As digital marketing has become a key component in almost any organization, marketing teams are constantly evaluating the tools they are using. It seems almost daily a new platform is being released, requiring new integrations and enhanced workflows.
What fewer marketing teams focused on was Martech’s long lost cousin — your event tech stack. Five years ago — or for some, a few months ago — event technology was not a major topic of discussion and mostly consisted of a registration platform and perhaps an event app. However, in today’s world, many events are being optimized with a virtual component or even being taken completely virtual. In March, in-person events were halted as COVID-19 outbreaks occurred globally and stay-at-home orders were put in place. Many organizations needed to quickly adapt; canceling, postponing, or coming up with an alternate event solution. Our experiential marketing agency decided to pivot, taking all of our events completely virtual for the remainder of the year.
Deciding to go virtual took a lot of research and planning. Our events are known for being hyperlocal, intimate and super community focused — we had to figure out how to carry over this intimate vibe to virtual events, and we had to do this quickly. During times like this, it’s do or die. Experiential agencies who did not pivot quickly enough were completely liquidated in a matter of months.
In order to be successful, we needed a solid event tech stack. After copious amounts of research, demos and trials, our team put together the following outline of technology tools we found worked best to create seamless virtual experiences.
1. ON24 — Conference/Webinar Platform
The first and the most obvious technology required is a conference or webinar platform. It is very important to know your budget before diving into research and scheduling demos. These platforms can be pretty pricey (the most expensive one we came across was roughly $300K per event, and that’s definitely outside of our budget). A platform of that caliber will come with every bell and whistle you need to host a successful virtual event — let’s call this an end-to-end event platform. If you have the budget for an end-to-end event platform you can skip to number four.
Now, let’s assume that your budget is under $50K. There are a few different platforms in this price range and they come with many robust features, but these are not end-to-end event platforms; they are mostly focused on the virtual presentation portion of the event. Therefore, they may lack the networking and breakout components that make for a robust event — we’ll get into those tools later. When looking at these partial platforms, it’s important to ensure that it has plenty of customization and enables you to tie the different components of your event together in one unified location. Usually this is done via call-to-actions (CTAs) and links.
This is even more important if you’re selling sponsorships; you’ll want to ensure that your platform can accommodate sponsors by offering plenty of ways to engage with your audience. This can be done via breakout rooms and virtual booths. Make sure to ask the platform sales rep about the level of customization available and how long the setup time will take to complete. Be aware that some partial platforms are quite cumbersome and complicated to set up. Make sure you have the resources to do this; otherwise, technical support can get quite pricey.
We chose ON24 as our conference platform because of the wide range of customization that it allows. We are also leveraging this to create “break out rooms” including virtual booths. Some of the benefits we’ve seen from ON24 is that it’s very customizable, allows us to create rooms such as virtual booths, and brings all of the conference materials together through CTAs and links. It’s important to note, however, that the setup does take quite a bit of time and the integrations are limited (we leverage Zapier for our Eventbrite -> ON24 -> Hubspot integration).
2. Zoom — Breakout rooms and branded recordings
Production is a key element when orchestrating your virtual event. We recommend using a tool like Zoom to produce pre-recorded content. Zoom allows you to pre-record sessions using a branded background of your choice — giving your event a more polished and professional vibe. This is also great for sponsored sessions, where branding is particularly important.
We’ve set this part on autopilot by sharing our event backgrounds with the speaker and training them to record their session on their own time. Once your speakers record their sessions, all you have to do is import these recordings to your event platform. Isn’t it obvious that the session is pre-recorded? Nope! We’ve actually conducted polls to verify this, and attendees cannot tell. Pre-recording your content makes things much less stressful for you as an organizer. As great as these event platforms are, there’s always a slight chance that things will go wrong LIVE and that’s why we strongly recommend pre-recording. Offer a live Q&A to give your session that intimate vibe, but pro tip: make sure your speaker is wearing the same outfit for the live portion of your session — this is a dead giveaway!
3. Slack — Engagement/community
When you’re completely replacing your in-person events with virtual experiences, it’s important to make sure you don’t lose the human connection. Be sure to include plenty of networking opportunities for your attendees. Find a place where you can gather your community not only during, but before and after your event. This may include a virtual discussion group, a forum, or a messaging platform.
