November 12, 2019
How To

Content Marketing: How to host a virtual summit (in 9 steps)


If you are marketing an in-person event, the cost is far greater than just the cost of the ticket.

The attendee or (attendee’s manager) is also considering the plane ticket, hotel stay, subway from the airport to the hotel, meals, time spent traveling, etc., etc.

In this article, we’ll cover an increasingly popular alternative — the virtual event.

Read on for advice from seven of your fellow marketers covering everything from goal setting to extending the event.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

(As seen in the MarketingSherpa Inbound Marketing newsletter. Click to get a free email subscription to the latest from MarketingSherpa.)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, it’s the hap-happiest season of all …

Budget season!

If you’re planning an event in your 2020 marketing budget, you might want to consider a virtual summit. Here are nine steps you can use to create a plan (and a budget) for a successful virtual summit. And if you need other marketing budget ideas, you can watch Reprioritize Your Marketing Spend and Transform Your Results: Learn a radical new framework from MarketingExperiments (MarketingSherpa’s sister publication).

For example, Mike Saunders created Authority & Influence Virtual Summit and then turned it into a course with the goal of selling tickets. “I did not get the results I thought that I would get in selling tickets to the course, but the surprise was after the Summit. Because of the networking relationships developed, I landed a $40,000 contract with one of the experts,” he said. What does success look like? Are you creating an event to generate revenue from ticket sales? Sponsorships? Are you just trying to build authority and influence? Generate leads?

Step #2: Create an event with a value proposition

Begin with the customer — in this case, potential attendees.

Even if your event is free, and even if they don’t have to pay for travel, the event still has a cost for attendees. They are paying with their time. And your attendees have a lot of options for how they spend their time.

You will be more effective in driving attendance if your event has a powerful value proposition.

Going through the exercise of creating a value proposition will force your team to make some important choices. First of all, the most effective value proposition doesn’t try to sell to everybody. It identifies the ideal customer who can best be served by a product. Do you have a customer type who can be served by your virtual event in a way that aligns with your goals?

“The type of customer matters — [for example] if you're Shopify and you work with thousands of SMBs, virtual might be the best bet to convene a greater percentage of your community,” Sam Jacobs, Founder & CEO, Revenue Collective.

You should define a prospect-level value proposition for speakers as well, since attracting speakers is key to the success of many virtual summits (more on that later in this article).

Step #3: Hybrid events are an option as well

Even if you have a live event, you might want to consider virtual events as an add-on. Attendees may want to learn from your content, but may be unable to attend live, or they simply prefer to save the money and time required by travel.

If your virtual event is an add-on to a live event, make sure it has its own product-level value proposition.

For example, The Global Leadership Summit quickly sells out its in-person event. So the nonprofit organization holds a hybrid virtual event of sorts around the nation — facilities host a live stream of the event, so attendees get a mix of in-person interaction with virtual content.

However, the website and email marketing communicated the primary value proposition of the event more effectively than the product-level value prop of the hybrid virtual event. Better communicating the value prop of the virtual portion helped The Global Leadership Summit team grow attendance by 16% to 400,000.

Also, make sure there is a tight-enough connection between the live and virtual event’s actual execution.

For example, Angelina Ebeling, Founder & CEO, acework, was a speaker on a virtual panel for a hybrid event, with a physical event happening in London and a virtual event with attendees around the world. Event organizers broadcasted the virtual panels in one room to reach the in-person audience in London as well.

“We couldn’t see the physical crowd. Make sure you set up a webcam to stream the physical location to your virtual [presenters and] attendees as well, it gives you a more immersive and natural feeling when you’re up on ‘stage,’” she said.

Step #4: Create a conversion-optimized microsite

Whether it is partly or totally virtual, a conversion-optimized microsite is essential. After all, a key goal for the virtual summit is to get people to register and attend. You will be trying to get a lot of attention and interest in your event with email marketing, paid ads, and leveraging speakers for promotion (more on that next). You want to send all of that traffic to a key conversion point that is optimized.

You can either build your own microsite, or you can hire a company to build one for you. For example, MECLABS Institute (parent company of MarketingSherpa) builds conversion-focused websites.

Step #5: Promote the event and send traffic to that microsite

A benefit of recruiting influential speakers to your event is getting those speakers to invite their audiences and networks to your virtual conference.

However, if they’re worth getting as speakers, they’re also probably pretty busy and have many other ways to spend their time

So make it appealing for them to share. Make them look good. On a landing page. With collateral.

