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How to be Successful With In-Person and Virtual Events

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

In the ERP/CRM channel, we all host, sponsor, and attend a variety of events such as webinars, trade shows, and user events – virtual and online. As the world endeavors to get back to normal, what are the best practices and latest trends for planning, attending, and following up on events in our ERP/CRM industry? How can marketers select which events to sponsor and fit that into their marketing budgets?

You’ll find expert advice on those topics, and more, in this month’s recap.

Introducing the Discussion Leaders

Steve Dwyer, WithoutWire

This month’s panel of experts has seen it all when it comes to hosting marketing events. With years of experience in the channel, they’ve had to adapt to changing products, changing partners, and especially now, the changing times.

Thank you to our sponsor for the March 2022 call, The Partner Marketing Group.

Let’s hear about the challenges they’ve faced and how they’ve overcome them with resounding success.

How to make a virtual event successful

Danielle: The first step is defining what sort of virtual event it is. For many years we’ve been doing “online meetings” and webinars to demonstrate a product or establish thought leadership, for example. On the other hand, in the last two years, we’ve had to hold large-scale events online with breakout sessions. Each type of event requires good forethought and planning, and doing so well in advance.

It’s important for the entire marketing group to understand that just because the meeting is online doesn’t make it less important than an in-person event. Planning the topic, including engaging content, targeting the right audience, and inviting the right person to present are all critical factors in a successful event. (As a side note, someone who knows the product inside and out isn’t necessarily the best candidate as a presenter. Or training can be given to help them improve their public speaking skills, with dry runs before the event to help them get used to it.)

Chelsea: Preparation includes not just planning for the actual event, but also planning for the post-event follow-through afterward. You don’t want to wrap up the event and then start asking questions such as ‘Okay, what are we doing now? Who's doing the follow-up? What are we doing?’ Make sure you have those mechanisms in place and discussed with either your subject matter experts, your sales team, or whoever is working on the event with you. Make sure there are talking points and takeaways. Prepare the team for what follows so they can get right to it at the back end of the event.

It is a really critical element because, obviously, we’re hosting these events for a reason. There's an action or a next step that we want these people to take with us. Maybe that's a meeting, maybe that's attending another event or meeting for lunch, etc. Just make sure you have an idea of what that is before you start the event.

Outstanding examples of virtual events

Danielle: In 2020 we had planned large in-person events. The organizers had to pivot at the last minute and move them online, which was a challenge for everyone involved. Choosing from a plethora of online platforms was a struggle, especially to find one that would enable audience engagement and recreate the “in-person” feel virtually, like with the party we would normally have to meet people. It was a multi-day event, and we decided to go ahead and try.

I think it is important with virtual events that you take chances and try things. So we hired an entertainer, a comedian, and a magician. The magician was amazing! We had the event on Zoom and we had over 150 people connected. He was engaging and entertaining and interactive. Everybody registered, then we had the event, and then anybody that attended got a gift shipped to them. Something small, but anything small adds up when you have to mail it.

We also had some raffles during the event to keep things interesting too. Budgeting for these things is important. Overall, it went really well. We definitely got good audience engagement and positive feedback which made it all worth it. Because of that, we later held a second virtual event. So you have to think outside the box, try to engage, to recreate that experience any way you can.

Steve: Around when COVID hit a couple things that we did were, as an ISV, to engage a complementary ISV to tell a compelling story. And we especially liked that it was reusable content. So we could post it on our website and refer back to it and push the recording to people as well. Then it combined the marketing power of our partner too. So you get a little more reach, better attendance, and those kinds of things.

How to get people to register for and attend the event

Chelsea: You want to have good content; something that's relevant for your audience, for them to be willing to take time out of their very busy day to listen to you speak. It obviously needs to be something that is, for example, very influential to their decision-making or research process. Or, if they're already using a software solution, your content should be something that they're dying to learn, or information about a new release – something that's really going to grab their attention. So obviously content is critical.

I feel it’s important to include an agenda, or highlights, to let people know what they're signing up for. Obviously the more vague it is, the less attendance you'll have. So you want to be very clear about what you're providing. Especially if there's a demo or something more technical included, they need to know that upfront so they know what to expect when they attend.

One thing that’s had success lately is the lunch and learn concept. We send them a link, and they get to order a $10 to $15 lunch from somewhere in their area that gets delivered to their house 15 minutes before the event starts – a similar concept to what was mentioned about gifting. Not everything has to fall on you and your team. If you can budget for it, you can do some cool things with third-party vendors. It also allows the client a layer of privacy; with so many working from home, they don’t have to disclose their home address to you. For you it doesn’t matter, you don’t have to deal with it. And the lunch concept has worked really well for us. We've had some people abuse it, of course; it's part of the risk you take. However, it usually ends up being a really great experience.

