How to adapt in-person events for virtual

Hotel lobby filled with large signage

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to cancellations and postponements across every industry. What started as a precautionary measure has become unavoidable and mandatory in many areas. According to Forbes’ Coronavirus Cancellation Tracker, more than 83 million attendees have been forced to change their plans. The direct economic loss from these canceled events is massive. 

Creative and nimble event organizers are turning to online streaming events to keep attendees engaged even if they can’t be there in person. Some larger shows and conferences are even developing entire content hubs, building a streaming channel akin to Netflix or Hulu, where participants can select from a wide range of webinars and online meetings, tour virtual booths and gain actual value from the experience. 

The events of the past few weeks have proved that working from home is a possibility for many employees, but operating remotely hasn’t been tested to this degree before. The technology is all there — email, conference lines, video chat, group messaging platforms, file sharing, VPNS and all the print collateral that attendees expect. But creating online events to replace major conferences poses an interesting challenge even for the most tech-savvy organizers — to create something impactful that can replicate (or even improve upon) the live experience.

Here are a few ways to bring value to your online events:

1. Know your worth.

In-person conferences can account for a huge portion of any marketing and professional development budget. Sylvia Inks of SMI Financial Coaching estimates that the average cost of attending a business conference is around $1,000. For some organizers, the impulse is to make an online convention completely free. The unspoken bias is that it’s not seen as a “real event.” This negative impression against free events could impact the perceived value of what you’re offering.

We know there is great value in webinars and streaming video. In the Demand Gen Report’s 2019 Content Preferences study, 39% of marketers said webinars are one of the most valuable influencer content formats, and 63% said they were willing to spend 20 to 60 minutes watching a webinar. Keep this study in mind when you price your event.

2. Have a “making lemonade out of lemons” mentality.

If the coronavirus outbreak disarrayed your plans, you don’t have to throw everything out the window and start from scratch. Your online conference can still have multiple keynote speakers, Q&As, breakout sessions, networking mixers and even swag. 

Your in-person event was limited to event space or hotel capacity. People may have declined because of conflicting travel plans or a busy work schedule. With an online event, there is no limit to the turnout you could have. You can promote to a much larger audience. This shift in expectations could transform the nature of your event going forward. The event could be a teaser for future in-person events, if it offers an accurate glimpse into what people have been missing out on.

Event welcome table holding branded swag

3. Be ready for webinar fatigue, and keep it casual.

This shift to online events, both planned and ad hoc, is happening everywhere. For example, SXSW in Austin, Adobe Summit in Las Vegas, and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona have all created web alternatives. Then, events such as Patreon’s Weird Stream-a-thon came out of nowhere to fill in the gaps left by canceled entertainment events — and have now become hugely successful, raising over $30,000 to support independent artists affected by recent cancellations. In short, your audience may be overwhelmed with options.

Look at what others are doing and find your take. If everyone is doing streaming video, maybe try out podcasts, chat groups, short video interactions or other multimedia experiences.

Don’t be afraid of being a little more informal. Your online event doesn’t have to be overly scripted or look like it was produced in a studio. Everyone understands that the new experience can be a bit more casual.

4. Create event excitement with print materials and direct mail.

Online events do not have to leave attendees empty-handed. You can differentiate your event by sending high-quality print materials to attendees’ doorsteps before you go live.

Supplemental materials add value to your online event. They help you maintain a sense of continuity while being relatively easy to scale. You may already have printed materials unused, waiting in boxes, because your event was canceled. It’s just a matter of redirecting them to the attendees in an efficient manner. Shake attendees out of their webinar routine; downloadable PDFs are standard fare, but sending them a nicely bound booklet with a glossy cover gives them something they will reference and enjoy.

To make this happen, you’ll want a print and shipping expert located close to your audience. We have 19 closed-door commercial print facilities, extending its reach into every major market in the United States. FedEx Office will not only print your conference materials but also make necessary changes digitally and deliver content in a timely fashion so these materials will be in hand whenever people go online. As a shipping logistics specialist, FedEx Office can deliver all materials to the front door of every attendee — providing real-time tracking analytics so you know everyone has what they need.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost every business — few more than organizers of conferences and events. It’s a valuable stress test for how we operate. On the other side of this outbreak, new innovations and opportunities will flourish for people willing to adapt and grow.

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