Slack has always been an important part of our community engagement, and now more than ever we are leveraging it to stay connected. During in-person conferences, we used this for Q&A as well as any conference announcements. Now that we have made the shift to virtual conferences for the remainder of the year, we are incorporating Slack even more to drive conversation during and after each of our events. This allows us to create an environment for conversation using a tool many attendees are already familiar with using in their everyday work. Integrate Slack into your live event by linking out to your workspace from within your event platform. Increase engagement by mentioning it throughout the conference and keep things interactive by having someone on your team dedicated to moderating the conversation and posting live insights from your conference in your channel.
Other additional experiences and breakout sessions during your conference can include coffee chats, “ask-me-anything” (AMAs) and virtual happy hours. We leverage Zoom for these add-ons as well. Zoom rooms will enable you to split your attendees out into smaller groups where you can specify the number of participants, giving them the option to network as they would during an in-person conference. We also use this to host live coffee chats, where we gather all of our speakers to answer industry-related questions from the audience.
Breakout sessions, coffee chats, and Slack channels can all also provide you a host of content to use moving forward! Capture recommendations from conversations in a blog post, record a coffee chat and repurpose it as a podcast, or elaborate on a topic that took off during a breakout session after the event with an SME.
4. SOCIO — Engagement/networking
We’re leveraging SOCIO as our event app. While we love using Slack to keep everyone engaged during and after our events, we found that it wasn’t enough to keep attendees connected and maintain an in-person feel. We added an event app to our event tech stack to allow attendees to view others’ bios, headshots, and start deeper conversations. It’s worthwhile to find an event app that will allow you to “white label” your app and use it year-round to promote your brand and distribute content. This is another way that you can continue to build your community and create a space where you can encourage networking.
Running a multi-track virtual conference? Encourage your attendees to build out their agenda for the day and select the sessions that they’ll be attending. Drive engagement by offering some sort of gamification where attendees can see how they stack up on the app leaderboard. You can host live polls, contests/quizzes, and integrate your app to social media. This is also an additional outlet you can offer to your sponsor by including a sponsor section on your app and allowing them to retrieve leads and even book meetings with potential customers.
Get creative with your app and make sure to drive plenty of engagement. You will need to remind attendees before and throughout the conference to leverage the app and also play up the gamification to keep people engaged. Once they hear chatter they will want to join in on the action.
5. Content Management System (CMS)
Now that you have all of the pieces needed to create a memorable virtual experience, it’s time to tie it all together. Leverage your existing content management system (CMS) to create a virtual “event lobby”. This is where you’ll link out to all of your event presentations, breakout sessions, and networking events. The possibilities are endless here, but the idea is to take each component of your event and put it all together in one place where your attendees can access everything. We host this on our regular website; this helps with accessibility, access, and even SEO. We share the link with attendees when they register so that they have one centralized point of access for the entire event.
We have our event lobby divided into a few sections:
- Conference sessions — The first section of the page where we link out to each of presentations. This
- can also include a multi-track option where we provide more than one option for a given time.
- Sponsor booths — Each of our sponsors get a dedicated page where they can play a promo video, book meetings, answer questions, engage with attendees, or offer giveaways, as you would at a live event.
- Networking tools — This section links to Slack and our event app. You could include any other type of community forum that you offer here.
- Breakout sessions — This includes our virtual happy hours, virtual coffee chats and AMA sessions.
6. Hubspot — CRM/Marketing
We are using Hubspot for both our Marketing Automation and our CRM. Through Hubspot, we create unique journeys for each of our registrants through workflows based off of their ticket items. One example is that we leverage tiered ticketing by offering a free, limited-access ticket. We have campaigns in place to upsell free ticket registrants to a paid ticket by offering them a discounted price. We are also using a similar strategy with paid registrants by offering them a “bring a buddy” discount where they can invite a colleague for 50% off. Our use of Hubspot expands into speaker communications, as we create sequences to stay on top of all speaker deadlines and materials. This has been especially important as we are running 30+ dry runs for each of our conferences.
7. Eventbrite: SEO/Ticketing
We’ve leveraged Eventbrite for our in-person conferences and continued to do so when we made the virtual shift. Using Zapier, we were able to automate registration to ON24, our event platform of choice. We also send registration data to Hubspot, our Marketing Automation System (MAS) to create registrant drip campaigns. This allows us to keep our messaging personalized for both registrants and non-registrants. Eventbrite also has great SEO optimization and we have received a lot of direct traffic by choosing this. Find a ticketing platform that allows you to embed your registration onto your event page so that you’re not taking visitors away from your website.
As the virtual event industry expands, we’ll be on the lookout for new and emerging technologies. For now, we’ve found that the above technology pieces work well together to create a rich and engaging experience for our conference attendees.