Lessons from the Front Lines of Virtual Event Planning

Will the event heard around the world, COVID-19, change the event landscape forever?
Virtual Events Graphic

The rise of this pandemic has presented a remarkable set of professional challenges for event marketers. With almost all 2020 events canceled, businesses that rely on events have been forced to rethink how to meet their business goals. 

But simply repurposing event strategies won’t capture your audience’s attention in a congested virtual world. Don’t get caught up in “in-person this for virtual that” swaps; instead, unearth the intent of the event and the reason for the marketing investment in the first place. With the right virtual event plan, it is possible to trade in-person for virtual in a seamless, well-thought-out way.

As in all good marketing, the best path forward is to have a sharp focus on what audience needs you are aiming to meet. Whether in-person or virtual, brand-sponsored or industry-centric, events continue to represent an opportunity for marketers to meet these audiences’ needs.

Every event has a unique set of inflection points—a buildup before the event, engagement throughout the event and post-event follow-through. These three distinct stages require an audience acquisition and engagement strategy to return value. This is especially relevant to consider now, as events are being postponed and shifting from in-person to virtual. In many cases, the marketing investment has already been made and brands are scrambling to pivot and salvage whatever pre-COVID-19 plan was in place just a few weeks ago. 

Live panels are converted into webinars, in-person scoops are replaced with Zoom exclusives and post-session Q&As play out in lively Twitter chats. These are all smart, immediate tactical changes to make. But how do we shift the strategy? 

In our experience, matching event types to objectives is your first order of business. 

Event Types and Objectives

  • Product launch events: The objective is to increase brand awareness and understanding of a product or service, or to improve brand perception among committed audiences who will travel.
  • Educational events/industry conferences: The objective is to increase knowledge or skill levels, to improve product utilization and retention rates, and to facilitate connections and networking. 
  • Partner/customer events: The objective is to drive partner value and customer engagement, to generate upselling and cross-selling leads, and to encourage referral business.
  • Industry events from trade associations.  The objective is to facilitate the marketplace where buyers and sellers can exchange ideas, make connections and business in a concentrated fashion. 

At Manifest, we’ve learned that regardless of the type of event, all events have strong commonalities in terms of audience engagement. Events are social, searchable and experiential. Your approach should zero in on three key moments in the event life cycle. 

Pre-Event Buildup

Leading up to an event, brands should aim to craft an emotional experience that attendees can see themselves being a part of.

Connecting with consumers where they are could lend itself to a more meaningful experience devoid of the theatrics an in-person event provides. With this in mind, brands must be more creative at how they approach messaging. In your strategic planning, establish what needs to be live, as not all aspects of your planned in-person event need to be a part of your virtual experience. Always err on the side of less.

Think about the technology you need to engage. With social distancing, social interaction should be the leading driver in your platform choice. In addition, targeted social engagements, like Q&As, stories, call-to-action buttons and polls, can help inform event content and audience acquisition strategy well in advance of the event. These tools can position the brand as the authoritative voice for the event’s duration. 


For instance, this year for the HIMSS Global Health Conference & Exhibition, Manifest worked with CDW and its multimedia tech and healthcare platform, HealthTech, to engage social followers with pre-event Twitter polls. The results informed our event coverage throughout HIMSS as well as our post-event content. It enables an ongoing and meaningful conversation with an audience looking to maximize their event experience. 


Take a cue from your competitors’ previous events as well, reviewing past relevant topics and sharing best practices and takeaways. Exclusivity and personalization are driving forces for virtual events, namely giving access to keynote speakers and event presenters through pre-event interviews and Q&As.

Event Execution

This may be an obvious point, but speakers have to work much harder to keep and entertain attendees without the live audience to get the adrenaline pumping. Far from being captive, the audience is a click away from being distracted, and is more than likely multitasking. Speakers and panelists should be purposeful about making their point and using dramatic skills to do so.

During the event, smart brands activate their social channels to ignite conversation where their audiences are engaging. This reinforces brand authority by highlighting emerging themes and insights in real time. Polls are a good way to capture what’s on your audience’s mind.

This creates a chance to deploy multimedia content that provides a richer experience more akin to conference attendance and participation than to reading or surfing the web for content. At that same (canceled) HIMSS conference, CDW experimented with a new content type: audiograms. Audio content was just as engaging on social media as video coverage, and the audience appreciated the range of in-depth and quick-hit content served to them in a variety of ways. 


Post-Event Follow-Through

When bringing consumers together virtually, you’re responsible for creating a safe place that encourages further conversation. Content created at the event can extend the event’s value well beyond the actual date. Continue event conversations on your blog or social media platforms to extend your virtual footprint. Post-event follow-through is an impactful way for your brand to provide value and engage your target audience in an ongoing conversation.


While social distancing remains our new normal, this window in time can be an opportunity to laser-focus on what your audience’s needs truly are in the virtual event arena. And unlike with in-person events, attendees will reward you with their continued attention if you meet those needs or punish you by making a fast exit if you do not. Good virtual event planning sounds more like good marketing.

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