The day started with some glitches.

Some attendees couldn’t access sessions. Others timed out and lost the connection.

With no time available to rehearse, some prerecorded sessions went live in an unpolished format. The speakers’ post-delivery conversations – which weren’t expected to be shared – were now available for all to hear.

Within a few hours, the event was abruptly canceled.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a conference – live or virtual – canceled midway through it,” says Jennifer Best, senior director of marketing at All American Entertainment, a talent booking agency that sponsored and presented at the Event Marketer’s Virtual Event.

While the quickly assembled virtual event went awry, organizers worked hard afterward to make good for sponsors and attendees, according to Jennifer and AAE chief operating officer Margo Dunnigan.

Most event nightmares aren’t that drastic. But many content marketers are having similar, sobering experiences as they suddenly shift gears to turn their live event plans into viable virtual alternatives.

Pre-COVID, in-person events consistently ranked in Content Marketing Institute’s research as a top content type used by B2B and B2C marketers – one of the most effective for securing and converting leads as well as cultivating B2B brand awareness. (In 2020, 73% of B2B and 50% of B2C marketers said they use in-person events in their content marketing. Far fewer created online events – 57% of B2B and 27% of B2C.)

Being forced to rethink conferences and events this year has revealed what’s really important to deliver to audiences. It’s also surfaced some intriguing opportunities that weren’t possible in the in-person event world.

Content makes or breaks the event experience

The American Institute of Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA) believes the value of any of its conferences – in person or virtual – is the content, says Clar Rosso, executive vice president of engagement and learning initiative.

“Relevance is the top priority. Content must meet your audience’s needs and interests,” she says.

Stephanie Stahl, general manager of the Content Marketing Institute, which organizes ContentTECH Summit and Content Marketing World, agrees. “While a lot of great technologies can help create the virtual experience, an event’s success still boils down to one thing – how great the content is. That’s how you amaze an audience – digitally or physically,” she says.

Content as the center of the event circle has rung especially true for AICPA this year. In the spring, AICPA saw online registrations jump 600% when it produced virtual events around the timely topic of the pandemic-related CARES Act. It also continues to see a thirst for a wider range of content – from standard topics to cutting-edge ideas.


Registration numbers for its largest annual event – ENGAGE – in July beat expectations. Clar says there always will be people who attend conferences to meet with potential customers and enjoy a new locale, but for the most part, people attend to learn new skills and stimulate new ideas.

Keep your eye on the audience (so they keep their eyes on your presenters)

When CMI made the decision to transform its annual ContentTECH Summit to a virtual conference, the team’s initial efforts were focused on managing audience expectations and logistics – from offering to cancel registrants’ hotel rooms, to informing confirmed speakers of the change in format, to developing a sneak-peak webinar to build positive expectations.

Delivering a frictionless, valuable experience remained a top priority as the team revamped the agenda to suit the new format.

“We looked to make the days flow as efficiently as possible,” Stephanie says. By prerecording most of the keynotes and breakout sessions, CMI gained better control over quality, scheduling, timing, etc.

Yet, it didn’t forget the need for real-time immediacy and immersion. For example, ContentTECH Summit speakers who prerecorded their sessions – including the headlining keynote, Alan Zweibel, an original writer on Saturday Night Live – joined the live event to hold Q&A sessions with attendees.

The ability to see the presenters as they spoke also helped create a more human and more in-the-moment experience for the audience. There was no question that delivering a slide show with a presenter voiceover wouldn’t be enough to hold the audience’s attention, let alone truly resonate with them. “That doesn’t allow personalities to shine,” Stephanie says.

All ContentTECH Summit speakers put themselves – not just their slides – in front of the camera during their presentations – even if the “stage” they took was a spot in their home office.

Putting presenters in front of the camera at virtual events – even if the stage is simply a spot in their home office – allows their personalities to shine, says @EditorStahl via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Support the need to build community

At physical events, content is designed and delivered to build a sense of community, from allowing time for casual interactions in between sessions to organizing formal networking and entertainment opportunities to designing exhibit hall spaces and meeting rooms conducive to driving brand awareness, lead generation and conversions, or other business goals.

To recreate those types of opportunities in a virtual setting, event organizers need to be more deliberate. “We have to work in new and creative ways to educate, network, have fun, and build a sense of community. Bringing that human element to a virtual event is critical,” Stephanie says.

Community building for AICPA includes incorporating interactivity into the sessions. For example, in-person roundtable discussions were converted into online breakout rooms. “It’s the virtual version of speakers engaging participants to work through a scenario to solve a problem, create a plan, or develop a solution,” Clar says.

When appropriate, the breakout groups rejoin the larger “room” and present their outcomes. “These breakout rooms have been fairly successful at replicating the group project experiences of in-person events,” Clar says.

Chat functions also let attendees interact with each other before, during, and after the presentations. They can emphasize a salient point or query other attendees on their experience with the topic. Even a simple ice-breaker question about where attendees are logging in from can spark a more personal connection to the subject matter being presented.

Clar says polling features also work well for keeping the audience engaged in presenters’ content. Speakers can ask about the audience’s experiences and use that information to customize their presentation for greater resonance. And event or room hosts can ask for an audience vote to ensure the most popular questions get answered first.

Think value (and price)

The audience experience and expectations also play a key role in answering a question that frequently arises about moving in-person events to online experiences: “Should we charge? If so, how much?”

But the audience isn’t the only factor in coming up with an answer – it’s about the event’s purpose and value.

The decision to charge or not to charge should be based on the event’s business goals, says Elina Jutelyte, founder of event management and consulting firm Endo-Exo and board member of Meeting Professionals International Belgium.