Danielle: I think it’s important to ensure you’re inviting the right people but also in the right channel. So if you're doing an event in our channel and you want to invite users who might pay to have a copy of your event content, then putting an ad on or other similar sites makes sense. It's okay to spend the money there, especially if you're doing this in-house, meaning most of the cost is your team’s effort.

We shouldn't forget about social networks and using the right hashtags. A lot of times your team member’s network is bigger than your company’s network. I think you should get everybody involved, making sure people are sharing posts with their followers. It should also be easy for attendees to register and access the recording. They should also be made to feel comfortable with attending just to get the recording; that's okay.

It's hard to cut through all the email/event/webinar noise, but I think having a very attractive event title can help. It’s also crucial to follow through on what you promised to deliver in the invitation while not turning it into a sales pitch. That way you build a reputation, and that makes people come back.

How to get engagement at multi-sponsor or multi-vendor events

Chelsea: I think I've personally had a hard time with some of these virtual platforms just because it's really hard to track the ROI unless you have someone willing to sit behind the screen and follow people that come to the interactive booth or maybe drop a card. So I think a face-to-face virtual event is much better than going into a “Sims Universe” where you're walking around. Some platforms are pretty awesome. From my point of view, it's been hard, personally.

Danielle: I agree, I found the user experience on those platforms has not been great. But sometimes you just have to do those events, from a branding perspective. I think that you need to make the most of your opportunity to speak at those rather than expecting a lot of leads from chat rooms and the like. I think it's an opportunity to get the biggest bang for that education buck and put yourself out there as a thought leader. It’s a big decision as marketers though. Depending on the size of your team, these events are sometimes as intensive to plan as an in-person event with 7,000 people.

You really have to think about the effort versus the return on some of those. We have been much more selective with those types of events in the last year.

Chelsea: That’s a perfect point – opting to speak at those types of events. That's probably the area where we have found the most success, because if you're in that specific session and they have a chat going, you can have someone on your team jump into it and interact with people that are asking questions. Not everybody is willing to network at a conference. However, some people like hiding behind a computer, and that's totally fine. So I will say one positive aspect of virtual events is that you can get a little bit more direct interaction with those folks as opposed to trying to invite them to a cocktail hour. Learn to take advantage of those opportunities. Maybe you don’t benefit from the entire event, but do find those pieces that make the most sense for you.

What are some virtual meeting faux pas to avoid? (Besides cats and mute buttons!)

Steve: I was on a call with a partner, and you could plainly see his pants were on the dresser behind him. So I said, “You're not taking this call in your boxers, are you?”

But I think, on that topic, we're all going to join in for this virtual event, we're at our homes, we have pets, and who knows what other distractions we might face – something will happen. Also, I've been working on my lighting for this event because it's really bright with the snow up here in Minnesota. There are also audio and visual challenges, as well as being familiar with the tools. I’ve almost hit the “Leave Meeting” button twice – that would've been tragic! I’m used to the Microsoft Teams environment, and we're in Zoom now. So anyway, just those are some of the faux pas I was thinking of.

Danielle: Getting all the people there and then having a sub-par speaker is a major faux pas. I mean, that's on everybody, but that’s the worst because all that effort has gone out the window. The recording is not usable. Also, I think turning on the webcam is crucial if you can use it... As long as you don't have your pants next to you!

Dry runs are so important. They allow you to ask, “Is this the room you're presenting in? Do you have a neutral background?” It’s also important to get used to the feel of the platform. Mistakes are easy to make. Every platform is different. For example, we found out on GoTo Webinar that unless they're an organizer, which has full control, they can't see the questions. Be sure that everybody feels really comfortable, including the presenter. Having a nervous presenter is just awkward.

How to measure event success

Chelsea: Before COVID we saw a higher conversion on attendance rate, just because virtual events weren't as common as they are now. So it was a bit more of a tailored event; people would take the time out of their day. Whereas it is okay if someone signs up and does not attend live; to me, that's still showing interest. What I always like to tell my team is that if I was a controller, CFO, or accounting leader, I'm probably not perusing the RSM website all day; rather, I'm fighting fires, I'm trying to get stuff done.

It’s extremely valuable to know who attends that day as well as who views it later. Hopefully, you have a system where you can track those on-demand views so you can structure some follow-ups for them. As for KPIs, the standard ones such as the number of registered ones that attended, how long they attended... Did they interact with polling questions? I definitely recommend that your company use software that can track those types of metrics.

Danielle: Attribution can sometimes be hard. It can often result in fights with the sales team, because they might have an opportunity out there already, and they have yet to close it, but that person also came to the webinar and then they started moving. So some manual efforts have to take place in CRM to make sure that we are getting credit, because you need those numbers as you go back and examine how webinars did this year and decide how many should be done next year. So I think from a KPI perspective, you have to break it down. And I think you need to educate leadership on this too, because it's not always a revenue KPI. You've got non-revenue KPIs and you've got audience KPIs. So how much thought leadership did you get out of it? Did you get PR out of it? You might have had great audience engagement and excellent conversations, and those aren't numbers in CRM. But those things count.

