When we say “virtual conference,” we don’t just mean webinars. We mean interactive, live panels, and microsites dedicated to the single purpose of promoting one event with various sessions a person can “attend.”
Virtual conferences have become a popular medium to develop and reach large audiences. From marketing to recruiting and sales to education, businesses in various industries have realized hosting online events are far cheaper than an in-person event — thus making it cheaper to build awareness around a brand.
We’re going to get into a lot, but by the end of this post, you’ll see the value in hosting a virtual conference and know how to organize and host your own event. You’ll have another medium to accelerate brand awareness, generate more leads, and develop authority as an industry leader.
In 2017, I helped launch Inbound Sales Day here at HubSpot, and I’m here to teach you how it’s done. Continue reading to download my project management templates and emails I used to book speakers — all available for free.
Imagine a conference. There are dozens of rooms, booths with vendors trying to sell you their product, and a lot of people walking around. You might run into some very influential leaders in your industry, and you expect to see people on stage sometime during the event. You’re excited to hear them share lessons and tips they’ve learned from their own experience and journey to success.
Now, imagine a similar experience — but without having to leave your desk.
You log into an “event” online, where you can meet and interact with people through messaging platforms. You go into “rooms” (aka web pages) where you can watch speakers present their knowledge in the form of a recorded video.
It’s a simple concept: Get the content you would receive at a conference on your own time, when it’s convenient for you. It aligns perfectly with the culture and popularity of on-demand services, such as:
Lyft, with on-demand car rides
Drizly, with on-demand alcohol
Soothe, with on-demand massages
Virtual conferences, with on-demand quality content and insights about the industry.
Virtual events began in 1993, presented by Alan Saperstein and Randy Selman. They started by videotaping trade show exhibitors booths and attaching the video to HTML floor maps. These events have become more popular among marketers for their lower cost and effort to produce.
Here’s an example of an HTML floor map:
Examples of virtual events include:
You might be thinking, “There’s no way these events were produced by a small team.”
That’s fair. But I can tell you that I coordinated and launched Inbound Sales Day, a full-day virtual event with over 10 hours of video that garnered over 15,000 registrations globally. And I did most of it by myself in only three months. For a comparison, the team that organizes HubSpot’s live INBOUND event has over 10 people involved in planning the event for the entire preceding year.
It’s possible to host and launch one of these things, even with a small team, but why should you host a virtual conference in the first place? Why not just host a physical event instead?
There are numerous benefits to hosting online events. Let’s dive in.
Consider some of the reasons you’d host a conference, either virtual or in-person:
Below are expenses to consider for a physical event (based on a 400-person hosted by Hustle Con):
Even for a smaller event, that totals at least $20,000. Soon, you’re underwater and either hiring contractors or using half your team’s day to get all the little details right. To top it off, there always seem to be attendees or speakers who are an absolute nightmare to deal with.
I’m getting stressed just thinking about it.
For an online conference, a few weeks of work and a small budget are all that’s needed. In fact, all of the software I used to organize everything was free:
Plus, when you create assets for your event online, you continue reaping the benefits of long-tail keyword SEO and organic traffic from evergreen content for months to come.
Depending on your resources, you may want to hire freelancers to help you with asset creation or to run Facebook ads to get more awareness about your event.
In many cases, you end up cutting expenses dramatically by hosting an online event instead of an in-person conference. Let’s dive into how we decided HubSpot should host an online conference about inbound sales.
HubSpot revolutionized marketing in 2006 by introducing the concept of inbound marketing and telling the story of how marketing had changed. Since then, sales has also changed, and we’ve introduced the concept of inbound selling.
However, similar to when inbound marketing was a new concept in 2006, people needed to be educated about the concept of inbound selling.
We had various goals that overlapped with each other when thinking about hosting a virtual event:
What better way to educate our audience and develop credibility around inbound selling than by hosting real experts to talk about it? Influencers already have an audience who will listen to them. They have their own methodologies and many of those ideas aligned perfectly with inbound selling.
By hosting a virtual conference, we were able to scale influencer marketing and associated the credibility of those influencers with the HubSpot brand.
Plus, with the changing landscape of content and more consumers preferring video content, this was an opportunity to develop high-quality video content we could continue to use.
Still interested in hosting your own online conference? I’m going to lay out all the steps I took to organize Inbound Sales Day that you can replicate for your own event. I’ll also give you the project management and email templates I created that kept me organized throughout the whole process.
Before we jump into the planning, decide how you’re going to manage the project. I used a combination of Trello and spreadsheets to manage my work.
I laid out all activities in my project management Trello board, which gave me a bird’s-eye view of the timeline, what needed to be done at the moment, and what was coming up. This allowed me to catch situations where I would need to delegate work or ask for help ahead of time.
All assets that were created (landing pages, emails sent, social posts, videos, etc.) were listed in an asset management spreadsheet. This way, I had access to every asset in one place without having to search for it.
The campaign was executed in six phases, which I’ll walk you through below:
What do you want the event to look like? What topics do you want to cover? Who’s your audience? How many registrations do you expect?
All of this will be important for your speaker outreach as those will be your selling points. If you can pinpoint your target audience (try the MakeMyPersona tool to help with that), you can find speakers who also want to reach that audience. If you have a set number of expected registrations, you can attract speakers with an idea of what their reach will be if they participate.
The most important step to producing a viable virtual conference is to get speakers in your industry. This will benefit you in two ways:
I highly recommend getting experts within your company to speak on the subject matter and promote the event by giving a talk or interviewing another expert so that your employees will come to be seen as trusted industry thought leaders.
My goal was to get on a video call with the potential speakers I emailed. A video call allows you to sell them on the idea and show them how excited you are.
