October 16, 2020
By Anna Linthicum

When March 2020 arrived, the Cvent CONNECT onsite conference planning was well underway. 200 sessions had already been launched and our registration numbers were increasing daily. Unfortunately, once COVID-19 hit full-force, we watched as major events were canceled, postponed, or haphazardly transitioned to virtual. We analyzed these virtual efforts and took notes, but we were very hesitant and a little scared to scrap all our hard work and start anew. But, we put our resiliency and adaptability to the test and began to rethink our event marketing strategy. In this post, we’ll provide a behind-the-scenes look into the end-to-end experience constructed for Cvent CONNECT Virtual 2020.

Gathering the team

The first step of executing any successful event marketing strategy is establishing a winning team. Cvent’s Event Marketing team is responsible for event marketing strategy, audience generation, sales enablement, and integrated follow-up campaigns. They also focus on event data flow and capture, understanding engagement and interest, and finally delivering those insights to the sales team through our marketing automation system.

With this strategic and calculated approach in place, it was understandably a huge surprise and shift when the world suddenly turned virtual in March 2020.

When life gives you lemons…

Once we decided to take Cvent CONNECT virtual, we chose to buy ourselves some time and postpone the event from June to August. We didn’t want to rush into anything and were keen to deliver the same world-class content that our attendees were used to, even if it wouldn’t be happening at Caesars.

We also planned to build our own virtual venue (AKA the Cvent Virtual Attendee Hub) and wanted to give ourselves enough time to execute the conference successfully. This really set the tone for how we would design our content and programming strategy, which very quickly became laser-focused on the fact that this was no longer just a user conference – it was a product launch.

Focusing our mission allowed us to begin crafting our agenda, the corresponding experiences, and the event promotion strategy. This simplification of our event core objective became our North Star. Every decision-making opportunity had to answer to our core goal.

Setting audience targets & messaging

We were very excited about our new virtual event solution but had to make sure that our conference exposed enough people to this market-altering product. In this vein, we had to develop messaging and programming to drive registration appetite for both our customers and prospects. We gathered compelling speakers from the industry’s largest brands to deliver educational content, including leadership from:

  1. American Airlines
  2. Southwest Airlines
  3. Hilton
  4. Marriott  

Between our brand-new virtual platform and our world-class speakers, we had little to no idea what to expect in terms of registration count. We had SaaS industry benchmarks that predicted a virtual conference would attract 5-7x the registrations as its in-person counterpart, but we ended up exceeding these expectations. As virtual events and conferences continue to become more precedented, this statistic will become a little easier to predict.

The communication plan

The next step of the planning process was to revise our communication and promotion plan to better cater to our virtual conference.

For our in-person conference, we’d focused on communicating the networking value of our event. With a hefty price tag on conference passes and additional travel expenses, we had to convince prospective attendees that this was a can’t-miss event. However, once the attendee was confirmed and registered, the likelihood of that attendee showing up to the event was high since there was a pretty significant financial investment.

Historically, our in-person conference has a 90-95% attendance rate, so our event marketing efforts had less emphasis on continual engagement following the actual registration conversion. Since we were offering our virtual conference at no cost to attendees, we were able to capture registrations with much less effort. Therefore, our whole messaging approach had to be edited to focus mostly on the post-registration activation. This included a very robust communication plan which began about one month out from the event. This strategy combined emails advertising our can’t-miss content, followed by strategic sales calls.

Enter the Virtual Attendee Hub

You not only need a communication plan for your event promotion, but you also need a plan to drive adoption of your technology. In this case, it was targeted towards our Virtual Attendee Hub. Given our product development timelines and product readiness, we launched our Virtual Attendee Hub one week before our event start date.

We ramped up communications that focused on driving engagement during the conference. We had to create instructional texts, how-to videos, and collateral, as well as provide support from our Client Services teams to help attendees access the event experience. Unlike an in-person event, we could not simply send a Google map and call it a day. We had to develop our own “map” to our new virtual venue. We put forth our best effort and resources to have our technology adoption be as frictionless and simplistic as possible for our attendees.

The week leading up to the conference, our event marketing team was focused on encouraging our registrants to show up "in-person" on the virtual hub on the event dates. We partnered with an SMS provider to send a push notification each morning reminding registrants to log-in to the event.

Sales and marketing – a dynamic duo

Our sales team plays a critical role in attracting and confirming registrants for our annual conference. When our conference was held in-person, our sales reps would call potential attendees for months on end to help convince and convert top prospects and customers to register.

Since our conference was now going to be held in a virtual setting and on a brand-new platform, the sales strategy was refocused. Reps encouraged those who were already registered for Cvent CONNECT Virtual to show up on the event dates. They called in the weeks leading up to the event to remind registrants of the conference and to advertise key speakers and sessions. Sales reps were also focused on preemptively setting follow-up calls for these same attendees so that immediately following the event there were pre-scheduled meetings to recap the conference and answer any questions.

We offered one-on-one appointments and virtual booths during the conference to allow attendees to connect not only with our sponsors and exhibitors but also with our Cvent experts. We wanted to allow our attendees to connect with others, and we wanted to accelerate the sales opportunities that would come of the event.

One of the key lessons learned from the planning of this virtual conference was the importance of all teams working together to accomplish a common goal. This event experience was built in collaboration not only with our marketing and technology teams but also with our sales team playing a major stakeholder role.

There’s creativity in chaos

The next step of pivoting our annual event to a virtual conference was figuring out what to do with our exhibitors and sponsors. How would we deliver the same value virtually as they would have received in-person?

