Welcome to the New Normal. Where small businesses are spending more time interacting with customers online at virtual events, rather than in person.

Over the last two years, doing things digitally was, of course, an imperative. Sporting events, concerts, business conferences, trade shows, workshops, and training classes couldn’t take place live, so they all went online. Basketball teams played to empty stadiums, orchestras to echoing concert halls, and business events of all types took place in front of webcams in venues without audiences.

Today, we are (tentatively) meeting our customers face to face again. But the trend of doing things virtually that started out of necessity during the pandemic shows no sign of slowing down.

That’s because small businesses realized over the last two years that they could actually reach more people, convey their messages more forcefully, and spend their marketing dollars more wisely by doing virtual events.

What are virtual events?

According to a 2021 survey by Amazon, most small businesses are new to online events, with more than half (51%) running their first in 2020. Zoom is by far the platform of choice (50% of businesses). Almost six in 10 businesses (58%) will increase their spending for online events next year, and a whopping 91% say their initial online ventures have been successful.

Virtual events can be meetings, summits, press conferences, seminars, symposiums, trade shows, exhibitions, how-to workshops, even product launches … the list goes on. Whenever people are interacting in one of these kinds of events in a virtual environment over the internet, rather than physically in person, it’s a virtual event.

The main benefit of virtual events: they can be more affordable and easily done—although some businesses put quite a lot of thought and money into them—and people can attend from the comfort of their office desks, living room sofas, or favorite coffee shops. Distance isn’t an issue. Neither is parking, paying for accommodations, or meals. All an attendee needs is an internet connection and an invitation to click on, and they’re set.

On the audience side, a Statista 2021 survey found that 40% of the events people plan to attend in 2022 will be virtual. And another survey found that 55% of small business marketers said that the top three goals for online events were customer relations, education, and retention.

Uncertain about dipping your toe into virtual-event waters? No worries, we’ll show you what to do and how to do it. Whether you’re hosting an internal all-hands for 10 employees or showing prospective customers how to use your award-winning bbq sauce to host a killer party, this checklist will help you shine.

Person using a virtual event or forum

A virtual events playbook

These nine steps will take you a long way toward a successful virtual event.

Ask yourself: why do it?

You don’t want to do a virtual event for its own sake. What outcome are you hoping for? Perhaps you just want to substitute a virtual event for one you previously did in person. For example, many independent bookstores switched from live author reading events, where the writer was physically present, to virtual reading event, in which her talk was broadcast over a webinar. In such cases, the reach of the audience is turning out to be much greater than in physical events, creating much more engagement—and sales—beyond the local reach of your typical bookstore. Or maybe you’re trying something completely new, like using an online forum to demonstrate how to use a new piece of woodworking equipment that you’re now selling in your hardware store.

Online events typically fall into five categories: improve awareness, create engagement, generate revenue (both direct and indirect), and collect data to analyze. According to a 2021 survey by Amazon, a plurality of small businesses (45.3%) created an online event to create engagement, followed by improving brand awareness (18.9%), and generating indirect sales.

In other words, make sure there is a purpose, and that you are offering something of value to your audience.

Choose compelling content

What kind of content do you plan on presenting? Will it be product-focused or thought leadership? Will it be pre-shot video? Animations? An expert with a PowerPoint deck? Do you want to create a highly interactive Q&A session? All these things require careful thought.

The good news is that virtual events are generally easier to prepare for than in-person events. You don’t have to worry about booking a venue, arranging for accommodations, food, drinks, etc. You save valuable time that you can spend focusing on the content.

What’s critical on your part is how to retain the engagement of your audience. “Zoom fatigue” and distractions can have a major impact on the attention spans of attendees. However, small businesses are doing a much better job recently producing engaging content. According to a recent survey, in 2020, attendees stayed for only 53% of virtual sessions, but in 2021, they were engaged for 68% of them. That represents a more than 28% lift.

You also must decide if you’re going to charge your audience. Will you require an up-front fee to attend, or play the long game and hope that your benefits come in the form of selling more products or services after the fact?

Select the right tools

There are any number of tools to help you host online events, and more and more are becoming available all the time. The best part, many of them have free editions, so you can try them out before committing. And some have special features targeted at retail, food, tech, or other industry. It’s important to do your research.

