So it looks like your in-person event is going to be canceled.
You had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but with no sign of large gatherings in the near future, you’re not sure what else to do. There is another option, of course: creating a virtual event.
You might even be on board with virtual event planning, but you probably still have reservations on how that’ll be any better than a virtual webinar. A critical part of events is engagement or interaction, but can attendees really get that online? Will they sign up?
How to boost virtual event engagement
While it’s true that virtual events are different from in-person ones, creating a successful event with lots of opportunities for engagement is completely within your reach. All it requires is the proper forethought, planning, and infrastructure. So before you begin putting together the nuts and bolts of your online presentation, use these strategies to start planning to drive attendance and ensure its success.
Now it seems like the hard part is over – you’ve gotten people to register for your event, and you’re happy with the number of attendees you’re expecting. But of course, there’s more to event engagement than just making sure people show up.
At an in-person event, attendees might go for coffee or drinks with each other, or strike up a conversation with the person next to them in a session. Participants might hang back in order to ask a presenter some questions, and sponsors and exhibitors can catch attendee’s attention on the conference floor. All of these are vital parts to ensuring the networking and lead gathering that is so important to in-person events.
Virtual events need these elements too, just in a different form. While attendees might not be able to make a new business connection by bumping into the person next to them at the buffet, if you leverage the right technologies at your event, you can boost online engagement and still allow participants to reap the same benefits they would from an in-person event.
Spark conversations between attendees
It’s true that attendees won’t be chatting in the hallways, but a virtual event can allow them to make even specific and valuable connections, based on their experience and interests. Utilize different communication methods through setting up chat rooms, discussion forums, and other mediums of communication for attendees.
This way, attendees can find each other through shared topics and interests and reach out individually. While they may not be able to meet physically, they can always chat privately through a messaging app or event software, or set up a video call to get to know each other!
Encourage virtual meetups
Think attendees will need a little encouragement to get to know each other? Include meetups and networking sessions in your events agenda. Specifically scheduling video calls or “virtual coffee hours” for attendees will encourage them to pop in and get to know each other!
Try organizing specific meet-ups for certain groups who are likely to attend, such women in your industry, or people with a specific area of interest. This can help make new connections even more specific and valuable!
Also leave room for attendees to self-organize virtual meetups even before the event. Attendees may have certain groups they’re particularly interested in getting to know, and meeting before the event can help make the day of that much more enjoyable.
Run live polls and surveys
Attendees should be able to influence and shape the event as well. Running polls through an event app – from serious industry topics to light hearted icebreakers, not only gives them the chance to have their voices heard, but also can also get a discussion going that will allow attendees to network in a different way.
Surveys, both beforehand and after your event, are a great way to find out what attendees are expecting from your event, and what you can improve on for the next one. Either way, attendees get to make sure their voices are heard even miles away, and you can ensure that your events continue to get better and better!
Gamify the attendee engagement experience
In addition to everything else, gamification can be a great motivator for attendees to participate more than they might have originally. There are a lot of different strategies for gamification you can employ: for instance, you might hold a photo contest where each attendee shows off their best conference-wear, and the highest voted photo wins.
Or attendees might visit each exhibitor to complete a challenge or get a virtual “stamp” as they travel from virtual booth to virtual booth. Though sometimes just seeing their name on a leaderboard can be a motivation, further incentivise attendees to participate by including a prize for those with the highest points, and if you include a virtual award ceremony, you can add additional motivation by announcing the contest winners there.
Encourage virtual event sign-up by promoting your event
Let’s start with a worst case scenario: You planned for everything for your virtual event. The presentations are thoughtful, the speakers are ready to go, the marketing was well-placed. There’s just one problem: still barely anyone has signed up.
It doesn’t matter how many opportunities for engagement you can create within an event if attendees never register for it. As you run virtual conferences and promote your event, the most important thing you can make sure potential attendees understand is not only what the event is, but how they can access it.
Once you reach attendees, make sure you lead them to the finish line, make registering as easy and accessible as possible Include a link to registration easily included with all promotional materials, and feature registration prominently on your website.
By proactively promoting these links and making it as clear as possible how to easily register for your event, you can promote attendance more effectively than ever. Now let’s go over some techniques for maximizing your registration.
Direct marketing vs. passive marketing
When preparing for your event, it can feel pretty tempting to build an event website and call it a day. After all, you have so much more to still do, and the right attendees will probably find what you’ve set up. This is called passive marketing, and it’s a trap that organizers fall into every day.
While the staples of passive marketing are good -- reliable customer service, strong infrastructure for participants, and prioritizing advertising on new releases, it’s important to utilize different communication methods to maximize results. Direct marketing is focused on networking, targeting advertising, and directly reaching your target audience.
