According to Sarah Reed, an event planner and Senior Director of Global Strategic Events for Zendesk, event registration and attendance at virtual events is up about 75% around the globe. Reed also notes that costs are down, pipeline is up, and the return on investment (ROI) has increased by 400%.
For many nonprofits and charities, this is great news. Virtual fundraisers can be held for a fraction of the cost of an in-person event and easily accommodate more supporters than traditional galas. The reduced expense also allows your event planners to host more galas each year, increasing opportunities for more donations and better funding.
On the other hand, virtual fatigue is causing many people to shy away from online event invites. And while hybrid events are popular, it takes time to discover what activities will engage your in-person and virtual audiences the best — which can eat up your budget. With so many factors affecting virtual and hybrid events, how can you ensure that your future events and fundraisers will offer a good ROI?
Reed and Jessica Vogel, Vice President of Marketing for Moveable Ink, offer some suggestions in their online webinar “From Virtual to Hybrid: How to Drive Return on Events in 2021.” Moderated by David Moricca, CEO and co-founder of Socialive, the webinar explores many questions about virtual events and discusses how virtual and hybrid galas can be structured to better engage audiences. Over the course of an hour, the professionals offer many actionable steps for planning successful virtual events and increasing audience engagement before, during, and after your event.
To help you apply this knowledge to your own events, we’ve distilled these tips into a series of guidelines you can apply to your virtual and hybrid galas. Read carefully — odds are, you’ll find some ideas that will restructure how you think about online fundraising.
Tip #1: Increase Your Conversion Rate by Knowing Who You Need to Invite
With the virtually unlimited online space you enjoy through online platforms like PayBee’s, it’s tempting to just invite everyone in your database to all your virtual galas. After all, the more people you invite, the more potential donors and supporters you gain, right?
Well, maybe not. Unfortunately, this strategy can result in burnout for your attendees who are already getting dozens of evites to other virtual events. To improve your conversion rate, Reed suggests establishing an “events council” that can help focus on the audience you want to reach at each virtual or hybrid event. An events council should determine:
· Why are you hosting this event?
· What is this event’s purpose — and why does it matter?
· Who is this event truly for?
By answering these questions, your organization will be able to determine which of your events is truly important, and which ones you can scale back on. You’ll also be able to better arrange your events by geography, purpose, and content, which will help inform the type of people in your database who will respond well to the topics and themes of each event. By focusing on these people — and making sure your team knows the most important people to invite — your conversion rate will most likely go up.
Tip #2: Increase Audience Engagement by Sending Out Activities Prior to the Event
Effective audience interaction is often the key factor that decides a successful virtual or hybrid event. To help engage your audience, Reed suggests sending out boxes of activities to potential attendees before the event. These activity items should correlate with the upcoming virtual event to help create excitement and provide incentive to attend the actual live virtual or hybrid event.
Just what these activity items can be will vary. Reed suggests sending out homework and challenge questions that will come up during the virtual event. Audience members can also receive activity items they’ll be using during the event, letting them know that the virtual gala will be interactive and require their participation. Vogel also finds that sending snacks and drinks from local vendors is a good way to build up anticipation for the event and increase improve event turnout.
“Sending people things is good,” she notes, playfully adding, “It also makes people feel guilty if they don’t show up.”
During the event itself, it’s important to offer people ways to connect and have conversations. This can be done through video calls or a chat feature like the one offered through the PayBee online platform. Both networking and community building is a big draw for virtual and hybrid events, and being able to offer the tools for such engagement is a great way of promoting a more favorable response.
Tip #3: Be Willing to Experiment with Different Virtual and Hybrid Events
So many event planners become overly concerned with producing a perfectly polished virtual or hybrid event that they forget these types of galas are still in their infancy stage. People need to have the freedom to test out new and different online and in-person events … even if they don’t all go just the way you planned.
