When tech events were cancelled worldwide, our team in New Zealand took a different approach and made its annual Imagine showcase virtual. Rochelle Carlyle explains how much work went into getting it right – and what to consider when planning an event online.

As we watched news of COVID-19 and subsequent event cancellations, we assessed the viability of Imagine and the safety of those attending, accounting for the policies that had been developed to help limit the spread of the virus, from both our company and those of our partners.

After thorough consideration and discussion, we decided to change Imagine 2020 from a physical event to a virtual event, fully embracing the technology we advocate.

Digital first

This was a first for us, so working out the event budget and sponsorship packages for our vendors was tricky. There were so many unknowns – we had to make sure we had a good buffer to cover things we may not have thought about straight away.

The timeline from the decision to go virtual to the actual event was eight weeks, and it took just over a week to create the new sponsorship programme and documentation for vendors.

Communicate well

We developed a comprehensive communications plan covering all stakeholders, from a website and digital marketing content to vendor surveys. The vendors were quickly onboard – we had to add two further webinars to accommodate everyone – and the surveys ensured we clearly understood their expectations in terms of ROI for the event.

This ensured that post-event reports clearly addressed these expectations, and when we run the next event, they can see the value for money.

Raise your profile

We communicated sponsorship documents, virtual logistics guide, tips and advice to our sponsors prior to the event, but we also made sure our Vendor Business Managers (VBMs) actually talked their vendor through these documents.

The event also provided an opportunity for the VBMs to raise their profile in the industry, so we asked them all to be panellists on the day for their vendors, introduce themselves and their speakers, and manage the Q&A sessions. They were given suggested scripts and tips for this, and they practiced to ensure it went right on the day.

Get help

We called on a Webex expert consultant to be host on the day for all the sessions, which took a lot of pressure off me as the event manager.

We conducted practice sessions ahead of event – don’t assume everyone knows the platform or is a confident speaker – and we provided easy download and training links for attendees who hadn’t used the platform before. We tested all functionalities of the platform to make sure it would do what we thought it would – on the day, we discovered that our platform doesn’t allow surveys on iPads, and reports took up to four hours to generate.

Make joining simple

We created a click-to-join schedule online and in pdf format with the password clearly stated. This was also sent out to all attendees on the morning of the event. Our attendees registered via an online form integrated into the event website, and we did bulk uploads into Webex, so they didn’t have to register again. 

I would amend this for next event, so they receive a consolidated email with links to the sessions they registered for, rather than individual invites from Webex for each session.

Make it different

It’s important to differentiate the event so you ensure good registration numbers and attendance on the day. We developed Imagine packs for the first 500 registrations and registration prizes, along with a rewards programme for attendance. The prizes and rewards were developed to encourage behaviour such as attendance and completed surveys.

Get good feedback

It’s critical for vendors that you generate as many leads for them as possible and everyone has a plan in place to manage the leads. We generated leads via the event website, surveys on the day and gated videos afterwards. We had our people providing attendee support on the day so we could respond to questions, queries and issues fast.

Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of content, length of sessions and quality of speakers. Over 90% of our attendees registered because they received a direct invitation to join. To date, all survey respondents said they would recommend the event to others and would attend the next one. 97% said the event met or exceeded their expectations.

New Zealand’s most important future-tech conference is back, and it’s better than it’s ever been.

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