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Building a Virtual Event from the Ground-Up: 5 Lessons for Nonprofits

by Erin Chesterton
on March 29, 2021
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5 Lessons Learned from a Forward-Thinking Philanthropy Leader

"It's just I’ve always felt on my own, I wasn't interacting with anybody and I miss that...I wanted to have an entertainment aspect within the virtual experience that I was having." - Keith Williams, CrankedUp

When the lockdown from COVID-19 first hit, Keith Williams felt isolated and craving for community around his passion for cycling. So, he decided to take action into his own hands, in direct response to athletes, entertainers and philanthropists like himself— and set out to find a way to safely come together.

With no existing virtual community, no brand and no database—Keith got creative—and the first annual CrankedUP virtual event series was born. We sat down with the forward-thinking concept creator for a behind-the-scenes look at the event, from the inception of the idea to the success day of, and post-event. You can watch the full interview here, or check out the top five lessons we learned:

Read more as I explore Keith's approach in-depth and explain how you can easily apply his insights to your virtual event strategy.

Lesson #1. Do the Basics Brilliantly

When approaching your virtual event, think of it like building a house. You need to get the foundation sound before moving ahead with the larger vision. Most people can get caught up in the minute details and overlook the fundamentals, as Keith notes below in regard to his first-time virtual event:

"I had no lists, I had no database - this was the first event of its the list was non-existent. We did have a persona and that's something that we kind of articulated quite early on to say who is this for, who are these people?"

As Keith notes, with no database to work from, his team used the resources they had at hand—their existing networks—to dive into the mind of their target attendee, or their "persona." Personas are defined by HubSpot as a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers. In Keith's instance, they didn't have existing customers or community, but they did have a vast understanding of their target based on their years of experience in the endurance and cycling space. You can find more specifics into Keith's targeting approach below:

"Generally speaking they were cyclists that had a turbo or a Peloton, so we looked at their groups that they liked either on Twitter or Facebook. They'd like certain cycling groups—so we looked at the different groups and then we also looked at the type of people those groups followed. We noticed a lot of them were following sports personalities and different emerging technologies. So in summary, we were profiling someone based on them being a cyclist, a sports fan and quite technical and began to look at this audience to see if they exist and how big it is. And that gave us validation to begin targeting that."

If you have never developed personas for your organization, here are a few areas to consider and questions to ask when you go through the process yourself:


Lesson #2. Open Early and Educate Often

If you aren't sure where to start in engaging your attendees pre event, focus on solving problems. The good news, is by creating your personas, you'll be going through this problem-solving journey inherently, as Keith notes below:

"I literally did the most basic thing and took a step back and said if I were doing this what would I need to know? What would be the problems and and how am I going to make people excited about this by solving these problems."

Arming your attendees with everything they need to be successful before the event will maximize the attendance day of, while building excitement and engagement among your community. Don't overlook the opportunity to really hone your pre-event communication strategy for attendees. Start by stepping in to the shoes of your audience and anticipate what they need to be successful. How can you can help your attendees solve these common problems in an engaging way?

Here are simple steps you can take to get started:

    1. After your event's registration page is live, sign up and go through the flow as an attendee
    2. Map out the different questions you have or challenges you face from the attendee perspective each day leading up the event
    3. Categorize your questions and challenges based on the timing of the event - determine what someone would need a few weeks out, 1 week out, 1 day out, etc
    4. Build a calendar to map out the communications and specify the delivery channels you will use
    5. Create the content you need based on your research (how-to videos, training toolkits, get started checklists, FAQs, etc.)

For Keith, he knew his virtual endurance ride would have several technical components, which would likely lead to many questions and potential challenges for riders day-of. Rather than sharing a basic technical guide, he anticipated these needs and created engaging welcome videos pre-event that both educated and entertained his audience with everything they needed to know. Not only was this more impactful and engaging for the riders, but it boosted attendance day-of and helped to arm Keith and his team with the foresight into potential challenges or bottlenecks prior to go-live.


