By Leah Young, MBA
As a long-time marketer, I was confronted by my own bias towards virtual events when a client of mine approached me excited about the idea of running a virtual conference to promote new research in lifestyle medicine.
“Are you sure you want to go virtual?” I asked. “Don’t you think you’ll be missing out on forming the stronger relationships that come through face-to-face engagement?” While I appreciated that the touch-point costs of engaging with conference delegates virtually were likely to be lower than a live event and, as my client pointed out, “People want to consume information from the comfort of their homes now;” I was having trouble getting past the loss of face-to-face relationship building.
However, when I raised this issue with Brian Swann, director of digital services for PSAV, he pointed out the great irony of digital streaming: it does not actually take away from but can enhance face-to-face connection.
For Brian, the most significant value in streaming digital content comes when it is used in combination with face-to-face events. With digital streaming technology being so much more affordable (less than half the cost of attending face-to-face) and with on-demand access now so important to consumers, all of the content we create can virtually be accessed beyond only those who were able to make our event. Even better, it can actually drive future face-to-face attendance.
Brian has seen how offering content virtually can be a great way to attract new attendees to an existing face-to-face conference. “It’s a great stepping stone to the live event for delegates who are on the fence.”
Virtual content provides people who are not sure about the required investment, a wonderful way to experience the content with much less financial commitment. “Event planners will often offer the virtual option at about 40 per cent of the cost of full attendance in an effort to grow their face-to-face attendance base,” he offered.
Further, face-to-face conference schedules can make it difficult for delegates to attend all of the sessions that are of interest to them. Conference organizers can alleviate this problem by making popular sessions available after the event through Video on Demand (VOD). “The content is a critical focal point for delegates. VOD is an excellent way to make key sessions more accessible for everyone,” Brian advised. “A side benefit of VOD is that organizers actually get an opportunity to evaluate content they rarely get to see.”
Brian also suggested having a digital company on speed dial because it’s a great contingency when travel plans get disrupted at the last minute.
The Hub-and-Spoke Event
This approach provides a best-of-both-worlds scenario where smaller groups located in different cities connect face-to-face at local venues. Then each smaller group takes a turn hosting and streaming the content out to the other locations.
For example, Brian and his team have connected a main group in Vancouver with another group out of Toronto and still another from Montreal. “These people were able to come together in smaller, local groups to participate in the same meeting and the broadcasting hub shifted from Toronto or Montreal and then back to Vancouver,” he said.
Digital Event Options
In addition to VOD, there is “simu-live” content which is pre-recorded, but then offers virtual delegates a live Q&A with the presenter(s) at different times. Simu-live works well if you are dealing with delegates across various time zones. It allows you to repeat recorded content while offering a real-time subject-matter-expert engagement experience.
Then there is full-on, live virtual streaming which gives remote viewers the 100 per cent real-time experience.
According to Brian, if you are going to offer a virtual occurrence, audiences seem to prefer the unaltered one. “Attendees’ feedback is very favourable when they have a real-time, raw experience. So we recommend shooting everything live, as it happens, in the room so your virtual audience is getting the exact same experience as those who are on-site,” he explained. “If a presenter backs up a slide to make a point, or even makes a mistake, the virtual viewer follows right along.”
Digital Do’s and Don’ts
If you are ready to try digital streaming technology, here are Brian’s expert tips on digital event planning:
DON’T Be boring. If your virtual content is not engaging enough, your participants will multi-task.
DO Have “real action” video of the speaker because it provides the best engagement as opposed to the typical presentation-deck-focused webinar.
DO Remind speakers to specifically engage with the virtual audience. Give them access to the audience chat-box questions while they are presenting. Encourage them to engage directly such as, “Bob from Regina who has a great question.”
DO Keep your content up as long as possible. One of the main benefits of digital streaming is that you end up with a virtual record of your event. This translates into additional value for your delegates as they can view content they missed, go back and review sessions they attended, as well as continue the conversation with other participants and your subject matter experts.
Virtual Participant Engagement
DO Facilitate virtual participant engagement through a chat room or social media feed like Twitter or Facebook.
DON’T Leave the participant chat unmonitored! In the virtual environment, people feel like they can say whatever they want (Trolls!). They also may raise things that aren’t relevant to the conversation or worse, misconstrue something that they heard in the presentation.
