December 15, 2020

What is a Virtual Event?

A virtual event is a structured, organized gathering that takes place entirely via a digital platform, as opposed to in-person.

A virtual event is a structured, organized gathering that takes place entirely via a digital platform, as opposed to in-person. Virtual events range in size. They can be small online meetings or virtual conferences with thousands of attendees worldwide. Virtual events vary in format. They can be single webinars with one presenter or multi-day virtual conventions with numerous tracks and concurrent virtual speakers. Organizations around the world turned to virtual events as safer alternatives during the covid-19 pandemic. Virtual attendees join a virtual event within a digital platform. They can do this from their own individual physical locations using some form of video conferencing software. Virtual events typically occur in real-time, but have the option of being recorded. This allows them to be accessible to attendees for extended periods of time after the initial broadcast.

This article examines the key components of organizing a virtual event including: 

Where to Begin

Who manages virtual events for organizations?

The role of managing virtual events often falls to the same individuals who manage in-person events for organizations. Common job titles for those individuals and their in-house teams include:

  • Event coordinator
  • Event planner
  • Conference planner
  • Meeting planner
  • Corporate event planner
  • Event management
  • Event analyst
  • Event manager
  • Global event manager
  • Event director
  • Event organizer

Some organizations may have events teams that are entirely in-house. Other organizations may have an in-house coordinator who works with an external event organizer. Virtual event organizers often contract with additional, external service providers as needed.

The pivot to holding all virtual events during the global pandemic was a learning curve, even for enterprise organizations with in-house teams or some experience with virtual events. It required an increased role of technology and reimagining how to engage an entirely virtual audience. To this day, it presents challenges that may not be in the wheelhouses of even the most accomplished event organizers. Partnering with a virtual event platform like Touchcast's Showtime that comes with a dedicated virtual event team is a good option for event organizers who now find themselves organizing virtual events instead of in-person ones. If cost is a factor, however, organizers may opt for services that provide out of the box set up like Blue Jeans or Floor.

Organizing Team

What are the advantages of a virtual event vs. an in-person event?

Whether an organization was already exploring virtual events or the 2020 pandemic forced that structural change away from in-person events, there are some significant advantages to hosting events virtually.

Virtual events are not limited by the parameters of physical events. Virtual events can expand the reach of the event and its information in multiple dimensions. Let's explore how that differs and the advantages it provides for:

  • Audience
  • Affordability
  • Engagement
  • Event Structure
  • ROI
  • The Post-Event

Audience

Audience reach is one of the most critical pieces of any event. The best-planned event, whether in-person or virtual, is only as good as who actually attends, participates, and benefits from it. While the experience of an attendee differs between an in-person event and a virtual event, both kinds of events depend on the presence of an audience. When it comes to audiences, virtual events have distinct advantages with regard to accessibility and reach.

The audience of an in-person event is limited by the ability to be just that: in person. Attendance in-person may seem simple on the surface, but it comes with many potential barriers. Is an attendee able to travel to the in-person event? Did their travel plans allow them to reach the event, or were there delays or obstacles to their arrival? Are they exhausted from travel across time zones to the point that attending late or early event sessions are a struggle? Does the potential attendee have the budget and schedule flexibility to attend the event in-person? Is the attendee physically able to be present at the in-person event? Are all aspects of the event accessible to every attendee, regardless of physical mobility? Are services provided for all attendees to access the event content, regardless of sensory or language barriers? Do structural components of the in-person event discourage inclusion?

Virtual events alleviate or even eliminate many of these audience attendance challenges. Travel times, malfunctions, and costs are no longer an issue when it comes to virtual events. Virtual events provide unparalleled opportunities for event organizers to reach a global audience.

Virtual events provide unparalleled opportunities for event organizers to reach a global audience.

Passports aren't required and translation is no longer an audience barrier. Virtual event platforms like Touchcast's Showtime provide real-time translation services to transform any event instantly into a global event. Time-zone sensitive agendas prevent confusion for global audiences. Live event content can be made instantly digitally available for those who need to adjust attendance to their time-zone.