If the event’s primary goal is a sales or marketing one (i.e., to generate leads), the price should be free or just low enough to cover the event costs. On the other hand, if the event experience is designed to showcase a company’s expertise or to generate revenue, it needs a price tag.

Of course, ultimately, any admission price accompanying a now virtual event has to work for the targeted audience. Gadget Review CEO Rex Freiberger regularly pays to attend Oktane, the annual customer conference organized by identity management software company Okta. He went in person in 2019 and attended the free virtual event in spring 2020, giving him a basis to compare the two types of experiences.


“In terms of knowledge sharing and previewing new tech as well as methods for using that tech, virtual has done a fine job replacing the physical,” he says.

Though he felt the casual interactions and networking opportunities weren’t as great, he was still able to make new contacts and follow up on partnership opportunities that stemmed from his conversations. “I feel like I received the value I was looking for,” Rex says.

Expand the engagement value for exhibitors

Virtual settings also can be a bonus for another event audience – the exhibitors. As Endo-Exo’s Elina explains, “Virtual and online events help sponsors and exhibitors to be very precise with whom they want to meet because of the available profile data from attendees.”

She points to this graphic recently presented by Matthias Schultz, president of The Strategic Alliance of the National Convention Bureaux of Europe, during an MPI Belgium chapter event:

“It demonstrates sponsors and exhibitors are able to gain more insights and more interaction with their potential audience at hybrid (online) events rather than during a live event,” Elina says.

AICPA’s experience has been similar. At its ENGAGE event, about 40 exhibitors built virtual booths to promote their products and services to interested attendees. And they staffed the booths during expo hours.

In this virtual format, attendees are the ones to initiate the interaction with the exhibitor. “This offers a huge benefit to exhibitors who can dedicate their time to current and potential clients who truly want to learn more and are strong leads,” Clar says.

Make the experience consistent, fun, and memorable

If you think a virtual event negates the need for an on-stage master of ceremonies, think again, says All American Entertainment’s Margo Dunnigan and Jennifer Best.

To engage an audience, you need an emcee. “The total branding of the day is more unified, and interactivity is improved,” Margo says.

But you also need the right emcee – someone who has high energy, is comfortable with tech, and has on-camera experience. “We often suggest people who have experience in an on-air news role or has have been on a lot of media interviews,” she says.

Jennifer cites the emcee experience delivered by Leadercast – Positive Disruption when it went virtual in May as a shining example. Though the presentations were prerecorded, the emcee introduced every session. He also shared live conversations on the event’s Facebook and YouTube feeds, and used the event’s chat feeds to conduct quizzes, take polls, and interact with attendees while on camera.

“It made the audience want to engage more. It made me, as a viewer, feel like he really is the brand. His personality reflected the brand,” she says.

Jennifer also says emcees are helpful in delivering sponsor messages and guiding attendees on what they’re supposed to do next, where to go, and how to get there.

To engage an audience in virtual events, you need an emcee. The total branding of the day becomes more unified and interactivity is improved, says @AllAmericanEnt_ COO Margo Dunnigan, via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Organizers of in-person events that provide entertainment shouldn’t eliminate that fun from their online experience. But developing the right opportunities requires doing a different type of legwork.

Ari Nisman, president and CEO of booking agency Degy Entertainment, says producing event entertainment for the virtual space still feels like the “wild, wild west.” Gone are riders where the talent requires M&M color separation or massage therapists. “Now we’re drilling down on where they are sending the livestream and how they can get their other band members to their house from a quarantine state,” Ari says. “Throw all our old rule books out the window as we’re writing a bunch of new manuals by day.”

Since mid-March, Degy has presented nearly 100 music acts and entertainers in the virtual space from Jason Derulo, AJR, Icona Pop to Plain White T’s, Hunter Hayes, and more. They encompassed free virtual shows hosted by Degy as well as performances sold to other buyers.

Budgeting for these offerings is also challenging, as pricing for virtual entertainment performances isn’t standardized yet. “Ask me what an artist costs for a live, real-world event and I can pull every number out of my head. For the virtual space, I’m keeping a running notebook, frantically scribbling in it, and updating it by the hour,” Ari says.

The key is finding a cost-benefit ratio that strikes the right balance for all parties involved. “The picture gets a bit clearer each day, especially with the realization that this industry perhaps more than most won’t be fully back on its feet for quite some time,” Ari says.

Extend the marketing value of virtual event content

Online events enable companies to provide a content experience that can last much longer than a live event. “The experience can stretch for 365 days, opening new opportunities for marketers to monetize that content,” Elina says.

This means organizers and other content leaders should detail their post-event operation plans, to answer questions like, “Will this content be used and distributed on other channels? Will that require additional work?” “Who will do it?” “If the information presented in the original event changes later, how will the online version be updated (or deleted)?”

In addition, the longer timeline, wider audience, and online setting bring a few more things for content leaders to think about. Among the items Elina and others say should be considered:

  • Is the digital infrastructure well protected? Will all approved users be able to access what they need to? Is the content in a format that can’t be altered by hackers or unauthorized third-parties?
  • Will audiences with less powerful internet connectivity be able to fully experience the content as intended?
  • Are speakers required to sign codes of conduct? (These become even more important as the content lives forever and audiences become bigger and wider.)
  • Is the digital experience optimal for attendees, sponsors, and other stakeholders in the immediate and long term?

As Elina says, “Digital events offer more opportunities for all participants – marketers, attendees, and exhibitors – than live events. While they are limited by not having physical contact, they gain much more, from the content and data accessibility, inclusivity, convenience, and outreach.”

Want to share your thoughts on this article or suggest additional ideas? Email us at [email protected].