The B2B Show Must Go On: online events are the new F2F

A big part of B2B marketing is the live event—and a lot of marketing teams are really missing them. 

The monthly speaker lunches, quarterly offsites, and even the annual industry three-ring extravaganzas, have all been cancelled, delayed, or hastily transitioned to online. (We interviewed Mark Kilens, of Drift, about how they’re making the transition and it’s smart as heck).

Though some markets tried returning to do live or hybrid events, industry surveys (like Northstar’s Pulse Survey) show that most brands aren’t planning in-person programs until middle to end of 2021.  Marketers hopeful for late 2021 in-person conferences (martechtoday.com)

The problem is, a lot of the new wave of digital events aren’t very good. 
And there are a LOT of them.  Webinar wallpaper is the new white noise.

With audience expectations lowered, even relevant and well-produced digital programs run the risk of becoming ‘the TV in the background’ with attendees logged on but not paying attention. 

That’s disappointing. Because there are lots of reasons why digital events should be worthy of both our time and our attention. 

In theory, the lack of business travel should create amazing potential for star speakers and stronger programs. And events streamed ‘live’ and ‘on demand’ can also cater to the schedules of people from all over the world, expanding your audiences. Finally, savings on venue and production costs can be reinvested in truly unique and immersive experiences—things that are only possible in a virtual world. 

In short, it’s a very good time to refresh your thinking about online events. 

With that in mind, we wanted to share eight strategies that can help ensure you’re creating compelling digital events that inform, entertain, and engage, by delivering an experience that makes audiences lean in and get involved.  

Eight ideas to consider for the new online event experience

Virtual does not replace events, but can create new opportunities for online events they wouldn’t have before. 

The Mega Event

Let’s start with the elephant in the virtual room, the big-ass customer and partner event.  Major global B2B events such as Dreamforce from Salesforce, or Sapphire Now from SAP provide inspiration on how to combine experience, education and insight.  And though the significant resources and budget needed to produce large-scale events can be intimidating,  the ‘big tent’ digital program can pay off, especially when you enlist a wide range of marketing partners to co-promote and produce (like Drift’s first virtual event after lockdown, which involved 22 partners to help build the audience). 

Of course, to get audiences to commit, you’ll need to really invest. Not just in marketing but in content, platform, networking, entertainment, and production (more on this later). No one wants to watch a full day of webinars.

Invest in the experience

To paraphrase, ‘People may forget what you said, but they’ll never forget a poor user experience’. Zoom presentations (and recordings) are generally not broadcast quality and professional video, presenters, lighting, and graphics will help content break through, together with integrations so users can share and interact.  Consider cool tools like mmhmm.app and macro.io.

Infotainment

Rather than looking at other digital events for inspiration, consider what you can learn from your favorite TV producers, and the powerful ways they create compelling stories on-screen.  Content that both informs and entertains will keep your audience’s attention and be far more likely to be shared and talked about.   As an example here’s a pre-event teaser Velocity produced for Salesforce for a show which was shot in CNN studios featuring industry guests in a magazine show format. Salesforce | Internal Pre Event Teaser on Vimeo

Is the stage big enough? 

Overall digital platforms are all similar, though tools and features that create good user experience cost, so pay to play.  Look for seamless and simple registration to start and on-demand support with live-chat.  Audiences want to engage with the content, presenters and other attendees too, and it’s important to have options to engage and allow attendees to interact both during and after the event.  Most platforms are still a bit bland visually so also look for opportunities to customise, and invest in production and presentation, especially for larger events with multiple content tracks.  Check out platforms likeOn24, 6Connex, Brella, Crowdcast, Hopin, Livestorm, StreamYard, Unhangout, Bizzabo, and Zoom, and others like SplashThat with greater design tools.  

Or maybe smaller is better. 

The best room in every conference is often the speaker’s room, so consider making everyone a speaker.  A small focused roundtable discussion, where everyone contributes, creates an interactive dialogue with the 10-20 participants, particularly if you include a star speaker in the session with you as host—kind of an intimate Q&A.  And if you want to call it a Lunch, extend a voucher for a nice restaurant delivery as part of the session.  The fundamental shift is all attendees become speakers who will join expecting to actively take part in a discussion with peers. 

Create community

Whether you’re producing a mega event or series of Zoom panels, remember one of the key reasons people are drawn to in any business event is the opportunity to interact and connect with others.  Always integrate chat, networking, and other community tools in your programs, as those who attend are likely as interested in talking to each other than you, not only at the event but also throughout the year.

For example this year’s Inbound from Hubspot was reimagined as an online and immersive event with a wide range of content, also available on demand, and the ability to arrange one-to-one meetings and organize group sessions via a custom-build meetups tool, allowing them to connect with fellow attendees through video call or live chat. 

18 minutes (or less) to inspire

TED talks are inspiring, informative, and wildly addictive – and range from 10 to 18 minutes as in their experience TED has found it’s the ideal length.  It’s enough time to share thought-leadership and ideas, and short enough to hold people’s attention.  In many ways it forces the discipline to concisely focus on the key points, and more likely to keep attention.  

TED curator, Chris Anderson, explained the organisation’s thinking this way:

‘It [18 minutes] is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral very easily. The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.’

Plus the vast majority of their audience watch on demand rather than live (even pre-COVID), a good reminder to produce event style content in ideal length and range of format for on demand audiences.  Why not even produce twenty clips of 2-3 minutes length, each covering specific aspects or case studies, all adding to content and SEO. 4 Must-Watch TED Talks for B2B Marketers | HIPBlog (hipb2b.com) – 

Is it virtual enough?  Meet my Avatar.

No we’re not talking about Second Life, but rather virtual event platforms utilizing avatars to provide a gamified and connected experience for guests and planners of meetings and events. Generally these require users to download software though user experience on top platforms has really improved, with entire virtual event campus and conference facilities, including entertainment and interactive experiences for virtual networking. Avatars can interact and join a table or discussion, as you would IRL. 

Event Farm’s virtual campus is called Echo and is scalable to support 10,000-plus users concurrently from anywhere in the world. Key features of the program include the ability to choose from multiple meeting environments and customize a personal avatar character; there’s also built-in support tools for presenters such as file sharing, laser pointers, and video casting. https://membersuite.wistia.com/medias/peyimsxg7g

Virtway Events host trade shows to summits to live concert broadcasts, and can connect 500 guests in the same digital room.  One of the key highlights of the platform is team-building games and escape rooms where avatar teams must investigate, deduce, debate, and negotiate to succeed.https://www.virtwayevents 

TEEOH A London-based start-up and virtual event platform with meeting rooms like fireside chats to conference rooms, and smaller breakout rooms for focused group discussions. https://www.teooh.com/ )

Business events continue to be a critical part of B2B sales and marketing, and hope this outline can help inspire your own efforts to innovate and create really compelling virtual and digital experiences.    

Thanks for sharing in the comments examples of great events you have produced or attended.  At least for now, the show must go on(line)!

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