Regardless of physical ability, virtual events allow any attendee the ability to participate. Accessibility services can be baked into the virtual event platform. This ensures all sessions and breakout groups are accessible to all participants. In addition, asking a question virtually may be more comfortable for attendees and cause less anxiety. Virtual events are excellent for social distancing and are germ-free. No more carrying home whatever conference bug was floating around the main hall!

Affordability

Any event, whether an in-person event or a virtual event, has a cost to it. That cost plays a role in whether a potential audience member chooses to attend an event. It factors into whether an organization decides to send or can afford to send a representative to an event.

The cost of attending an event includes the actual registration fee or financial component of attending the event. It also includes other monetary and non-monetary costs. An in-person event has additional costs of travel expenses, including potential food and lodging costs. It also has temporal costs: the time spent traveling and time spent away from other tasks and priorities. For more and more companies, in-person event travel impacts their organization’s environmental policies. Attending an in-person event can rack up carbon emission expenses, especially if air travel is part of the journey.

Virtual events mitigate and reduce many of those costs. The event may still have a registration fee, but no travel expenses occur when it comes to virtual events. The commute for a virtual event attendee or speaker is as short as walking to their computer. There is no time lost to travel or flight delays or navigating hotel check-in. Organizations budgeting for event attendance can increase their participation levels, given the cost savings for travel. Virtual events are also the most eco-friendly event choice.

Virtual events are also the most eco-friendly choice.

At the same time, creating a virtual event has a lower cost for the event organizer. There’s no pricey physical venue rental (and no working around the dates it’s available!). There are fewer physical logistics to coordinate and pay for like signage and transportation and catering. Those cost savings can be deployed on additional events or broader digital marketing or a different tier of virtual speaker. Or they can be used elsewhere in the organization.

Engagement 

If audience reach is one of the most critical pieces of any event, audience engagement is the other. An excellent event doesn't just capture eyeballs, it connects with the minds behind those audience eyeballs.

For in-person events, engaging the audience relies heavily on visuals presented by speakers, often from stage. It also relies on the dynamics of in-person breakout sessions and activities in dedicated physical spaces. Another key part of in-person events is the ability to make new connections and rekindle old ones.

For virtual events, audience engagement requires more dedicated intention than with in-person events. The impact of that extra effort, however, can be incredibly powerful. Audience engagement helps stem the dreaded drop out rate toward the end of events and can even be the antidote to Zoom fatigue! An excellent virtual event means far more than just streaming presentations. Having attendees interacting with the event via a virtual event platform allows organizers opportunities to create concurrent ways of connecting with their audience. A virtual event platform like Touchcast's Showtime provides embedded features that allow attendees to interact. They can ask questions in real-time, and engage with elements of gamification that connect and delight the audience. It provides immersive engagement with a visually rich video experience. It can make a keynote address look as stunning as a Netflix show. It also creates opportunities for networking, both with new connections and with old ones.

Event Structure

The very best events are organized around an abundance of great content to entice and enrich the audience experience. But even the best in-person events are limited by attendees' ability to only be in one place at one time. How many times do conference attendees from the same organization divvy up the event schedule and send an ambassador to each concurrent session? How many times does an attendee have to decide between continuing a hallway conversation with a new contact (while trying to see the contact's name on their lanyard to make sure they heard it correctly), or ducking into that track covering a topic of interest? And attendees are doing all of this while juggling a backpack and event program and coffee cup and phone calls from the office back home.

Virtual events have an event structure that allows content and attendees to be unconstrained by time and space. Livestream content across various tracks can be deployed on multiple channels. It can also be recorded and transcribed so it is accessible on-demand. Touchcast's Showtime even gives attendees the ability to search the content of videos for keywords. Imagine being able to go back and hear that inspiring and salient point a speaker made!  Virtual attendees are in complete command of what they watch and when. It’s like having a remote control for an entire conference! 

