For the past several months, event organizers — skilled in producing trade shows and conferences in physical environments — have been navigating the uncharted terrain of digital events, many for the first time. In doing so, they’ve realized the importance of agility, speed, and learning from mistakes — their own and others’ — in taking in-person events into the digital realm. According to mdg account leads Shantelle Johnson, Jacquelyn Wells, and Shauna Peters, these are some of the most important lessons we’ve learned developing, marketing, and launching our clients’ virtual events this year.
You have to work even harder at marketing the experiential aspects of online events. When looking at the other online events being offered in one client’s space, we noticed they were all focused entirely on education and built on stale methods of content delivery. We set one of our events apart with virtual trainings, breakout discussions, happy hours, and other initiatives that required more direct engagement and participation. These were, by far, the sessions with the highest participation, engagement, and satisfaction levels.
Don’t make assumptions about audience behaviors. Track and test them. This was the first virtual event one client had ever offered, so we made a conscious decision to A/B test as much as we could in our marketing campaign. We saw click-through rates and conversions jump by double digits by switching the call to action from “Register now” to “Join us.” We also saw open rates and conversions increase by approximately 25 percent when we emailed a personal invitation from an industry stakeholder versus using a blast approach.
Registration should be rethought. Because online event data tracks attendees and their behaviors during the event, we shouldn’t be asking as many questions during the registration process. We found that in-app forms provided an easy way to quickly transition an event prospect to a registered attendee, particularly within social media. Then, based on the attendee’s behavior within the online event, we were able to better understand their content needs, backfill data points, and further flesh out personas and future content strategies.
Expectations should be reset. While live events see upticks in registration through early milestones like registration opening and early-bird discount periods, we saw the biggest uptick within the last two weeks of the campaign — more than a third of registrations, in fact.
Free events and paid events require a different approach. The majority of the online events we launched immediately after the pandemic hit were free — and were attracting two to three times the attendance of the in-person events they replaced. Now that we’ve shifted to paid events, those attendance numbers are coming back to more realistic levels. As a result, our marketing approach is putting more emphasis on the conversion versus awareness stage of the customer journey. This means we’ve got to work a lot harder to convince prospects that the digital experience is going to be worth their investment. Knowing how to tease out content that connects, entertains, engages, and compels action is critical. One post-event survey found that “relevancy of content” overwhelmingly rated first in the decision to participate.
Introduce yourself. For one of our clients, we decided to target international prospects who had never attended the live event. Contrary to the advice above, this actually required a heavier investment during the awareness stage of the customer journey to really introduce the event concept and warm up the leads before we moved into the conversion phase. The results? A 51-percent engagement rate from those prospects and more than half of our event attendance was international. This goes to prove the importance of adapting your approach for every unique situation versus following one set of best practices.
Plan around virtual attention spans. The data we’ve collected so far reveals that the majority of online event attendees only log in for one day of a multiday event. With this in mind, we worked with one client to stack the first day of live content to really “wow” the audience, helping to minimize participation drop-off on day two to only 100 attendees — this was a huge event, so that was a very good number.
Highlight the long-lasting benefits. It’s important to remember that online events have an extended shelf life and to make the most of them. We’re working with one of our clients to repackage the on-demand experience as a limited-time opportunity. In doing so, we’re creating another revenue opportunity, reaffirming our thought-leader status, and we’re letting audiences — especially new ones — know what they can expect from other association offerings, including future live experiences.
Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes is chief marketing strategist at mdg, a full-service marketing and public relations firm specializing in B2B events.