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Taking it online

The pandemic may have forced in-person events online, but brands have since discovered that exciting new dimension arsenal.


Celeste Whitaker, Fizz Marketing Celeste Whitaker, Fizz Marketing
For companies accustomed to live networking events for partner and customer engagement, the lockdown came as a shock. The usual mingling and demo format that once brought scores of important contacts together under one roof was no longer possible, so most organisations that had already scheduled events switched them to online gatherings. Not surprisingly, these early efforts involved little more than talking heads and a lot of reminders to speakers to unmute themselves.

Professional AV teams and MCs were brought in, and virtual event platforms added features for more audience engagement. Delegates could attend conferences from wherever they were, without travelling or missing important phone calls. Companies hosting the events realised they could bring in international keynote speakers without the cost of travel and accommodation, and it was far easier to secure a slot in their diaries when the event required only an hour of their time. Webinars gained gravitas, and started delivering more sales leads and engagement.
 
ITWeb’s events team, which presents dozens of major industry events every year, announced. Their events were moved online, with a rapid learning curve for everyone. 
Debbie Visser, ITWeb events business development director, says many clients often ran lead generation campaigns in the form of physical events, conferences and roundtables.
 
She says everyone hoped the lockdowns would be short-lived, because its clients used these physical events for lead generation. 
 
“When we realised that life wasn’t going to return to normal in the near future, we quickly adapted our strategy and thinking, series were born. We haven’t looked back.”
 
Rapid ROI
 
ITWeb events director Lisa Lawlor says for sponsors that normally held in-person networking breakfasts, webinars are proving successful.
 
“They’re able to host twice as many delegates and their feedback is that they are getting good, qualified leads from their events. Delegates appreciate that webinars are easy to put in their calendars, they don’t have to drive anywhere, and they only need allocate an hour to learn and understand a topic,” she says.
 
For sponsors and organisers, online events can prove more cost-effective than in-person events, thanks to the saving on venue costs. However, the tech support and event platforms do come at a significant price, and it’s necessary to invest in good facilitators to keep the virtual event professional and engaging, Lawlor says. 
Fizz Marketing, which recently arranged the first virtual Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) President’s Awards event, emulated the usual gala dinner format by sending out wine and snack packs, and employing a live musician on a virtual stage while guests socialised in the chat panel.
 
The delegate experience

Fizz Marketing CEO Celeste Whitaker says the company also had to pivot fast at the start of lockdown and has been refining and improving its virtual event model. “We staged 33 virtual events last year, and they proved very successful. We quickly learned that online events should not be too long, they have to be exciting and engaging, and that we have to do something in addition to just the event,” she says.
 
Virtual events also lend themselves to broader engagement, she says. “As marketing tools, we’re saying the event doesn’t have to live only in the event. You can build hype and a real community around them, and repurpose the event content into mini chunks of information for social media. With big events, with sponsors or exhibitors, you can build it out to include sponsor booths, with videos and brochures for download, and you could retain this in an archive supported by an email marketing campaign so you engage more delegates, for longer.”
 
Making events deliver real returns demands new approaches and new skills. Says Whitaker: “Our role has shifted quite a bit in the past year, almost into video production. Now people expect the video and audio quality to be so much higher. Venues are now offering studio-as-a-service to meet this demand. Some have venues with a permanent green screen where you can go and record videos and livestream, so that you can bring in the real feel of an event with more professional quality.”

 
The delegate experience
 
Lisa Lawlor, ITWeb Lisa Lawlor, ITWeb
 
The ITWeb events department also innovated early, bringing in add-ons like goodie bags and food to enhance the delegate experience.
“We hosted our CIO banquet online last year, in which we arranged virtual networking guests,” Lawlor says. While feats like this are possible, sending out fresh food can prove logistically challenging and she says a more viable option is to courier non-perishable snack packs and branded gifts to delegates. “We get great feedback from this. 
Senior executives and their families really enjoy having lovely snacks and branded merchandise arriving at their homes. They appreciate it and remember it.”
Whitaker agrees: “Gift boxes are a great way to keep people engaged, before, during and after the event. For a recent event, we sent gift boxes sealed with a chain and a code, and revealed the code piece by piece during the event.”
 
Innovations like these build hype and engagement, with delegates sharing their excitement on social media. “We’ve also done virtual wine tastings, with wine boxes accompanied with cheese and biscuits, as well as beautiful breakfast boxes with champagne. Fun elements like these are a great way to connect the event and audience.”
It is also important to add value by making the event accessible to international audiences and to offer attendees recordings of the event.
 
Whitaker says among the things she has learned by organising multiple virtual events in the past year are that hybrid and virtual events are here to stay, but how they will evolve has yet to be seen. “It’s a moving goal, but there is definitely a place for virtual events in the marketing mix,” she says.
 
Says Lawlor: “We hope to return to running in-person events this year, but we believe webinars and hybrid events will remain a good option for many events.”

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