DON’T Leave moderating to your webcast provider. They likely don’t have the context or understanding of the content.
DO Have a chat moderator who knows your audience and your message who can keep discussions on track. They can refocus the conversation, clarify things as needed and, make sure that inappropriate things don’t get posted. You can also give your moderator the ability to pull participants out of the chat room and have a one-to-one conversation with them on the side. Moderators are particularly important if you are discussing a hot, controversial topic.
DON’T Add in webcasting as a last-minute event element. Ideally you want to decide on a webcasting option early on in your event planning process so it remains in sync with the rest of your event elements.
DO Connect your webcasting team with the venue IT people early on in the process. Between them, they will ensure that your selected venue has the required internet connectivity and type of band-width needed to parse out the digitally streamed content correctly.
DO Consider virtual participant time zones! Your EST event schedule may make it inconvenient for your European participants. Ensure that the audience is aware of the event schedule’s time zone. Offering simu-live events is one way to extend the live engagement experience to people in different time-zones, or, at a minimum, offer VOD content so people can consume it at a time that is more convenient for them.
Selecting a Webcasting Provider
DO Find the best expert for what you need. If you want webcasting, find a webcasting expert; if you want in-room AV, then hire the in-room expert. If a company happens to have expertise in both, great! Just make sure that they are well-versed in both, as each is a separate, specialized expertise. If you do decide to work with one company, make sure that they are not outsourcing your webcasting to another provider, and that you are dealing with a specialized arm of their company.
DON’T Mix and match your providers. If you have a virtual provider make sure they can handle the on-site portion as well. Your AV provider may not know anything about live streaming on the particular platform you are using and you are putting them in a vulnerable spot that will ultimately cause you a great amount of stress. A good webcasting company will ensure that you have the required expert on-site to support you day-of.
DO Get your provider selected early on in the process. Let them know what you want and treat them as a partner. They will guide you through the specifics and may also have experience working with your venue.
DON’T Wait until you have an RFP prepared to start talking to a webcasting provider. Ask other industry professionals for referrals and reach out to these firms to gather information before you go to RFP.
Participant Technical Support
DO Make sure your webcasting provider’s streaming technology works on popular web browsers. Good providers will stay abreast of updates and regularly test their technology on different browsers. Also advise participants in advance as to which browsers best support your streaming service.
DO Ensure your webcast provider has some type of participant tech support built-in for day-of trouble-shooting. As the meeting planner, you can’t fix a browser issue! This support can range from a searchable self-help button, to a virtual chat experience and/or a live call help desk option.
Budget and ROI
DO Set up a budget line item for webcasting that is separate from your in-room AV budget.
DO Plan for expenses within a range of $5-$20K recognizing that if you want a highly sophisticated digital experience this could be higher. For example the number of camera angles you want to use to capture a live video or if you want to shoot every break-out session, verses just a few key ones, can add expense.
DO Estimate how many people you expect to participate virtually. If you know you are only going to have five virtual participants your technology will be different than if you are expecting 500.
DON’T Anticipate a massive new revenue stream when you introduce digital participation at your event. Realistically, you will be able to recoup the webcasting costs if you charge registration fees for virtual participants. However, where you will likely see some revenue lift is during your next event when you will see growth in live enrollments from the virtual participants who test-drove your conference in the previous year.
Evaluating Digital Success
DO Set targets and measure for how many people registered and for how many unique connections to the content you achieved. Bear in mind that if content is free, people often hold off registration until the event starts.
DO Consider securing an additional 10-15% participation in virtual attendance a solid indicator of success. Remember, your virtual participants are most often people who would have otherwise not been able to attend your event.
So, in the final analysis, this “old-school” marketer is a convert! This exploration of digital streaming technology has given me a more open-minded perspective on how, with fairly low risk, digitally streaming event content can enhance my clients’ programs by allowing them to reach new audience members and actually convert some of them into new face-to-face relationships. Indeed, that is irony at its finest!
Leah Young specializes in strategy, change management and marketing communications for small-to-medium-sized enterprises. She has more than 20 year experience in service industries, with expertise in business-to-employee marketing. • www.leahyoung.ca
Speaking of IMPACT Fall issue 2015