Also, make it simple. “Make it easy for the speakers to promote the conference to their audience, give them access to a Dropbox or Google Drive of personalized social media content they can use in their promotion,” said Amelia Roberts, partnership developer, Solutions by Amelia.

Remember, you are promoting two similar but disparate conversions — one is to get people to register for the event, but the other is to get people to actually attend the event. Don’t overlook that second conversion as well.

“The most recent virtual summit I’ve visited is called Instagram & Facebook Ads Virtual Summit as a part of the MobileMonkey summit. Their email follow-ups were timely and not annoying (as is usually expected from the email campaigns). [Also] they provided me with a possibility to add the event to my online calendar, which I believe is the simplest yet the most effective tactic when it comes to hosting any kind of virtual events,” said Marcus Svensson, CMO, Albacross.

Step #6: Get the right tools to host the event

Hosting a virtual summit will likely take a software platform or other tools to produce the event. Understand your needs and vet out different solutions with a vendor selection process just like you would for any technology or agency. (Please note: The below mentions are not an endorsement by MarketingSherpa).

As with any vendor selection, there is no one right answer. You have to find the right solution for your event based on your budget, needs and goals.

For example, Greg Smith, Co-Founder & CEO, Thinkific, advised, “Consider using a service like Virtual Summit Software to simplify your content hosting and delivery process, and save time.”

But Ebeling had a different preference, “Remo Conference is relatively new but already works quite seamlessly, both for participants and speakers.”

Step #7: Create powerful and relevant content for your audience

The value proposition you developed for your event (mentioned above) should guide the content creation.

This will likely include a mix of content from subject matter experts at your company along with external experts as well, although this will vary based on your event’s goal. Virtual event content usually comes down to two key decisions.

First, will you interview the speakers or let them speak on their own? Along with that, will they speak individually or in a moderated panel? “I interviewed 29 experts in their field, including many New York Times bestselling authors,” Saunders said.

Another key consideration is whether the sessions will be live or recorded? Live sessions can have a higher perceived value for attendees and give them greater encouragement to attend the event.

“[At] Remote Future Summit, [there] was a lot of prerecorded content. That made it feel more like an online course (they actually turned a lot of the content into a course later that you can now buy on their site). From a business perspective, this probably makes a lot of sense -– you get your summit plus content creation in one go. As a participant, however, it felt very anonymous and somehow cold,” said Ebeling.

However, every choice comes with a tradeoff. It can be harder to control the quality of content in a live event. “Rather than doing live interviews over Zoom with your speakers, we’ve found it much easier to prerecord the summit content beforehand. That way, you can provide your attendees with a better overall experience of organized content and quality of product,” said Smith.

Step #8: Build time into the agenda for networking

Part of the value proposition for attending a virtual event at a specific time (as opposed to just watching prerecorded sessions at the time of the viewer’s choosing) is the ability to meet likeminded individuals.

“One obvious disadvantage [of virtual events] is that you don’t get the same sense of community and networking benefits from running virtual summits. There are ways to recreate this online if you are intentional about it. For our recent Think in Color summit, for example, we created a Facebook group and encouraged people to discuss the summit content in there to keep the conversation going/make connections,” Smith said.

“Make sure you have networking breaks in between the presentations and leave your attendees with a thought-provoking question to dive into conversation straight away. This happened at the Minds@Work event. I made some valuable connections there, basically because the conversations were super interesting,” Ebeling said.

Step #9: Extend the event

Like any event, a virtual event usually only exists for a short time — whether that’s a half-day or two days.

And yet, you’re probably spending a lot of time, energy and money promoting it. So extend the event as much as possible.

Networking (mentioned above) is one way to extend the event. “Choose to have a Facebook group where the participants can gather before and after the conference to keep the momentum going,” Roberts suggests.

Another way to extend the event is to encourage speakers to create content about their sessions and include a link back to the virtual summit website. For example, when Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director and CEO, MECLABS Institute (parent company of MarketingSherpa), delivered a keynote at a virtual event, we posted the replay on MarketingExperiments (MarketingSherpa’s sister site) — A/B TESTING SUMMIT 2019 KEYNOTE: Transformative discoveries from 73 marketing experiments to help you increase conversion — and included a link back to the event’s website.

Related Resources

Event Marketing: Virtual event campaign drives 10,155 registrations and 1,800 new database names

B2B Marketing: Take established tradeshow best practices and adapt them for an online audience with virtual events

Virtual Events: How IBM’s marketing department quickly responded to the economic downturn

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