The COVID-19 guide to moving your event online

The recent outbreak of COVID-19, the latest coronavirus and its associated respiratory disease, has the world on edge. Companies have suspended travel and begun reevaluating work-from-home policies. Events across the marketing and tech industry, such as Adobe Summit, Facebook F8 and Y Combinator’s Demo Day have all had their physical component cancelled and become digital only.

(See here for a list of tech events canceled, postponed, or changed to online venues.)

To cancel or go digital? 

If you’ve been planning an event for the last year, cancelling it is a hard decision to make. While COVID-19 still has a lot of uncertainties surrounding it, we know that:

  • The CDC states the virus primarily passes between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) and the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus.
  • There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19.
  • An increasing number of events have cancelled their in-person component due to health concerns, travel complications and attendee apprehensions.

Turning a physical event into a digital one takes time. The experts at ON24, the digital experience platform (and one of our clients), expect planning to at least take weeks: “spinning up a virtual event program can be a very quick affair, or a very long one. Really, it depends on how big you want your virtual event to be. We’ve seen virtual events take as little as three to four weeks to plan and as long as half a year.”

If you prefer to play it safe and go digital, there are good reasons beyond the virus to do so:

Larry Dignan, editor-in-chief of ZDNet, sees this as just a step in an inevitable evolution. “I think a lot of things the coronavirus is triggering is only accelerating what’s going to happen anyway.” 

“Sales and marketing departments have questioned the payouts produced by travel and offsite conferences for some time now”, he said. He calls the response to COVID-19 the perfect AB test. “The coronavirus is forcing us to change how we operate, and I think some of those changes are actually going to stick.”

He points to how the practice of buying access to software via cloud subscriptions started during a recession and never stopped. “I just think the coronavirus gives businesses an excuse to try out something different and do it at a faster pace than they would have otherwise.”

How to transition your event to online-only

So once you’ve made the hard decision to cancel your in-person event, what next?

Unfortunately, the price of hotels, flights, and venues are probably sunk costs. An increasing number of flight operators are waiving their change fees. Hotels and other services are generally not offering refunds.

If you’ve already printed marketing materials (such as flyers and banners) these are unfortunately headed for pulping, however all the digital files behind them are going to be valuable for your digital event. Either reusing them outright (e.g. for presentations and handouts) or lightly repurposing them (a flyer for an event can have the venue replaced with a url) will jump-start your digital event branding.

Making a major change to your event can have ramifications for your sponsorship. All is not lost however, as digital experiences still offer countless opportunities for featuring sponsors’ brands, giving shout-outs and playing video advertisements. ON24 suggests “increase the value for your sponsors by giving them dedicated areas to promote their content or participate in conversations. Virtual chat rooms are a great option.”

Swag (such as pens, goodie bags, t-shirts and gadgets) can still be mailed out, used as prizes or kept for future events.

If your digital event was previously small, or non-existent, now is the time to get together a SWOT team to pull it off. ON24 recommends a program director, event coordinator, webinar manager and operations personnel at a minimum. A digital event production agency can help you with the myriad of technical challenges such as recording, formatting and software setup.

Getting your material onto the information superhighway

It’ll come as no surprise that you’ll need software to pull this event off. Perhaps you already have a provider, or maybe you’re looking for solutions to augment your current ones. 

ON24 provides a digital experience platform that includes webinar and content hub software, giving you a comprehensive and scalable solution to bringing your attendees and speakers together in a rich digital environment.

There are a range of other tools for presenting online, varying in their scale and feature sets:

  • LinkedIn SlideShare, with over 18 million uploads in 40 content categories, is today one of the top 100 most-visited websites in the world.
  • GoToWebinar erases the headache and hassle from webinars. No matter your goal or skill level, it allows you to go from preparing a webinar to presenting it in just a couple of steps. GoToWebinar comes with a free trial.
  • AnyMeeting video conferencing platform from Intermedia is easy-to-use, streamlines workflow, and allows meetings anywhere and anytime from your personal computer or mobile phone. It also offers a free trial.
  • Zoom offers a cost-efficient way to take your training and meetings online. It’s free for meetings of up to 100 participants and up to 40 minutes, has a $15 plan for 101-300 attendees, and $20 plans for enterprise clients and those with more than 300 people in attendance. Along with live broadcasting, Zoom offers HD audio and video, full-featured host controls, reports and analytics on registrants and attendees, and even personalized assistance, if needed.

You’ll need to work with your speakers to help them transition to presenting virtually via software, and help get their materials ready for digital distribution in an online content hub. 

ON24 suggests using a “simulive” approach to minimize problems at show time: this is where you pre-record a lot of the presentations, and mix in interactivity (e.g. polls and Q&A) during the event itself. This reduces the myriad of last minute issues such as home WiFi dropping and presenters failing to turn up.

“Running a webinar isn’t like giving a live presentation,” Laura Quinn says on moving to online-only venues. An expert presenter of live conferences may struggle with webinars. She offers these suggestions for a smooth transition from live to online as:

  • Get used to the deafening silence. At a live event, you get constant feedback from your audience in the form of chatter and confused looks. Webinar presenters have to learn to do without those cues.
  • Call for questions more often. Because you can’t read your audience’s body language, you can’t use it to tell who needs help. Plus, asking questions more often creates a more engaging presentation.
  • Use the real-time chat function to text chat with the audience members.  “By having everyone respond in the chat, or through a poll, you can save a lot of time and get feedback from more participants,” Quinn says.
  • Use dynamic, visually exciting slides to draw your audience into the conversation. Your slides should be the centerpiece of your presentation. This is something we can definitely help you with.

Generating some of the conference magic online

When moving your event online, it’s easy to lose touch with the attendee experience. We’re all familiar with the standard social mixers at conferences – coffee stands, breakout tables, awkward dance parties and corporate side-dinners, but when attendees are in webinars and websites, how do we keep the flow going?

The key is to look at the User Experience of your event: during and after each piece of it, what calls-to-action do your participants receive? Do they always have some easy links to continue the conversation, book materials for later, or jump into another interesting presentation?

And while you’re at it, look out for opportunities to track lead engagement and figure out who your sales team should have conversations with during or after the event. Whilst marketing often leads the creation of digital events, there is ample room and reason for sales to attend. 

Finally, the majority of the content you’re created can be hosted on-demand for later. Attendees that missed an event, or want a refresh weeks later can come back, amplifying your reach in a way not possible with purely physical events.

Closing remarks

We hope this guide helped, we appreciate what a stressful and uncertain time this is for many businesses. Thanks to our client and partner ON24 for sharing their knowledge about virtual events. If you have any design questions, or need last minute production assistance, we’re always happy to help.

Chris Finneral

Chris Finneral

Redefine what's possible with SketchDeck.

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