Here’s the email template I used:
Invitation to Participate in [NAME OF VIRTUAL CONFERENCE]
[YOUR COMPANY] is launching [NAME OF VIRTUAL CONFERENCE], a virtual event for [#] [TYPE OF PEOPLE YOU’RE TARGETING] on [DATE] and we would love to have you as a featured speaker.
We’re inviting top experts in [INDUSTRY] to help [PROFESSIONALS] become more successful by providing actionable information about [BROAD OVERVIEW OF TOPICS].
I watched your talk on [TOPIC] and think you’d be a great fit for our audience.
If you’re interested in speaking, we have many speaking options available that can be flexible with your schedule. I’d love to discuss them with you on a quick call.
Let me know if you’re interested and we can schedule time this week or next to talk through the details.
For your convenience, here’s a link to my calendar so we can schedule time right away: [MEETINGS LINK]
Once I got the meeting scheduled, I made sure to hit the following points for each conversation:
After the call, I immediately sent a follow-up email which:
Here’s a template I used:
[NAME OF VIRTUAL CONFERENCE] Call Recap
I’m glad we got to connect today. We’re very excited that you’re going to join us for [CONFERENCE NAME]. Here’s a recap of what we discussed earlier — feel free to revise any of it.
Again, it was great connecting today! Please let me know if you have any questions.
Hope you have a great week!
A week later, I followed up again for all those items. Speakers are really busy, and it’ll take a few emails and calls to get those details from them. This is why I suggest you begin the process at least two months before your launch date.
Some speakers will ask for a packet with more details. You can use this template to create your own speaker packets.
On my Trello board, I laid out a timeline of when all assets were created and used a spreadsheet to keep track of them as they were created.
Your landing page is going to be a selling point for your event to get speakers and attendees. Don’t expect to attract many of either if your page doesn’t look sharp.
Below you can see the homepage, agenda page, and session pages we created for Inbound Sales Day.
The homepage highlighted the benefits of attending and the various speakers we featured.
The agenda page shared more details about what topics will be discussed and the main takeaways of each talk. This gave viewers an opportunity to see who would be speaking and do their research or reach out to influencers before the event.
The session page is where the fun happened. Each video had its own landing page on the HubSpot domain so viewers wouldn’t have to leave our website to see the content. We had over two-dozen of these pages.
|Landing Page||Agenda||Session Page|
Click the images to see the full versions
I recommend using YouTube Live to broadcast live videos and to host all videos to take advantage of its video SEO. I then embedded all the videos on landing pages so people wouldn’t have to leave our website to watch the video.
There were three different session formats which each required different preparatory measures. Here was my process for each format:
For live events, we created a Google Form for people to submit questions ahead of time. These questions were used to inform talking points for relevant sessions.
The obvious goal for social media images is to make a person stop scrolling through their newsfeed and read what the event was about. We went with blinking GIFs that included photos of the speakers.
As with content distribution in general, this was the most difficult part of the process. We leaned into speakers a lot and asked them to promote the event to their email list and on their blogs and social profiles.
We asked each speaker to send an email to their list, write a blog post, and post on social media about the upcoming event. We made it as easy as possible for speakers to promote the event by creating speaker promotion packets, which provided pre-written emails, blog posts, social media copy, and images. All they had to do was copy and paste the text and insert the image.
We also gave each speaker their own unique tracking URL (learn how to do it using HubSpot software) to use in promotional materials. This showed us how much interest each speaker drove and how many registrations they contributed.
Don’t start a packet from scratch, get the free speaker promotion packet template.
Brainstorm blog post topics based on the topics your speakers will discuss, and come up with a publishing cadence for your promotional posts. If you already have an editorial calendar, I’d suggest you avoid making every post promotion and instead periodically insert promotional posts.
I met with HubSpot’s Social Media team two months before the event launch to discuss the campaign and come up with a promotional cadence that made sense for each channel.
I used a spreadsheet to organize all social media posts. I wrote most of the copy in bulk and scheduled the posts in batches as each date came up.
Your promotion strategy will vary depending on which channels you have access to. I sat with my team and brainstormed promotional tactics before deciding which were most viable. A few of those included:
The night before your launch, make sure:
On the day of the event:
To prove that the virtual conference was worth the time and effort, do an analysis of the traffic and registrations you received, how many video views you got, and send a survey to your registrants.
The best way to prove value is to tie it all back to revenue. How many qualified leads did you get, and what is the monetary value of a lead? How many new software signups did you get and what is the worth of each signup? How many new clients did you get and how much are they paying you?
As always, no matter how successful the event, things can always be better. Here are a few things I wish I had done differently that you can learn from.
This event would’ve been great for sales enablement. Sales reps could use the conference as a piece of content to share with prospects and be helpful. It’s also good to let reps know about the event and how to talk about it in case prospects bring it up on a call.
This may be more difficult for your first event as you start developing credibility for your event, but get speakers with large audiences if you can. It’s even better if you can get them to commit to driving a certain number of registrations.
Ideally, you’re going to get a lot of registrations for the event. What are you going to do with them after the event? Have a communication plan for your registrants, whether it’s sending them content, telling them about your products or services, or asking for feedback. Don’t leave them hanging.
How can you get registrants to share the event before it happens? Maybe a contest or giveaway? How can you get registrants to engage with speakers before the event?
As more companies work to get a foothold in their industries and the marketing industry evolves to encompass more video content, virtual conferences will become more and more common. And as with any marketing tactic, as virtual conferences become more common the medium will become less effective.
Host your first virtual conference now before your competitors and gain first-mover advantage. Good luck.
Here are all the resources and templates I’ve shared throughout this post:
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.