The switch to virtual events—navigating our new normal on the fly

Someone sits at a desk in a home office taking notes while looking at a laptop

We’ve all had to adjust to dramatic changes in our lives over recent months, navigating shared challenges and adapting our habits, practices, and expectations very quickly.

Workfront is no exception to the rule. We switched all of our customer and partner events from physical, in-person experiences to virtual, online alternatives—practically overnight. On June 24, 2020, we will be holding our Workfront Leap 2020 Virtual Conference live and online for more than 5,000 attendees—a major event that was due to be staged at venues in the US and UK before COVID-19 forced the switch.

We’re quickly gaining experience in designing and running virtual events, including switching our field events and user groups from in-person to live and online. Customers, partners, and vendors are reaching out more than ever to exchange advice on how to pivot to the virtual realm. We’re all in this together, learning as we go, so to help and encourage other organizations navigating a similar “new normal” when it comes to events, I’d like to share what we’ve far.

Going virtual: two big hurdles.

1—Ensuring collaboration and alignment on a massive scale—at speed.

Managing internal change is the first major hurdle when pivoting to virtual events. Marketing teams need to find ways to orchestrate all the work that needs to be done, while also reorganizing resources, budgets, and content—on the fly and at speed.

Organizing major events requires coordination and collaboration on a massive scale. That’s especially challenging now that people are working remotely. It’s important to have work management technology that centralizes and integrates your disparate systems and tools, from content management and financial management systems to marketing and sales automation, communication tools and, of course, your virtual event platform. By integrating these into a central work management platform, you avoid silos and duplicated activity, and give everyone visibility into the work being done across your company.

2—Creating meaningful connection and engagement in a virtual world.

Connecting with customers and prospects at in-person events is—was?—a mainstay of marketing. At exhibitions and conferences, visitors to your booth can get a quick pitch, see a demo of your product, and get some goodies just for stopping by. From these brief interactions, prospects can get a feel for your company and product, so they can determine how you might fit into their future plans, from tech stacks to cultures.

Recreating this level of interaction and engagement in the virtual world is a huge challenge. Marketers need to find the right virtual channels and platforms to enable meaningful interaction. At a conference, people mingle and meet, and organically find those with common interests. Stimulating such spontaneous networking becomes problematic in a virtual scenario.

The attendee experience is very different at a virtual event. It’s very different for speakers too. They have honed the craft of public speaking over many years. They feed off the energy of a crowd and the emotions in a room to create excitement and a sense of theatre. That same energy and enthusiasm can be hard for speakers to recreate when they are alone, talking into a camera.

Going virtual—five crucial lessons learned.

What hasn’t changed when it comes to organizing events in the virtual world is our focus on what we want an audience to know, think, feel, and do. Those are our priorities when we are thinking about executing a successful event. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned to help you maintain and manage those priorities while managing events in the virtual world:

1—Align everyone to your (new) goals.

To help everyone adjust to shifting priorities and ensure the right people are focused on the right work, centralized work management technology plays a vital role. It shows people the impact of their day-to-day work, with real-time insights into how their work is adding value to the business. It also facilitates alignment across teams and functions to company-level strategy, departmental goals, and shifting priorities, which is crucial during the planning and execution of events that require input and expertise from multiple teams.

As we transitioned to virtual events, we found that one of the greatest challenges was the speed of the change. By centralizing every facet of work—people, data, etc.—with Workfront, we can see who is aligned to different tasks and the progress they’re making. With everyone working remotely, we can still see what we need to do, collaborate easily, and stay focused on work that matters.

2—Communicate clearly and frequently.

Now that everyone is working remotely, it can be difficult to cut through the noise and encourage potential attendees to register for your virtual event. Pre- and post-event email marketing is more important than ever, but be clear about the story you want to tell.

Give people a sneak preview of what they can expect. Help them decide how to make the most of their limited time. Make it simple for people to attend your event—since everyone is learning about virtual platforms at different rates and there are different levels of understanding, provide clear, simple instructions so everyone can join your event without difficulty.

3—Put your audience first.

The virtual experience needs to focus on what’s important to your audience. You can’t offer all the same opportunities that you would at an in-person event, so prioritize what matters most to your audience.

Knowing that many people are juggling working from home with many other responsibilities, consider dividing content up into bite-sized pieces. Supplement the main event with post-event groups or workshops that people can attend when they have more time. It’s one way to recreate magical chance meetings with like-minded individuals that make in-person events so worthwhile.

Don’t try to fit everything into one event. The temptation when you have a large captive audience at a virtual event is to give them everything in one go. But you risk overloading people and losing their interest. Focus on one or two core messages you want them to take away. Spark their curiosity and invite them to a follow-up conversation. Give people opportunities to join other groups where they can interact, ask questions, and engage with you in a more informal way.

4—Reimagine human connections.

You can’t replace in-person connection, but having good quality audio and video technology will create a better experience. Use interactive elements to engage with attendees—live Q&As, discussion forums, surveys, and polls. Bring in relevant specialists and influencers from your partner ecosystem to inspire your audience and amplify your message.

Running virtual events live is an effective way to recreate the immediacy, authenticity, and connection of an in-person experience—attendees feel like the presenter is speaking directly to them, in that moment. Consider hiring a specialist coach to help speakers adjust to presenting on camera, rather than live on stage, so they can connect more effectively with their remote audience.

There are risks associated with a live event like technical faults and presenter errors—experiences that can be raw, unpolished, and all part of a shared human experience. There’s also a risk that people will be unable to join live, perhaps due to bandwidth issues—but if you also record presentations, you can make content available for people to view later on-demand.

5—Focus on the benefits of virtual events.

Virtual events present challenges, but there are silver-lining benefits too. There is no limitation, other than internet bandwidth, on the size of the audience. There are no travel costs or associated environmental impacts. There is a lower barrier to entry (typically requiring less money and time to attend).

And by making recorded sessions available after the event, your overall impressions in the market increase significantly. When it’s time to reintroduce in-person events, it is likely that a virtual element will remain for those who don’t want to travel or have limited time.

Let’s keep the conversation going.

We are committed to sharing our experiences and lessons learned—not just from pivoting to virtual events in the middle of a global pandemic, but from navigating uncertain times and adapting to our new normal of constant change with enterprise work management. At our Workfront Virtual Leap 2020 Conference on June 24, 2020, we have an entire track dedicated to “navigating uncertain times” and sharing many of these insights and best practices.

Please join us at Leap to keep the conversation going. Register here for free. I hope to see you there.