How to Bring Audiences Together in the Social-Distancing Era

COVID-19 turned handshakes into health hazards. But that doesn’t mean you need to keep your audience relationships at a distance. Take a look at how businesses are using webinars, virtual conferences, and other digital experiences to foster community in a touch-free world.

Content marketing exists to help brands and customers build trusting relationships across physical and digital touchpoints. But when corporate travel restrictions abound – and we’re being asked to keep our friends, neighbors, and even loved ones at a safe distance – physical touchpoints are out. And that has marketers scrambling for ways to translate the benefits of face-to-face experiences into something else.

One solution that’s already emerging is to swap physical proximity for virtual connectivity. Fortunately, technology gives marketers several ways to gather with audiences and forge vital connections without the need for protective gear or disinfecting wipes.

Here are a few opportunities content marketers can – and should – invest in while in-person networking activities are off the table. While the advantages they offer are particularly critical now, these virtual gatherings can continue to boost your business goals long after the new normal emerges.

Redefine up-close and personal content experiences

During his sponsored webinar for CMI, How to Bring Physical Events Into the Digital World, On24 CEO Mark Bornstein said COVID-19 is forcing us all to think about the fragility of our in-person marketing channels. But it hasn’t reduced our need for smart event strategies. Rather, it has emphasized the need for greater agility and a broader perspective on what it means to be present in your customers’ world.

Mark already lived this change. When COVID-related travel restrictions disrupted plans for ON24’s 10-city Experiences Everywhere pop-up tour, his team had to pivot quickly. In less than 24 hours, the ON24 team redesigned the event as a video seminar and sent an email invitation to notify their audience of the change. Ultimately, they retained the majority of their registered attendees, and the virtual format enticed 57 new participants to join the roster.

Moving an event from in-person to online doesn’t have to mean sacrificing marketing value or the ability to engage attendees. Both brands and audiences stand to gain from virtual event experiences that are planned and executed thoughtfully – including some benefits that aren’t possible in a live setting. Here’s what you need to do to achieve them.

Tailor the experience to the marketing purpose

When marketers think about turning live events into digital content experiences, webinars are probably the first format that comes to mind: a live or pre-recorded presentation delivered to registered attendees either on a designated date and time or on demand. These are often accompanied by a slide deck and a link to additional content resources that attendees can download and explore after the event.

Compared to their in-person equivalent, though, the standard webinar format is somewhat limited in its capacity to involve the audience and create meaningful, lasting brand relationships. But there are other ways to transform in-person experiences into viable virtual versions – including some that give the audience more to do than just sit back and listen.

Here are a few examples:

Digital conferences and symposia: Using webcasting and videoconferencing technology, brands can produce high-quality, multidimensional conferences, seminars, and informative events that simulate in-person events. For example, the Institute of Internal Auditors used a webinar-like format to produce a beautifully branded symposium with a full agenda of presentations, multiple points of direct interaction, a virtual bookstore, and even video ads that played during scheduled “coffee breaks.”

Industry trade shows, road shows, and exhibitions: Virtual conferencing tools can also make large, industry-focused trade events and multi-day conventions social-distancing friendly. With the right branding and user experience, the simulated version can feel just as real as attending the event in person. For example, SAP modeled the entry hall of its Virtual Client Summit after a large convention center, with clearly labeled entry points for easy navigation and plenty of little touches that complete the experience – like a knowledge desk, interactive surveys, and even a dedicated space where the learning experience is gamified as a round of Jeopardy.

Companies that typically exhibit at these large events can also take advantage of virtual connection opportunities. For example, when Oracle’s annual Modern Business Experience event was postponed from March to September, content intelligence platform Pathfactory pivoted from planning its exhibitor booth offerings to broadcasting its own conversation on the big challenges that B2B marketers are currently facing.

Single and multiple-presenter panel discussions: If conferences and conventions seem like overkill, there are options for smaller, more collaborative virtual events. For example:

  • California Congresswoman Karen Bass uses a conference-call service to conduct regular town hall meetings that keep constituents informed on the latest issues and enable them to share their thoughts and ask questions in real-time.
  • Bing frequently uses webcam technology to deliver multi-presenter panel discussions on their business experience and other relevant topics.
  • For athenahealth’s webinar on health practice management, the company features multiple presenters and uses a studio-like stage set and an animated video intro to give the experience a highly polished and engaging look and feel.

Product training and demos: Internal training events and product demonstrations can be transformed for on-demand digital distribution using webcams, screen capture technology, and video-conferencing tools. These virtual experiences can also be used externally as a way to simulate all the key features a hands-on demo session might provide to prospective customers at an expo or site visit – without the hard-sell tactics and high-tech overhead.

Apple is a master in this respect. While the brand’s new product launch events are among the hottest tickets in tech, consumers don’t need an invitation to experience its richly detailed and user-friendly online product demos. In less time than it takes for Tim Cook to click through a slide deck, consumers can dynamically scroll through a series of interactive graphics, precisely captioned screenshots, and full video tours of key features and use cases to get a clear sense of everything the device can do – and how they stand to benefit.