Creative ideas and tips for in-person events

Steve: My first thought goes to Summit, the trade shows where you're setting up a booth and staffing it with your marketing team. One of the things that we've done that really works is to set up flat-screen panels with a looped video off to the side. If the whole team is busy, consumed with one-on-one contact, then there’s something for those who are waiting, which will hopefully keep them there a little longer in order to engage with them.

We had a User Group Summit, and so we sent out Tweets starting three weeks ahead of Summit. We talked about an Explorer look for our marketers, who would be at Summit. We were really excited about this, but we tried to keep it vague. A week before the event we sent out some more Tweets saying, ‘Hey! If you find an Explorer you could win a prize.’ It started a Twitter storm. Another Tweet goes out the day before, and we're learning a little bit more about this Explorer, but we still don't quite know everything. And then we send out a photo from a couple days before showing the team in front of a wrapped vehicle with our logo and some fun graphics.

Then the day of the event we unveil the actual booth that travels – a backpack with batteries powering these three Android tablets and our application, on location and mobile.

They're learning more throughout the event. It was really fun to have these ‘Explorers’ going around the trade show and visiting other booths, talking to folks, and being a little advertisement at the same time. So that generated curiosity, eliciting questions like “Where can I find you?” We would then direct them to our booth to potentially win a prize. I will say that in the next year's bylaws for the User Group Summit, they said “no walking booths.” So we definitely made an impression!

Danielle: To have a successful in-person event, I think flexibility is key, because it will never be the same again. We used to plan before, but now we have to start even sooner. Plan, plan again, and plan some more. Also, be willing to think creatively and strategically at the same time. Be willing to pivot; try not to cry over spilled milk when you end up not having something that you've been planning for. Try to rework it for something else, or move on.

Another key is making good choices on the events that you're doing. If you think this year you’ll get clients or prospects at a certain event, then it’s worth attending. However, that doesn't necessarily mean you have to sponsor a show or have a trade show booth on the floor to have success and ROI at an event. You could, for example, have something outside of the event. Be creative and selective when doing in-person events. If you have a company or a product that is industry-specific, where there's literally a show every other week in different cities and you simply can't do it all, do the research before you commit.

Another tip would be that everyone on your team is your brand. Make sure that everyone looks like your booth, wearing your attire, selling your company, services, and solution wherever they are in the event. I've met with resistance before, but I don't back down on that one. People need to be recognizable without having to squint to see their badges.

Steve: I'm going to steal a phrase from Amy at HSO. She talks about ‘adult trick or treaters.’ Sometimes giveaways can be overdone and become expensive, eroding your budget. Just keep that in mind. However, I do remember vividly one trade show in Atlanta when it was 25 or 30 degrees colder than anyone expected and PowerObjects was giving away sweatshirts. They had a sweatshirt for everyone at the trade show! They must have given away 4,000 sweatshirts. Everyone was relieved, wearing them everywhere – and what branding that was!

Chelsea: If you are doing booth giveaways, make sure they can fit in a suitcase. I’ve seen the craziest stuff and thought, “No one can take this stuff home.” For example, my boyfriend works in golf. They have turf shows. So he went to one in California and sends me a video – there was a booth that was auctioning off three sheepdogs, like herding dogs. That blew my mind. Make sure people have things that they can easily take home, whether for themselves or for their kids. Another trick that I always like to use is to have mints or candy because people are talking to each other all day. They want to make sure their breath smells good. Also, not every conference has good snacks, which are critical if you're at a conference all day. Have those at your booth. People will come.

Danielle: I think it's a mix of having the right balance of business and fun and having tiered giveaways. Provide something inexpensive that someone can swipe without having a conversation, and require a scan for a nicer gift.

Sometimes having something to do at the booth draws people in. Don’t let it become so loud or distracting that it hampers business conversation. One time someone had a Plinko game. I dropped my disc, it went down and I hit a hat. He asked, “Would you like the hat?” I said, “No, I'm good.” The other options were sunglasses, and a candle that was made of cement. I'm not putting that on my back, nor a yoga mat. Think about giveaways that would draw people in, yet not need to be shipped or otherwise be too difficult to take with them. Chocolate and mints will bring people in. Choose things that don't detract from your message. Another pitfall to avoid is overcrowding your booth. 10 by 10 is small. One thing I realized recently: Next time I'm not putting the table and chairs in there. You don't need to be sitting! If you do have the space, have comfortable furniture that people want to sit in to have a conversation.

Many choose to give away t-shirts, but even that needs planning. You can wind up with too many of one size and not enough of another. Storage space for those giveaways is another topic to consider.

