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What we’ve learnt from making the switch from physical to virtual events

From physical to virtual events

Even during a pandemic, the show, with help from technology, must go on.

Over the past months, marketing professionals around the world have re-skilled and upskilled as the industry looked to restructure events from physical to virtual experiences. It’s new territory for many of us, but the good news is that by following the same core marketing principles that have grounded everything we know and love already, combined with fresh thinking and a reliable digital platform, you can benefit from the versatility and extended reach an online event can deliver. We want to share some of the insights and lessons learned from the 500 events we’ve hosted online since March when we pivoted our event strategy into the digital space.

Start with what you’re hoping to achieve

Like planning a physical event, your first step is determining what a successful online event looks like for your business. Sometimes in the virtual space, in-depth planning and preparations are often overlooked when they shouldn’t be.

It’s important to stay connected to the role of this event, or series of events, in your audience engagement plan, user journey and wider marketing strategy. What are your KPIs and measures of success? What are you trying to communicate or demonstrate? Creating an online event that is a collaborative and immersive experience means mapping your goals and working out how you will achieve them. A distributed audience poses different event challenges; be clear on the objectives, content and methods of delivery. And, in the same way as in the physical world, why would your target audience give up their time to join this event, when there are many others readily available to them.

Virtual events offer a range of new and exciting possibilities for interaction and engagement

The virtual experience allows for new and exciting interaction possibilities

Maximize new online tools and platforms

When it comes to approaching online events, it’s more than just a person in a room with a camera or presenting on a video call. Your online platform becomes your location and venue; you want to wow and impress your audience with how it looks and feels. You need to match platform choice to the purpose of the event, in the same way we match physical venues: intimate spaces that build trust, exclusivity and discussion, or amazing spaces that build reach, impact and enable personalization.

There’re plenty of new technologies and tools you can use to personalize the virtual event experience. Each online touchpoint; from event invitations and attendee registration to onboarding and follow-up, is an opportunity to inform and engage your audience, ensuring you attract and retain them. Greeting people by their name and personalizing the time they spend with you is so much easier digitally than in a hotel lobby, for example.

Your virtual event can be personalized for each guest

Use the lobby to personalize the experience for each guest

In the lead up to our Transformation in Action virtual event, we were able to simplify pre-event activity by linking our marketing automation system to the online event platform. By digitizing the engagement process across the web and social media channels, we generated more interest and attracted a wider audience. We were able to bring nearly 2,000 people together with a common interest in cloud computing, while personalizing the experience for everyone.

Evaluating our recent events, we’re noticing that you have to work much harder to both draw the attendees and interest them enough to stay at your event once connected. An online event must spark that same level of inspiration, conversation and connection as a physical one. The audience expects a worthy online alternative to the physical event, and you need the tools to recreate each aspect virtually – from the main stage, breakouts, lounge areas and exhibitions halls. Be sure to give people enough time at the beginning of the schedule to explore the platform, network and participate, just like you would at an in-person event.

Content and delivery is king

Like any event, content and stories are central to success. A virtual event means you need to get creative in order to hold the attention of your audience. Speaker sessions should be shorter, and you should weave in as much interaction and involvement as possible. Surveys, polls and chats are great for enabling real-time discussion and feedback. In our experience, enabling the live chat functionality, allowing people to both chat with the wider group as well as privately with other participants has really helped extend the length of time guests stay with us. And of course, name checking people who ask questions, or enabling them to join the speaker bridge live really works.

Getting the right mix of content delivery is essential. Relying on high-definition video to stream your sessions might leave your audience with buffering issues, leading to dropouts. Not every aspect of the event needs to be live either. Consider pre-recorded content; that not only takes the pressure off from any ‘on-air’ hiccups, but you can include pre-translated subtitles, instead of worrying about simultaneous translation.

Speakers who are comfortable behind a podium may perform differently on-screen. Invest the time and resources to train each presenter for the virtual space — factor rehearsals into your planning and cover lighting, screen backgrounds and coaching your speakers. Shorter sentences work best, with plenty of eye-contact with the camera.

Event speaker presenting in a virtual environment

Prepare your speakers for the unique challenges of presenting in a virtual environment

Get the support and advice you need

The events industry has changed, and with many borders still closed and travel remaining a challenge, it’s clear very few of us will be planning physical events in the coming year. Getting the right tools, experience and knowledge you need to ensure events continue to play a crucial role in audience engagement plans will be critical.

I hope sharing our experience has been helpful. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if we can help you in any way shift your physical events into successful online events. We are lucky in NTT Ltd. to have a specialist digital events division with our own Cloud Communications platform here.

You’re also more than welcome to register for one of our online events here to experience them first-hand.

About the author

Ruth Rowan is Chief Marketing Officer, NTT Ltd.

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