First, all the social networking tools like Facebook Live, Instagram Live, YouTube Live, or even Twitch allow you to stream content that enables you to connect with your audience. They have the added advantage of being platforms that are familiar to most everyone.  But there are all sorts of other options, including:

Make your setting pop

Once you’ve chosen your platform, you can think about creating the right setting and atmosphere. Choose the place you’ll be streaming or recording from carefully. Make sure that your surroundings are clean and uncluttered, that all necessary props are within reach, and that your slides and hosting platform have your brand’s logos, fonts, and imagery displayed. Your presenters should be dressed appropriately, and the lighting, audio, and microphones carefully tested and placed.

Enlist authentic and credible speakers

This is a critical aspect of a successful online event. You have lots of choices, depending on the subject of your content, and your objectives.

  • Employees: As the business owner, you are an obvious person to lead a virtual event, but perhaps you have other employees with good screen presence and expertise. Don’t let HIPPO (the highest paid person in the office) determine who hosts an event. It requires special qualities to be a presenter who doesn’t put your audience to sleep.
  • Outside experts:  Reach out to influencers or leaders in your industry, or even other business owners with complementary offerings. They can provide interesting independent thought leadership that provokes good discussions.
  • Customers:  Invite your customers to present and tell their stories. These case studies can be very compelling to other or prospective customers who like to hear firsthand how others experience your brand.

Promote it

After you’ve put all this effort into your online event, you want people to find it and attend it. And how you promote your event will make all the difference as to whether it is a success or not. Don’t underestimate how much work promotion is. According to a recent survey,  most small businesses need between three to six weeks to successfully promote a small virtual event. For larger events, like conferences, 65% of small businesses need more than six weeks to drive the hoped-for volume of registrations.

One study of virtual event marketing found the following:

  • 60% of small businesses use social media to drive registration
  • 76% say email is the single most effective way to promote online events
  • 51% of B2B companies use their business partners
  • 39% say their sales teams are the source of a significant number of registrations

If it’s in your budget, make sure to create a special landing page for your event so you can send traffic (from ads or emails) directly there.

Man engaged in a virtual event

Make contingency plans

You know the old saying: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. As the date of your event approaches, it’s time to create a contingency plan for the unexpected. What will you do if your slides stop working? If there are problems with the audio or video? What happens if your internet connection drops? At the very least, have an alternative backup platform you can send your audience to if yours isn’t working. If your chosen platform is Zoom, have a backup on Google Meet or Microsoft Teams ready to go—and your attendee list so you can email the new URL. You should also consider emailing your presentation or backup materials to attendees in advance. They usually appreciate this, as they have the material to review again after the event is over.

Practice, practice, practice

Do at least one end-to-end dress rehearsal of the entire event. If you’ve got a more sophisticated set up with lots of audio-visual aids and technology involved, do several of these. Make sure everyone is comfortable and confident with the planned event.

Break a leg

Congrats! Event day is here! If all goes well, you can relax and enjoy the event. Keep your contingency plans close at hand, but with luck you won’t need them.

 Follow up and repurpose

Don’t forget to follow up and ask for feedback from everyone involved. This means attendees as well as those who worked behind the scenes.

And keep in mind that you’ve now created some great content.  Make sure to use it. Transform presentations and keynotes into blog posts. Make tip sheets out of how-to workshops. Create a guide of best practices based on what the various speakers said. Post replays on YouTube. Do whatever you can to take full advantage of everything that went into your virtual event.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Send out a survey that requests feedback and recommendations for future events
  • Create emails that include transcripts, links to a replay of the event, downloadable recordings, links to resources used to support the event, like PowerPoint decks or research studies
  • Write blogs or articles summing up the event, with succinct executive summaries for people who missed it
  • Post images, video excerpts, and quotes on social media to keep the conversation going

Make virtual events work for your small business

Virtual events can work as well for small businesses as for larger ones. It’s just a matter of knowing your subject, knowing your audience, and understanding how to create value for them. And don’t be intimated by the technology. There are an abundance of intuitive, user-friendly tools to help you—many of which you can test for free. So, what’s stopping you?