Virtual events also allow for an enhanced kind of networking. Participants can communicate in the chat with any other attendee, not just the one they happened to sit by in a session. Those conversations can be content and connection-driven, not distracted by trading business cards. With a virtual event, speakers no longer have to take a day off to attend an event for an hour-long session. With no travel requirements, organizers have more options in selecting virtual speakers. Virtual speakers have more schedule flexibility themselves. Without other logistical demands, they can include more time for interacting with attendees.

ROI

What do event organizers hope to gain from organizing an event? And what do attendees hope to gain from attending that event? With in-person events, organizers are limited in measuring the event's return on investment. Organizers can track alleged attendance by who picked up registration packets or checked into the hotel. Room hosts can eyeball a headcount on attendees in a breakout session. Post-event surveys can be sent out to attendees, presenters, and sponsors to track net promoter scores and glean feedback.

With virtual events, data is at an organizer's fingertips. Real-time metrics track who is attending what sessions, how engaged attendees are, and when or if participation wanes.

With virtual events, data is at an organizer's fingertips. Real-time metrics track who is attending what sessions, how engaged attendees are, and when or if participation wanes.

Real-time analytics can provide deeper insight on the spot. Analytics and surveys measure customer experience and allow organizers to implement changes. Sponsors see actual numbers about how many views their pages had, not just a vague sense of if the trade show floor was busy or not. With travel and logistics no longer challenges, virtual event organizers have access to a wider range of virtual speakers. Speakers can have access to a wider audience and are not limited to the audience physically in front of them. Lastly, the ROI for a virtual event is not limited to the scheduled date of the event. The post-event ROI carries forward long after the event itself has ended. 

The Post-Event

For in-person events, the post-event experience usually entails a similar pattern. Attendees travel home, emails and LinkedIn invitations are sent to new contacts. The event organizers pack up the step and repeat banners, and send out thank-yous and save the date messages for next year.

With virtual events, the post-event experience has a whole new life. Virtual events are no longer "one and done" moments in time. They are now "publications" that live on, constantly evolving and living. Virtual events never sleep. Content lives on in on-demand videos. Attendee engagement continues through the digital platform in ways limited only by imagination. Event attendance becomes less like a date on a calendar and more like membership in a dynamic community.  

What to consider when planning a virtual event

Given the differences between an in-person event and a virtual event, there are some significant things to consider when planning a virtual event:

  • What virtual event platform to use?
  • What are the KPIs for a successful virtual event?
  • What quality of production will the event have?
  • What will the attendee experience be like?
  • What will the presenter or speaker experience be like?
  • What will security and contingency measures look like?
  • What will post-event follow up look like?

What virtual event platform to use?

There are many virtual event platforms on the market, with options growing overnight after the global pandemic. The options range from free meeting tools to basic conferencing tools to premium event software. Selecting the best virtual event platform for the event is critical.

It's important to evaluate the basics for any platform. Can the virtual event platform accommodate the number of attendees anticipated? What level of technical ability does it require from the organizers? The attendees? The presenters? Does the platform enable communication from or between attendees? How secure is the platform? Does the virtual event platform have built-in contingency measures to prevent the entire event from going down?

Next, it's important to consider needs specific to individual events. Can the virtual event platform run concurrent meetings? What kind of media or presentations will the platform allow to be shared? If planning a large conference, what options are available for branding the event within the virtual event platform? Does the quality of the presentation format meet the level of the event? What kind of data analytics and metrics does the platform capture?

The right virtual event platform will elevate an online meeting to a new level of enhanced experience.

What are the KPIs for a successful virtual event?

It's important to consider what key performance indicators will demonstrate that a virtual event has been a success. Keep in mind that those KPIs may look different from those of an in-person event. Consider the event from the perspectives of all the different parties involved. What will success look like for the organizers, the speakers, the attendees, the sponsors?

