Virtual conferences: Making in-person magic happen

What did I get myself into?

I’ve worked on 3 different teams at atSpoke over the last 3 years in a cross-functional capacity. This consistent growth has led me to become a technical expert on our product as it became more complex. I also became familiar with the communities we served as our customer base grew. With my tenured knowledge and background in hosting community events, I was ecstatic for my new role as Marketing Manager. Starting in January 2020, I would be the one in charge of events and conferences. 

Ramping up in a new role is always tough because you’re navigating a new space. With the rise of COVID19, the uncertainty around events became increasingly grim. Events were being canceled in masses and my original plans weren’t what we needed any more. Before I could settle into my new role, it was time to pivot. One of the biggest events in my calendar, Oktane20 live, decided to shift from an in-person user conference in March to a virtual conference. I had 3 weeks of prep and repurposing for something we’ve never done before and I’m proud that we pulled it off! 

Let’s start with the differences between the two types of events. The magic of an in-person event lies in the serendipitous interactions between attendees, sponsors, and staff. These active or passive connections have the potential to lead to great conversations, and new learnings. In comparison, virtual events are more accessible to a larger net of attendees but are not as conducive to connecting these attendees to each other. To make the best of the new change, our goal was to bring as much of the in-person magic to the virtual world as possible. Once you’re able to identify the magic touchpoints, you can then start using the online platform to your advantage.

Interacting with attendees

It’s unprecedented to have a widespread cancellation of events. The biggest concern with a virtual conference is that you lose the magic of meeting new folks. This is only a temporary state because we can replicate the magic. Start by identifying the interaction points with an attendee. An example is impromptu demos, which break down into 3 parts:

  1. A passerby sees your booth and they slow down enough for your sales rep to greet them and offer to show a short demo. 
  2. There’s a quick discussion and the sales rep shows a quick demo.
  3. Now that the passerby is interested, they agree to have a meeting booked which leads to a new customer. 

Now, let’s break that example down with what we did at Oktane:

  1. At Oktane, there is no one passing by anymore. Booth reps start chats without an opening message. The attendee then has the ability to accept or decline. We wanted to increase the number of attendees accepting our chat invites, so we changed our raffle CTA – “Talk to a sales rep and enter for a chance to win the prize”.
  2. There is still a quick discussion and demo, but this time it’s over Zoom! Add a live Zoom link that your team monitors in shifts. This helps you bring as much of the in-person experience online.
  3. To book a meeting, have your sales rep ready with the appropriate calendar link to either send to the attendee or book the meeting for them

Your team’s job is to be the translator between in-person events and virtual events. When your team invests in making the attendee feel like they are actually at a conference, the team succeeds together.

Your team is key

The next step is to identify the in-person experiences you would normally have with your team if you were all on-site. In-person team interactions break down into two parts for us:

  1. Logistical communication during the event. This includes sharing best practices, conference observations, or practical notes (like restroom breaks).
  2. Empowering each other to proactively engage with attendees.

First, we created a dedicated Slack channel for booth reps at the event. This open communication line helped the team create a mental picture of how conference attendees were reacting to the virtual space.  It also keeps your team ready for any last-minute changes. Our team did not add the demo Zoom link until after I talked to marketing peers on the morning of Day 2. As soon as I had a new idea to execute, the open communication line helped us bring it to life within 10 minutes.

We also wanted to achieve a balance of proactive engagement without overwhelming our booth attendees. To achieve this, we used the private chat room for reps to type out who we’d be reaching out to. This systematic “reach out” log allows the rep be engaging without being the 5th person to initiate a chat. Although the goal is to make the in-person magic happen, there are perks to being online.

Use being online as an advantage!

Being online started off as the main barrier to entry at the beginning. At this point, it’s now the advantage you’re looking for to address attendees and your team. 

When attendees interact with your booth, you can use attribution links for everything clicked on. This gives you data on what marketing collateral does(n’t) work. Adjust your assets based on data instead of your gut feeling.

You can also arm up your sales team with FAQs that are chat-ready. Make the responses easy to copy and paste into the conversation. In real life, you would never see an answer sheet on hand. In the virtual world, you save the booth reps time on formulating an answer and the time to make it sound eloquent.

Since you’re on your computer all day, talk to other marketers in the space about what ideas they’re trying! It’s rarely ever too late to try a new strategy, especially in a space where everyone is unfamiliar. Make sure to document what these changes are so you have an idea of what to do next time. 

At the end of the day, although we’ll always have some type of hurdle to overcome. The trick is to find the magic moments in each of these event worlds and replicate it as best as possible in the other.


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