'Make it feel like a journey': How 4 teams moved their live events online

Just over a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic forced events to go virtual, and event marketers to get creative. And while vaccines are rolling out and the CDC has okayed limited domestic travel, it will likely be some time before we’re all eager to sit in a ballroom with 200 or more of our industry kin.

In fact, Digiday predicts the future of events will likely be a hybrid of online and in-person. To help ease the transition, we asked marketers and strategists at digital publishers Digiday and Skift and SaaS marketers at Wethos and Piano to share what they’ve learned while taking their in-person events fully online. Here’s what they had to say.

As always, content comes first

Like most SaaS companies, the marketing team at revenue platform Piano used to use a mix of in-person and online events to communicate with the industry and reach potential customers. With in-person events off the table, their team had to quickly figure out how to move the in-person experience online in a way that went beyond rehashing the classic webinar format.

“We used to use webinars to address a really specific topic, usually around something technical or research-driven in nature, said Ashley Deibert, CMO of publisher revenue platform Piano. But an industry event required a broader slate of content. “That meant having things like breakout sessions, keynote speakers, fireside chats, mixed in with some technical and research-driven topics.”

Digiday Media’s events team plans and produces dozens of in-person events every year, luring attendees with a variety of substantial content set in luxurious resort trappings. The team found success by pairing their content with the right platforms.

“We started out on Zoom just as I’m sure everybody else did,” said David Amrani, Digiday Media’s Chief Strategy Officer, “but it didn’t have the luxury elements that our events generally did.”

To deliver on the look and feel that attendees and sponsors associate with a Digiday event, the team moved their hosting to Vimeo, where they could add more production value.  “We made it feel more like broadcast TV, where we were moving through things constantly,” Amrani said. In addition to well-designed graphic overlays, the team incorporates split-screen interviews, information chyrons, and lower-thirds that indicated which sessions were up next.

And Digiday continued to use Zoom for working sessions and Town Halls, where the audience is smaller and more focused on solving specific problems and the platform enables live question and answer sessions.

Connecting people is key

Of course, half the draw of in-person events is meeting people. “When you’re with someone in person, you can take a step away from the crowd to have a more intimate conversation,” said An Uong, editorial manager at Wethos, which describes itself as “an end-to-end platform that empowers independent business owners to transform their one-person shops into full-service studios.”

In January, the marketing team had just held their first in-person event—an intimate dinner for creative professionals in Los Angeles. The dinner was meant to be the first of a number of regional community-building events around the United States that didn’t come to pass.

“We’ve been trying to achieve that sense of serendipity that you get when you’re at the event. You don’t know who you’re going to meet and the room just kind of buzzes with energy,” Uong said. While the team has used Zoom for its webinars and workshops, they found a more flexible platform with Icebreaker.

“We’ve been trying to achieve that sense of serendipity that you get when you’re at the event.”

Wethos has used Icebreaker to host monthly mixers and other events that put networking first, Uong said. They’ve used it for a speed-dating exercise that thrusts people into random pairings or small groups and gives them a topic card or “icebreaker” to discuss. “It gives the sense of being at a social networking event, but we’re all still just behind our computers.”

For networking events meant to drive deals, the process of connecting people can be a little more complicated, said Amrani. Digiday’s events team works hard to communicate with the VIP their event sponsors value ahead of time and then uses Airtable to schedule one-on-one meetings.

Pushing forward

At Skift, where pandemic put a halt to more than a dozen major in-person events including Skift Global Forum, an international summit that draws up to 1,200 travel industry leaders every year, head of creative strategy Matt Heidkamp leaned on his experience creating digital content to navigate the pivot.

“It felt very natural to me,” Heidkamp said. “It was taking the same technology that we would have been using on the branded content side,” and applying it to editorially-led events. Skift’s new online formats gave them a chance to experiment with new ways to engage audiences.

For its Design the Future event, Skift created a two-minute, animated breathwork video that asked the audience to synchronize their breathing with music and visual prompts, he said. For more recent events, Skift editors have begun hosting audio roundtables on Clubhouse to preview event content.

Eventually, that led to onboarding innovations that he hopes will carry through to live events. The team launched a collaborative resource library that allowed attendees to take polls, crowdsource ideas and share information. “It’s as if you’re adding to a big whiteboard or sticky board around what they think the future needs of the travel will be or what the future of work will look like,” he said. That portal then remained up after the event, extending the length of the engagement.

“There’s a big opportunity to do interesting content online before and after to really make it feel like a journey,” he said.

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