With companies reducing or completely slashing travel budgets, businesses that rely on in-person networking events and conferences for revenue or brand exposure will have to adopt different ways to reach customers. One obvious solution is to go online. But how does one replicate offline event experiences virtually? What will the costs and revenue be?

Event organisers and suppliers share their tips to successfully run virtual events — and the pitfalls to avoid. Virtual events need not just be a replacement for cancelled events; they can become a part of a company’s long-term strategy.

1. Allocate enough time and resources

For events to deliver return on investment (ROI), companies need to commit enough budget and resources, said Ben Chodor, president of Intrado Digital Media.

“Although virtual events can be turned over fairly quickly if necessary, we often find that there’s a misconception around time to market for large-scale events,” he said. “A strong virtual event can require the same level of planning as a physical one.”

2. Choose an event format that’s tailored to your goals

There are numerous virtual event formats, from webinars, webcasts, and videoconferences to formats that mimic physical spaces such as 3D conferences or virtual trade shows. Companies should assess the different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to cost and effectiveness.

“Always keep attendees top of mind. Tailor technology to their ability to consume it. If this is their first virtual event, start with a simple, clean format and focus on engaging your audience,” said Brad Langley, vice-president of channel and partner management at cloud-based event management software company Aventri.

3. Plan your content

With online, content takes centre stage. Although virtual events are easy to access, they are competing with a growing number of other online events.

If the event is a replacement for an in-person event, a key consideration will also be how to transition your content to online.

Richard Roocroft, director of global sales for remote simultaneous translation service Interprefy, said that removing language barriers should be an ongoing goal for event organisers and managers across the globe. “Not only does doing so bolster the quality of content and engagement received, it also helps set events apart,” he said.

4. Don’t underestimate technical barriers

With virtual events, companies need to reduce potential technical obstacles as much as possible.

“The most challenging part of conducting an event online is how to engage the audience, especially a large audience. No doubt there are limitations. The audience may jump in and out frequently due to technical reasons and easily lose track of the conversations,” said Jasper Chung, ACMA, CGMA, head of corporate development, Asia Pacific, at The New York Times, who plans live events for the news company.

To prevent the audience quitting an event over blurry images or broken audio, he recommends companies invest in tried-and-tested technology.

Speakers also shouldn’t be overlooked, suggested Sarah Tan, one of the market development managers for Canadian e-commerce company Shopify. The company hosts regular online meetups to spark customer engagement, and Tan always does a one-on-one dry run with each speaker, to demonstrate how to use the platform.

“In virtual events the content is front and centre, so it’s critical that what is said flows coherently for the listener to take away the most value,” she said.

5. Have a strong marketing plan

“Virtual events need a strong marketing and promotional plan. This includes ensuring that there’s enough runway for promotion to create buzz and engagement to generate word-of-mouth and drive sign-ups,” Chodor said.

Costs saved from venues and logistics can be invested in online marketing instead. Chodor suggests marketing messaging should focus on the value of the event for attendees — the quality of content, calibre of speakers, and key learnings that the event will provide.

6. Create a strategy to monetise the event that leverages online strengths

Experts mentioned that monetisation for virtual events works similarly to in-person events and that there are more opportunities for enhanced visibility throughout every stage of an online event.

“There are virtual exhibit halls, sponsor spaces, premium directories, rotating ad banners, sponsored networking lounges, and more. Live chat lobbies, product demos, and one-on-one video conversations with suppliers create immersive showroom experiences, while helping organisations achieve their financial goals,” Langley said.

When it comes to crafting sponsorship packages, online event organisers should think in terms of value the event can generate for sponsors and advertisers, said Djoann Fal, CEO and founder of GetLinks, a tech talent platform.

“I don’t think price really depends on whether it is online or offline; price depends on the valuable interaction the audience will have with the brand,” Fal said. “If a beer company is sponsoring an offline event, they would get their brand out there, but they wouldn’t get the data of the attendees and demographics and be able to remarket them later.”

7. Tool up and connect with suppliers and virtual providers

Many companies specialise in online events, such as all-in-one live events platform Hopin. Cloud-based software company Aventri has event management technology for both offline and online events. Intrado provides its clients with an end-to-end software for hosting events and managing virtual event data. Interprefy offers simultaneous interpretations in multiple languages, allowing attendees to listen to events in the language of their choice through a mobile app or through integration with virtual conference platforms.

Software products can help planners and CFOs gain visibility into spend, savings, and overall ROI for virtual and face-to-face events.

According to Fal, companies that cannot find a suitable platform should consider creating their own and implement features to help them track the data most essential to their organisation.

8. Leverage the increased access to online data

For virtual events, the work afterwards is a key part of monetising the event. Companies can and should make use of data analytics and business intelligence.

“Not leveraging event data is a major missed opportunity. Events today capture a goldmine of attendee engagement data and store it all in one place,” Chodor said.

This means that companies considering virtual events shouldn’t think of them as a one-and-done deal, but factor in the entire flow of the data performance afterwards and consider ways to engage the audience after the event.

“Having run a few virtual events, I think we’ll increasingly measure the effectiveness of such initiatives through engagement and audience participation rather than registrations and participants,” Tan said.

Managing cost and revenue for online events

Cost and revenue for virtual events may look different for online events. The content can even be made available to paying customers and continue to pay back over a longer time period. But online content is not necessarily cheaper to produce.

“Virtual events definitely save on travel, meeting space, onsite staff, badging, printers, and onsite audiovisual rentals. They also mitigate risks associated with travel,” Langley said. “That being said, buyers today are grossly overestimating savings on moving face-to-face events to virtual formats.”

He encourages organisations to set proper expectations in terms of spend and to track where the expenses are going.

“Whether an event is virtual or face-to-face, many C-suite executives and meeting professionals lack visibility into the spend. They miss opportunities to optimise buying power and reduce costs,” Langley said.

Chung at The New York Times thinks that moving events online is a smart way to balance risks and minimise loss.

“Instead of assessing the one-off event as a stand-alone profit and loss, event organisers should take a holistic view by weighing [the event] together with other benefits and nonfinancial indicators,” he said.

These include the number of quality clients and guests in the line-up, incremental profits that could be driven by the same group of clients in the long term, and publicity, such as media coverage. “The traffic numbers such as number of views and users are essentially the branding exposure,” he said.

The case for hybrid events

Given the potential benefits of online events, there is a strong case for giving them a permanent place in your company’s strategy. “In the short term, hosting virtual equivalents will provide business continuity during these disruptive times,” Roocroft said.

“I do believe that when things settle event organisers should take a blended approach and keep the virtual audience in mind for greater reach. Virtual events could well be a powerful marketing extension to attract delegates to join in person,” he said.

Chung compares online and offline event presence and experiences to omnichannel strategy in the retail industry — both are essential to consumers.

“Online events will not fade out but will be complementary to on-site, face-to-face events in the long run. And it has become more important than ever,” he said.

Anne Somanas is a freelance journalist based in Thailand. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Alexis See Tho, an FM magazine associate editor, at Alexis.SeeTho@aicpa-cima.com.