Identify the core groups you hope to attend your event and reach out to them individually. Consider what these different groups’ pain points are and what they can gain from your event to address them. Keeping your event well branded, but also actively pursuing the attendees your event is targeted towards, both have their place and will make your event’s marketing as effective as possible.
Include explicit calls to action
You’ve heard it before, but we’ll say it again: include explicit calls to action whenever possible. If you want your attendees to participate, make sure they know how to participate. Include calls to action on all promotional materials possible, your event page, your company website, the emails you send out to customers, and be explicit about exactly what potential attendees should do.
A great way to create a call to action can be to include buttons on your website and promotional materials. Make them stand out by making them a different color than the rest of the page, or if you’re including the call to action in your text, italicize or bold the phrase to draw your attendees’ eyes.
Try to use simple intention language that immediately gets across exactly what the reader should do, “Register here,” “Sign up now”, and link this text to a page where the attendee can immediately do just that. If you’re specific about exactly what your call to action is and exactly how it will benefit attendees, you should be able to encourage attendees to register for your event.
Remove barriers to registration
Once attendees have decided to register, you want to make the process as simple for them as possible. Holding an online event has already removed other barriers -- after all, attendees won’t need to travel or worry about accommodations to attend your event. But an online event can also make attendees expect an easy registration process, so keep it short and simple.
Avoid discouraging them by asking for unnecessary information or bogging the processes down with multiple steps. What is most essential to your event? Likely, you’ll want names, the companies they work for, and contact information like an email address.
Once you’ve gotten this, try to avoid asking for more unless absolutely necessary! Attendees have gotten excited about your event and now you’ve opened the door to them, so make it as simple as possible to step through it. If you’re using an event planning app, you can automate some steps of registration to make it even simpler!
3 ways to improve virtual event attendance
It may sound obvious, but curating a high attendance is one of the most important things you can do for your event. Luckily, the virtual event format can actually break down many restrictions that might typically block you from a wide attendance.
Once virtual, you no longer have to worry about seating restrictions, or how big the convention center is, so if you were expecting to have to limit seating, you can open the doors wider than ever! A bigger attendance can mean major perks for both you and everyone else involved.
In addition to high revenue from ticket sales, attendees will have more opportunities to network with each other and make useful connections, and sponsors and exhibitors will have more chances to promote their product and company than ever. Let your virtual event set a precedent that will drive attendance and sponsorships for years to come!
So how can you get a bigger attendance for your virtual event? Try out these strategies to boost your numbers and get the ideal attendees for your event.
Know your audience
While advertising widely has its merits, chances are a very specific group of people will be most interested in signing up for your event. The most important thing you can do in maximizing the efficiency of your advertisements is knowing exactly who these people are and finding ways to reach them directly.
Think about who your ideal event attendee is. What do they do? What are their goals? What problems do they typically face in their industry, and what are some new issues that they might need urgent answers to? Most importantly, how can attending your event help them meet these goals and solve these problems? Understanding your target attendees’ needs and pain points gives you a crucial basis to work off of when both shaping your event and advertising it.
Craft the right message
Strategic messaging can make or break your event attendance. Remember, when advertising your event, the attendee is always the focus, not the event itself. Go back to that ideal attendee profile you created, and think about those attendee problems and goals. Keep your message centered around how you can help them succeed in their goals and get them the happy ending they’re looking for.
Emphasize to your attendees how networking can still be achieved at a virtual event, and how they can come away with a wide network of useful and necessary industry contacts. Is the appeal that a major industry speaker will be addressing a relevant topic or new technology that’s been on everyone’s minds? Explain to attendees how the understanding they’ll gain will help them. Remember, different groups of event attendees will have different priorities for your event, so make sure you’re targeting these messages at the right groups.
Look back to that ideal attendee, and consider where your target audience is getting their information. Are there online industry group pages you could post in, certain trade magazines you might use to run an advertisement, or connections you can make who will spread the word about your event?
If there are multiple types of groups that you believe would be interested in your event, make sure that message is individualized for the platform you’re advertising through. You want your event to be something that potential attendees will come across organically through their own circles, often enough to make an impression, and with a message made specifically for them.
While your event may not be exactly what you expected it to be, there’s a world of advantages to virtual events that you can take advantage of to improve attendee engagement. If you proactively advertise your event and provide infrastructure for engagement, then with the right planning and forethought, engagement at a virtual event can be just as strong as at an in-person event.
Luke Duan is a founding member of Whova, responsible for Demand Generation and Customer Community. He received a Ph.D in Computer Science from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When he is not working, he enjoys ice skating or swimming with his two little lovely kids.