Cvent CONNECT traditionally hosts a 1-day trade show with close to 400 exhibitors and premier sponsors representing the events and hospitality industry. While we were able to maintain some of the integrity of a traditional trade show by way of virtual booths and appointments, we knew that we were dealing with an industry that had been severely impacted as a result of the pandemic.

Our efforts shifted in favor of creating unique and clever ways to drive exponential value for our key contributors and to add value to the overall attendee experience:

Dedicated programming

We created active and experiential programming with our sponsors when possible. VisitDallas hosted an opening welcome reception that catered towards the wanderlust we’re all experiencing in this time of limited travel.

Surprising events

We wanted to keep our virtual audience engaged with entertaining activities. Just because we weren’t physically in Vegas doesn’t mean we couldn’t have fun! Caesars Entertainment conducted a 15-minute cooking class for a tasty mid-event break and an opera performance closed out the event.

Fun gifts

With help from Caesars, we were able to engage our registrants before the event by getting them excited for the cooking class. Caesars sent gifts to attendees to prepare them for the culinary experience ahead.

CAFFEINE

The one constant that has not changed since working from home? Our love of caffeine. We had a gifting provider, Tremendous, provide coffee gift voucher codes that could be embedded into our communications to attendees.

Virtual advertising

We sold ad spots in varying time placements before each session to give more brand awareness to each sponsor.

Mesmerizing content

When it came to developing our content, one word popped into our minds. Mesmerizing. We wanted to create a virtual experience so captivating that attendees would not want to miss the next word, the next scene, or the next slide.

Obviously, we wanted to create interesting content for our attendees so they would be happy they attended the event. But selfishly, we as marketers knew that we had to make our content mesmerizing to gain the most useful information about our attendees. Every commitment of an attendee’s time and attention are explicit opportunities for event marketers to learn more about an attendee’s interests and engagement.

We especially focused our content creation efforts on the following:

Purposeful and actionable content

We made sure that all our content had a very clear message and reason for being included in the event. We did not want to waste anyone’s time.

Authentic comedy

If your speaker has a gift for naturally cracking jokes and bringing in their personality, go for it. But if this turns into forced humor, avoid at all costs. Nothing makes a session more awkward than a joke that doesn’t land with the audience.

Creating Tactile Experiences

We attempted to break down the “barrier” of the screen as much as possible.

Welcome Surprises

Or “Easter eggs,” as we like to call them. These are little elements that would delight attendees while they navigated to new areas of the event.

Stick the landing

It’s important to remember that an event does not end when the closing session is complete (or in our case, when the opera singer is done with the performance). It is the job of the marketing team to “stick the landing” and ensure that the event and its ROI continues long after the sessions are over.

With an unprecedented number of registrants and a brand-new virtual platform, we had to move quickly when it came to lead follow-up and prioritization. We redefined what it meant to be an attendee, what it meant to be engaged, and what it meant to be sales-ready in this virtual landscape. We focused our attention on setting new definitions and KPIs to measure the engagement of our virtual attendees. We realized that most likely, a virtual attendee is not as highly engaged in a session as one that attends the same session in-person.

With 42,000 registrants, we knew that looking at the event’s leads would be very different than usual. We relied heavily on our Cvent Engagement Scoring, where we weighed various attendee actions from throughout the Cvent Virtual Attendee Hub. For example, scheduling an appointment with our solution experts or visiting a virtual booth to speak with a rep was valued higher than viewing a piece of thought leadership content that didn’t necessarily point to immediate buying intent.

This data, once married with our marketing automation system data, accelerated our ability to prioritize and bucket attendees who were ready to have a sales conversation versus those people that needed more engagement post-event through nurture campaigns.

Sales and marketing teams hit the ground running in the days following Cvent CONNECT Virtual. Our sales teams set up follow-up conversations with the most engaged attendees to convert them to customers as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, marketing continues to drive on-demand consumption to boost engagement from our other attendees.

The future of live events: Silver linings

While we can all come to the collective agreement that 2020 has been more than unprecedented, some silver linings have emerged in terms of the future of live events. Here are just a few:

A new era of innovation

Modern virtual event technologies are allowing us to become very flexible with our events programs. We can now host onsite, hybrid, or virtual events, and offer our content live or on-demand. There are no boundaries, which is very exciting news for the marketer.

Coming together

Organizations are valuing the collaboration of planners and marketers more than ever. Marketers are analyzing event tech data and helping their planners to evolve and elevate the value of live events, no matter the setting.

We are social butterflies by nature

Our strategies and objectives for attending and hosting events may have changed, but people innately desire a communal exchange of ideas and information. Even if our event programs are exclusively virtual for the indefinite future, our attendees will still have the opportunity to connect and learn.

Common questions about event marketing for Cvent CONNECT Virtual

How did you determine that you would offer the virtual event for free?

Due to the unique position the meetings and events, hospitality, and travel industries were in at the time of our event we felt it was only right to offer our virtual event for free.

How do you prove the value of virtual to sponsors and exhibitors?

Cvent's Virtual Attendee Hub has a lot of metrics that you can pull to show virtual booth and appointment participation which were opportunities offered to our sponsors. Also, we can look at other metrics such as how long someone was on a page, how many times they visited a page, and of course, ad spots are a great opportunity for sponsors.

Can you share how many sessions were pre-recorded vs. live during Cvent Connect?

Check out the on-demand version of this webinar to hear the answer to this and more questions!

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Anna Linthicum

A recent graduate of Washington and Lee University, I am currently the Sales Development Representative for the Marketing Partnerships team here at Cvent. My writing journey got its start with stories about my cousins and me going on incredible adventures together on family vacations. You can find me organizing my closet, doing Kayla Itsines workouts, or watching The Office for the umpteenth time.

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