Posted by: Dennis Shiao | February 2, 2011

Road Map for a Successful Virtual Event

The following is a guest post by Gary Vlk, Executive Vice President at One Smooth Stone.


You’ve heard the buzz, done your research and surveyed your attendees. Now you’re ready to incorporate virtual technology into your overall business strategy.

Before jumping into event development and tactics, you must first lay the groundwork by developing a comprehensive virtual event strategy. Asking the right strategic questions up front will not only help ensure your virtual event is a success, it will also build your brand and your department’s brand within your organization. This is an opportunity for your events department to drive the strategy process before human resources, marketing, training or another internal department redirects.

Analyze the Overall Event Function and Goals

The process for developing a virtual event strategy is similar to that of a live event, and in both cases it is critical to begin with your overarching goals and objectives. What are you trying to accomplish, and what benchmarks will you return to throughout the planning process? Whether you are seeking to reinforce a critical message to your audience, save costs, reach new audiences or launch a product, the basic question is the same: Why are you doing this?

For many organizations, event objectives are related to revenue and sales results. According to the Event Marketing Institute’s latest research, 80 percent of marketing executives surveyed say their top business priority is generating new revenue, and more than one-third gave top billing to generating new leads. Increasing event attendance, awareness and reducing costs are also priorities for more than 50 percent of those surveyed. Statistics like these are telling, and may reflect some of your company’s top priorities, as well.

How do these rank among your list of priorities? Identify the goals that are unique to your organization by asking your leadership and executive sponsors important questions.

  • What challenge or problem is your organization trying to solve by gathering people together virtually?
  • What forces, external or internal, are pushing your organization toward a virtual experience?
  • What challenges are facing your target audience, and how could virtual event technology address them?
  • What are the key messages to be communicated? What is going on in your business that will drive the message and goals of your virtual event?

Remember to keep a broad perspective, addressing the immediate goals of your standalone event experience and the objectives of your long-term virtual event strategy. Your first virtual event experience, done well, will lay the foundation for future virtual experiences. How are you preparing and training your audience to interact with your organization through this new medium? How will this training progress from event to event?

This stage of the process will probably take the most time, and it should not be glossed over. The goals and objectives you identify now should be revisited throughout the planning process.

Select a Platform

Virtual event technology is broad and flexible, with new applications and methods of integration popping up continually. How will your organization leverage the technology to its greatest benefit?

In this step, determine the event application. Will your event be fully virtual or a hybrid live-virtual experience? Are you creating a standalone event or an ongoing virtual community where your audience regularly returns? Are you designing a virtual trade show booth or training/educational experience?

If virtual technology is new to your audience, the first virtual experience may be simply helping attendees get their virtual feet wet. Which aspects of the virtual space will you utilize your first time around and how will this grow or expand over time? How will sponsors be incorporated, if at all? As with every step, make sure your decisions are tied back to the business problem you are trying to solve.


Build a Strong Team

Attempting to plan and execute your first virtual event without strong partnerships increases your risks. To alleviate this concern, put together an internal team of cross-departmental leaders who have bought into the virtual event concept and who will keep the overarching vision and goals in mind. This group should consist of IT, training, HR and marketing players—as well as your leadership team—and should help determine goals, set up infrastructure, craft content and get the word out.

Your team should also include the right external partners. Search for a technology platform that comes highly recommended and has a proven track record, one that can withstand the demands placed on it by your events. Find an event communications firm to consult on the strategy, marketing and content development. The right firm will lead the process and coach you through the experience of smart execution.

As you are assigning roles and building your team, do not neglect the importance of managing your brand within the virtual space. Which team member will be responsible for monitoring and appropriately handling what is being said about your organization and virtual event online? Who will address questions and concerns with virtual attendees as they arise? Just as you staff your registration desk at a live event, be sure to find the right individuals to take care of your virtual audience’s needs.

Develop a Communications Strategy

Getting the word out about your new virtual event platform and offerings will be especially crucial when your attendees are experiencing the technology for the first time. How will you spread the word, build the buzz and incentivize virtual newbies to participate in the virtual experience? Analyze your audience before developing your marketing tactics and messages. How do they most often consume messages? Where are they interacting and how can you join the conversation? What motivates them? What will hinder them from participating, and how can you overcome those barriers?

The content of your communications strategy should market the overall event, as well as educate and inform your audience on how to use the technology. There will be a learning curve within the virtual world, and staying ahead of the curve will help ensure success. Incorporate all of these pieces into a detailed communications strategy, and determine the medium and message of each piece.


Craft the Experience

Now that you have pulled together many of the building blocks for your first virtual event and strategy, you are ready to address the nuances of the attendee experience.

  • What do you want attendees to experience at each stage?
  • How should the experience differ among attendee groups, such as customers, sponsors and/or employees?
  • Should certain attendees be offered exclusivity and special access to content or features?
  • How will the event architecture be structured?
  • How should elements such as fun, gaming, education, networking, white space, trade show access and incentives be prioritized and incorporated?

Depending on the platform you’ve chosen and its suite of features, the options available to you may differ. Educate yourself on what is available, what has been done and what can be tweaked for your audience in order to most appropriately achieve your business goals and objectives.

Measure Your Success

Virtual event technology offers an incredible amount of measurement and data capability. Because attendees enter a virtual environment with a unique username and profile, all their activities can be tracked and monitored. This is music to the ears of event planners who have been searching for the elusive secret to determining event ROI. For sponsors, every booth visit, sales conversation and promotional material viewed can be tracked, offering valuable data for post-event sales follow-ups. For your organization, virtual event data can help you better determine educational content and event structure the next time around, based on the popularity of certain features.

The strategy phase is the time to hone in on the statistics most important for you to track during your virtual event. What benchmarks should be set to enable you to compare ongoing virtual experiences to each other? When your first virtual experience concludes, what will success look like and how can it be measured? What measurement tools should be put in place, if any, to supplement what is already integrated into the virtual platform? The right data from your first virtual experience can be a useful tool in your marketing tool belt, providing content to promote future virtual events to your C-level executives, internal departments, attendees and sponsors.

Don’t Skip the Strategy!

Many meeting and event professionals are action-oriented, type-A personalities who like to check things off our to-do lists. Spending the right amount of time building a strategy can be challenging when all you want to do is jump in and begin the planning process. But do not skip or rush this—developing a robust and comprehensive virtual event strategy will lay the foundation for your first successful virtual event experience. It will provide the framework for many virtual experiences to come and the next time around, it will be that much easier. Taking the right steps now will determine the future success of your virtual events and drive critical growth and revenue generation for your organization. This is a unique opportunity to build your strategic brand and pave the way for future success. It’s time to take the lead!

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