Ask attendees for feedback. And follow up with them in authentic ways — A big mistake I see brands make is that once the event is over they think their work is done. Not the case. You should have specific follow up emails that go to those who attended and those who registered and did not attend. You should be sending out feedback forms to understand what your audience liked and how to improve your event for next time. You should also be sending custom follow-ups to attendees and speakers of high importance to you. Turn your attendees into clients, customers, and business partners.
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Russo.
Chris Russo is principal of Russo Strategic Partners, a consulting firm specializing in helping brands elevate their online presence through content creation, virtual events, and strategic partnerships. Prior to launching his own business, Russo worked in media production at iconic brands such as CBS and Viacom.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’m a born and raised New Yorker, growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. How did that shape me? Well, I became fiercely independent at a young age, I’m a fast talker, fast walker, and I am highly opinionated about bagels and pizza. So… the stereotypical New Yorker. My fondest memories are walking through Central Park with friends on the way home from school and seeing the bustling diversity that the City has to offer, which is one of my favorite parts about it.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
My path has been anything but straight. I applied and received admission to Boston College’s Carroll School of Management because I thought I wanted to major in finance and “make big money.” After a single basic finance class, I tapped out. Naturally, I switched my major to marketing and communications which I really enjoyed, as I am a more creative person who likes the power of branding and bringing stories to life. For a while I thought I wanted to be in TV production which brought me everywhere from a local news station in Boston to being a production assistant on an MTV dating show. I ultimately decided to stick with my interests in branding and marketing. After a brief stint at a marketing agency, I decided to launch my own business, Russo Strategic Partners, and help others elevate their online presence through branding, content creation, and virtual events.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During my internship at a local news station in Boston while I was in college I almost always had no idea what was going on. I was never trained for the work I was in and there wasn’t always an opportunity to ask questions. I was working at the assignment desk in the newsroom and was required to answer all phone calls that came in. Sometimes, reporters would call in and quickly rattle off information to me in a muffled voice and immediately hang up — no name, no context. One time I had no idea what a reporter said, and I realized there was simply no way to find out, so I just pretended I never got the call. I waited all night to see if it would affect the newscast, and thankfully it didn’t. Crisis averted.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’m a fan of “Destination Different” a podcast by Ryan Dunn. It features people who take the path less travelled in life — entrepreneurs, creators, travelers — anyone who is exploring their creativity and building a nontraditional life for themselves. It really inspires me to think outside of the box in my work and be open to whatever opportunities may come my way in life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is from a friend and client of mine Marta Tracy. Her advice is “Keep Showing Up.” The way to excel in this world, professionally and personally, is by continually putting yourself out there. Showing up to that networking event after a long day at work even though you just want to go home. Reaching out to friends and connections to say “Hey, I’m here. I hope you’re doing well. Let me know if I can be helpful to you.” Showcasing your expertise through your blog, social media, or web show. Continue to put yourself out there because the more you show up, the more opportunities will come your way.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
I used to organize large events while in college. One of my favorites was with legendary ocean conservationist Dr. Sylvia Earle, which ended up being one of the largest environmental events to happen on campus. Not every stage of event planning is glamorous, though. I also hauled car loads of pumpkins to the quad on campus, much to the delight of students, for an annual Harvest Fest celebration.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
My experience organizing live virtual events started while I was working at a marketing agency. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the agency had to find a way to distinguish itself from others and put itself out there in a way that was relevant, engaging, and drove new business. The agency decided to launch a daily live web show — that’s right, daily, — and I was named project manager. I helped execute more than 40 live episodes of the show, building an audience and a community for the agency and driving new business. After a few months of launching the show, I decided to leave the agency to pursue other projects, which quickly materialized into launching my own consulting business.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I have been so impressed with how Klaviyo has been managing its live events. They host a weekly live talk show “Live From Your Laptop” which features their clients telling the stories of how they’ve grown their business using Klaviyo’s product. Its success lies in the fact that it doesn’t feel like a “webinar” or a “lecture.” There’s no Powerpoint presentations with Klaviyo. Instead, it is an interactive live chat show that also features an experiential element such as wine tasting, yoga, or a meditation session. Klaviyo truly built a community around its virtual events and is a model for how other companies should be doing it.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Right now, a majority of companies are hosting “webinars” as a way to engage their audience. The #1 tip I give to my clients is to stop branding virtual events as “webinars.” There are so many other engaging ways to structure and market your event. People don’t want to be spoken at, they want to be spoken with. “Webinar” suggests an impersonal presentation. Use other language to market your event effectively and ensure it is engaging for the audience.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
