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Technology and other lessons for turning your event into a virtual success

(Image credit: Image Credit: Knight Center for Journalism / Flickr)

User conferences and trade shows are essential calendar markers for the technology industry. They offer prime opportunities for partners and users to hear the latest vendor news, test new products, network with potential customers and socialise with peers.

But by the start of March, and with the height of “event season” upon us, companies’ efforts were quickly halted by the global pandemic, Covid-19. Due to the lockdown and social distancing restrictions imposed by governments across the world, the majority of IT vendors were forced to cancel their conferences, either postponing them to a later date, or switching them to a “virtual” format that would allow attendees to access the event online.

While it’s hard for digital alternatives to replicate in-person conversations and experiences, early performance indicators we have seen at BlackLine suggest audiences are willing and ready to engage online, and are looking to vendors to provide this support as they continue to adapt to virtual working environments.

So what does this mean for the technology industry? Well, it is now possible for vendors to keep their partners and customers informed via virtual events, without the need for a physical conference or its associated benefits, such as networking, face-to-face demonstrations or the social aspect – all of which come with a hefty price tag and usually a high carbon footprint. This is not to say that in-person events are redundant, but it outlines a clear opportunity for companies to captivate their key stakeholders, even whilst they navigate the remote working landscape.

Audiences are engaged, so act quickly

At the beginning of March, just two weeks before BlackLine’s annual European user-conference, the scale of the pandemic and potential impact on public health was becoming clearer. That’s why, despite having less preparation time than we would have hoped, we made the decision to completely convert the event into a series of online sessions and presentations comprising six hours of content over two days. The result was our first-ever virtual conference: ‘InTheBlack (London) 2020: The Modern Accounting Experience’, which explored the importance, benefits and journeys of Finance & Accounting (F&A) teams moving away from unsustainable manual accounting processes to modern F&A operations.

In just eight or nine days, teams at BlackLine organised a virtual conference that aimed to offer the same experiential feel and quality of content our customers have come to expect. Incredibly, attendance figures revealed that nearly 1,100 F&A professionals attended our first-ever virtual event – more than twice the number expected at the in-person event originally scheduled to take place in London in mid-March. The record attendance at the virtual event demonstrated the resiliency of the global remote workforce and the desire of the finance and IT communities to connect with one another, even in the most uncertain of times. 

Lessons for making your virtual event a success

So, let’s take a look at what you need to effectively pull off a successful virtual event, both now and in the future.

  • 1. Create an air-tight plan

At the heart of every successful event is a watertight game plan, regardless of whether it’s for an in-person or virtual event. After notifying everyone who has registered for a physical conference that it is to be replaced with a virtual event of equal quality, you must establish what kind of experience you hope to deliver to your audience, and what format will yield the best results.

For example, questions we asked ourselves at BlackLine included, will the event be live, on-demand, or both? Will people have access to the event once it’s over? When is the best time for the event? Will you require registration? How long will the presentations go on for? All of these questions will help form the basis of the event itself. And don’t forget, like with any in-person event it’s vital to track KPIs - so ensure you’re tracking and analysing the appropriate data.

  • 2. Prepare for tech troubles

If physical events have glitches, virtual events will have glitches. To ensure your online event runs as smoothly as possible, preparation is key. Prepare backups of visuals, audio and presentations in case a file becomes corrupt or freezes on the day. Even better, if possible, run a rehearsal of the online event. The sooner you identify problems, the sooner you can identify solutions. For BlackLine’s virtual event, the company used a mix of live voiceover audio and pre-recorded presentations, so rehearsing it beforehand helped to ensure the transitions were seamless and authentic.

Another major concern when planning for virtual events is the possibility of a power outage or an internet failure in the location where you’re broadcasting the event. To mitigate this possibility, we developed a redundancy plan shifting the broadcast to another region. We also scheduled backup speakers in case a panellist was ill or failed to show up for one reason or another.

It’s also important to remember that despite the fact that many of them will be working in IT, not all of your attendees will be especially tech savvy. Anticipate the troubles people may have by preparing easy to follow guides or FAQs. Or, if you have the resource to provide support, use a live Q&A or technical help dialogue function so attendees can ask for advice in real-time. Essentially, make sure it’s easy to find where and how to ask for help.

  • 3. Make it inclusive

Just like in-person events, virtual events should be as accessible as possible, to a wide audience. Make sure across all segments of your online event, you use clear language, large fonts, and professional visuals. Also, make the process of accessing the online event as straightforward as you can. Don’t make attendees jump through hoops in order to access the live event, or the recordings if you are allowing them to access these once the event is over.

  • 4. Encourage engagement

If you create opportunities for engagement, it follows that your audience will naturally be more engaged. A tried and tested method is opening up the floor (or online Q&A box in our case) to questions. The easiest way to do this is by asking viewers to submit questions in comments or through a chat tool. Chances are the people who ask questions are going to stick around to see if they get answered. It’s also a good idea to make sure to have a moderator assigned to the task of fielding questions. If you’re operating a live event, you could extend this engagement to taking requests and suggestions during your presentation. And at the end of the event, ask for feedback.

  • 5. Put on a show

The ultimate challenge with virtual events is creating a user conference that captures the same excitement and sense of community as the physical event. Once you’ve hit your target registrations, developed a sound strategy and event format, turn your creative minds to perfecting the “look and feel” of the virtual conference, developing high-tech graphics, slides and video.

It’s really important to convey the same intimacy in a virtual setting as you would expect from an in-person event. One way of doing this is by incorporating existing tradition, helping repeat attendees to feel a similar emotional experience as they had with last year’s in-person event. For instance, at BlackLine’s physical user conferences, the company’s founder and CEO Therese Tucker would always open the event by sitting down for an informal fireside chat with three or four customers. This tradition was carried through to the virtual event, by pre-recording each customer interview via webcam separately and then editing them together in post-production to look like the interview was occurring in real time with all of them at once.

Lights, camera action!

Today, some of the largest conferences in the technology industry have gone partially or completely digital. Moving events online offers so many benefits to both the vendor and the audience, from reducing costs and carbon footprints, to making attendance accessible to a much wider audience. With any event, the biggest hope is that attendees feel they were part of a community, and by following the above steps, and with proof that audiences are willing to engage online, there is no better time to try out a virtual event.

Pete Hirsch, CTO, BlackLine