Once KPIs are determined, it is important to determine how to measure those criteria. And to ensure organizational efforts are contributing to the best outcome. This is where the right virtual event platform is invaluable. The best platforms provide organizers with real-time, immediate data on their event and allow organizers to poll participants within the event.

What quality of production will the event have?

Virtual event platform production quality has a spectrum. We've all experienced the grainy, frozen video image (always with an awkward facial expression!) or the tinny, robotic sound of audio halting along. It's aggravating to have that happen in an internal office meeting (although it doesn't have to happen). It's catastrophic to have it happen in a marquee virtual conference. 

Look for virtual event platforms that offer production quality that is more than just a video stream. Look for virtual event platforms like Touchcast's Showtime with  Netflix-style presentation formats. They should offer translation subtitles in multiple languages instantly. Look for platforms that allow real-time questions. It's also important the platform have built-in accessibility features and is mobile-friendly. To enhance the attendee's experience even further, look for virtual event platforms with AI capabilities.

What will the attendee experience be like?

With all the effort that goes into planning a great virtual event, it's important to consider the attendee experience from start to end. The best virtual events make the attendee experience seamless and easy throughout.

In selecting a virtual event platform, look for one that emphasizes the ease of use for attendees. That platform should be browser-based, as opposed to asking attendees to set up an additional platform on their computer or phone. Look for a virtual event platform that builds off of common behaviors in human interactions with technology. Don't ask attendees to learn entirely new skill sets just to attend a virtual conference! The ideal virtual event platform recedes into the background seamlessly. It allows the presented content and speakers to have the focus. A great platform allows attendees to interact easily with speakers, sponsors, and with each other. At an in-person event, attendees spend much of the time sitting passively. With virtual event platforms, the attendees can interact with polls and chat with others. They can ask the speaker questions without disrupting the viewing of others.  

Look for virtual event tools that meet the attendees where they are, literally. Virtual event platforms with real-time translation services and time-zone sensitive agendas allow global attendees to better participate and contribute to the event. At the same time, a virtual event platform should transport an attendee into a different space. This virtual event is not a regular, run-of-the-mill Zoom meeting. Attendees should feel like they are no longer in their home office. Instead, they should feel like they are in a different realm, one with deeper engagement and enriched experience. 

The best attendee experience will be one that gains human connection. It gives access to powerful event content and allows meaningful interaction regardless of time or place.

What will the presenter or speaker experience be like?

It's important to make sure virtual event attendees have an excellent experience. It's also critical to make sure the presenters' and speakers' experiences are seamless as well. They are providing critical content the event needs. And the event should be showcasing them in response.

A great experience for a speaker often hinges on the speaking experience being smooth. The experience should be seemingly effortless and focused on the content of their talk. Event organizers should look for virtual event platforms that make a presenter's life easy. Consider what burden of the speaker's engagement is on the speaker vs. what is handled by the event organizer.  

Keep in mind that speakers are motivated by delivering their content to engaged audiences. Speakers are also motivated by enhancing (and protecting) their reputation as speakers. They want a speaking experience that is well-produced, is technically easy, and doesn't let the format take away from the substance. Virtual events allow speakers to feel at ease and speak from the comfort of their home, but they still want to appear professional.

Look for virtual event platforms that don't require speakers to learn an entirely new format for their presentation. A simpler interface is better than a complicated one. Look for a virtual event platform that provides personalized onboarding for speakers. It should have virtual sets with a professional feel and allow speakers to share slides without a hassle. For example, Touchcast's Showtime instantly removes backgrounds, varies camera angles, and has a professional cinematic feel that makes any event speaker look like a star...without them having to do a thing (bring on Room Rater!).  

What will security and contingency measures look like?

It's an event planner's night-terror: a Zoom-bomber interrupts the biggest event of the year in the middle of the keynote to say or show embarrassing or inflammatory content to the entire conference. Or there's the slightly milder nightmare:  the livestream signal goes down and connectivity is haywire. 

