Previously, I provided tips on selecting a virtual event platform. In that posting, I covered team, technology and customer service considerations for selecting a platform. Now, I’d like to cover the very important process of planning your virtual event. A successful virtual event originates with a sound, strategic plan – one that’s researched, developed and documented well before the topic of platform selection is even broached.
Virtual events involve technology – however, as with physical events, it’s about the experience first. Technology, while important, is there to provide the means to address your experiential goals. Get the planning done right and technology decisions will fall out naturally from there.
Understand Your Audience
A virtual event planner must act like a product manager – to build the best “product” (i.e. event), you need to first understand your target audience / target customer.
Product managers need to employ “customer empathy”, while virtual event planners need to employ “attendee empathy”. Product managers develop user personas – profiles of different users of the product. Similarly, you ought to create attendee personas.
Identify the attendee profiles – and for each profile, document the “average user”. Questions you ought to ask about your audience:
- Are they inclined to experience an event virtually?
- What topics/subjects are they most interested in?
- What online sites do they frequent the most?
- When they’re not online, what are they doing?
- How do they prefer to consume content?
- How do they prefer to interact with one another?
- What would prevent them from interacting, engaging, etc. online?
- What motivates them?
- What is their preferred form of reward (e.g. recognition, money, etc.)?
- How do you hold their attention?
There are many more questions you could ask. Understanding your audience is one of the most important planning steps, so make sure you invest the right amount of time and energy here. When done, document your “audience profiles” and share the document with your extended team. Ensure you’re all on the same page with regard to your target audience.
Identify Your Funding Sources
The virtual event never happens if you’re not able to pay for its costs. Are you an association that aims to fund the event with association or per-event fees? Are you a non-profit organization who submitted a bid for a grant? Or, are you a B2B publisher who aims to fund the event by selling sponsorships at a virtual trade show?
For virtual trade shows, identify possible exhibiting companies and forecast the amount of revenue you can generate from the sponsorships. Review past events you’ve produced (whether physical or virtual) – and, review competitors’ trade shows to see which companies are exhibiting at them.
Regardless of the scenario, ensure that your funding model is identified – and, that the funds are “firm”. It does you no good to spend a month profiling your target audience, only to have that work go to waste when you’re not able to obtain funding for the event. If possible, seek to have your funds secured before you begin the subsequent planning steps.
Define your Format, Venue, Style, Personality
There are many types of virtual events: virtual trade shows, virtual career fairs, virtual product launches, etc. Chances are, you already have a format in mind and that’s good. Following that, however, you ought to consider the additional details of the design, style and personality of your virtual event.
The most direct (and cost effective) approach is to select from the pre-existing “event templates” of your virtual event platform provider. They’ll allow you to select a theme from their template library and you can apply customizations on top of the base image. While this approach is time and cost efficient, keep in mind that it’s more challenging to distinguish your event, especially if your competitor uses the same platform and selects the same theme.
If you have the budget (and time) to create a unique experience, consider the venue and theme – a virtual experience is not bound by physical space limitations (or, by gravity), so there are endless possibilities. Do you want an outer space experience? Perhaps not, but that’s possible if you so choose.
If budget allows, consult with a creative agency or design firm – you’ll first want to “storyboard” the event experience in the same way you’d map out a new web site. In addition to event components, storyboard the user journey and user experience – map out how you’d like attendees to move through your environment.
Identify the Event’s Content
Most virtual event planners associate “content” with “sessions” (e.g. Webcasts, Videocasts, etc.). Sessions are indeed important – invest the time and effort to identify hot topics, develop session tracks and recruit speakers and presenters. Once that’s complete, identify additional content formats to include:
- Break-out Sessions
- Training Sessions
- Scheduled Chats
Virtual events no longer need to be focused around the session schedule – as you can see from the list above, many content formats are available – and some are more effective at engaging and involving the audience.
Identify Potential Dates
Who knew that virtual event planning would be similar to wedding planning? With regard to date selection, your first step is “conflict avoidance”. You want to eliminate important dates within your organization (e.g. the date of your annual customer conference) – as well as important dates within your industry. Then, review competitive events and related events in your industry, as you want to avoid those too.
Finally, consider seasonality dependencies, such as the December religious holidays or the week leading to Labor Day (in the U.S.), during which many families with school kids are out of town.
Once you’ve done the “elimination” of dates, consider events or occasions that would work well for your event – you might want to plan your virtual event around an existing physical event of your’s – or, plan for event around a key product launch you have scheduled two quarters from now.
Identify the Event’s Duration
Single-day events are the most common today. Your event, however, should have a duration that’s driven by your goals and objectives. For instance, if you have more content than can be consumed (or scheduled) in a single day, consider the multi-day event. If your event is based around an ongoing game, with points accrued over days (or weeks), then the game parameters will dictate the event duration.
For multi-day events, be sure you have an audience engagement strategy in place to incent Day 1 attendees to return for Day 2 (and Day 3, etc.). In addition, keep in mind that multi-day events require staffing and support to be available for each live date, which adds hard and soft costs to the equation.
Hold your horses! Technology is fun and exciting, but before you jump into that step, be sure to spend the necessary time and effort to complete the planning steps outlined here. In the end, you’ll be rewarded with a successful event.
Note: I invite you to connect with me on Google+.