Lesson #3. Virtual Events are a Goldmine for Sponsorships

With lower cost to entry, greater reach and more engaging experiences—there's no question that the benefits of sponsorships in a virtual setting extend far beyond that of in-person events.  Sponsors no longer have to be lost in the noise of a busy trade show floors or high-ticket happy hours. With virtual tools, they now have the opportunity to drive more value from events and use them a relationship-building tool to turn once static attendees into active and engaged participants, as best described by Keith, below:

"I think it's a sponsors dream actually, because I think there's so many events with so much wasted sponsorship money. The audience isn't really engaging with a banner or ad or goodie bag, I just think those times are gone."

To make the experience worthwhile for his sponsors prior to the live event, Keith's team created an agenda pre event, giving sponsors specific dates and times to own. They then set up a virtual expo area in their event—where they would showcase all of the different sponsors based on the agenda, as Keith describes below:

"We can expose people to this particular content at a certain time, and that's what we did and the engagement was really really high—it was unbelievable. It was so easy to do and it's great responses for sponsors, and they really can connect with the attendees or riders in a different way."

With lives polls, Q&As and chat functionality, sponsors are able to go beyond brand awareness and capture key data points to help nurture attendees post-event. Access to this data also enables sponsors to segment more effectively and unearth high-intent leads based on the insights captured. For sponsors navigating the uncertainty of the events landscape throughout the 2021, it's clear virtual presents a major opportunity to drive demonstrable ROI on your investment. 

Lesson #4. You Are No Longer the Thought Leader

Researching, hypothesizing, brainstorming, it's what we as marketers do best. But the rise in user-generated content is proof that the answers to our biggest questions existed all along— within our communities. The data supports this as well. According to Forrester, 47% of top brands rely extensively on user generated content for their marketing efforts. At the most basic level, UGC involves sourcing, annotating and sharing useful content curated by your followers or customers. This content spans everything from customer reviews, to before and after social posts, to online forum and contests. The benefits of UCG reach far beyond that of a traditional content strategy, supporting your community-building efforts, in the following ways:

Knowing the value that user-generated content would provide for Keith's ride, he was strategic in his approach. He created one branded hashtag which he promoted aggressively across channels—encouraging all riders to tag themselves before, during and after the live event. Not only did this tactic drive 19.5% higher average engagement on their Instagram account, but it nearly doubled their following—growing their follower count by 46% with this single event.

user-generated-contentThe takeaway here? Let your community tell you what they need. Spend less time creating content you think they would like and spend more time listening to what they want. Let them tell you what they need, what they like, what they don't like. The answers are out there, you just need to stop and listen.

Lesson #5. The End of Your Event is Just the Beginning

You've held an engaging and unique virtual experience. You've inspired attendees to feel apart of a new community. You've gained new data and information about your audience. Now what?

So much focus and energy is put into the promotion of your event and the day of logistics, that post-event strategy often falls to the wayside. However, this is a major opportunity for you to drive more value from your audience, so don't save it for the last minute.

For Keith, this meant continuing to engage with attendees based on their interests. He also provided unique ticketing bundles and held additional endurance rides to give riders more opportunities to stay connected. Finally, his team got creative and repurposed the event recording to create a video highlight reel from the live event. Below are some low-lift tactics you should map out before your live event, to ensure a timely and seamless follow up that helps you continue to nurture and grow these valuable relationships.

    1.  Send a post event thank you email to all attendees
    2. Send a "sorry we missed you" email to your no-shows
    3. Segment your data based on live polls and Q&As to inform your nurture strategy
    4. Build a post-event landing page to house your content from the event (HINT: recap videos, tweets, social posts, photos etc.)
    5. Hold a post event survey
    6. Nurture attendees and no-shows with relevant content based on the data captured
    7. Draft a blog post sharing key takeaways from the event
    8. Make a highlight reel from the event's most engaging moments and send it to no shows
    9. Get strategic with your sponsorships—hold post-event giveaways or contests based on the attendees you engage with during the live event

In the new world of virtual events, the post event strategy is really just an extension of your live experience—don't let it slip away.

Keith: We did an NPS and considering this was the first event we we got an NPS of 8.3 which was was pretty good. I would I would have liked to have been a bit higher than that...but I think part of it was this is a new event for a quite a few people. So feedback was people wanted to ride the same course, they wanted to ride the exactly the same course. We did have these people that were coming in very technical and other that were there for fun. right but we add some really serious people so the serious people wanted everything like a rulebook we had no rulebook so maybe we could have done a better job sort of catering to those different grou


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