The right virtual event platform is the first defense. It can shield against those security and contingency challenges. As with any event planning, it's always important to plan for the worst case scenario. Look for a virtual event platform that implements top of the line security and contingency measures to protect your event (and your sleep).

What will post-event follow up look like?

When the event is over, what will the follow up and follow-through look like? It's important to consider the post-event while planning for the actual event. Reference back to those virtual event KPIs and think through how to extend their impact beyond the virtual event date.

It's important to consider the extensions of both the event content and the event relationships. What content will live on and be accessible to attendees? Given that virtual event content can be dynamic even post-event, how will that content be curated and promoted? What will the relationship with sponsors, speakers, and attendees ideally look like post-event? What polls need to be taken? What takeaways from the event could be extended and refreshed down the road, months or years after everyone logs off? Don't forget: virtual events are less events and more publications. What does circulation and readership for the event look like after it's published?

Follow this Virtual Event Planning Checklist to organize a successful event:

Planning for Success

What should an event planner look for in software to run a virtual event?

The most critical component of holding a virtual event is the digital platform by which attendees access the event. Event technology is constantly changing and evolving and there are quite a few options on the market. Once the broad needs of an event are taken into consideration, it's time to get into the weeds of the software details.

Let's start with the overall feel of the event created by the virtual event platform. There are a range of digital event encounters out there. For a more professional event, look for software that allows the event to be branded and consistent across all components of the event. A premium virtual event platform like Touchcast's Showtime actually creates a virtual event venue. This gives attendees an enhanced, world-class experience. They can be in a virtual event space anywhere in the world, from the comfort of their own home.

While the platform is critical, it should showcase the content, not overpower it. Look for a virtual event platform that is clean and simple, yet visual stunning. If Steve Jobs were to pull the event out of a manila envelope, what would it look like?

Keep that in mind as when considering the experience an attendee would have at the event. Look for virtual event platforms that are easy to navigate. They should offer high-quality video (1080 standard ideally) so attendees get more Netflix, less Zoom. A virtual event platform should make it simple and easy for an attendee to access the event. Look for a platform that is mobile-optimized and browser-based so there's no mobile app or software to download.  Look for a platform with augmented capabilities. These include real-time translation, AI-enhanced video search, and AI content summarization. This helps the audience access the content they need on-demand--all baked right into the platform! 

Since virtual events are all about delivering content AND connecting people, a virtual event platform should do the same. Look for a platform that truly showcases speakers and content in engaging ways. And look for a platform that does so without added effort or technical complications on the speakers' part. Look for a virtual event platform that augments Q&A for improved human interactions between the speakers and attendees. It should also create instant, real-time access to video content. Look for platforms that provide ways for attendees to connect with each other. This includes breakout rooms or tracks, as well as one-on-one conversations and chat spaces. Look for virtual event platforms that can provide real-time engagement analytics, metrics, and data. This can also be helpful with reporting engagement to sponsors. Speaking of sponsors, look for a virtual event platform that provides options to showcase different tiers of sponsors. This includes offering dedicated sponsor pages.

Getting the word out about a virtual event drives attendance, so the marketing component is important. But there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Look for a virtual event platform that integrates with the email marketing and social media platforms already in use. This includes marketer platforms like Hubspot and Marketo. That will make the event hashtag #simpleandeasy.

The virtual event platform is the main defense against any kind of security issue. Look for platforms that are GDPR and Soc-2 compliant to protect data security. Pay attention to platforms used by financial sector events and enterprise-level companies. These virtual event platforms have strict levels of security compliance. Look for 99.9% uptime SLA and enterprise-grade security to ensure the right people have access to the right events at the right time.

In addition to security from active threats, there is always the risk of digital failures. Look for a virtual event platform that has very strong contingency planning. This will ensure the reliability of the platform across the event. Attendees should remember the event for the amazing content, not the painful glitches.

