Taking a Design Approach to Virtual Events

SmithBucklin has launched a process for its customers to take a strategic approach to the design and development of their virtual events, from the reason for convening to revenue generation.

Author: Michelle Russell       

SmithBucklin, a professional services company for associations, recently announced a new capability and service offering around virtual event design, SmithBucklin VXPSM. The proprietary process, according to a press release, “will help determine and define the event purpose, reason to convene, and key objectives, followed by the design, development, and launch of the organization’s virtual experience.”

digital events

Carol McGury, SmithBucklin’s executive vice president, event and education services, said when pricing a digital event, organizers have to consider the market as well as the value of their content in that market. (Jacob Slaton Photography)

Convene spoke with Carol McGury, SmithBucklin’s executive vice president, event and education services, to learn more about SmithBucklin VXP and how it reflects the virtual event environment’s accelerated evolution during the pandemic.

“VXP started off as a more purposeful approach around how we design and build a new product for our client organizations — a framework and approach to delivering virtual experiences,” McGury said. “And the word ‘experience’ is important here because what we were finding when we were talking to outsourced client organizations as well as external client organizations, was that everyone was saying, ‘We have a conference, we need to now move to a virtual version of it and we need a platform.’”

That kind of reactionary approach, McGury said, is not how events should be designed. What’s important, she said, is to go back to the reason why you’re convening in the first place. “What are the financial objectives and how are you considering the customer — exhibitors and sponsors, attendees, speakers — and all their unique needs? That’s what we documented with our own internal approach,” she said, “to help guide our client organizations through a more strategic process versus taking a conference that had an exhibit hall and just immediately saying, ‘Well, we must have a virtual exhibit hall.’”

Another option might be to offer year-round packages and programs that will enable exhibitors and sponsors to pay to participate, she said, but offer more value for them.

What to Charge for Registration?

Registration pricing is another part of the design element, McGury said, “and what we’re thinking is that it needs to be market-based pricing. You have to look at what’s the value of your content within the context of other offerings within the market.” While she said that many organizations have been making their virtual events complimentary, what she doesn’t like “about just giving it for free, is it’s great to have sponsored content, but being a part of a community and the overall experience has value as well. If you’re doing it to  build your community and convert them into membership or get advertising and sponsorship dollars,” she said, then free participation might make sense.

McGury said they are helping organizations make the virtual event become something that’s not just “one-and-done, but part of an overarching package of access to content and engagement that you need to be a member for,” she said. “You need to think about virtual as a product and you should deploy a product-management methodology to how you price your product. There’s a misperception that it must be free because you don’t have all the live event costs.”

While she said she doesn’t suggest that organizers charge at the same level as their live environment, they should spend time — as they would for a face-to-face event — understanding their market and figuring what to charge, in part based on their competition. “Then what is your value proposition that’s different than those?” McGury said. “And can you price for that? And the same thing on the exhibit and sponsorship side. How do we price for their access? I keep using the value proposition. Why did you convene in the first place? Is there anything that your community will miss not coming together? And then, can you design for those things that will then be important for your sponsors or exhibitors to pay for access to? I don’t think there’s a magic price point. I think it really depends on the group.”

One sector that McGury said she’s worked a lot with are health-care associations, and there is a value to providing their members with continuing medical education units on a virtual platform.

Other Benefits

The digital environment also offers flexibility, McGury said, in terms of spacing out sessions around the availability of your audience and providing both live and pre-recorded sessions. “We had one group whose program was held over six weeks, twice a day, and it was very tailored to very specific portions of the demographic based on their unique needs,” she said. “They had a 140-percent increase in their budgeted revenue.”

The ability to collect data about your participants in a digital setting, McGury said, “is honestly richer” than you would likely collect for in-person events, because you can see who came to sessions, and you can track who engaged with you.

“It’s intuitive, I think, to most planners to really think through the needs of their community and customers,” she said. “I can’t emphasize that enough. The whole reason we pulled this design protocol together and called it VXP is so that we have a framework and a process that has been tested and vetted and is based off of the concepts of live-event development. It’s around excellence in delivering virtual experiences and takes into account a lot of thought from all different aspects of delivering experiences.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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