I love a good conference. I know it's not cool to say so, but I love everything about them: the shiny badges on lanyards, the terrible coffee, the bustle and buzz of hundreds of people meeting each other for the first time.
Earlier this year, I watched in horror as event after event disappeared from my calendar. No more tiny cupcakes with rice paper logos. No more squeaky microphones. And (perhaps more importantly) no more networking or lead generation.
Or so I thought.
I've gradually come to accept that virtual events have a lot of advantages over traditional events, conferences, meet-ups and webinars. While face-to-face contact is irreplaceable, let's be honest: most businesses don't go to events to feel a human connection. They're there with concrete objectives. And for most of those objectives, virtual events work just fine.
To start with, virtual events are more accessible to many people in terms of cost, distance and managing childcare responsibilities — so your potential audience is bigger. With the right set-up, virtual events can also be easier for people with accessibility needs (although this isn't necessarily always the case).
Virtual events are also really good news for marketers in terms of collecting data, responding to individual prospects' needs, and demonstrating the ROI of their efforts.
For this blog, I've collected just a few quick ideas of how to use digital events for different marketing objectives, such as lead generation, brand reputation and community engagement.
How to maximise ROI from virtual events
First, let's get one thing clear.
I'm not talking about mind-numbingly dull webinars here. I'm talking about digital events which are original and interactive: events where the attendees actually learn something, and have to engage beyond turning their microphones on and off.
Successful virtual events require a wee bit more preparation than your Head of Sales staring down the webcam while she reels off her favourite jargon terms for 70 minutes.
You need a plan. You need the seasoned expertise and fresh content to back your event. And you need a clear idea of what you want event attendees to do in response.
1. Collecting attendee data
Let's start with the most popular scenario: you're running a virtual event for lead generation.
Virtual events tend to have the edge over in-person events here, simply because the process of collecting data is so much faster.
I remember running a booth at a conference in 2019 where we used hand-held scanners to check people's badges. Several weeks later, we got a list of names and email addresses. It worked — but it was pretty clunky and slow.
In contrast, you can collect information for digital events instantly. All you have to do is set up a registration portal. If you manage your own virtual event, you can also tailor the registration process to get the specific information that's useful to you.
2. Exclusive content
Next up: one of my personal favourites. I absolutely love events and seminars where you get content freebies. They're useful, memorable and they clearly demonstrate the value offered by the host.
In other words, this is a great choice of strategy for inbound marketing and/or developing your brand's reputation.
Once again, this is really easy to do with virtual events. You could...
- share a link to exclusive content hosted online (instead of asking people to hurriedly write down a link from a projector screen).
- share a limited code to get a discount or free trial (instead of handing out paper coupons or asking people to remember codes).
- get instant sign-ups for another event that develops your theme.
3. Interactive content
If you didn't read this section title and think, "Oh no, not again"... then you're not producing enough interactive content.
One of the reasons that some people dread webinars and online events is that they're dull. You sit there in an uncomfortable chair, gazing at a dark blurry screen, while other people talk. Endlessly. It's a nightmare.
Now picture this: you're listening to a talk on the same topic, but this time your brain is whirring and active. You get to vote on which case studies the speaker will use in the talk. You're determined to beat the next pop quiz and win a prize. You're planning what you'll say in the end-of-talk survey.
There are a million and one ways to actively engage people in virtual events. It's a very basic concept: people pay more attention when they have something to contribute.
And when attendees do engage with you online, they're also offering up data, giving you valuable strategic information, learning more about your products and services, and gaining a great impression of your innovative style.
4. Instant surveys
I've already mentioned surveys in the previous point, but this bears repetition. With digital events, you can get instant feedback from your attendees and sales prospects.
There are two relevant types of survey here:
- Understanding more about your customers.
- Understanding more about what they want from you.
Both are valuable in developing a marketing strategy, refining your virtual events schedule, and even developing new products and services.
If you want to get fancy, you can try running brief surveys before and after an event, or asking people to take surveys after a series of events. Do their responses change? What do they respond to?
5. Instant integration
Fact: it's impossible to write a martech blog in 2020 without using the word "integration". And there's a good reason for that.
Integrations mean that you can sync data, instantly, across different systems. They mean that you can give customers an informed, consistent experience whenever they contact you.
If you're running any kind of virtual event, then your hosting platform should be hooked up with your CRM, email service provider and web analytics. You should be able to track an individual's journey from signing up, to attending the event, to following up on links or sales offers.
Now show your working
Before we wrap this up, I want to cover one final point: reporting.
Almost every marketer I know hates reporting. (The ones who don't hate it have huge, beautiful marketing stacks and even huger, more beautiful budgets.)
It's really hard to demonstrate or report on return on investment, even when you're confident that your work is good. This is partly a presentation issue: if you show the average exec a screenshot of Google Analytics or an inbound marketing flow, they will stare at you blankly. As well they might.
But this is another area where virtual events can help. If you have your objectives figured out, your data collection organised and your integrations linked up, then it will be relatively easy to show how many people you reached and how many of those moved down the sales funnel.
When you're choosing software to host events, increase engagement and process data, always ask what their reports look like. The best will offer auto-generated reports and charts that are easy to explain and display.
We’ll be honest, running your own event isn’t for the faint hearted. While the payoff can be huge, the work is tough.
Luckily, we know a thing or two about running a pretty stellar event ourselves. Ever heard of a little hashtag that goes by the name of #MarTechFest? Of course you have.