“Since we were not traveling [in 2020], we had the flexibility to really expand and test four or five or six different types of events, whereas in the past we really had to prioritize what was most urgent with the limited team size we had,” recalls Vogel. She notes that the lower cost of virtual events allowed them to experiment more, something she feels is important to communicate to stakeholders.
“You need to be comfortable with uncertainty and risk-taking,” she states.
Reed adds that event planners need to get comfortable with having less control over aspects of a virtual event — such as a celebrity guest with a bad Internet connection. However, she notes that technology is evolving quickly to make event planners more comfortable with current digital events, which should just motivate planners to continue innovating and keep taking risks with their online events.
Moderator Moricca agrees, stressing that audiences respond well to authenticity — so even when your events aren’t one-hundred percent polished, an audience will still engage and give you some leeway if they see you’re trying to give them a good experience.
“It’s okay if we’re authentic. It’s okay if we’re not perfect,” he states.
Tip #4: Show Your Audience the Value of Your Event After the Actual Experience
“People want community and for that to be extended after the event,” states Vogel. “They can continue to communicate and connect through online tools — like Slack, LinkedIn — to extend the conversation past the event.”
Reed adds that organizations can take advantage of a virtual event’s ability to be recorded to share event content with a larger audience even after the original event concludes.
“There’s a misnomer that if you create content for a single event, you can’t use it again since you feel everyone’s seen it,” she states. “But creating brand-new content constantly is exhausting and unnecessary. The digital world enables you to distill the content – make 60-90-minute bits on social media and entice people to watch the long-form version.”
She finds that showing teasers or segments of a virtual event on YouTube lets organizations re-use their content and gives audiences new options for how they can experience or re-experience an event — granting them multiple entry points for discovering your events and organization.
Being able to post online videos also helps re-establish connections with an existing audience. For instance, Reed recalls how the speaker of a popular online panel once recorded a short follow-up video to answer all the questions the panelist couldn’t get to during the event. By sending this video to the audience, the organization showed it was interested in all of the audience’s questions, creating a better sense of trust and community with their clients.
Offering post-event surveys is another valuable tactic, according to Vogel, who finds that learning their audience’s needs can inform the type of informational materials they need to create — or help them recommend existing articles and videos based on their audience’s interests.
Tip #5: Know How to Budget for Virtual and Hybrid Events
When planning a hybrid event, both Reed and Vogel agree that event planners need to factor in costs unique to a virtual or in-person event to ensure both a great event experience and ROI.
“I think the most you can do is try to understand as many of the upfront costs as possible to really decide what’s most important,” states Vogel. “Is livestreaming mission critical or can you deliver that content the next day? Think about accessibility — things like captioning — I think that if you want to effectively produce an experience that is amazing in person and is amazing digitally it’s definitely going to inch toward budgeting toward two different events and I think it’s important to prioritize which elements for each event are most important.”
When looking at the in-person costs for an event, Vogel feels it’s still important to consider the cost per attendee in terms of gifts, food, and décor. By contrast, virtual events don’t have as many costs, giving planners an opportunity to scale back as much as possible without considering the cost per attendee. That said, virtual events have unique costs of their own that need to be met.
“Utilize your production partners really wisely. Get them to start think about where you’re going to go – how many people are you thinking of having at these physical events,” states Reed. “Have them budget out the parallel of the digital experience. You want executive producers who can handle the in-person event and a partner who can handle the virtual aspects. So – more of an extra cost, but it’s going to pay off in the long run.”
Creating Healthy ROIs for Your Virtual and Hybrid Events
Both virtual and hybrid events are here to stay and event planners need to learn how to factor in new costs and audience needs in order to provide a great experience — both online and in-person. While there’s still plenty of room left for experimentation, planners have learned a lot about virtual and hybrid galas in the last year, and it’s to your advantage to apply their knowledge to your fundraisers.
To start, sign up for a free demo of PayBee’s online fundraising platform. You’ll get an idea of how online tools have evolved to accommodate virtual and hybrid events and get a better idea of what events and activities your nonprofit or charity should offer moving forward.