We’ve been thrown into a world of virtual conferences, and that’s a good thing

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Pandemics and social distancing don’t have to stop your event. Now is the time to go virtual.

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

I love going to trade shows. I love getting out of town every now and then, especially when I can use ‘work’ as an excuse. I enjoy face time with friends and colleagues in the industry. I love the wining and dining, drinking and schmoozing. I know, I know, all of that is off the table for a while for all of us. But the fun doesn’t have to stop completely.

Since the shutdowns started in early March, I’ve been overwhelmed by webinars and Zoom calls. I went from doing zero online meetings a week to 8 or 10. At first it was PPP/EIDL/SBA loan-related presentations. Then it was topics from my industry related to ‘how are we all going to get out of this?’ And then came the happy hours, best album/worst album of all time discussions, and performers from my favorite comedians and musicians from their living rooms. 

I had been scheduled to fly to Hartford for a 3-day marketing conference April 4-6. Of course that event was cancelled. The event organizers quickly put together a 1-day online conference — and it was out of this world. I was exposed to new speakers, I received relevant information, and felt like I was ‘part of something’. During the course of the day, I was still able to monitor email, phone calls, etc. It was a fantastic event and I felt lucky to be a part of it. 

#skuconathome swag box

In May I attended another online, afternoon event. In this case, the organizers sent out ‘swag boxes’ ahead of time. The box included event-branded swag: a mug, a notebook, and a set of pens, all in a nicely packed gift box, delivered right to my home (they requested my ‘remote delivery’ address at the time of registration). When the event started, they put out the call at the keynote to take selfies with the swag, and post on social media — you can see those pics by searching the hashtag #skuconathome. Again, I felt like I was part of something special. This event featured a ‘speed networking’ section: every 3 minutes you were paired with another attendee to talk about whatever you wanted. There was an onscreen timer, and when you were down to 20 seconds, it started flashing so you could wrap things up. I probably did 15-20 of those sessions. Some were competitors, some were suppliers, and some were service providers, from all over the place. It was nothing short of brilliant. 

How to host a virtual event

If you’ve exhibited at traditional, belly-to-belly events, you know what an expensive pain in the ass it can be. From union electricians charging $90/hour to change a light bulb, to Freeman Decorating soaking you for a 10×10 piece of carpet, plus cost of booth space, hotel expenses, airlines, airports, etc. UGH! So why can’t you just host your own event? Guess what? You can! You have a customer list. You have a prospect list. Your customers and prospects are all sitting at home waiting for your invite. So set something up and invite them over! Do an afternoon meet and greet, and sneak in a product or service that you want to highlight. Send everybody a nice pint glass, or coasters, and do a happy hour. Build that community. It’s very doable. And it doesn’t cost much. 

There are oodles and gobs of virtual meeting platforms out there. If you’re an event planner, you know how to do this. But if you’re not, this all might be very new. Google ‘virtual event platform’, and you’ll find lots, lots more than I can write about here.  Pricing is all over the place. You can spend a little or spend a lot. 

From an attendee standpoint, here are some recommendations for functionality that you might want to include:

  • Make sure there’s a chat box, for attendees to interact with the presenter and each other. It can be distracting for some, so be sure that you can allow users to hide this if they want. 
  • Make sure there’s video, for both presenters and attendees. Make sure attendees can turn ON or OFF their video or mute their audio if they choose. 
  • The speed networking feature I mentioned above – that was done on a platform called Hopin Events – very cool feature.
  • Try to show pre-recorded sessions, and then have the speaker available at the end for questions. This keeps the flow going, the message gets out there, and if for some reason the speaker’s connection fails, all is not lost. 
  • Zoom has breakout groups. Others may too. These are super fun. Smaller groups where everybody can have input. 
  • Virtual event ice breaker #1 – Set a timer for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Have your attendees get up, race to the kitchen, open the drawer right next to the sink, and pull something out and bring it back. Show and tell. 
  • Virtual event ice breaker #2 – have attendees find something in their home that can be used as a prop: a weird hat, a planter, an old photo, some kind of gadget, souvenir from a trip, etc. Have them tell the story about why they have that object in their house. Everybody has stories. And everybody enjoys hearing stories. Just have fun with it. 
  • Host a comedy workshop! My friends at Dallas Comedy House offer online workshops based on improv, stand-up, sketch writing, and storytelling. If you’re looking to build stronger teams, stimulate creativity, or beef up sales, these workshops can help you get there.

How to prepare for and attend a virtual event

If you’ve never experienced a virtual conference, make sure your connection and equipment are up to snuff. Nothing is as frustrating as scrambling trying to make things work as the event is beginning. 

  • Be sure to carve out the time to attend the event. Extend your calendar for 15 minutes each at the beginning and end so you can ease in and ease out of the event with minimal distraction. 
  • Review the schedule beforehand. Plan what you want to participate in, and what you want to skip. 
  • Get social with your colleagues and coworkers to see who else is participating. Get pumped up for it!
  • If you can, turn off email, phones, distractions, and for crying out loud close the door. PS: it’s cute, but we really don’t need to see your cat walking around in front of you while you’re on screen. 
  • Be vocal. If you have questions, ask them. Chances are others have the same question. Step out of your comfort zone. 

Don’t forget the swag

We recently did a fulfillment project for a client. They had held their virtual conference earlier, and wanted to send a ‘thanks for attending’ gift to the attendees. Our factory printed the items (in this case a slick LED desk lamp with a built-in wireless phone charger) and sent them to our office. I printed up a thank you note on nice paper, and packed the lamp and letter into individual boxes and shipped them out via USPS Priority Mail. All were delivered in a few days. 

We can do the same for you. People love receiving gifts. And they love talking about them. So let’s get them talking!

‘Face time’ has been replaced with FaceTime™ 

You don’t have to give up human-to-human interaction, no matter if you’re presenting, exhibiting, or attending. There are real people out there that still want to connect with you. They want you to connect with them. Embrace it. We’re gonna be in this for a while.


Join me at the Virtual Selling Summit, a full-day virtual event, on June 23rd to get the strategies and insights you need to become a virtual sales machine! Use my code VSSFRIENDS to get your pass for only $39! ($299 regularly) https://www.digitalsalesandmarketingworld.com/virtual-selling-summit

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Rich Graham

Purveyor of branded swag and merch. Host to 3 kidneys. Uncredited contributor at @nbcsnl Chief Imagination Officer at @bigpromotions. Podcaster at http://bigpromocast.com
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