person working on editing video for   online  conference
PHOTO: Nicole Geri

In a race to rebuild the lost pipeline from canceled conferences and meetups, many marketers and event managers found themselves at a crossroads of difficult decisions. Pivoting from a live-person event to virtual is in no way as easy as setting up a Zoom conference line: there is a community to serve, and each audience member has their own high expectations, loyalty and engagement at stake for which a Zoom dial-in won’t make the cut.

Regardless of preferences, virtual events are likely here to stay: experts have predicted physical events will not return until 2022. While large-scale virtual sessions at the beginning of 2020 may have had rocky, first-ever moments for brands, there is now more time to plan and refine approaches to digital engagement and community building.

If you’ve found yourself in this boat, you’re not alone. We’ve held MozCon as a live, in-person event for 15 years, with more than 1,500 attendees attending a three-day conference in 2019. This year, we had to take MozCon completely virtual in less than three months. Here’s what we accomplished and what we learned.

Figure Out What Success Looks Like

Marketing budgets are experiencing a fierce reckoning in 2020, with every line item under more intense scrutiny. The pressure to make every dollar count may feel insurmountable against the expectations of virtual event success.

Our flagship event isn’t intended to make a profit, but we also can’t lose money each year. Breaking even is a worthwhile goal for us as MozCon fosters loyalty and community engagement alongside prospect and customer data, but even this became a point of discussion for our team. Could we really break even on a virtual event?

If profit is your endgame, you’ll have an uphill battle and will require a razor-sharp level of review to cleave any component of your event that might go over budget.

Without the need for a large conference center, we had to reevaluate where we’d host our digital gathering. A slew of new platforms were available to host digital events. We decided to sacrifice some analytics at the cost of other features, but each event host will need to weigh the pros and cons of available offerings.

Setting our expectations with the leadership team and waterfalling to our marketers and events leads required clarity and honesty. Our team was stronger and more agile because we knew what we wanted to achieve. If your goal is to replicate in-person events within a virtual experience, you may already be off track.

Related Article: The Exciting Future of Events: Online, In Person, Hybrid

Promote New Expectations for Your Audience

While digital events are the status quo for now, brand hosts still can’t take attendees’ participation for granted. Regardless of whether you are pivoting to virtual or pursuing a digital experience from the beginning, clearly define your event through a landing page, social media, mailing lists and other external material like a press release.

Attendees aren’t the only participants, so ensure your sponsors, partners and speakers also have aligned expectations. For MozCon, we created speaker promotion toolkits to help spur on social sharing and engagement, while building a cohesive narrative. We also built marketing material with hi-res speaker headshots and bios, then tied each into speaking themes. This altogether built a rich experience that helped bring digital moments to life while generating excitement.

Live event sponsorship may look different than digital, but it doesn’t need to sacrifice visibility and engagement. Our sponsors were given engagement hubs within our platform and visibility throughout each day. One of the opportunities sponsors most enjoyed was the ability to further build relationships by attending each session where they could demonstrate their brand’s industry expertise by participating in the live Q&A chat with speakers and other attendees.

Related Article: Shifting to a Virtual Events Strategy

Foster a Strong, Loyal Digital Community

For us, MozCon isn’t just about SEO: it’s about community, and this takes shape in a variety of ways. First, the MozCon team hand selects our regular speakers with an intensive review process. We seek a diversity of people at the top of their field in niche marketing categories or rising stars with bold ideas and expert perspectives.

But expertise cannot and should not be the only qualifier for speaker selection. I’m sure many people may have at one time or another been at an industry event and suddenly realized — likely with a sense of frustration — that white men were leading nearly every roundtable and session. Regardless of the industry you’re in, I’ll bet it’s full of vibrant speakers across gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other unique ways we identify. We still have work to do, but Moz strives to emphasize and prioritize the diverse voices which make up our industry, and we’re stronger because of it.

Second, we want our attendees to build their network and develop a near 1-to-1 relationship with the best our industry has to offer. Normally building connections and networking would be easier in close proximity, but we handled speaker sessions in a unique way that fostered engagement. Each speaker pre-recorded their presentation, freeing up their time to interact through digital messaging as the videos played live. This allowed participants to ask questions and hear back immediately from the session host.

We also developed “break-out” sessions with RSVP-style hubs for our attendees to provide more intimate, face-to-face experiences. By securing seats within our event app, we kept the group sizes small. These sessions weren’t pre-recorded and offered live Q&A networking, community building and the connections we’ve all craved during our collective social-distancing.

Regardless of a live or digital event, there are always moments of technical difficulties or a change in plans. We also created a team to prepare for challenges by proactively monitoring for issues or inappropriate conduct on our MozCon portal and within a Facebook event group.

Related Article: Virtual Conferences Will Not Replace Face-to-Face Events

The Pandemic Didn’t End Events, It’s Evolved Them

Marketers have been under immense pressure this year, and the ingenuity we’re seeing from brands to rethink engagement is inspiring. We found success by building an experience that prioritized learning, networking and community building. Of course, there were many unknowns. This whole year has been uncharted territory personally and professionally for us all. But we took calculated risks and headed into our event season with optimism and the hard work to make the impossible happen. This is truly a moment in time where we can come together in support, sharing what we’ve learned and celebrating the wins along the way.