure access is smooth for everyone. Whichever you choose, vet your process through the eyes of an attendee and build a customer journey map of the registration process to make sure it’s simple. Then, dry run your processes to work out technical kinks well ahead of the event date.
Options trading 3. Design content around education, not self-promotion
If you have the attention of thousands of people who have never heard of your brand, your temptation might be to promote your products and services as heavily as possible. But the crux of the matter is that people can smell a sales pitch from a mile away, and they certainly know how to see it in a conference agenda when they’re debating to attend. So if you want to draw registrations and attendance, it’s important to avoid creating the feeling of a timeshare sales pitch when you design your program.
To create educational content that drives attendance, focus on timeliness. Identify the main challenges that your market and customers will face over next 12 months and source presenters who can speak to those challenges. Your product doesn’t need to be the solution to those challenges — but by marketing your event as an objective resource in education, you can pique the interests of forward thinking professionals and ones who are key decision makers in their businesses’ strategy. Fortunately, we’re living in a time with a lot of timely, pressing, and transformational challenges to choose from — and it’s important not to shy away from real, meaningful conversations in educating your customers.
Options trading 4. Emphasize community as well as content
Despite the importance of creating great content, few people attend conferences for the content alone. They’re also looking to build a community of professionals and share ideas one-to-one with peers.
To give our virtual event the same sense of community a physical one would have, we used different types of communication tools.
While the bulk of our content consisted of live sessions via Zoom, attendees also participated in parallel live discussions in Slack. Slack served as a communal space to share insights and ask questions — it was our virtual space for networking. We created Slack channels for each topic, and had moderators ask questions to keep conversation on point, and try to draw out valuable experiences that attendees could share with each other. After their presentations, speakers joined these channels and they became Ask Me Anything (or AMAs) and answered questions from attendees.
In addition, the events team sent a recap email of each day within an hour or two of sessions ending. It was a lot of work to get such emails out this quickly, but we felt it was important. It gave us the opportunity to summarize presentations and takeaways, as well as provide links to books and other resources mentioned by speakers so attendees could access them while it was fresh in their minds. We recommend building templates of the emails you’d like to send in advance and configuring your mailing platform ahead of time (we used Hubspot last year) to make this process faster and easier.
For future events, we’ll be taking this a step further by hosting virtual happy hours and other agenda items that exist just for social purposes, all with the goal of recreating the feel of a physical conference.
Options trading 5. Incorporate interactive and visual elements
Slide decks and talking heads are not enough to engage audiences — especially for all day, multi-session events. All sessions should incorporate visual and interactive elements to keep audiences engaged.
For example, we had a live note taker, who drew key takeaways in real-time using mind mapping techniques. A mind map is a visual way to represent concepts, and it can help make content more memorable and also help connect to different ideas and show the “big picture” behind it.
Live polls are another way to add interactivity into a presentation. Zoom has a built in polling feature that’s easy to use, as does Slack. Our team also used the built-in polling in Miro, which put interactive polls directly in our notetaking.
You can also warm up events with virtual ice breaker games so attendees get to know each other, which serves as great fuel for networking later on. It’s hard to conduct true virtual icebreakers at a scale of thousands of attendees — but it’s possible to help people get to know the audience as a whole. You can present charts about the makeup of the audience by industry, demographics, location — anything to help people feel connected to the group. You can also have virtual “birds of a feather” breakouts, where people speak with others that have similar jobs so they meet others like them.
The COVID-19 pandemic will end eventually and life will return to a version of the normal we used to know. But it’s also very likely that the cost and logistical benefits of virtual events will make them the new normal for trade shows and conferences. To keep engagement and ROI high, it’s critical companies not forget that conferences are more than content when they plan brand-defining virtual experiences for their attendees.
Despite those benefits, it remains to be seen whether virtual events will be as effective as in-person ones for building customer relationships, establishing brand loyalty, and generating leads and revenue. To compensate for the lost physical connection between brands and customers, businesses must find innovative ways to connect with audiences to create virtual events that engage and impress attendees.
Andrey Khusid is the founder and CEO of Miro, the online whiteboard for visual collaboration, that has over 5 million users globally and is used in 80% of Fortune 100 companies. Khusid oversees Miro’s five hubs from his office in Amsterdam, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
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