The first rule of events is never, yes never, mix the press with customers or with analysts – the media always ask probing questions that embarrass your customers (quote “this is nothing new, just you catching up and research shows it’s not what customers want”) , customers air a few of their gripes about their supplier (quote “it’s as user friendly as a cornered ferret”), and analysts often put across the competitive position about the solution that journalists would love to hear but the client wouldn’t want them to (quote “your competitors have a much better version”).

But there’s an exception – the virtual event where customers, prospects, analysts and the media virtually meet but never actually talk together. The benefits are huge.

The state of the art

It’s become a common feature of the new working environment to see heads on a screen, Air Pods and even the background of someone’s spare bedroom during virtual meetings of all types. While this sort of set-up may have passed the test for early virtual events, things have come a long way in 12 months – and the IBA team has seen the good, bad and the ugly when it comes to virtual user conferences, product launches and industry webinars!

The team has been heavily involved in a number of client events across 2020 and into 2021, particularly from a press attendee perspective. Remember journalists always treat events slightly differently to your average prospect or customer attendee – but right from the get-go, virtual events and their outcomes differ vastly from in-person shows. According to research from Integrate, when shifting to virtual events, 58% of marketers in the U.S. and UK said they needed to rethink their events strategy to ensure success and meet goals.

Here we share four lessons learned when securing press attendance and coverage from virtual events. You’d better take notes, as recent stats show 71% of marketers feel virtual events are very much here to stay into 2021 and beyond!

  1. Start early – and remind often

In the pre-Covid world, press attendance at a physical event often required six-months’ worth of save the date, registration and logistical back and forth. Thankfully, on the virtual scene, things are a little less arduous – but it’s still important to start in good time when inviting press targets. Journalists still have diaries, need to be enticed and are busy people.

Between one and two months before the event has proved the optimum time to begin approaching members of the press in our experience. Starting early with a save the date gets the event on their radar and provides ample opportunity for regular follow-up as agendas become finalized and the final event format begins to take shape.

But the reminders don’t stop there. Even when a press attendee has signed up, digital events with unique tracking links give marketing departments the opportunity to share access details numerous times the week before it takes place, making sure journalists have everything they need to tune in when the time comes. Pre-briefings can also be taken at this stage, or interviews arranged around the event to give target journalists 1-2-1 access to company experts.

  1. It really is death by PowerPoint – production value and experience is everything

Once your press attendees have their digital seatbelts fastened, then it’s time to make sure you keep their attention by providing them with the best experience you possibly can, while ensuring you keep control over which messages you want them to hear. Remember, there are far more distractions when journalists are attending via a PC, so make sure your sessions are short, and you make it easy for them to navigate their way to drill down to more details, drill up to a more corporate issue or just simply ask a question.

There are many tools available to achieve this, and pre-recording video content and animations helps really liven things up – rather than a couple of talking heads running through a slide set!

A couple of our clients did this really well – with a 30-40 minute virtual keynote, pre-recorded but spliced with interesting high-quality videos and multiple speakers with clever backdrops to provide information on the new technology. A virtual dashboard allowed attendees to navigate to specific sessions where they could hear a deeper dive into the technologies or industries they were most interested in.

  1. On-demand access drives follow-on activity

Remember, journalists are busy people with deadlines to meet, so making sessions available on-demand helps those journalists with busy calendars or short attention spans! They can then go back and view them at their leisure, pausing and re-listening to take specific notes and quotes for feature articles.

And these on-demand sessions can also be put to use from a content drafting perspective. Thought leadership sessions can be written up in blog or article format, to host as owned content or pitch to media targets as bylined articles to generate further event-related coverage.

  1. Make the whole thing more interactive, like an in-person event

Virtual dashboards can include command buttons to type questions which are sent to marketing managers, company experts, and of course the PR team! This is a great way to keep any difficult questions out of the public forum, while providing a direct channel to make sure you can provide journalists with all the information they need to draft their follow-on content.

One of our clients did this and it worked a treat, keeping journalist engagement by answering questions quickly online or shortly after the event so keeping the emphasis on the news value, making for good interaction, enabling control of company messaging and providing opportunities for exclusives and follow-on coverage.

Virtual events are here to stay

Virtual events look set to join the marketing mix, they minimize event overheads, simplify logistics and allow marketing departments to control their messages. As fewer journalists operate across a shrinking pool of B2B publications, the virtual medium offers a great way for them to dip in and out of multiple events in a single day – making better use of their time and feeding them with more stories than they’d get by flying into a single, physical show.

Those marketing managers who incorporate this newfound medium into their strategies will find themselves in pole position in the jostle for media coverage against their competitors.

Jamie Kightley is Head of Client Services at IBA International.

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