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6 New Virtual Event Formats to Try in 2021

Updated

Need content ideas for your virtual event? Here are 6 of the most engaging virtual event formats for 2021.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The IRL conference with the big-name keynote and a few sessions, with two breakouts, half-hearted networking and a sad catered lunch to spice it up. Yawn. But after committing time and commuting costs, you’re stuck, so you suck it up and spend half the day checking email on your smartphone.

Virtual event organizers don’t have the luxury of a captive audience, though. At any given moment in your programming, you’re competing with your audience’s IRL distractions.

That’s why variety is the X factor of any virtual event. If you offer innovative content, or present it in an unexpected format, you can go beyond keeping eyeballs and truly captivate your audience.  

At BigMarker, we’re helping companies engage their customers with over 10,000 virtual events per day, so we’ve seen a lot of content ideas and cool event formats beyond the standard keynote plus sessions structure, with marketing gains and success to match.

Below are some of the event formats that have worked best for companies looking to drive customer engagement with online events:

CEO’s Opening Keynote

The prerequisite of any company town hall, CEO keynotes used to go something like this: Tell everyone how successful you’ve been this year (especially if you haven’t), sprinkle in the buzzword of the year, stir and serve. But in a time when CEOs are seen as out of touch with their employees’ concerns, and employee trust in leadership has cratered, CEO keynotes have become critical places for chief executives to build trust and prove their humanity.

Employees always need to trust their leaders to feel invested in their workplaces. But especially during economic crises and difficult transitions, employees need to see their CEO’s humanity and leadership in full display. If rumors about layoffs are flying around, they need an honest, kind pulse check that’s not in the form of a form email. And that can come in a CEO keynote.

But these speeches can easily backfire if the content isn’t transparent and thoughtful. When writing your CEO keynote, consider these three questions from prominent executive coach Peggy Klaus, from the Harvard Business Review:

  • “Have you spent time thinking about what’s in it for them? Do you know why you’re really giving it — aside from your Communications Director or head of HR telling you that you’re supposed to update the troops and it’s another box you have to check off?
  • Have you asked yourself: What do you want your people to feel, think and do when you are done? (If you’ve left that part to the speechwriter, don’t.)
  • Have you addressed the elephant in the room? Bad press, layoffs, elimination of benefits, product recall, weak earnings, downgraded rating, takeovers, even widespread perceptions of you that might be less than flattering?”

It’s worth repeating: Don’t just repeat your talking points, even if your company’s doing well. People will see through it, and your leadership will suffer for it. Rule of thumb: Read your company’s quarterly press release and your keynote to a friend, but don’t tell them which is which. If they can’t tell the two apart, you’re doing it wrong.

From there, keep it short and sweet, then conclude by thanking your audience for their time.

Customer Panels

Say I’m searching for a new marketing automation platform. To decide which one is the best fit for my company, I wouldn’t just want to hear from the vendor. I’d also want to hear from my peers—that is, other customers—about their experiences with the platform I'm researching.

This logic explains the importance of customer panels, which gather real consumers to discuss the company’s product, industry, successes and shortcomings in a structured panel format.

Executed well, customer panels give your leads a more specific, richer view of how your product can help them. Executed without the proper attention to transparency, though, they’ll ring insincere and invite suspicion about your product quality.

So approach customer panels like you would a CEO keynote. Throw out the press releases and invite a selection of customers that can provide balanced, nuanced commentary. Although you can achieve this with a random sample, the best way to do it is by looking to other well-respected companies in your industry.  

Source your presenters and panelists from prominent companies that are aspirational for you and your audience members. If your products have earned the respect of your industry’s leaders and peers, they’ll earn your customers’ respect as well.

A more knowledgeable group of speakers will both increase the integrity of your panel and serve as a tailwind for your sales. So lean in and build a panel that will represent all your product has to offer.

Reddit-style AMAs

Seriously.

For the uninitiated, AMAs (short for Ask Me Anything) are essentially live Q&As hosted on Reddit. In a Reddit thread, folks submit questions to hosts, typically celebrities or people with unusual and interesting backgrounds, and the hosts answer in real time. For attendees, this simulates the thrill of direct-messaging a famous and/or interesting person, which generates outsize intrigue and interest.

It’d be nice if your virtual events inspired the same hype, right?

This year, Gremlin, a chaos engineering platform, had just that idea. They hosted a live Reddit-style AMA in which they educated their user base about their product and industry, attracting enough participants and excitement to become one of the tech industry's most vibrant virtual events of 2020.  

Besides the potential for interactivity and audience interest, this format has the advantage of being low-maintenance relative to others. Besides securing the host, all you have to do is spread the word and let the questions roll in (and have someone on hand to moderate). If your host can bring enough charisma and personality to the space, it’s a low-cost, lower-effort tactic with extraordinary upside.  

Tip for success: As your hosts begin to go off screen, transition them to a Slack channel, which will receive your AMA’s incoming questions (set this up by integrating your webinar platform with Slack). This way, your hosts can continue to chat with your most engaged attendees after their “talk” is over, which further multiplies all of the connection and good vibes that your AMA will cultivate.