All of this can be overwhelming, especially if the organizing event team has not overseen entirely digital events in the past. So look for a virtual event platform that assigns an entire support team to the event. This ensures success from the planning stages all the way through to the post-event.

Platform as Partner

How do participants network at a virtual event? 

For all the value of a great keynote speaker, the best benefit of a great conference often comes from what happens away from the mics and the podiums. It's the coffees and cocktails with the person from that one session who raised some very good questions. It's the convention hallway conversation that continues through the next session. It's returning from an in-person event with that stack of business cards and a bevy of new LinkedIn connections. It's the invaluable relationships and business that come from the post-session follow-up.

A good virtual event encourages and augments the human connection between attendees. This looks a little different from an in-person event. Networking opportunities are in essence communication opportunities. Virtual events are able to create those connectivity moments digitally.

Virtual event platforms can provide messaging capability among and between event attendees. This can be one-to-one or one-to-many. They can also offer breakout sessions or workshops to create smaller groups of event attendees. Virtual exhibitors or sponsors can also use those smaller groups for more personal demos. Virtual events allow for easy connection logistics. This includes scheduling one-on-one individual virtual meetings with new contacts. No need to find an empty conference room or coffee shop that isn't too noisy in order to connect. On top of that, virtual events make it possible to connect with anyone and everyone at the event, either publicly or discretely. An attendee can ask a speaker a question publicly or privately without having to queue up at the coffee break.

The platform may be digital, but the connection is entirely human.

How much does a virtual event cost? 

The expectations around in-person event costs are well-established and expected. There will be per-person food costs and venue rentals and linen rentals. But what does a virtual event cost?  

The cost of virtual events run a wide gamut. In lieu of a true virtual event platform, there are webinar tools available for low or no cost. These can be cobbled together with registration spreadsheets and hours of headache for an event organizer. That works fine for some events and some organizations. And for virtual speakers who start every talk with "can you hear me now?"

If an event is on a tight budget but looking to graduate from Zoom, look for options like Hopin and Bizzabo.

If an event IS critical to a business, then presentation and engagement quality mean everything. For a virtual event to be an entire, immersive experience, it takes a budget. Event organizers can expect to spend upwards of $50,000. The main expenses incurred by virtual events are the virtual event platform, speakers' fees, and marketing costs. 

For those virtual event organizers needing a premium level experience for their sponsorship and attendees, as well as their organization's brand, a Netflix-quality virtual event platform like Touchcast's Showtime is worth every penny. The end-to-end experience from registration to post-event is all seamlessly integrated. Showtime even provides event organizers with a dedicated professional team. This team helps, plans, manages, and produces the event (and it still costs less than an in-person event).

Virtual events can make revenue. This revenue comes through ticket sales to attendees and sponsorships. Similar to in-person events, tiered sponsorship models can be tied to logo placement and speaker or demo time in the schedule. Unlike many in-person events, however, a virtual event has the potential for a worldwide audience and reach. As with in-person events, the quality of the virtual event and the level of sponsorship dollars it can command go hand in hand.

Competitive Landscape

What’s the difference between a virtual event and a hybrid event?

With the global pandemic in 2020, in-person events shifted overnight to 100% online events. That digital change was driven by necessity. The early wave of events at that time were focused on getting the content to the audience. Now, event organizers are digging deeper into enriching event experiences using virtual components. This may take the shape of enhanced types of virtual events, or hybrid events. Hybrid events are events that combine virtual components with in-person components.

Pre-pandemic, some in-person events were beginning to explore hybrid options. The idea was to enhance their event attendees' experiences. The pandemic-driven shift to all virtual events, however, inadvertently acted as a training ground. Now event attendees around the globe are familiar with the concept and flexibility of virtual options. Post-pandemic event organizers now have the best of both worlds. They have the ability to organize and enhance hybrid events with virtual and in-person pieces. And now they have a global audience educated and familiar with the breadth of these options.

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