As you're probably well-familiar at this point, 2020 has brought with it plenty of disruption and change.
Consider, for instance, the fact that I'm writing this post from my living room, which has slowly morphed into my full-time office (as well as a workout studio, movie theatre, and popular after-work happy hour spot).
Along with a personal change in routine, the pandemic has severely altered how companies conduct nearly every aspect of business.
And one major change? Conferences.
In the early months of 2020, many businesses were faced with a similar problem: Should we host our event or conference entirely online, and if so, will it deliver the same value for attendees?
Moz was no different, but while many companies were shifting a smaller-scale event online, Moz was dealing with an entirely different beast: MozCon, a 15-year-old SEO and digital marketing conference with thousands of attendees from across the globe.
Here, I spoke with Christina Mautz, CMO and Head of Sales at Moz, to learn how business leaders can still build impactful events virtually — plus, how leaders can foster a sense of collaboration and community, even when entirely remote.
Best Practices for Shifting Your Event Online
1. Re-envision your event entirely when shifting to online — don't just "copy and paste" the in-person schedule.
Venturing into virtual events is unknown territory for many businesses. While some companies believe they have experience due to hosting webinars, events are an entirely different beast.
Moz has 15 years of experience creating world-class events. But shifting from in-person to virtual required "all hands on deck", given our goal was to recreate an experience our attendees have come to love and expect from us.
We decided to shift to virtual just before our governor's ban of large-scale events, which left us only two-and-a-half months to re-envision and re-plan the event. While pivoting was a difficult choice, it needed to be made for the safety of our company, the community, and our attendees.
Thankfully, MozCon is a valued and well-known event for our community, so we were successful in hitting our goal for the number of tickets we needed to sell to break-even (we do not run the event for profit), even though the timeline was greatly condensed.
The goal for MozCon Virtual was to provide attendees with the same awesome content experience and overall value they would get from the usual live format. This required us to shorten the event (as our typical three-day conference just wasn't going to fly online) and come up with a new design and attendee engagement strategy.
2. Pre-record sessions ahead of time to increase accessibility, and design a dynamic agenda to keep participants engaged.
Given that our primary goal was to ensure superior content, we focused much of our attention on confirming and/or convincing our existing (expert) speakers to participate. This included the decision to pre-record all sessions with enough time to allow for full closed captioning, to aid in accessibility for all attendees.
We made the decision to make the video recordings available not just during the event but immediately after to increase participation from our many international attendees in different time zones — this was a great success for the participants who joined us from 49 different countries. We also sought support from our partners Seamless Events to ensure our speakers had high-touch support to pre-record their session using high-quality A/V tools like:
- Logitech C920 HD Pro Webcam
- Neewer Backdrop Support System
- Neewer Gray Photography Backdrops
- UBeesize 8-inch Selfie Ring Light w/ Tripod Stand
- Z ZAFFIRO USB Lavalier Lapel Clip Microphone
- Vilcome 4-in-1 USB C Hub Adapter
Finally, we knew that it is often challenging to stay engaged during online events — even when the content is incredible. So we purposely designed a dynamic agenda with sessions we could view together mixed in with a plethora of "birds of a feather" break-out sessions to allow for actual live interactions with attendees.
We chose a virtual event platform among the many available that enabled live break-out sessions as well as live-chat with the speaker and other attendees while viewing each pre-recorded session.
Challenges of Hosting MozCon Virtually
1. Our first challenge was ensuring our marketing team could still "work the event" — plus, fostering collaboration digitally.
Building and executing an in-person conference requires an incredible team, but don't assume virtual events are any easier or less labor-intensive. The challenges are different and can make or break the experience attendees walk away with. Critical to our success was ensuring that we still made space for our marketing team to both plan and "work the event" with the support of our long-time partner, Proper Planning.
We also spent a lot of time thinking about the different challenges we would face. For example, how do you foster collaboration using screens so people feel as if they're in a breakout room? For us, that equated to creating an environment that felt authentic and community-oriented.
We accomplished this by providing an avenue for our speakers to connect through chat while sessions ran, and by creating "Birds of a Feather" sessions allowing us to speak freely and network. These sessions included topics like:
- Ask a CMO
- Ask an SEO
- B2b2c Marketing
- Evergreen Backlinks
- Separating SEO and Content Marketing
- Current Trends in the Agency World
2. Our second challenge was creating a safe, welcoming virtual environment.
Similar to our expectations for MozCon in years past, our mission to foster a safe environment remained top of mind. To us, this means more than ensuring physical safety. We believe in full inclusivity which extends to a responsibility on our part to ensure that all speakers, sponsors, and attendees are able to participate in a welcome, nurturing, and safe environment.
We do not tolerate disrespect or harassment of speakers or conference participants in any form, so moderators were stationed in each virtual room to moderate chat and quickly handle any issues. Of course, participants remained respectful and collaborative, but it was important going in that people knew they would be welcomed as part of our community and that they had support should an issue arise.
So ... Did It Work?
For those planning virtual events, I encourage leaders to be realistic about expectations and goals. At Moz, our event isn't intended to make a profit.
However, with meticulous preparation we were able to break-even and double our usual number of attendees.
In part, this was due to lowering the price point and being able to accommodate more people virtually than in-person. This was a huge win.
Here are a few recommendations:
- Record sessions like we did here so efforts can continually be amplified and reach new people
- Use a combination of live and pre-recorded sessions so speakers (and your own sales and customer success teams) have the option to interact with attendees throughout the event
- If live sessions are the only route available, ensure a moderator is present to facilitate questions
- Ensure sponsors are a good match for your attendees, and provide them with a unique space within your virtual event -- either a “hub” on your platform or a designated space on your agenda
- Prioritize a strong social media engagement plan -- before, during, and after the event; it provides attendees, speakers, and even sponsors ways to build excitement before, share learnings during, and continue the conversation after -- on platforms that also provide great exposure for your brand
How to Foster Community Digitally
1. Leverage pre-recorded videos, so speakers have the time to answer questions and engage with attendees in-the-moment.
Moz has a robust community of marketers and search engine optimization professionals who love to engage, so we made the decision to leverage pre-recorded videos, giving our speakers the freedom to interact as the video ran and answer questions from attendees the moment they arose. Our attendees loved the opportunity to engage directly with speakers versus the typical in-person event experience of waiting in the long line near the stage just to say hello.
While this approach might seem surprising, it fostered collaboration, provided high-quality resources and meant our guests would be engaged instead of simply "watching" for hours on end.