What is a virtual event?

A virtual event, also known as an online event, virtual conference or livestream experience, is an event that involves people interacting in an online environment on the web, rather than meeting in a physical location.

Popular uses of virtual events include webinars, live streams, virtual trade shows, online classes, online tours and company events. Hybrid events have also become popular in recent years, mixing in-person events with virtual content that can be accessed online.

"Virtual event" can also refer to online events that are held in a virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) setting.

How do virtual events work?

Virtual events work using technology specifically designed to replicate the event experience online. The minimum technology stack required includes an internet connected device (computer/phone/tablet) with a camera, microphone and specialized software installed.

There are dozens of companies offering virtual event software today, each with unique features and advantages. Common among virtual conferencing tools is the ability to connect a host with an audience via a video link combined with application/desktop sharing, as well as interactive features such as polls and messaging.

More advanced virtual events platforms feature virtual experiences that mimic in-person conferences such as a virtual lobby, virtual expo halls where exhibitors can promote their products and services, and virtual meeting rooms that provide networking opportunities for attendees.

Typically, virtual conference environments are set up beforehand with the visuals, navigation and sessions added to the virtual events platform to create the online experience. Sessions are typically pre-recorded in advance, although some platforms allow for live streaming keynotes and sessions as well.

Virtual attendees register for the conference and are sent a link that they can use to attend the virtual event experience. Because event sessions are recorded, users can often attend online conferences after they have already taken place, and have the same experience as those attending live, minus real-time features such as live Q&As and networking.

Benefits of virtual events

Virtual events have become more popular since the recession and more recently during COVID-19 as a cost efficient and effective way to connect people.

Increased reach

By removing geographic barriers to event attendance, virtual events open up a much larger audience for virtual events. For example, Saastr, a leading event for the technology industry, had 10,000 in-person attendees for their 2019 conference. In 2020, they went virtual and had 50,000+ event attendees from all around the world.

Lower cost

Production costs for physical events can be very high. Venue rental, catering, and production costs can range from thousands to millions of dollars. By removing some of these overheads, event organizers can save money or reallocate budget to other areas such as attracting higher profile speakers.

Because virtual event content is pre-recorded, the same content can be re-used to run sister events for other time zones and regions as well, leading to significant costs savings, which can then be passed on to attendees and/or improve the event's profitability.

Time savings

There are many time saving benefits of going virtual. Attendee and organizer travel combined with reduced production lead times and setup add up to significant time savings. These time savings can also be factored into costs for the events.

Better data and tracking

Online events provide unique opportunities to generate first-party data through registrations and attendee engagement in-event and via social media. Some event platforms provide granular insights on attendee engagement and satisfaction and allow the organizers to use this information to iterate and improve experiences.

Virtual event best practices

There are a number of best practices to pursue when organizing virtual events:

  • Match technology to strategy
  • Prioritize rehearsals
  • Invest in Audio Visual (AV)
  • Obtain accurate measurement strategy in advance
  • Go multi-sensory

Match technology to strategy

For virtual events, there are a wide number of platforms that can be used. From free services, including YouTube and social streaming on Facebook or Instagram live, to more private platforms, such as Zoom, where the host of your event can have a tremendous impact on its outcomes.

Additionally, the platform you choose to leverage for your event should align with where your event falls in the marketing funnel. For a top-of-funnel, awareness-based event, an open and free platform such as Facebook Live may be effective and inviting.

Prioritize rehearsals

Due to the low friction of organizing virtual events, (i.e., technology and setup can be relatively easy to deploy), many organizers often skip rehearsals and introduce risk to their event planning process. Many of the most successful virtual event organizers and platforms recommend rigorous rehearsal in advance. Another option is to avoid the risks of live presentations entirely and record sessions in advance.

Invest in audio visual (AV)

There is a strong case for investing in quality audio visual equipment and even to employ a production agency to help ensure events are high quality. This equipment includes lighting, microphones, green screens, cameras and screens. All of these elements add to the quality of the experience.

A great example of high-quality production is from an Anthony Robbins virtual event called Unleash the Power Within, where he used a custom built studio with hundreds of screens to engage his audience.

Obtain accurate measurement strategy in advance

One of the most pressing challenges for virtual events has been accessing the data to measure success or failure. Engagement metrics like registrations and attendance are useful but don’t show the real impact.

Many brands are adopting metrics like net promoter score (NPS) and brand conversion as leading indicators of success and are looking further down the funnel at purchase intent and revenue impact. It's imperative that you set your goals and establish a measurement approach before running a virtual event.

Go multi-sensory

Taking a multi-sensory approach to virtual events will make them more impactful and memorable. To be multi-sensory, the event should trigger at least three senses to be effective. You have sight and sound captured by default with virtual events, but in order to be multi-sensory, brands must get creative with the other senses.

A common tactic is to ensure participants have physical products in their hands while taking part. For example, Olive and June ran a Mani Bootcamp that offered an “Everything Box” including all the items you would need for an at-home manicure. These types of multi-sensory experiential marketing campaigns have more impact than events that only explore a single channel.

Post event follow-up

A common mistake for virtual event organizers is to not think beyond the date of the event itself. Smart marketers continue to repurpose content from virtual conferences post-event, turning event sessions into standalone video content, blog posts, podcasts and email marketing collateral.

People who attended the event should be provided with follow-up marketing that builds on the event experience, and registrants who were no-shows can be reached out to with highlights from the event and encouraged to engage with post event content.

Pitfalls of virtual events

There are some challenges and pitfalls associated with virtual events that are important to note.

Zoom fatigue

Sitting in front of a computer for hours on end is draining. Known as “Zoom fatigue”, the mental and physical weariness caused by marathon video chats is caused by several factors ranging from multitasking while in meetings to distractions from family while working from home.

Choosing technology

The range of platforms available in the market is overwhelming. While getting started, it's often best to choose one of the most popular or lowest cost options for your first event and then speak to multiple vendors before scaling.

AV costs and remote studios

Ensuring high production value can be costly. To get started, best practice is to opt for events that don’t require high production value such as classes. But if higher production value is required, an internet search will reveal many agency partners that can support virtual events.

Attendance rates/fallout

A common problem for virtual events is low turnout rates for the live experience. It's common to see 75% of attendees not show up to the live event. This can be overcome by charging for the event and be mitigated through offering recorded content on demand afterwards.

Virtual event examples and use cases

There are dozens of use cases for virtual events and the types of events have grown since the onset of COVID-19.

Cooking classes and guided tastings are proving to be very popular. One example of this was for Cinco de Mayo where Mario Lopez teamed up with Uber Eats and Chipotle to showcase how to make some of his favorite Cinco de Mayo recipes. This offered people the chance to enjoy a holiday tradition in the comfort of their home while learning some new tips and tricks from a celebrity.

Another popular use case is online concerts. Budweiser hosted a concert with the Black Eyed Peas on YouTube Live.

Finally, in lieu of a motor show launch, BMW launched their i4 model via a live stream.

For more virtual events use cases, see this list of 50 virtual event ideas.

Virtual events and experimentation

The current business environment requires businesses to move fast and innovate. To do this, it is critical to treat your experiences as experiments in order to reduce the amount of decision making and speed up progress.

Experimentation can be used to create new event concepts or be applied to any part of the event lifecycle. Key areas for testing can include virtual event landing pages, sign-up forms, event emails and event technology.