Zoom has obviously been the go-to for many folks who want to bring people together in ways that are simple and familiar to them. However, as we’re seeing, people are “Zoomed-out.” After sitting on Zoom for five hours that day for work, a virtual event on Zoom is not enticing most people. Subconsciously, it still feels like work. I encourage my clients to move off Zoom and establish themselves on platforms that are more engaging, for example, livestreaming to YouTube.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
I recently became familiar with Swapcard which I think is a fantastic tool to use for virtual conferences. They allow you to have a professional branded homepage for your event and provide an easy to navigate interface for attendees to register for specific sessions, meet in breakout groups, and message each other to set up video calls and meet. It is simple to use and highly professional.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Determine your target audience and establish clear goals — At the onset of the pandemic, many companies were doing webinars on PPP loans, and 90% of them were stuffy hour-long PowerPoint presentations. I understand PPP loans are a content-rich subject, but I saw a major need for these events to better engage the audience. I think many companies were simply following suit with others and hadn’t put enough thought into their audience and goals before hosting their event. By knowing your audience and setting clear goals (e.g. number of registrations, sales leads generated) you are setting a benchmark for yourself. When you’re not meeting those goals, you know you need to reevaluate the format and marketing strategy of your event.
- Decide on your event platform and ensure the event is highly engaging — Some events are made for Zoom, others are made for YouTube, and others are made for a virtual conferencing platform. Once you know your audience and goals, decide which platform will engage them best. Then, plan for ways to engage the audience. For example, use a live chat and polls. You can have audience members submit video questions in advance, and they’ll tune in to see if their video was chosen. You can create networking opportunities for attendees. The options for engagement are plentiful.
- Create a clear, branded presence for your event or series of events — Your event deserves its own brand, especially if it may turn into a series of events. It deserves its own title, logo, and a color scheme that matches your brand. You want to build a community that will actively engage in what you’re doing. COVID-19 has been the great equalizer in production quality. Your event has the same quality as Stephen Colbert’s show from home. What matters most now is your brand and message — that’s what will make your event stand out.
- Market the HECK out of it! — Invest eye-catching graphics, a solid social media strategy, and engaging promotions. Encourage speakers to record short video clips promoting the event and share them on their social media profiles. The power of a great event is how many people it can reach. Make promotions engaging and shareable to drive more attendees your way.
- Ask attendees for feedback. And follow up with them in authentic ways — A big mistake I see brands make is that once the event is over they think their work is done. Not the case. You should have specific follow up emails that go to those who attended and those who registered and did not attend. You should be sending out feedback forms to understand what your audience liked and how to improve your event for next time. You should also be sending custom follow-ups to attendees and speakers of high importance to you. Turn your attendees into clients, customers, and business partners.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
It’s no secret: the virtual event space is crowded right now. But there’s still room for you. You just need to make sure that your event is meeting a need in this moment. The key to launching a successful event is understanding your audience and demonstrating the value of the event in its branding, marketing, and promotions.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I want to empower young people with comprehensive career education that encourages and motivates them. Learning how to build your career is not something taught in schools. I think more young people should learn how to position themselves for the jobs they want, how to form meaningful professional relationships, and how to find satisfaction in their professional lives. Something I’ve learned early on is that you can be taken in a number of different ways throughout your career. But the important thing is always having confidence in yourself and silencing those voices of doubt in your head. I’d like to build an organization that provides the education and mentorship to help young people through their early career growth.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Ilana Glazer. She is incredibly hilarious (I’ve watched Broad City from beginning to end about five times and even wrote a thesis paper about the show in college). She’s so authentic and so politically engaged — really speaks to the Gen Z in me. She’s the type of person you just want to spend the day with to hear what goes on in her mind and just have fun.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.