Live Debates

We know, we know.

Done right, live debates facilitate lively, thought-provoking discussions on pressing topics. Not every issue lends itself to the live debate format, but if your company is associated with an evolving, socially relevant topic, with pros and cons on either side, live debates spark deeper levels of conversation and in turn, excitement.

If you’ve ever gotten way too invested in a pop culture debate (LeBron v. MJ, Lennon v. McCartney, Brady v. Rodgers, etc.)., you’ll understand why this format works. Nothing excites people more than proving that they’re right. Thus the competing perspectives and back-and-forth exchanges will inspire more passion in your audience, which translates to higher engagement, social sharing and post-event action.  

But as we’ve all seen, debates can devolve from a two-way dialogue to interruption-laden monologuing without structure, balance and a commitment to civility.

The first key to success is limiting the number of debaters to two or three. For the sake of your conversation, it’s better for them to genuinely hold different positions on the issue. But one of your debaters can take a constructed view if needed, if and only if they commit themselves to researching that position and articulating it with minimal judgment and bias. Then cast an even-keeled, objective moderator to lend context to the conversation and allow ample time to each side.

Celebrity Keynotes

There’s an entire branch of marketing centered on using big names to entice people to buy things, so I won’t bother telling you why celebrities are good for marketing. I’ll show you instead.

A few months ago, I kept getting emails about Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, but, assuming it was too expensive, I deleted them all.

Then I learned that Robert Downey Jr. and Malala Yousafzai were among the keynotes. So I opened the email and started rooting around the site. Fast Company offered a free pass allowing entry only to the celebrity keynotes, but once I started exploring the sessions, I realized the content was worth the less-than-expected price tag and upgraded anyway.

Easy as that.  

Besides the obvious benefits—generating buzz and viewers—celebrity keynotes tip on-the-fence attendees over the edge to register. And if like me, potential guests are holding off because of a misconception about your programming, the right celebrity encourages them to get more information and possibly sign up.  

Granted, if your event could pull Nobel Prize Peace and Golden Globe winners, you probably wouldn’t need our help. But it’s more doable than you think. For instance, your “celebrity” could be a big name specific to your industry, and furthermore, you can book them for a shorter cameo instead of a full keynote.

Once they’re booked, schedule them in the middle or end of the day, or space multiple big-name guests throughout the day, to motivate people to stick around longer than they would otherwise.

Masterclasses

Imagine getting gymnastics lessons from Simone Biles or writing tips from Malcolm Gladwell. 50 years ago, this would’ve required some serious cash and/or connections. But now, through masterclasses, people can learn from the absolute best in their fields with just the click of a button.

Masterclasses are 30-minute deep dives into one very specific topic or case study from a renowned expert in the industry. (Note: Your masterclasses don’t necessarily need a celebrity at the helm. For instance, you could cast your own company’s lead designers, marketers, engineers, etc., especially if they’re capable of providing strong thought leadership and social engagement.)  

Masterclasses have many of the same marketing benefits as celebrity keynotes, but with some extra sweeteners.

Chief among them is their repeatability. By their nature, lessons are more evergreen than keynote sessions pegged to a single event, so your company can extend the value of that masterclass for a much longer time. Since your audience is learning a tangible skill, and interacting with the content rather than passively listening, they’re also extracting more value from the event, all in a low-commitment, low-pressure setting of their choosing.

Because the “teacher” quality is so high, people are also gleaning truly one-of-a-kind insights about that field, which reinforces your company as an industry leader. That, in turn, fosters more trust and appreciation for your brand. That’s doubly true if your speaker and topic are closely associated with your product or service.

So if you can book an industry-leading expert for a half hour masterclass (easier said than done, we know), its marketing benefits can accumulate for months or even years after the class date.

Bonus Event Add-On: Breakouts and Small Group Open Networking

While virtual events have evolved to become much more interactive and social, organizers are still working uphill against the idea that virtual events are just a series of videos. Not social, not engaging, not interactive…. not worth the investment.

Breakout sessions and virtual networking are two ways to counteract the isolation of a virtual event. While the purpose of breakouts and virtual networking differ, the concept is the same. Both are smaller sessions that split attendees into groups by topic or interest or role, facilitating more intimate conversations and connections than is possible within a 5,000+ person virtual event.

That said, this isn’t the Breakfast Club. You can’t throw strangers into a virtual room together without direction and expect them to magically become friends.

Instead, provide prompts that lend themselves to actionable conversation, such as, ”How will you implement the recommendations from the last session into your quarterly strategy?” An event-related, action-oriented question reminds attendees of their similarities and breaks the ice in a more organic way. The action-driven content also results in better conversations and greater value for all involved. After the session, bring everyone back together to lend additional context to what they learned and let people synthesize any takeaways from their group session.

About BigMarker:

Want to learn more about how the world’s most innovative companies are using webinars and virtual events to advance their marketing goals? BigMarker’s Account Executives are here to help! Contact us at sales@bigmarker.com to get started!

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