Plotting Your Digital-Event Strategy

Before searching for the right platform, you need to answer these questions.

The most asked question in the events industry since March has been: “What’s the best virtual-meeting platform?” Many planners have come to realize that the question is like asking, “What’s the best place to have a meeting?” The list of “virtual-event platforms” is long and getting longer, as tech providers add features and shift their marketing to meet the demand for digital events. What was previously pitched as an audience-engagement event app or on-site networking tool is now being sold as a virtual meetings platform. The term encompasses a varied array of functionality.

The point is, the plan shouldn’t start with the tech: Those who have built their meetings around a platform’s promised capabilities are often left wondering where they went wrong. Consider these questions first.

Dahlia El Gazzar, principal and founder of the Dahlia+ Agency
Dahlia El Gazzar, principal and founder of the Dahlia+ Agency

What do you mean by virtual event?

Before you go any further, define your terms. “What are your goals and objectives?” asks tech evangelist Dahlia El Gazzar, principal and founder of the Dahlia+ Agency. “Are you going to make money? Are you going to produce content that nobody else will have? Are you doing a product showcase?”

El Gazzar’s agency is often called on to help select technology and produce events, but her role doesn’t replace the kind of groundwork planners would do for an in-person meeting. “You have to go back to the very basics,” she says. “You have to remember who your audience is and find out what they want — and not what they told you in a Survey Monkey three years ago. You have to understand what they want from this event now.”

With an understanding of the objectives and audience, consider how the elements of the event would work in a digital format.

Arianna Rehak, CEO of Matchbox Virtual Media

“I’m generally trying to get people to think about how technology is being used, rather than the specific tech that’s being used,” explains Arianna Rehak, CEO of Matchbox Virtual Media, a full-service digital-event production company. “You can do a lot of creative things when you’re bringing a group of people together virtually.”

Rehak and the team at Matchbox typically work with a handful of tech platforms they consider best in breed, sometimes in tandem with one another and, more recently, augmented by tools Matchbox has developed in-house. Or, they can meld their services with what a client is already using. In each case, the technology plays a supporting role in accomplishing the objectives of the meeting. 

When Matchbox launched two years ago, Rehak had to convince a supplier to build out its platform to fit her objectives. “I was looking for something that allowed for community interaction, and it was really hard to find,” she explains. Now, as people are more reliant on virtual meetings to provide networking and community-building, the available technology is more reflective of that need for interactivity.

What do you want to achieve?

Delve beyond the meeting type and general objectives. In the digital world, the more specific you can be the better.

“If you’re bringing together a group of people who are all trying to solve a similar challenge or learn about a similar thing, there are different ways to capture their collective knowledge,” explains Rehak.

“We’ve had events that were part of a research methodology, for example. So the session was designed to gather insight from the community and create a resource afterward. Or, we’ve had sessions that are debate-style, so at the end a specific conclusion is reached.”

Once those goals are in place and design elements are selected, El-Gazzar advises discussing revenue opportunities. “You can wrap monetization around all of those elements,” she says, and determine the form that takes.

How does the event fit with your long-term strategy?

Take a step back: Consider not only the objectives for this meeting, but how it fits in with the broader organizational goals. 
“Everyone is running on a hamster wheel now,” says El Gazzar. “They’re thinking, ‘Oh, my annual conference is not face-to-face; I need to replace it with a virtual meeting.’ They’re not thinking big picture; they’re focused on creating one experience.”

Consider an association’s big annual conference. “What if, while they were creating the annual show, they also created a series of hybrid regional events — something they’ve never done before?” suggests El Gazzar. “Instead of asking a sponsor for a million dollars for the annual event, ask for $2 million for the opportunity to develop brand awareness and content and experiences across all of those events.”

Adds Rehak, “In the virtual space, we’re not confined to the same paradigm of the annual meeting, where everyone has to come together once a year.” Transforming the annual event to a series of smaller ones, or staggering virtual and physical meetings that complement each other, can be more beneficial to the association’s long-term health.

This big-picture plan might have a significant effect on technology selection — in terms of pricing, required capabilities, and how you might apply it across multiple and varied experiences.

Are the right people doing the right jobs?

Before implementing any new technology, consider whether you have the talent in house to handle it, says El Gazzar. “I can have the most expensive platform and it will crash and burn if people don’t know how it works. And if your internal teams do not know how to sell hybrid or virtual events, that’s a real challenge.”

Make sure stakeholders are in the loop, too. “We want to be there to answer the questions they know to ask,” says Rehak, “but also the questions they don’t necessarily know to ask. For every stakeholder in a given virtual conference — the speakers, the sponsors, etc. — we’ve built out their suggested journey through the whole experience. No matter how experienced people are in the physical-event environment, it can be scary to move into virtual because it’s a very different dynamic.”

Educating all stakeholders is at least as important as choosing the technology itself. If the event isn’t sold and marketed properly, and the participants aren’t trained properly, no one gets the return on investment they were anticipating. “And in that case I’ll bet you a million bucks you lose brand loyalty,” says El Gazzar — no matter how slick the platform technology appears.