Live performances: While webinars and conferences are standard affairs for B2B businesses, there are plenty of ways B2C marketers – including artists and other performers – are leaning in on virtual events in the wake of COVID-19. For example, musician Rhett Miller has begun a regular series of acoustic solo concerts from his basement music studio using the Stage-It platform. Just as he does for his in-person performances, he can sell tickets and merchandise, share setlists, and promote his shows on his social media. But unlike standard stage shows where there’s a layer of separation between performers and their audiences, fans get to communicate with Rhett throughout the show using the integrated chat feature.

Follow the rules for engaging high-quality virtual events

ON24’s Mark Bornstein shared a few recommendations for creating an inviting experience that audiences will want to spend their time with:

  • Provide a multimedia, multi-touch content environment: There are a lot of ways to create high-presence, multimedia-like experience. Showing your presenters’ faces on video is a good start. Consider pushing out video clips, broadcasting live panel discussions, or providing digital product brochures and other content assets to give the session a more event-like feel.
  • Include interactivity: Don’t leave the audience out. Streaming a presentation is not an interactive, engaging experience. You still want to get the audience involved. To accomplish this, include capabilities like real-time polling, chat functionality, or private networking rooms where attendees can meet to discuss business opportunities.
  • Give it an approachable, brand-friendly personality: Great events take on a life of their own, with signature branding, unique themes, and a personality that’s both relatable and consistent with the other content you produce. Adding personal touches your audience can easily identify will enhance their trust and reinforce the connection between your virtual event and the other ways your brand provides value to its customers.

Mark points to Salesforce as a shining example of this last point: Salesforce Australia shifted its World Tour event, scheduled to take place in March in Sydney, Australia, to a completely virtual event. Its professional-caliber stage setup and signature branding elements helped assure the audience that the digital experience would share the same quality standard they would expect from the brand’s live events.

Plan ahead to minimize disruptions, distractions, and disappointing results

As with any content format your business produces, each component in your virtual event needs to align with your marketing strategy, audience needs, and business goals. But these content efforts also require some extra logistical planning steps to ensure the viewing experience will be as frictionless and engaging as possible. Here are some of the topline decisions you’ll need to work out before you build anything out:

  • The user experience: Do you want to simulate a large conference or trade show – where there are multiple breakout rooms, exhibit halls to explore, and sponsor opportunities? Or do you want to create a smaller, more intimate atmosphere (like a panel discussion or open forum) where attendees will feel welcome to converse with each other and contribute their own ideas to the conversation? You’ll also need to decide how to organize the flow of the experience you’ve selected, so attendees can navigate it in an intuitive and useful way.
  • The content experience: What types of sessions will you host? Will you incorporate interactive features and enable users to participate in discussions or would your purposes be best served with a more passive viewing experience? Will you organize content into tracks users can select from or will you keep a narrow focus on just a few topics that all attendees will access?
  • Branding elements: How will you incorporate logos, signage, and other brand attributes into the experience so that attendees will unmistakably recognize the event as something only your business could deliver to them?
  • Ways to extend the engagement: Will you enable users to download additional content assets directly from within the event environment or direct them off-platform to engage with your business on your website or blog? Make sure you incorporate relevant content, calls-to-action, and customized follow-up communications into your event program so it’s clear what you want attendees to do to stay connected with your business after the main event is over.
  • Sponsorship opportunities: Will you offer the ability for partnering companies to contribute to the event experience? Will they receive a dedicated space in the experience or be fully integrated into the main program?
  • Delivery formats: Event content can be delivered live in real time, as a pre-recorded presentation, or a combination of the two approaches. There’s no right or wrong decision – it all depends on your marketing purpose, your participants’ preferences, your tech capabilities, and the level of quality control you want to maintain over the experience.
  • Platform logistics: Will this be a one-time event or do you plan to publish these experiences on an ongoing basis? How many attendees do you expect to participate in each session? Can the solution you are working with accommodate that traffic without overwhelming the platform and causing technical delays and access interruptions?
  • Data capture and analytics: What kinds of attendee information do you want to collect and at what points of the experience will you collect it? How will you integrate the data you’ve captured into your CRM systems and other analytics tools?

A (virtual) world of lasting benefits

Virtual events can provide a lifeline to help brands maintain a public presence, serve audience informational – and social – needs, and foster the sense of community that we can all use more of right now. But these opportunities to build meaningful connections aren’t just short-term remedies for a temporary problem. They’re a critical component of your marketing strategy for the future.

Want to share your thoughts on this article or suggest additional ideas? Email us at CMI_info@informa.com.


Author: Jodi Harris

Jodi Harris is the director of editorial content and strategy at Content Marketing Institute and serves as editor-in-chief of its digital magazine, Chief Content Officer. Follow her on Twitter at @Joderama.


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