If you don't have the proper internal staff for event planning, then it's okay to hire a service to help you with some of those details.

How to make the best use of marketing collateral

Steve: One of the great aspects of the User Summits is that the attendees are conditioned to accept a scan when they come to your booth. So that's helpful. When I think of literature, I have a QR code that takes you to a microsite where you can download materials. If they're in a hurry, though, you must make sure you get the scan at the same time to get their contact information.

Chelsea: I think this comes back to who you're sending to the show. Some types of salespeople lean more on the collateral, because they may not be as comfortable with making conversation – not a sales pitch, but conversational selling. If you’re sending the right group you can hopefully convince them that handhelds are outdated. They should be using conversation and turning that into an easy follow-up by saying something like, “Hey, let me get your email so I can send that to you later.” I know that's not as easy as it sounds, because some people are more old school.

Danielle: We're using QR codes. And you can brand those now, which is nice. You can put them on a piece of collateral. But keep a limited supply; there’s so much waste. Also, the digital backend event experience is as important as the in-person experience. When you are planning your in-person event, make sure that the digital experience they link to from that QR code is well-branded, perhaps the same way you were branded at the event. It should also give them options like “I just want collateral”, “I want a conversation”, “I just want to win the prize”, or “You saw us there and want to learn more? We have a webinar in two weeks.” It's important to give them digital options so that when they get there it's not just a PDF.

Chelsea: NetSuite at their trade show, SuiteWorld, made the decision to go green and did not allow collateral. You had to get special approval to even bring a hard copy. So maybe we'll see some of these big vendors start to do the same. They also provided a QR code for everyone, so you didn't have to figure out that technology on your own. It linked to your virtual booth, which had all your information. That was a cool concept.

How has planning for an in-person event changed post-pandemic?

Danielle: Vaccination cards were required at the event I recently attended. There was a check-in, and we had to wear masks indoors. Otherwise not too much has changed. However, I would say if you are hosting a large-scale event with food and all that stuff, there is a lot more to think about from a planning perspective. They had gloves that you could put on. Most of the silverware was in plastic. You were packing your meal in a kind of to-go situation. It depends on where the event is. If possible, consider a temperate location so as to have tables and chairs and events outside to accommodate everyone’s comfort level.

If you went to Summit last year, you’ll remember the wristbands. The red, yellow, and green signified how comfortable you were with a handshake. It helped to eliminate the awkwardness and promote comfortable conversation. Obviously, there was a limited audience. You didn't have the packed-out rooms where people are sitting on the floor like before.

Budgeting for professional photography

Danielle: So if it’s for a local customer appreciation event, a lot of your team has made it to one location, and that doesn't happen very often, especially now. So if you have the budget to do some sort of video rent-a-room, or if you were in the market to do a video anyway, then that's a great chance to combine those two efforts. As for other ideas – I'm an amazing iPhone photographer and videographer. We have used that footage to create post-event videos. They're perfectly fine if you have someone in your organization that is a graphic designer / video editor. But if you've been in the market for something professional for a while, I think having somebody come for the day is completely worth the money. Cost varies greatly. Try to use a professional that is local to the area of your event to keep costs down.

What the future holds

Steve: Well, maybe I'm voting with my heart, but I think in-person events are going to make a big comeback. I feel like we're close to herd immunity, at least in the people's minds. Certainly in my mind. We recently won a large deal because we went on-site, we visited them. That meant a lot to them, and I've seen a lot of others who felt the same way. I have a couple of trips coming up because once you sell a deal, many customers appreciate you being on-site for the implementation.

Chelsea: I think we're on the right path, although we all probably said that at this exact same time last year and we were sorely disappointed. But I think you'll see an uptick this summer and fall since you can do more outside. We're probably not going to spend a hundred grand at a show like we did before. We're probably going to scale back and really think about who we're sending, why we're sending them, and making sure it's the right people. With companies sending fewer of their people – our customers and prospects – to these events, vendors sending too many from their team means we’re just hanging out with a bunch of vendors. I think sales and marketing are ready to get back, but maybe our prospects are not, so it’s important to consider those factors and think about the investment levels.

Danielle: The crowds might not be as large, but I think it's quality over quantity. People that are coming really want to be there, they have a reason to be there, and companies don't sell – people do. The energy that you get from a face-to-face event can't be replicated virtually.

Wrap Up

Excellent tips and tricks to maximize the potential benefits of attending and hosting events in 2022 and beyond. Thanks to our three panelists for all they shared with us on the call. Stay tuned for the next session, “Ask a VAR: How Can an ISV Get Better Engagement and Build a Partnership?”, on Wednesday, April 13, 2022, from 3:30-4:30pm.

Would you like to watch the full recording of this CMA Marketing Group Chat? Sign up as a CMA Member and access our Member Library.

By Matthew Alexander, CMA Staff Writer,

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